[draft of a response to Wired’s Rodney Mullen piece]
“Silicon Valley has lost it’s way,” the Wired headline began. Sure, I’ll go with that. “…can skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen help it?” And there it is: the idea that skate culture could energize a languid tech world. Is skateboarding the EpiPen Silicon Valley needs?
The last time skateboarding was a healthy model, the Macintosh did not exist. 1983 was the year skate culture drove a stake through my heart.
Skateboarding can teach Silicon Valley what not to do, like a message from the future, warning, “Here’s what happens when a domain in which women once thrived decides women aren’t worthy.” Yes, it’s complicated and yes, the sport itself became more extreme, but there’s a world of difference between a sport that says, “there aren’t many women” and one that adds, “…we made sure.”
In the 80’s, skate culture slid from a vibrant and more gender-balanced community into an aggressively narrow demographic of teen boys. If you think tech has sexism issues, skate culture makes tech feel like one big Oprah show.
In a Huck Magazine piece “How to be a Lady (who shreds)”, Tetsuhiko Endo quotes Michael Brooke, publisher of Concrete Magazine on the decline of women in skating:
“When sidewalk surfing hit big in the 1960s, both males and females skated,” says Michael Brooke, publisher of Concrete Wave magazine, “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.”
Endo adds, “Additionally, a hard focus on selling soft goods to teenage boys meant that women were not simply ignored, their image was co-opted and turned from that of active participants… into passive, hypersexualised groupies.”
When Go Daddy runs a gratuitous ad we launch a Twitter war. But the part of me that still mourns my beloved freestyle skate culture sees the backlash and thinks, “Seriously? That bothers you? Have you even SEEN a skateboard magazine? Have you looked at, say, a Hubba wheels ad? (spoiler alert: NSFW. )
In 1983 I left skateboarding forever. But just a few years earlier, I was a sponsored skater (team Santa Cruz) preparing for a world contest. When my knee exploded in a bad kickflip pirouette landing, my competition and sponsorship was over, but I worked my ass off for a year in physical therapy to skate again for the love of it. When my leg was finally ready, I rejoined the skate world only to find I’d phase-shifted to an alternative universe. Freestyle had vanished, and so had most of the women. The world-class footwork and flat tricks I did were now mocked without mercy. In just a few years I went from training for a top championship to the skateboard equivalent of the Fake Geek Girl. In this world, I was not a “real” skater.
For another year or two my surfer friends and I would still occasionally gather on a summer evening, loosen the trucks on our boards, and carve the lazy hills of the Altadena suburbs. But the space between sessions grew longer and eventually I was the last remaining woman in our group. Then I found a new love: programming.
Writing code I felt that same beautiful freedom I loved about skating. Compared to what skate culture had become, everything about tech felt fresh and possible. Where skateboarding now celebrated destruction, computer culture celebrated creation.
I barely noticed when my two best boards went missing.
My worlds collide
Fast forward 30 years. Rodney Mullen believes skate culture has something to offer the tech world, and the tech world is paying attention. Rodney can help tech—and I hope we do listen—but only if we decouple Rodney from the toxic, sexist, soul-crushing culture of modern skating. Soul-crushing, that is, for women.
I’ve been a Rodney Mullen fan for more than half my life. He did what I could not, flowing with the changes from freestyle to street and not just embracing the changing culture but pushing the sport forward and inspiring younger skaters again and again and again. He is almost singlehandedly responsible for keeping a small flame of freestyle burning all these years, and for that and a million other reasons I believe skating would be in far worse shape without him.
He is everything beautiful I felt about skating long ago. Today I hear Rodney talk about the art and science of developing and practicing tricks and think, he gets it.
He is also clueless.
Rodney has the same big heart and cognitive biases as so many men in tech — kind, brilliant, wonderful men that cannot grasp how the community they find so accepting and open can be so… not. Rodney believes open source and hacking culture has much in common with skateboarding, a culture in which nobody “owns” a trick and everyone learns and builds on what others have done. And Rodney’s right that skating does have the bold, innovative, rule-challenging fear of the status quo that Silicon Valley seems to have lost.
But a fresh POV could never be worth lionizing a deeply sexist culture. I believe part of why Rodney doesn’t see it is because there is no cell in his body that endorses this disturbing side of modern skate culture. (And it’s a massive part, we’re not talking just a few bad actors.) Rodney sees what is good and beautiful and his brain filters the rest.
PowerPoints Full of Men
When Randy gives a keynote, he has PowerPoints full of men. Only men. Men who inspired him. Men who are “Pillars of the Community”. “These guys”, he says, “are the heroes.” Then he points to another screen full of men, this time the pillars of tech. The hackers. The open source community. They have much in common, he says, these men of coding and men of skating.
He sees in skateboarding what many of us find compelling about programming: a place where outcasts can make a difference . A place where it’s not about how rich or connected you are but how hard you work and how willing you are to do what it takes. Where it’s not about who you know, but what you do.
In other words, Rodney believes skate culture is a meritocracy.
A meritocracy is exactly what I and so many others believed tech to be. “After all,” I wrote nearly a decade ago, “the compiler doesn’t care if the person writing the code is wearing a black lace bra.” I was wrong, then. Embarassingly, naively wrong. Because while the compiler doesn’t care, the context in which programming exists sure as hell does. To ignore that context is the essence of privilege blindness. And it’s much worse in skateboarding than in tech.
