[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]
On popular cultural images of the beach, and what we might make of them.
An alien observer seeking to learn about America solely from its popular culture might well think that in the early 1960s the whole nation had gone surf crazy. The hit 1959 film Gidget (1959), starring Sandra Dee as a rebellious 17 year old who joins the local surfer culture and Cliff Robertson as the Korean War vet turned surf guru who shepards her along, quickly spawned two popular sequels: 1961’s Gidget Goes Hawaiian (with Deborah Walley taking over the title role) and 1963’s Gidget Goes to Rome (with Cindy Carol doing the same). One of 1962’s best-selling rock albums was Surfin’ Safari, the debut by the California group The Beach Boys; less than a year later they released their first mega-hit, Surfin’ U.S.A. (1963). There were of course many other popular trends in these years, but on both the big screen and the record machine, surfing was a surefire early 1960s hit.
Trying to make sense of why and how American fads get started can be pretty difficult at best, but I would argue that the surfing fad in popular culture can be analyzed in a couple different ways. For one thing, the fad represents an interesting way to illustrate the transition between the 1950s and 1960s—as Gidget demonstrates, surfing culture has often been portrayed as a counter-culture, an alternative to the more buttoned-down mainstream society, and of course the rise of counter-cultures (and the kinds of social and cultural movements to which they connected) is a key element to the 1960s in America. So the popularity of these surfing texts (like the popularity of early rock and roll more generally) could be read as an indication that Americans were ready for such counter-culture movements, and Gidget itself could be defined as a 1959 origin point for much of what followed in next decade. Seen in that light, the hugely popular 1966 documentary The Endless Summer represents a high-water mark for all these trends, before the counter-culture began to distintegrate later in the decade.
While that specific historical context would be one way to analyze the early 1960s surfing fad, however, I think a longstanding American narrative could offer another option. It was three decades later that the film Point Break (1991) overtly linked surfers to outlaws, potraying a band of surfing bank robbers led by Patrick Swayze’s philosophical Bodhi (a character not unlike Cliff Robertson’s in Gidget). But to my mind, surfing culture has always contained echoes of the Wild West, represented a new lawless frontier where rough but noble cowboys escape the confines of civilization, battle for survival in extreme conditions, and, if they’re lucky, ride off in Western sunsets. The Wild West was always more of a cultural image than a historical or social reality, of course, and an image constructed with particular clarity in a pop culture text, the Western. That genre was famously moving toward more revisionist films by the late 1960s—but perhaps it had already been supplanted, or at least supplemented, in popular consciousness by surfing stories. In any case, to quote “Surfin’ Safari”: “I tell you surfing’s mighty wild.”
Next BeachStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other beach histories or stories you’d highlight?