Why can’t pop culture get surfing right? | Television & radio

At SXSW in Austin, Texas this year, US television channel TNT brought in a surfing simulator and created a “pop-up beach” to help promote their surfing-meets-crime-family show Animal Kingdom, the second season of which premiered on Tuesday. It’s just the latest attempt from the worlds of television and film to embrace surfing with some form of gimmickry. The 1977 world champion Shaun Tomson summed it up like this when I spoke to him: “Fictionalized representations of surfing have been trash.” So why has pop culture, on the whole, got it so painfully wrong when it comes to depictions of surfing and surf culture?

The canon of mainstream surfing pop culture begins with Gidget. The film and TV series brought surfing – at least, the Malibu version of it – to the US. Based on the real-life journals of Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, it’s not as much about surfing as about a girl finding her place in the world, but the setting and depictions of surfing caused America to fall in love with if not surfing, then at least the idea of it.



A scene from Gidget Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images

The go-to pick for when cinema almost got surfing right is John Milius’s Big Wednesday, from 1978. Also set in Malibu, it is a look at the lives of a group of friends against their relationship with the water. It’s heavy with testosterone and features plenty of Gary Busey. The antithesis of Big Wednesday was Point Break – Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 surfing-meets-small-time-crime flick that was panned critically but went on to have a cult following and an ill-advised remake in 2015. Films such as Blue Crush and Soul Surfer followed in its wake and do manage to capture realities of surfing, and do so with female leads. On the other end of the spectrum is Matthew McConaughey’s Surfer, Dude – which rather predictably for a film with a title that bad has a 0% Rotten Tomatoes score. Another stinker was 2006’s Surf School, rated the 41st worst movie ever on…

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