Spring 1997

Grrrl style

Katie Salen
Body politics 3

America’s women snowboarders are using the graphic language of boards to help claim their space in the sport

American snowboarding companies such as Goddess, Bombshell, Cold As Ice, Bratz Girl, Kurvz and Belladonna are defining a new visual voice – a post-feminine girl-style – for women in an industry once dominated by men. In the 1980s, flat chests and baggy clothes were in and girls’ graphics were as nasty as those for boys. Now, “grrrl” designers want to be feminine and everything “girly” is cool. In one of the few sports where men and women can truly go head to head, riding with the guys no longer requires a girl to look like one.

Working with a verbal and graphic language that traditionally has been used to portray women as weak, or merely decorative, grrrl companies are turning these conventions inside out to create a notion of femininity that is both strong and smart. Sarcasm, in the form of recontextualised female stereotypes, pokes fun at the chauvinism inherent in a male-defined industry while allowing a new, highly feminised language to emerge.

Yet visual identity on the slopes is just one issue when it comes to snowboarding. In the quest for performance, many women have encountered an industry that is slow to recognise the need for women-specific equipment. Although women account for 25 per cent of the sport’s participants, only 64 of 1,600 boards on the market are designed for women, who need a narrower board with a softer flex. Since many found it condescending to be offered products that ignored technical construction in favour of cute graphics, they began to look for their own solution. The result has been a boom in snowboarding companies started by women, for women, and their approach to marrying technical concerns with a desire for feminine identity has redefined the market. “Women are going to become the major consumers of this whole industry,” predicts professional snowboarder Morgan LaFonte.

Missy Samiee, based in Salem, Oregon, founded Goddess Snowboards with her brother, a former professional snowboarder. All their equipment is designed around the physical attributes of women and is pointedly feminine: “We figured that if we were going to make girl’s stuff we should take it all the way.” Drawing on the inspiration of Scott Clum, the artist and designer who creates their ads, and graphic designer Susie Larson, who designs the board graphics, Goddess flaunts an aggressive tongue-in-cheek femininity, with boards in “hues straight from Barbie’s closet” – hot pink, neon yellow, shiny silver, baby blue and pretty pink. Names such as “Snow Angel,” “Snow Bunny” and “He Loves Me” take girl style to the edge while remaining true to Goddess’s mission to construct boards that perform.

Caia Koopman’s girly graphics for the snowboarding companies Joyride, Purged, Solid and Standard, on the other hand, pair psychedelia-inspired typography with a smooth palette of pinks, yellows, and blues. Koopman of Costa Mesa, California, hand draws almost all her work. Her designs are sensitive to popular culture and the streetwear references that continue to drive the sport’s visual image.

While one approach has centred on a girly attitude, graphics don’t have to be “cutsie” to appeal. K2 Snowboards fits its women’s boards with a retro, racing style developed by Seattle design studio Modern Dog. The design for the “Morgan LaFonte” professional model uses flat, deep pinks and blues with raw, hand-drawn typography. The “JuJu Slim” model features simple, organic graphics in a cool pink on a blue and white base. Modern Dog has also developed several print ads for K2, including one representing female team rider Athena as both women and rider, without the aid of glitzy fashion photography. The designers’ advertisements for Fatbob, a range of boards marketed to riders with a larger foot size, plays off the cliché of scoring a ride as the woman driver chooses to give car-room to the board rather than the boy.

Having a board specially modelled for you is perhaps the ultimate expression of identity for a rider. Pro-model boards such as the “Hillary Mayberry” from Joyride, the “Athena” from Molly, and the “Tina Basich” from Sims confirm that women riders are defining girl style in multiple ways through graphics that range from soft and painterly to hard-edged and aggressive. K2’s first “women’s” board, the “Morgan LaFonte” pro model, is designed to appeal to both men and women with a graphic approach that is androgynous rather than gender-specific. Goddess’s “He Loves Me,” by contrast, is designed with a graphic language so gender-directed it will perhaps appeal only to women.

Yet, as some designers acknowledge, in company names such as Dish, Kurvz and Goddess, a fine line separates cultural critique from the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. Janet Freeman, designer and product developer for Portland-based Betty Rides, has received criticism from women snowboarders who think the name “Betty” in any form is disrespectful. Taken from an old surfer term for a “beach babe,” it is intended by the company to be understood as a cute, funky, empowering way of saying “she also rides.” Not everyone will pick up on the cultural references such names embody, but the commitment of these pathfinders to providing a visual language for women riders is clear.

First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6, 1997

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