The mystery of a ghostly surfboard in a swamp, unaffected by tides and currents, that has haunted commuters for half a decade, has finally been solved by a New Jersey reporter!
Understanding surfing through a postcolonial and decolonial lens.
With the 2022 WSL season now behind us, it’s an opportune time to revisit an emerging theme on this august venue: that of apprehending surfing from a postcolonial and decolonial perspective.
DR and Chas created a space for our collective to educate us on this necessary vocabulary and analytical framework.
Given the edification I received there, I wish to apply a critical theory lens, informed by decolonial and postcolonial thought, to the 1987 surf camp classic, North Shore. This film captured a gestalt in modern surfing and is worth delving into, to see how colonial (and heteropatriarchal, but that’s another article someone else can give us) tropes run deep in the heart even surf culture.
We start with the setting: an over-achieving, eager-to-please young white man from a broken home.
It is a statement about emerging family dynamics in 1980s white middle-class America, when divorce was still stigmatized and the Spicoli surfer stereotype was in full force. Rick Kane shatters the stereotype of the stoner with his work ethic and “carry your heart on your shoulder” approach to being a prominent member of the community, where these character traits grant sympathy for the fact that he comes from a broken home.
This journey allows Rick Kane to represent the American entrepreneurial spirit and the naturalness of exporting this benign (on the surface) spirit to the rest of the world, via his imminent trip to Hawaii to surf the North Shore.
Kane arrives on the North Shore, naïve to local customs, immediately accosted by the savage temptress and seductress in a disreputable house. Kane’s coded bourgeois puritanism plays the right game and resists such seduction, thus arming our colonial protagonist with the moral rectitude necessary to justify the exploits to come.
Kane catches a ride with fellow colonizers, Occy and Alex Rodgers, who trick Kane into stealing sugar cane en route to the North Shore. This replaces a classist metaphor that belies a central dynamic of colonial expansion: that of the educated, materially abundant, and resource-rich post-agricultural white empire, depreciating and then taking over the resource base of the nonwhite other dominated by ‘agriculture.
Kane continues his colonial trajectory where his whiteness seduces the exotic Hawaiian princess Kiani. Kiani expresses her own oedipal desires over Kane’s neat white body, fantasizing about rubbing aloe on her back, as she did for her own family and other members of the underling community. The horse on which Kiani rides is also a metaphor for his desire to advance his own mobility and social status, benefiting from white capital (the owner of the horse) to escape the confines of his own backward and uncivilized upbringing.
Kane, now deprived of his property and penniless, meets Turtle, the classic white native who is gone.
Note, however, that a turtle is a mammal with the strongest heart. Here, Turtle’s nomenclature is a subversive statement that white privilege is enduring, solid, patient, stable, and able to conquer in any environment.
This finds an echo when Kane meets Chandler, the latter who realized the dream of the colonizer: a native woman, a house on the beach and credibility with the locals, all those who defer to him in the queue. and want to buy the products of his work. . Chandler highlights the full appropriation of native Hawaiian knowledge, using folk expertise and colonized traditional ecological knowledge to prepare Kane to follow in his footsteps to continue the colonization of North Shore breaks via a variety of superior technologies engineered by Chandler thanks to his industrious work ethic and abundant colonized knowledge of the various surf spots there.
Note that there are even tensions with the alpha male, Burkhart, the ultra-capitalist playing out escapist fantasies on the same colonized landscapes. Chandler believes his products are only made “the right way”, but Chandler and Kane are working together to create a logo that will further allow for the appropriation and subjugation of the knowledge and craft of colonized surfing. , while the veneer of “authentic” essence appeases any capitalist. – colonialist guilt, making Burkhart the scapegoat.
This decision portends the beginning of greenwashing within the surfing industry as a whole.
Also note the etymology of the word “chandler”: Middle English (meaning a candle maker or seller of candles): from Old French luster, de chandle. Here, Chandler leads the way in the proper way to colonize the North Shore — it’s not by muscle and muscle, Burkhart style, because that’s not a long-term solution to colonization. It is rather through charisma and complacency in the local population that colonization is most effective.
This dynamic is on full display as Kane battles Da Hui and the titular leader of this group, Vince Moaloka.
Vince’s character arc is the archetype of Edward Said’s “Orientalist gaze” in a nutshell: the dark and exotic other, full of violence and danger, constantly pacified by courage, superior work ethic and rational, secularized, democratic knowledge of the West, as archetypically embodied here by Kane.
We also see it in the reverse arc of Rocky, the uneducated local thief and thug, who stole Kane’s property. Kane, local beauty in hand, meets Vince and Rocky among the sacred fields of Hawai’i. Here, Kiani had already begun the process of giving native secrets freely to the white colonizer, with her body and heart soon to follow; Kane notices his belt buckle on Rocky and challenges Rocky to get it back.
Rocky acknowledges the superior military might of the West and tries to build solidarity among his brothers, only to be denied by father figure and leader, Vince. The colonial project is now almost complete, and the pole is part of the metropolis.
Only one last transaction is necessary: the complete taking of the resources of the latter, for the benefit of the former. This symbolically happens in two ways: the first is that Kane gets his belt buckle back. Note here that the silver clasp is a metaphor for minerals, which were subsumed by colonial powers on the back of enslaved labor – such is Hawai’i’s inevitable fate.
The other resource, of course, is the waves – and again, Kane becomes the conqueror.
But unlike Burkhart’s transparent aggressive colonialism, it is by appropriating the Hawaiian soul, as taught by his colonial mentor, Chandler, that allows Kane to emerge as the white victor, overseeing a now conquered empire.
Lest we be careless and think that fiction doesn’t influence lived reality, let’s remember that Makua Rothman is Chandler’s child. Here, the hybrid figure of Makua, as an innocent real-life child born to a white father who helped form Da Hui, cannot be lost on viewers of surf culture.
There’s a direct line from that scene to Nathan Florence and Koa Rothman sitting at a table in Turtle Bay, discussing their new podcast in 2022, further cementing the colonization of the North Shore by peoples of white descent.
To add insult to colonized injury, Koa drinks a Coors Light – Coors is of course the company run at one time by Peter Coors, a well-known proponent of far-right conservative politics, which of course targets the critical theory and decolonial approaches to understanding structural and racialized inequalities.
So where does this leave us?
I must admit that I am not happy to undertake this analysis of such a pivotal film in surf culture; a film that many have enjoyed since its release in 1987 until today, including me.
Unfortunately, I think that leaves us with a major question for the industry to answer, to atone for its backwardness on this front:
When will we finally get the fucking sequel?!?!