Roxy’s disappointing response to the “All Sex, No Surf” controversy

(Photo: Cori Schumacher)

This past summer, Roxy produced a video ostensibly meant to promote a women’s surfing competition but instead ignited controversy when said video appeared mostly to promote the back of top surfer Stephanie Gilmore’s body. The video was first criticized by the managing editor of Surfer magazine, who called it “a last-ditch effort to get consumers interested in something that the producers don’t believe can stand on its own merit.”

Then pro surfer Cori Schumacher started an online petition asking Roxy to stop using “all sex, no surf” in their marketing.  That petition collected more than 22,000 signatures (mine among them), and Schumacher, along with Krista Comer, a professor of literature and women’s studies who has written about women and surfing, presented the petition to Roxy’s top marketing people.

The women also gave a two-hour presentation about the problems and drawbacks of using a specific kind of sex appeal to market female athletes.  (Schumacher posted the 45-page packet that covers the material in their presentation on her Resources page. Definitely some good reading for anyone who has an interest in the subject, like, hey, me! In fact, I’d suggest reading Schumacher’s entire blog. She is thoughtful and passionate and female athletes like myself are lucky to have her as an advocate.)

The petition was presented last month, and Roxy issued their statement on their blog this past week.  I read it and found myself completely underwhelmed.  (Do PR degree programs offer graduate-level classes in how to apologize without actually apologizing?  Seems like we see this a lot these days.  You know, “sorry if you were offended,” etc.)

The part that really jumped out at me was the way Roxy described the criticism as  a “mischaracterization,” as if those of us who were critical of the video had merely heard the criticism from other people instead of actually seeing the video first-hand and forming our own conclusions about them.  The reality is that the video was not “mischaracterized.”  What actually happened was that a large number of people watched this video and were left with a sense of “what the fuck.”

My personal experience as a writer and editor has taught me that if you put something out there and a huge number of people say “what the fuck” in response, the issue is rarely that you are just too cutting-edge for the masses to understand, but more often that you just didn’t do a good job of getting your point across.  (And really, there’s nothing cutting-edge about scantily-clad young women in our society. You hear me, Terry Richardson and Robin Thicke? Your shit is tired and played out.)

Roxy said they wanted to convey the qualities of being “naturally beautiful, daring and confident” in their marketing, and I think it’s clear to say that they did not achieve that.  Sure, we saw that Gilmore is naturally beautiful (at least, the back of her appeared to be so), but daring and confident?  Unless she was rolling around in a bed made of lava and driving her car through a field of fire-breathing dragons, I don’t see how the video conveyed those qualities.

I found Roxy’s response disappointing because I really want Roxy to do better.  In their statement, they mentioned all of the support they have provided for female athletes over the past two decades, which is outstanding. I love that.  I want to be able to give them my unqualified support, just as I want to be able to support any corporation that gives financial backing to female athletes. I will admit that I have a strain of anti-corporate “damn the man!” sentiment running through me, but I am also a pragmatist. I know that corporate sponsorship is what allows female athletes to train and compete at a high level.

For instance, Luna Bar sponsors Team LUNA Chix, a professional cycling and triathlon team, and was one of the first to sponsor an all-women’s mountain biking team.  Tracy at Fit, Feminist and (Almost) Fifty wrote a post criticizing Luna’s idea of woman-specific nutrition, and I mentioned in the comments that I am more liable to actually buy Luna Bars, despite agreeing with her criticism, because I appreciate the support they give female athletes.  Does this mean that I’m being manipulated into supporting a corporation I wouldn’t otherwise support?  I suppose some could make that argument, but I prefer to think of it as conscious consumerism, in that I understand that the way I spend my money is one of the ways in which I can make my desires and beliefs known in the world.  (It’s also why I choose to buy books and music despite knowing how to get these things for free, and why I boycott places like Chik-fil-A and Papa John’s.)

