Extreme Sports and Cultural Participation: Interview with Steph Mackay Part 1

I had the opportunity to have an interview with Stephanie 'Steph' MacKay, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow at Carleton University after coming across a lot of her work in her research of skateboarding and their subcultures. She was very gracious in giving her time and thoughts into the survey question we've created about Extreme Sports for media commons.

*Due to the length of the interview, it has been broken up into two parts

1) For those that aren't aware, what topics of research are you currently working on? What interests you?

My current research explores the role digital media is playing in the lives of women who surf the Great Lakes in North America. Lake surfing is considerably different than ocean surfing, both in terms of the practice of surfing and the power relations involved. My current research thus highlights a unique type of surfer and surfing community. I’m currently analyzing the Ladies of the Lakes Facebook page and my semi-structured interview data (I spoke with 17 lake surfers) and, so far, I’m finding that women are discovering each other online and are subsequently taking up or intensifying their Great Lake surfing. I’m not sure how well known it is that women have been surfing the Great Lakes in North America for decades. While there are currently only a few dozen women surfing the Great Lakes consistently, the scene is growing, most particularly due to the ever-increasing use of digital media to build these lake surfing communities. While women who surf the Great Lakes have a diversity of sport and physical activity “herstories,” numerous previously inactive women emphasized the tremendous impact their participation in the Great Lake surfing community is having on their lives, including their health, and ultimately laud digital media for helping them move from the ‘Net to the Lake. These findings are in line with my previous findings about female skateboarders.

I’ve been researching the representation of women in mass media and online for eight years. I started to become really interested in the ways in which female athletes are represented in the media at a very young age. I’m an accomplished ice hockey and soccer player and a good athlete in numerous board sports and, from as far back as I can remember, was an avid follower of media of these and other sports. Early on, though, I was disenfranchised by the ways in which all media covered female athletes, regardless of the sport. Girls and women were rarely there (even though they were participating) and when they were there, they were not talked about or written about in the ways I wanted them to be. I wanted girls and women to be valued for their strength, their perseverance and their courage, among other things – not their pink jerseys or beautiful hair.

As I began my academic career, I found that scholarly projects were continuing to show that sportswomen were marginalized, sexualized and trivialized mainstream media, which made me pessimistic about representations of female athletes in the future mediascape. While completing my undergraduate degrees in physical and health education and film studies in the early 2000s, I wrote numerous papers identifying the problems I saw with traditional media coverage of female athletes. I took a stance. I stopped consuming most sports media, even my beloved skateboarding and surfing media. I wrote letters to the editors of some publications. While I knew this was not enough to make much of an impact, I was still frustrated that things were not significantly changing. When it came time to propose a PhD dissertation topic in 2007, the Internet was becoming extremely prominent in many people’s lives. While traditional media were still circulating “knowledge” about the ways in which female athletic bodies are (and are not) valued, the Internet was proving to be a space where women were beginning to “talk back” to these media representations through the creation of their own media. I decided to explore one case, in which female skateboarders from Montreal, the Skirtboarders, were doing this. I chose to study the Skirtboarders blog in order to understand whether other women were feeling the same way I had been all these years about the representation of female athletes and actually doing something about it, other than writing letters to the editors, which was not working for me.


2) You've written multiple publications about women in skateboarding with topics such as searching for identity within the sport, what has your research found? What drove you to those topics?

Sports are spaces of citizenship where participants construct a politic of identity. Media representations (among other factors) contribute to sports participants’ constructions of identity, and particular to my research, gender identity, in complex ways. Research on how digital media impacts the formation of sporting communities, women’s participation in sport, and the construction of sporting identities has important implications for improving the health and well-being of women and girls. It’s no secret that in the skateboarding world, male skaters represent the standard in media representations while female skaters are sexualized, trivialized and marginalized. This reinforces rather than challenges ideologies of gender difference and perpetuates the positioning of women as outsiders in skateboarding culture, which they are certainly not these days. Skateboarding is becoming increasingly central to the cultural identities of girls and women and more girls and women are thus participating (for example, girls make up over 40% of the Skateistan project).

