Women surfers make waves in Hollywood

— A new breed of gritty women surfers in the film "Blue Crush" could make the clean-cut sun bunnies of 1960s surf movies hide under their beach blankets.

The filmmakers hope the tough female characters will attract women to theaters, knowing that the bikini eye-candy of surfing can also help draw plenty of guys.

"The movie's not just girls stripping down to their G-strings to gyrate at a party. These are tough girls, they do surf in bikinis, and they're in incredible shape," said director John Stockwell. "But I would be naive if I didn't think that factored into the marketing minds at Universal."

Some surf advocates say movie and TV images of women surfers as confident, strong and sexy will help popularize the sport's female athletes. And while some women object to bikini-based objectification of the women, magazines such as Surfing Girl have praised the movie and featured photos and interviews with the movie's stars.

"With surfing, there's a lot of physical energy and strength, yet the women in these images are coming through with their own identities and they're looking feminine," said Meg Bernardo, head of the North American chapter of the Association of Surfing Professionals.

Hot at the box office

While it's unclear exactly how many women have started recreational surfing in recent years, trade groups have reported surging sales of surfing products to women in recent years and dozens of new surf classes for women have opened in California.

Still, professional female surfers still lag behind in prize money. At this month's U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, the winner of the men's competition, Kalani Robb, received $10,000, while the women's victor, Pauline Menczer, collected $6,000.

"With surfing it may seem like it's taking longer for women to become competitors, but it's taken surfing a longer time in general to be seen as a legitimate professional sport, instead of just a pastime," said the 38-year-old Bernardo, a 20-year surf veteran.

"Blue Crush" depicts its young women as competitive water rats who start fights with condescending male rivals and find their only happiness in the crystal-blue pipes of water that threaten to pummel them into the reefs.

That hard-living, bohemian lifestyle is echoed in Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun" video, in which the singer and a group of board-riding women brave the waves to her song about a woman struggling with bill payments, difficult men and a bad job.

Surfer women were even featured in this summer's Disney cartoon "Lilo & Stitch," about a little Hawaiian girl who befriends an unruly alien, with Lilo's strong-willed older sister and guardian teaching lessons of family and responsibility amid the waves of Kauai.

Surf movies of the past generally ignored female surfers, relegating them to cheerleader status as their boyfriends crash the waves in films like 1964's "Ride the Wild Surf," 1978's "Big Wednesday" and 1965's "Beach Blanket Bingo," with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

"Gidget," which in 1959 was one of the earliest pop surf movies, featured brawny male surfers mocking wannabe board-rider Sandra Dee. They eventually grow to like her perky personality and agree to teach her the ways of the waves.

In "Blue Crush," the women don't need help � when a group of pro football players visit the island, the girls teach the boys.

Bold and brave

Kate Bosworth, 19, stars as Anne Marie, a hotel maid who hopes to change her life by winning the risky Pipe Masters surf competition, where she almost drowned several years before.

She lives in a grimy beach shack with her troubled 14-year-old sister Penny (Mika Boorem of "Hearts in Atlantis") and fellow surf friends Eden (Michelle Rodriguez of "The Fast and the Furious" and "Girlfight") and Lena (newcomer Sanoe Lake).

The film also showcases real-life pro surfers Keala Kennelly, Kate Skarratt and Rochelle Ballard, who doubled for Bosworth in some shots.

"They didn't want to be portrayed as bubble-headed, sunburned dingbats or super-aggressive, snarling macho females," Stockwell said. "They wanted us to understand there was a grace and beauty to the way they handle themselves, even in deadly waves."

Surfing is a hard sport to master, Bernardo said, and a movie that makes it look easy could have resulted in harm to unskilled fans inspired by the film to take on bigger waves than they can handle.

That's why she and others are relieved that "Blue Crush" shows its characters being battered into jagged reefs by 20-foot waves that toss surfers helplessly through the churning water.

"The whole point of this film is that these aren't girls who sit on the beach, worry about their tans and grab beers for their guys," Stockwell added. "It shows how brave and bold they can be in the face of waves that most people wouldn't even think about coming close to."

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