Mullen in Wired

wired-mullen

I learned that Rodney Mullen was in Wired by following J Grant Brittain on Instagram, as the Wired feature uses quite a few of his pictures. The lengthy article covers the events that led to Mullen’s first TED talk, his love of Linux, and his subsequent speaking and consulting business. Mullen obviously likes to use skateboarding as an instrument for illustration and inspiration in his new work, as it that’s where his credibility and recognition comes from. He draws parallels between skate culture and tech culture. It’s all very interesting, in a warm fuzzy way, but none if is paradigm changing or particularly new for that matter. It’s important to remember that the job of a professional speaker is more or less to inspire, often times through getting an audience to adjust their thinking a little. It’s the equivalent of removing a few pieces in a log jam or loosening up a few strands in a knot, hopefully allowing the listeners to attack their problems successfully with a new prospective, or at the very least, make them believe they can. On the front page of Wired there’s currently an opinion piece by former competitive skater and NHS team member Kathy Sierra. Sierra’s opinion piece dwells on sexism in the skateboarding world at the expense of everything positive that skateboard culture has to offer. The important thing to note, there is no singular skateboard culture. Rampant sexism certainly exists, but it is in no way indicative of the entire culture, or even the entire industry.

Sierra’s op-ed quotes Concrete Wave publisher Michael Brooke:

“When sidewalk surfing hit big in the 1960s, both males and females skated,” he says in the piece. “However, the late 1970s saw a mass extinction of parks and a narrowing of the industry … Once the industry decided it was going after one thing, it started checking these boxes: males—check; males under 18—check. And as it hit each check point it was reducing the population it was going to appeal to.”

Was there an industry wide decision made in a smoky back room somewhere? We’re not going to sell skateboards to women anymore? Was it a decision that brands all reached independently? I can’t believe that. Sexism in skateboarding didn’t just suddenly pop up after the skateparks closed. The 70’s saw a lot of female as prop in their ads, well before they were in trouble. Sexism in skateboard sucks yes, but it’s hardly the dominant theme. To confuse X-Games, Dew Tour and MTV portrayals of the sport as the actual industry and greater community is a mistake. Amongst young adults, skateboarding has a thriving reputation as a means and crossover with an artistic movement. We’ve all had our fill of “skate-art,” right? Too bad. It’s not going anywhere.

Kathy Sierra’s criticism of sexism in skateboarding is valid, to be sure, but it seems mostly rooted in her own disappointment after suffering a career threatening injury and finally recovering to return to a competitive sport (freestyle) that didn’t exist anymore. That’s just sour grapes. Her situation has more to do with the way the industry exploits and throws away talent. That’s a theme explored in the Kevin Pearce documentary Crash Reel. It’s snowboard centric but the attitudes and lessons apply to skateboarding as well. To say the tech world shouldn’t take cues from the skateboard industry because of sexism is myopic. The industry itself is majorly fragmented between downhill/longboarding and the street/vert driven markets despite crossover, with additional major fractures in demography within these disciplines.

To that end… If anyone is still reading this, I’ve had it in the back of my mind for some time now to try and recruit a female contributor to Skate and Annoy, to offer a different perspective. We have our fair share of meatheads that visit the site, which can be expected given the name, so it wouldn’t be without it’s challenges. Thick skin would be helpful. If you’re interested, or no somebody who would be, please contact Skate and Annoy. I promise there will be absolute wage equality. What’s 100% of zero?

6 Comments

  1. Kathy Sierra on February 23, 2015 - Reply

    Hey Kilwag, I’m happy to see someone in the midst of *today’s* skate world talk about this. First, you’re right of course that there is no single “skate culture.” And I did make the point about longboarding (and in my case today mountainbaording) as being bright spots with a different culture.

    But there are overall patterns that emerged over the years in skateboarding as represented in the media, skateboarding magazines, skate ads, etc. Over time, these messages set the unconscious bias of everyone — skaters and non-skaters.

    I take your point about dwelling on the sexism “at the expense of everything positive.” That was, well, I shouldn’t have. I *thought* I was doing a better job of bringing up the positive, but some of it was cut by Wired’s editors and some of it just doesn’t sound as positive as I meant. But my point in this opinion piece was simply to offer a counter to the positive from the original piece.

    It was a very rare intersection for me — skateboarding and tech. This piece was meant to talk to those who know me in tech but have *no* idea what skate culture is like. If I blame anyone, it is the businesses that exploit the women-as-groupies idea for their own profit, without a shred of ethical consideration or even basic human kindness. With Enjoi and Hubba as the current big offenders… but others all along the way, and some of the magazines are complicit as well. I think the Hubba skaters, for example, they DO have a choice to find another sponsor rather than be marketed in shoots with the virtually naked girls (who aren’t skating– the point is not naked girls — it’s naked girls who are just there as sex objects, not “sexy skaters” which would be far better).

