Art by Neil Hamrick.
As someone who has been working for the last few years to understand gendered patterns of thought and action and remove them from my life, and also as someone who has been skateboarding for well over a decade and working at a skate shop for the better part of that time, it’s been impossible to ignore the issues within skateboarding culture. Spend a bit of time flipping through skate magazines and you’re bound to find dozens of articles about how skateboarders are “just different, man,” and how lucky skateboarders are to partake in an activity unspoiled by the trappings of team sports and the negative aspects of modern society. I have no idea who writes those articles or where they got that idea. I imagine, perhaps, a lonely middle-aged man in a dimly lit cubicle being handed a card that says “PROMPT: Skateboarders are just different, man,” with instructions to bang out 500 words about it before lunch break. But all the glossy editorials in the world aren’t enough to change what I see when I go to any skatepark. Someone who has seen a lot of these articles might be shocked to discover that, in reality, skateboarders and skateboarding are in no way magically immune to the influences of jockishness, sameness, and hegemonic masculinity that plague other sports. The fact is, skateboarders as a group are still overwhelmingly male, and most of them aren’t doing anything that screams “different.” Despite what people say and write about skateboarders, if you go to where skateboarding happens- whether it’s a skatepark, a 15-stair handrail, or a waxed red curb- you’re likely to find, well, boys doing sports.
I’ve heard it repeated time and time again that skateboarding is an excellent physical outlet for kids who don’t feel at home in team sports. But more often than not, the kids (almost exclusively boys) I see leave football or basketball for skateboarding aren’t put off by the competition or overpowering culture of masculinity that encompass sports. They still want to win, they still want to be the best, they still want a socially acceptable way to physically release their anger. They just don’t want to work on a team in order to do so. The amount of one-upping, showing off, and rage-induced screaming and board throwing I see all the time make it clear that most boys getting into skateboarding aren’t rejecting any of the core tenets of the very sports culture that they claim to despise and rebel against. I consistently hear them readily hurl homophobic, misogynistic, and transphobic insults to alienate those who have a less overtly macho approach to skateboarding than them, actively reinforcing sameness in their group in the same way that the coach and players of a football team might. Rather not jump down whatever everyone else is jumping down? Prepare to be loudly informed by several middle schoolers that that’s because you’re gay and a pussy, and skateboarding has no place for you.
To be truthful, I do think that, in certain times and places, skateboarding has offered a welcome home to shy weirdos without a single jock bone in their bodies. Many of skateboarding’s key innovators during the 1980s were complete oddballs. But even then, it was still an overwhelmingly male scene. Even during the height of skateboarding’s least sporty phase, there just weren’t any women who wielded as much influence as Neil Blender or Mark Gonzalez. Something about skateboarding has been, for decades, exclusionary.
Deeply rooted within skateboard culture is some vague idea that it’s an outlet- not just for creativity, but for frustration, for aggression. It’s completely normalized within the community of skateboarders that the act of skateboarding can be used as a proxy for physical violence. Somewhere along the line, skateboarders have done quite a bit of work to convince themselves and others that skateboarding is an inherently aggressive act. Aggressive styles are venerated, celebrated, and strived toward, and primitive guttural yells from around the ramp grace those who have the bravado to go higher, stronger, and faster. Popular skate videos often show skateboarders engaged in physical altercations with people who ask them to leave. And I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that physical violence is built into the very language of skateboarding. Grinds, carves, blasting airs, stomping tricks- it’s not hard to see a theme here, and although the words themselves aren’t an issue per se, they’re still rather telling of the way that skateboarders view skateboarding. It’s so openly accepted by the skateboarding mainstream that skateboarding can and should serve the same purpose as punching a punching bag or tackling a rival player. Skate media tends to play these aspects up and reinforce the idea- especially to younger viewers who absorb skate media constantly from the screens of their phones and computers- that we should be skateboarding as a way to provide an outlet for our violent inner selves, to get a quick testosterone boost, and to show off our skill and power. The average skate video isn’t friendly or inviting- it’s a display of machismo that, under the surface, isn’t too far off from Old West cowboy shows or the latest Batman movie.
Despite all this, there is still a sort of half-baked idea among most skateboarders that we should, indeed, welcome more women and LGBTQ people into skateboarding. But the general consensus seems to be that skateboarding will just get more diverse naturally over time. I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation. Now, more than ever, we are bombarded with pictures and videos from big skate media which, unsurprisingly, uphold the status quo. Young kids who have never known any other side to skateboarding naturally seek to emulate these, and I have seen it happen. I’ve given plenty of kids their first board, and I’ve been at the skatepark as they’ve navigated the daunting beginning stages of skateboarding. I’ve seen little girls quit because they felt out of place or “not good enough,” and I’ve seen little boys turn from blank slates into angry little clones of their favorite screaming, board-throwing pros. It’s clear that the path skateboarding is going down right now isn’t just going to create a less toxic skate culture on its own over time. It’s going to take a widespread, conscious effort.
But I’ve also seen those little kids give plenty of smiles, hugs, and high fives. I’ve seen them laugh themselves silly trying a ridiculous trick. This is a warm reminder that there is no inherent violence or aggression or toxicity in skateboarding. There doesn’t have to be anything macho or tough about it. A skateboard is just a useless wooden toy, and the act of skateboarding is exactly what we make it. It can be tremendously, unbelievably fun for people of all skill levels, and doing it together can be a great way to make new friends. We have no hope of creating a skate scene with people of diverse genders and sexualities unless we emphasize that. The systemic issues that keep skateboarding an activity dominated to this day by straight men have nothing to do with skateboarding itself. They have everything to do with the culture that’s been built up around it and its absolute refusal to recognize and abandon the shitty parts of itself.
If you do skate, try to leave the macho bullshit at home. Erase the urge to do anything on your board a certain way to impress or appease anyone. Not only does this help create a more welcoming culture and set a good example for younger kids, but it lets you reconnect with the simple glee of just being on your skateboard. Free from the weight of skateboarding’s cultural baggage, you’ll have a better time on the board than you have in years.
If you don’t skate, maybe give it a try. It’s fun.