Feminism and Failure

Dr. Krista Comer
Author of Surfer Girls in the New World Order (2010)
Director, The Institute for Women Surfers

Not just any relation to body, movement, sport . . . but an advanced relation, an implied measure of how fast, how big, how far.  Discipline, and yes, punish.

And reward.

Not-athlete, my status.  The promising swimmer trainers saw in my girl’s body sacrificed long ago to family chaos and my own need to be cool.  And was I.

Not-athlete, now as a scholar researching athletes, writing about them, doing activist work as an ally to women surfers, at present involved in a project with the best handful of big wave surfers in the world. They want 3 heats in the notorious Mavericks men-who-ride-mountains annual event – and I think this fight we’ll win.

Let’s cut to the chase of failed attempts: to overcome fear, say, let’s cut to Failure, and deal there. Be feminist about it, divine some different logic than “overcome” or “refuse to submit.“ A grown up reckoning, something for middle age.  Let’s say OK: You wrote the book on surfing, but others surf.  You didn’t figure it out.

Surfer Bethany Hamilton Image Source: Wikimedia

Is there some “queer art” to this failure, as Jack Halberstam might call it? Are other paths than feminist shame on offer, some resting place for a politics?

An athlete makes a plan, calibrates, carries out routines to develop stamina and muscle.  Big wave surfers famously run across the seafloor, carrying boulders:  simulating hold-downs, creating strength. Ocean swimmers train in city pools, doing laps, readying for a bay or tidal river mouth or open water.   The Queen of Makaha Rell Sunn was an all around waterwoman , a real athlete. She was a champion surfer and could spearfish, dive, canoe, hula. She surfed well into Stage 4 cancer; when she couldn’t stand any more her friends pushed her into waves and she rode ashore on her belly.

For surfers, there is joy, “stoke,” but surfing also is disciplined obsession.  Hours and hours and days, months. Life seasons.

You don’t learn how to think or write, as I can now, by spending your days on the water with friends whose first morning thought goes to: where is the wind coming from?

But I wanted to write about failure. Feminism and failure.

Forget having a plan, a 6AM date with “dawn patrol”—looking for waves at first light.  The plan is easy.

The sea is not. It’s wild, scary.  One can be smart, of course. Surfers read waves, their pitch, water’s surfaces. Rip tides are legible as expressways “outside” to where one waits for waves.

Wild things scare me.  They require skills I don’t have – real strength, stamina, especially a mental game.  Facing fear is surfing’s transformational feminist event these days, a kind of (it’s a problem) new gospel. One is expected to paddle through.

Fail, fail, and more fail. I’m scared, pure and simple. I could tell you All the Reasons, what Events (in and out of water) Got Inside My Head, one and other Assault until the thing was too big, unreasonable . . . a place to give up, concede, stop staring back at it or drumming up sophisticated sass.

“Failure”—come on, what’s so bad?  The letting down of feminist guard?  Some relation (à la Lauren Berlant) of cruel optimism?  The saying, 500 times, no I don’t surf, to someone who asks, who then wants explanation and/or wants to teach me?

The feminism I knew in the early-1970s—when I was thirteen and fourteen and raging into my own in a no-feminism town, flying by the seat of my pants as rebel girl and daring to be bad in ways Alice Echols has taught us how to read—had no head space for a feminism of the body, or “athleticism.” All I knew was what was right in front of me. I had been born in the US West, was moved to San Francisco, lately was of southern California. I had an aunt in Colorado afraid to ride her own horse.  My family trafficked in the funeral business at the height of the Vietnam War. Another war was on with the local boys, I was losing it. I was after ideas.

I had a crew of girlfriends, a couple of them athletes already as Title IX rolled out. One of them was a skater swimmer surfer skier, even hang glider. Not many young women in the later 1970s/early 1980s were lifeguards at Zuma Beach. But there she was in a red one-piece suit running the sand with the rescue tube.  An athlete.  She ticked that way, shy and turned inward on her herself, estranged from language, but   articulate through her body, and otherwise unknowable.

The world turns, sports now a stealth and very contradictory path (as Leslie Heywood writes about so well) to younger women’s feminisms.

Hmmm, this doing failure in public, I have to sit with it and see what comes.

We’re counting chickens before they hatch, planning a victory boat at the next Maverick’s event. We’re going to bob on the shoulder of that massive maw, “parked” alongside the crowd of camera crews, rescue skiffs, and jet skies driven by men with necks practically the size of thighs.  In our feminist dreams, this boat of women gets us loud!  For me personally though, what I should say here is I absolutely DO NOT want to get on that boat, hear the “funny” and true stories from last year about near-capsizes, and how, in thirty foot plus seas, one guy jumped off . . . ever capable . . . in a pinch.