I wrote and co-wrote (along with Christine Dallaire) over 6 articles and book chapters that explore different aspects of the blog produced by Montreal-based, Canadian female skateboarding crew, the Skirtboarders. This project is one of the few that explores how sportswomen are purposefully using digital media to “talk back” to corporately run mainstream and niche skateboarding media. Overall, I found that, like me, some skateboarding women (including the Skirtboarders) are dissatisfied with the ways in which mainstream and niche skateboarding media companies are representing them and are thus “opting out”. Instead, they’re using digital media to create their own representations and are building a strong (and global) community through these media. The Skirtboarders and the Skirtboarder blog users understand that digital media (and the Skirtboarders’ blog especially) provide a venue for girls and women to self-represent and to create and spread more fluid definitions of skateboarding femininity and alternative (new) gender identities. They see the blog as one of many political tools and strategies (such as skateboarding) for challenging male-dominated skateboarding media organizations and, ultimately, for changing the global female skateboarding landscape. The Skirtboarders blog thus significantly contributes to both blog producers and users constructions of individual gender identity and also to the formation of a wider collective female skateboarding identity.

I was driven to explore the Skirtboarders blog, and now, the Great Lake female surfing community, because I believe the phenomenon of sportswomen self-representing online is under researched and requires more attention. These digital media sites are indicating that it is possible for women to be represented in ways that differ from typical media representations, especially when participants take the means of production into their own hands. I am thrilled that digital media is offering some women a space for the construction of new kinds of gender identities. I am also excited that digital media are facilitating womens’ entry into some sports, including extreme sports like skateboarding and lake surfing.


3) As you know we are living in a digitized culture; in what ways do you think online communication forums function as sites for exploring identity (e.g., gender, nationality, sexuality, ethnicity) within the extreme sports culture?

Great question. I agree that we are living in a digitized culture. I feel that communication forums can function as sites that allow extreme sport cultural participants to explore their identities because participants can self-produce and distribute representations on their own terms, without bending to mainstream media conventions. Many of these “community” produced media sites are not trying to sell anything. Instead, these media are created to be not-for-profit, small in scale and distributed to and shared among community members rather than a mass audience. They aim to challenge existing power structures. The question then, becomes: does the production of digital media challenge the power structures of extreme sports culture in any way? I believe it can and will.

To use women’s skateboarding as an example, in an interview for Cooler Magazine, Lisa Whitaker, founder of the Girls Skate Network (formerly known as ‘The Side Project’), a website and associated YouTube channel featuring women skateboarders, stated ‘the Internet and social media have had the biggest impact on visibility for girls skating over the last decade’. Whitaker claimed that the skateboarding media industry has failed women skateboarders and it is therefore female skateboarders’ responsibility to proactively make the changes they want by creating and managing their own separatist, online spaces. However, Whitaker also feels that once enough women engage with these media to affect markets, companies will be economically driven to include representations of action sportswomen that deviate from the ‘rules’ of the current media landscape. She believes that women should continue to produce their own media, but that work with industry giants will eventually be unavoidable if the women’s’ action sports scene is to grow and create sustainable careers and income opportunities for women. I agree with Whitaker and feel the same can be said for other identity categories-not just gender.


"I agree that we are living in a digitized culture. I feel that communication forums can function as sites that allow extreme sport cultural participants to explore their identities because participants can self-produce and distribute representations on their own terms, without bending to mainstream media conventions."

I'm really glad that you mentioned the ideas of identity in terms of bending to mainstream media conventions. There are many ways the media can portray skateboarders (in terms of lazy, being a slacker, considered rebellious, slow, a stoner, etc.) and the fact that you brought up  using the internet as well as a digital communication means to showcase they're forging their own identity rather than what is presented to them through other mediums. It isn't surprising to find articles, blog posts, or even YouTube videos where comments range from being against skaters to being for them but acknowledging the places where they can 'self-produce and distribute representations on their own terms' should be noted as well. Though that can cause a bit of consternation with women within the sport.

As you noted 'It’s no secret that in the skateboarding world, male skaters represent the standard in media representations while female skaters are sexualized, trivialized and marginalized' and that can cause difficulties in terms of identity as well as acceptance within the community for females (though not to say there aren't issues of acceptance for men within the sport as well). Though there are mediums out there (Skirtboarding, Girl is Not a Four Letter Word, Longboard Girls Crew) that is using avenues of digital communication for ease of mind in those spaces.

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