Girl Fights and Body Art: The female body in the Huntington Beach Riot

Absolutely zero people have expressed any surprise that the U.S. Open of Surfing devolved into a riot. Sporadic violence and mayhem are pretty much S.O.P for the event. Spend any time reading the articles and opinions surrounding the weekend, and chaos is the end result of a gathering of 750,000 bros in Southern California’s surf capital, Huntington Beach.

For anyone who has not heard of what has happened, here is a link to the LA Times article about the riot. In short, on the final day of competition, as the tournament was wrapping up, the crowd that had gathered for the competition turned to violence, uprooting stop signs, wrecking store-fronts and kicking over port-a-potties. The whole event was covered on the web through tweets, Instagram, Facebook, and every other social media portal, and the message that the world seemed to glean was that (primarily) white adolescents are basically looking for reasons to break everything.


The reaction from the surfing community has been an exasperated groan, leaving even the Huntington Beach locals with little ground to stand on to defend their small piece of surf culture. Mark Lukach’s article for The Daily Beast claims that “Huntington Beach won the right to represent a particularly commercial, and occasionally ugly, strain in modern surfing.” This commercial aspect has to do with the nature of the event, sponsored by Vans clothing and shoes, as well as various major grocery stores and sport outlets, that essentially try to reproduce a feeling of anarchy. The U.S.O.S. is a place for the skate/punk/surf scene to congregate and theoretically go wild, but in reality it turns into a bunch of shirtless dudes and bikini-clad (often under-aged) women playing grab-ass, consuming copious amount of drugs, and standing in lines for the (in this case doomed) port-a-johns. All of the event’s marketing essentially pushes for the festival goers to do exactly what they ended up doing.

The whole scenario is summed up in an animation produced by a Taiwanese company:

But one thing that has made me feel increasingly uneasy, and which has received little attention, is the way women have been represented in this whole scenario. While it’s a matter of dispute, an incredible amount of media attention has been invested in one video featuring women breaking out into an all-out no-holds-barred face-bashing brawl.

For most people, the video pretty much wraps up what the U.S.O.S. is all about. Gorilla-like men and razor-thin women form a circle around two blondes in bikinis who are fighting about something that is indiscernible from the video. Then, a brunette comes from the sidelines and pounds one of the blondes in the face, leading to fists and hair flying in all directions until security breaks up the fight.

For most, it might be easy to say that certain things are implied and not worth going into. Obviously, the male gaze is a factor vis-a-vis the camera (and the guttural chanting of “Jerry! Jerry!”). There is no denying that this is a spectacle. But this moment is taken as an incident almost single-handedly responsible for the riot. For several hours, #GIRLFIGHT was trending on Twitter, and the video rapidly went viral.

As the riot took shape, the attention of the social network busied itself with other aspects of the moment, not worrying about the #girlfight, but rather, pointing out that while the world was waiting for African Americans to riot over Treyvon Martin, all white people needed was an overcast day and some sexual tension. Twitter, once again found the phrase of the moment: #WHITERIOT. Even Arsenio Hall was quick to chime in:

People became more interested in the racial implications. Discussion turned to the prevalence of Neo-Nazis in Southern California and Huntington Beach in particular. The angst of white suburbanites was once again the butt of every joke. And this is all incredibly interesting, but it’s already being spoken about, and I believe, at the expense of another underlining issue.

The most interesting article I have found so far  is one by Chris Nieratko called “Ed Templeton’s Huntington Beach.” The article explores Nieratko’s personal experiences of the spot, both before the riots and just at the cusp of them (he left the event before things got violent). Through his and Ed Templeton’s (the main artist for Toy Machine brand skateboard’s and a long-time Huntington Beach resident) photographs, and via an interview, the two define Huntington Beach and the U.S.O.S. as a place and event that present a negative image of surfing; an image printed on the bodies of women, an image indicative of rape-culture and teeny-bopper sexualization. Nieratko describes the difficulty of taking photographs at the event, since he found it impossible to find a girl of age, who he wouldn’t feel dirty taking a picture of.

Many of the corporate sponsors of this and other large scale sporting events have taken to painting their logos on half-naked women as a means of advertisement (often in exchange for bracelets or drinks, etc.). More often than not, surrounding these logos, non-corporate “body-art” painted by random people conveys messages such as “blow me” and “I Put Out.” The event becomes nothing more than a means of moving product, both sexual and not.

In incidences where sexuality has been the focus of an article or discussion, the conclusion seems to be that heightened sexuality has placed these youths into such a hormonal state that violence is the forgone conclusion. And this conclusion is fraught with difficulties, as much as it may be true. We lament the damage as a product of debauchery, of loose women and arrogant men and the damage caused when these arrogant men and women either do not get to fulfill their sexual urges, or otherwise feel that their urges cannot be satisfied without some outward display of violence. The “Chick-Fight” that supposedly stoked the fires of hundreds of people can only have such power if we lend all that power to the interplays between sex and violence. And we can.

The worst part of the focus on this “Chick-Fight” is highlighted in one last article by Zach Weisberg, the founder of the online surf-blog The Inertia.  In “Keeping It Classy in Huntington Beach” he points out that while the media turned its lens towards this violence, they invariably ignored the fierce competition that took place in the Women’s Finals on the same day. Weisberg writes:

The reason I associate Huntington Beach’s US Open with these things is because they all happened. And things like these (riot aside…despite the first OP Riots happening in 1986) happen every year at the United States Open of Surfing. It’s not surfing’s (or humanity’s) best foot forward. I have a certain respect for surfing and its rejuvenating purity that makes the debauchery especially offensive. So it bothers me when imagery and behavior like this so boldly perverts our passion. And that’s not to say the U.S. Open of Surfing didn’t have inspiring moments. The women’s final essentially WAS the story of the event (before the riot, at least). Carissa Moore and Courtney Conlogue battled fiercely down to the wire, and their showmanship did its part in restoring the focus to the surf.

Here is a clip of what has been missed as a result of reckless abandon:

Carissa Moore Best Wave Vans US Open of Surfing 2013 a Surfing video by cooler 

If surfers can save face, it is in the fact that the chaos ensued on the shore, and not in the water, where competition remained respectful and whole-hearted. Huntington Beach definitely needs to do some soul-searching, but in this moment the surf is not to blame. But the surfing industry as a whole needs to account for the images it presents of women in surf culture. They are not passive objects, deliverers of brands, chicks in two-piece bikinis. They are championship winners and they take trophies at major corporate events and they inspire respect from men and women in their hometown breaks.

Maybe if surfers organized against such depictions they would eventually phase out, but the U.S. Open makes clear that such a possibility would be fighting against the subconscious tide of sexism and commoditization that is post-modern surf culture. Unfortunately, this riot reminds every surfer of the entrenched lines of gender and race that run through surfing. There is, after all, no reason to continue segregating men and women in competition (women have proved themselves capable on the biggest waves in the world time and again).



Neal Kennelly surfing Maverick’s

But perhaps there is a fear that boycotting such major events in the names of gender or sexual equality might actually move women surfers back, simply giving major corporations a reason to forget about female athletes. If that is the case, however, then such action is essential. Who should compete under such muddled conditions?