Sex Wax and Subways: Redesigning the Archetypes of California Surf Culture
A teenage girl named Gidget launched an American pop-cultural phenomenon, and the tropes that advertising would co-opt for decades. She also set into motion what would later become a six-billion-dollar manufacturing industry. According to Peter Lunenfeld, author of an essay entitled “Gidget on the Couch,” “The thing to remember is that, since 1957, [when the book was published] surfing as something you buy has overshadowed surfing as something you do. I would hazard that no other activity has ever generated as many products among people who neither know how to do it, nor follow those who do.”1 In 1964, Bruce Brown released the surf documentary The Endless Summer—which celebrated youth and unbridled freedom from the responsibilities of adulthood. Gidget and the Endless Summer were the building blocks of California’s surf mythology. The subsequent mediatization of vivacious, clean-cut teenagers, driving convertibles with surfboards sticking out the back combined with catchy music and beautiful scenery added to the allure.
Surfing’s primordial appeal
Why does surfing have an enduring appeal? Walking on water has Judeo-Christian resonance. Even without religious overtones, mankind’s relationship with the ocean is fraught with meaning, and has been analyzed by writers, philosophers, and psychologists from Shakespeare to Freud.
Philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant aestheticized the ocean as an example of the sublime—a mix of imponderable vastness, danger, intensity, and beauty tinged with terror. Burke wrote: “Another source of the sublime is infinity […] Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime.”2
Kant associated the mind’s perception of “fear in the face of overwhelming forces of nature” with its concurrent pleasure.3 Freud claimed humans strive to regain primal harmony through risk-taking—the greater the danger conquered, the greater the thrill and sense of oneness with the world. While the combination of these arguments seems to rationalize why surfers find the sport compelling, they fail to fully explain why non-surfers in the larger cultural realm seek affiliation.
The quest for cool
Surfing’s countercultural position and emphasis on individuality aligned with the 1960s Cultural Revolution. And yet, as Thomas Frank, author of The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter Culture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, observes, its radical elements were often edited as its image proliferated and spread:
Between the denunciations of conservatives and the fond nostalgia of 1960s partisans, we have forgotten the cosmic optimism with which so many organs of official American culture greeted the youth rebellion. It was this sudden mass defection of Americans from square to hip that distinguished the culture of the 1960s—everything from its rock music to its movies to its generational fantasies to its intoxicants—and yet the vast popularity of dissidence is the aspect of the sixties that the contemporary historical myths have trouble taking into account.4
Corporate marketers embraced counterculture motifs from anti-heroes to flower children to create the concept of hip consumerism. Surfing played a large role in creating these themes. Surfing engages viscerally because it is beautiful and graceful. It is youthful and free, yet highly individualistic. Surfing blasted out of the blandness and conformity of the 1950s—iconoclastic, colorful, and musical at a time of great optimism in the United States—before anyone was aware of what would be the darker side of American hegemony. The civil rights movement, assassinations, the Vietnam War, the riots of 1968, the Watergate scandals, all loomed in the future to irrevocably alter American culture.
The Endless Summer
John Van Hamersveld was a student in 1964 when he created the iconic Endless Summer poster for filmmaker Bruce Brown. It features silhouetted figures holding surfboards against a fluorescent pink and orange background—silkscreened with inks that had previously only been available to the military for equipment identification. The popularity of the image led to much imitation. As a result, surf posters from the mid-sixties tended to incorporate illustration or super-high-contrast posterized photos with figures in black silhouette against neon-colored backgrounds. Like Van Hamersveld, many of these designers were college students producing their work with equipment available at their schools. Limitations of skill and the equipment probably drove aesthetic choices. Silkscreen reproduction necessitates the use of flat shapes and figures and the thick black lines simplify color registration. These same tropes would continue to be used to express California surf culture for another fifty years. Then, in the early twenty-first century, the visual vocabulary of surfing finally began to change through its re-interpretation by New York’s community of designer-surfers.
- Peter Lunenfeld, “Gidget on the Couch,” The Believer, October 2008. http://www.believermag.com/issues/200806/?read=article_lunenfeld (accessed 20 July 2013).
- Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1757, 2008) 64.
- Philip Shaw, The Sublime, (London; New York: Routledge, 2006) 81.
- Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997) 13.