And we all learned what happens with athletes who don’t have it during the run-up to the London Olympics, when it came out that weightlifter Sarah Robles was basically living in poverty and that Holley Mangold was living in her coach’s laundry room.  Women’s pro cycling has a well-documented problem with attracting sponsorship, despite the fact that interest in the sport is growing.  (And here’s some interesting supplemental reading about the cost breakdown of sponsoring a pro women’s cycling team.  It’s surprisingly less expensive than I would have expected.)  And it’s not just female athletes fighting for sponsorship dollars, either – middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds has been fighting a well-publicized battle to change sponsorship rules in track and field.

All of this is to make the point that, as a woman and an athlete who loves women’s sports, I want to be able to unequivocally support Roxy, But it is really hard to do so when Roxy not only produces marketing that panders to the tired notion that female athletes are only marketable if they are dolled up in unthreatening ways, but then fails to give any indication they understand where the ensuing criticism comes from.

I really do hope that Roxy steps up their game after this.  I hope they actually did hear the criticism, and that they do take it to heart. I sincerely hope that in the future, instead of relying on the same old tired “sex sells” trope, they fully live up to their mission of showing female athletes, not just being naturally beautiful, but also being confident and daring.  I know they can do better, and their female athletes deserve it.

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7 responses to “Roxy’s disappointing response to the “All Sex, No Surf” controversy

  1. I actually think your point about Luna supporting women’s sports is a fairly persuasive reason to support them, even if I think the whole idea of marketing them as “whole nutrition for women” is a bit shady. And I hope you’re right that Roxy will step up their game in the next promotional campaign. Women athletes deserve better.

  2. My field of interest and research has always been socially conscious consumption, though I looked at the midcentury civil rights movement. It’s not new and I would argue that all socially conscious endeavors on the part of businesses were informed by “branding” and consumer desires–it’s up to you to reward or punish them for their choices.

  3. Hmm, the Luna / Roxy thing is interesting. You support Luna despite not really agreeing with their actual product, whereas you presumably don’t have an issue with the Roxy competition, just the marketing, and can’t support them?
    (I think to me the Roxy thing is worse, because the advert is more pervasive, but the “men and women are soooo different” thing that exists throughout our culture really bugs me – especially as often they are the same product but the women version is called “toning” and talks about calories more.)
    Err, discuss!!

    • I thought about this for a long time after I read your comment, and really, my opinion is quite similar to yours. For some reason I find the objectification of female athletes to be a more egregious sin than marketing that falls into the women-and-men-are-sooo-different! way of looking at things, but the aggravating thing is that I can’t really articulate why. I keep coming back to that whole thing about obscenity, how the Supreme Court justice said he recognizes it when he sees it, which is a level of ambiguity I am not comfortable with.

      I’m actually thinking of using this as a jumping off point for another post and hoping that maybe other people can share their opinions on this – specifically, where they draw the line when it comes to choosing which fitness- and sports-oriented companies they will support and which ones they will not. I suspect people will have some interesting and thought-provoking things to say on the matter.

  4. More from the department-of-mindblowingly-specific-marketing: Energy Bits (http://www.energybits.com/) has ‘Energy bits’ and ‘Skinny bits’ which are…exactly the same thing. (Spirulina.)

    To a conscious consumer, the marketing IS part of the product. So Luna bars might be that little bit more attractive because the company sponsors women athletes (and we know how hard that kind of support is to come by). Even if the bars themselves are…well, kind of eh. A bit sugary for my terrible nonAmerican sugar-hating tastebuds. (But good for portion control – if it’s me and a bag of nuts I tend to go a bit…nuts.)

    And yes, Roxy had better step up their game – if not, there must surely be brands that actually do support women athletes without selling sex, waiting in the wings.

  5. just a quick correction in an otherwise well-put piece: it’s asp women’s world championship tour (WCT) five-time champion stephanie gilmore in the ad, not stephanie grimes.

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