    You’re also right about the 70’s and that sexist ads were prevalent then too, and I had considered mentioning that and now I wish I had. The difference, though, (and it’s just my opinion here), is that in the 70’s *everything* was sexist. Bosses still grabbed the ass of their female employees with barely a concern. Every industry used ‘booth babes’. So sexist skate marketing didn’t send the same message *then* as it did later when other domains were pressured to dial it down.

    The one thing that got me when I first read the Rodney Mullen piece was the difference in tech and skate is that when GoDaddy runs a semi-grautious ad, it’s mild by skate comparison and yet there’s a massive outcry in tech. Meanwhile, we have hubbawheels or things like the enjoi home page which even today, cycles through a couple of banner images including women’s legs in disturbing (and definitely NOT skating) poses.

    Anyway, thanks for responding with something so thoughtful. Most of the comments on the Wired piece didn’t even bother to read what I actually wrote. I’m happy to be wrong about some of my characterizations, and most of all I’m glad there are so many women (and men) that care about skating enough to keep pushing.

    • I agree with several of your points. I almost brought up the “Sexy 70’s” myself. True, riders and companies like Hubba could make better choices, but then again at least we live in a society where you have the right to be a meathead. I think part of the problem happened when there was a shift to more skater owned brands, suddenly there’s no “adult” to reign in the adolescent, hormone driven decisions. There was a huge backlash against corporate stuffiness, and overt sexism is just one of the ways people rebelled.

      Fortunately, today’s riders have a much wider choice of brands and board styles to choose from. The median age of a skateboarder has probably crept up a little, and skateboard magazines seem to become less and less relevant. It’s easier to ignore the aspects of the industry that are offensive or personally distasteful. Vote with your dollar.

      When I think of skateboard culture I think of creativity and inclusion, but that’s the scene I’ve chosen to be a member of. I’m fortunate that I live in an area where this flavor of skateboarding exists. I’m not in denial though. The skateboard scene you critique is certainly out there. Luckily, most longterm skaters outgrow that.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response as well.

  2. talentlessquitter on February 24, 2015 - Reply

    Well spoken ,Kilwag.
    I didn’t know sexism was a real issue over in the US.
    I and I’m sure a lot of other skaters are smart enough to distinguish skateboard advertising from the skateboarding culture as a whole. One certainly doesn’t represent the other.
    I read the article. It sounds to me like Kathy has a few feminism issues which certainly can’t be exclusive to the sport of skateboarding alone (though I realize it’s certainly not the best example).

    The last few years, I have been hanging around on the longboard side of the spectrum. I can say that over here in the Netherlands, we don’t have those issues. ‘Street’ skaters don’t mock longboarders for being ‘not real’ skaters. They just don’t care.
    I can safely say, over here, girls have an equal place in longboarding next to guys. Maybe it’s because longboard dancing is quite big. And sure, physically less demanding than street skating.

    I was going to keep this brief. Oh dammit …

    Good thing Kathy hasn’t seen those ads from Caliber trucks.

    Uh-oh, what’d I say now …?

  3. What the heck is a “feminism issue”? Kathy’s article was featured a couple of days ago on the Ride Channel page and the vitriolic hate-filled trolling that followed was proof enough that meathead-ism is alive and well and that there are scores of men who seem to be suffering from a lot more”feminism issues” than Kathy Sierra.

    What has always puzzled me about the history of skate culture is that in the 60’s/early 70’s girls were on teams and participated with boys. As American culture began to respond to feminism and began to allow girls and women to participate in sports (Title IX, 1972) and expand their roles in the workforce, skate seemed to regress. Instead of girls/women being more visible, they seemed to become nearly invisible as skaters. As most product advertising started to lessen the negative/sexist representations of girls/women, skate advertising and deck graphics seemed to become aggressively more sexist. This regressive attitude is still prevalent today in so much of skate media. Despite the tremendous strides women in America have made towards equality (We’re on the Supreme Court! We dominate in graduate schools!) women’s contest earnings are about a 1/4 of what men make. Major skate companies like Vans advertise their skate products for women using limpid non-skater models while using actual male skaters (!!!) to promote their make skate product. There is a real disconnect between the reality of a 21st century American woman’s life and way she is portrayed, paid and treated by much of the skate industry.

  4. Y’all have meathead issues. The most meatheaded skaters aren’t half the sexists that most thirteen year old male skaters are. And don’t tell me that the reason thirteen-year-olds are easily threatened by female sexuality is BECAUSE of the dingbat skate industry. Also, could we drop the goofy term “feminism”? I mean, an alien who’d just learned the rest of the English language would guess it must mean female chauvinism or conversely the “feminine police”.

  5. I did love the bit where he rants about people filming and posting every damn trick and how it would be better just to skate for the love of it. I liked it better the second read through.

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