Just over a year ago, for instance, a feature in Thrasher Magazine quoted influential top pro skateboarder Nyjah Huston with this gem: “The women do the downhill stuff because they think it’s like sidewalk surfing. They don’t realize how dangerous it really is….I personally believe that skateboarding is not for girls at all. Not one bit.” I was heartened by the social media response to Nyjah’s views, though his response apology was even worse.
But Huston’s comments were harmless fluff next to pervasive, unapologetically sexist skate company marketing. In 2013, popular brand Enjoi faced a fierce backlash for a series of ads including a T-shirt titled “The ex-girlfriend” which pictured a crying woman with her arm in a sling and the quote, “He really does love his skateboard more than me.” Out of context, this would be no big deal, right? But it was just one more piece of Enjoi’s ad pattern that included, for example, a male skater with his finger over the mouth of a female mannequin saying, “Where no means yes.”
In a May 2013 post in The Guardian, Rory Carroll describes the Enjoi backlash, quoting Change.org petition signer Beau Vezino, “This is not about a shirt or a single ad. This is about the culture of skateboarding and what it represents to so many. It is time to recognize this as a problem and strive to change.”
Good luck with that.
Today’s home page for Enjoi features a banner graphic from a rotating, randomly-chosen photo set. Of the four that appear to include women, three of them show their legs in somewhat disturbing poses that aren’t about skateboarding but do reinforce the role women play in today’s skate culture. If a tech company had a homepage like that, we’d boycott the hell out of it. For a skate company, it’s unremarkable.
But Enjoi’s ads are adorable compared to Hubba’s. Hubba sponsors an all-male skate team but what it lacks in female skaters it makes up for with “The Girls.” And their site invites you to meet The Girls, via soft core photos and interviews like this one of Hubba Girl Marsha:
“In what situations do you use your good looks to get what you want?
Every possible situation! And if my looks don’t get it my tits surely will.”
To be clear, I’m not judging Marsha’s career choices; it’s about the message these companies send about the role of women in skate culture. The dominant, visible role of women in skateboarding today has nothing to do with skating and everything to do with serving as props and playthings for the male skaters. It’s not a subtle message; the sponsored (male) skaters are all shown in sexualized poses with The Girls.
Skateboarding’s treatment of women isn’t the only reason to side-eye skate culture as a model for tech. In Rodney’s view (and again, he’s not wrong), skaters exemplify the kind of boundary-pushing risk-taking creativity tech wants to rediscover. Just watch the clips he shows in his presentations. They’re motivating, for sure. These guys (always guys) skate and crash and skate and crash and they Get. Back. Up. They go for it. They Just Do It. No Limits. etc.
But notice what’s missing in those clips.
That’s right. Helmets.
Helmets are missing.
Except for a few events where they’re required, or the rare skater who wears one regardless, you see these guys with little or no protective gear. Helmets reduce TBI (traumatic brain injury). Helmets can make the difference between a concussion and a feeding tube.
These guys? They’re not just brave and daring—they’re reckless. They’re ignoring science and taking stupid risks for no reason. This is not a model we want for technology. Wearing a helmet doesn’t prevent you from being bold and innovative and pushing the edge. It helps you live to do it again the next day. Wearing a helmet embraces the principles every good software dev understands: fault tolerance, robustness, protecting your single point of failure (i.e. brain). Perhaps it is skaters that should learn from tech.
(You’re right, yes, I’m not wearing a helmet in my vintage pictures. And guess what, we didn’t wear seat-belts back then either. We were stupid. But today we have crash, injury, mortality data, and we make better choices.)
There are some bright spots for women in skate culture, including a small but powerful resurgence of women skaters. And there are some badass women pushing forward in “real” skating despite tremendous odds and an environment that treats the most skillful women skaters as statistical anomalies at best. But you rarely see these women featured in skateboarding magazines, and when you do, the highest praise is typically, “She skates like a man!” These exceptional women will likely never have a “signature model” board or a fraction of the sponsorship opportunities male skaters have, but they are fierce and their numbers are growing.
Another hope lives in the skateboarding variants like longboarding and the newer mountainboarding — sports where women are helping define and build healthier cultures. These variants are less influenced by default skate culture because longboarders and mountainboarders aren’t seen as “real” skaters.
And there is one skateboarding community that Silicon Valley could learn from. A place where a staggering 40% of the skaters are young girls. A place where the current western model of skateboarding has been replaced by a more supportive environment embracing the freedom and joy of skating. It’s in Afghanistan.
Think about that.
Then consider supporting Skateistan.
I don’t really believe the toxic parts of skate culture would somehow rub off on tech if we start paying attention to skateboarding. We’re capable of cherry-picking, taking what we can use and ignoring the rest. But that’s just it. I don’t think we should ignore the rest. If we’re going to talk about skate culture as a positive influence, we must take lessons from both the good and the bad. Especially the bad.
To ignore the disrespect for women in skate culture while celebrating what’s cool and innovative about it is tacit acceptance at best. We can do better. We must do better. We are better. And way deep down, I still hold out hope that skate culture might get better again. Perhaps some interaction between skateboarding and tech would benefit both. And there is nobody better than Rodney Mullen to help us do that.
In the end, my real answer to Wired’s headline “Can skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen help it?” is yes. We can learn. From Rodney. Not from skate culture, but from Rodney Mullen’s unique and beautiful take on the essence of skating. And if I were to give a talk on what skating can teach tech? I, too, would have PowerPoints full of skaters that inspired me long ago. Women like Ellen Berryman, Edie Robertson, Ellen O’Neal, Terry Brown, Desiree Von Essen, and so many more. Because if you think the male skaters are inspirational, you should get to know the women.
[maybe a photo collage of the top women skaters I named above, and some contemporary women skaters??]