Called Out Essay

The INSIDER Summary:

  • Writer Karen Knowlton wrote an essay on Medium calling out Billabong for an 'insulting' ad.
  • The ad was originally on Billabong's landing page and seemed to objectify women's bodies.
  • A screenshot of the advertisement shows a man surfing and a woman lying on the beach in a bikini.
  • Knowlton encouraged Billabong to show more female athletes instead.
  • The post has gone viral.



This post was updated on August 14 with a statement Karen Knowlton provided to INSIDER following our request for comment.

For some reason, it's difficult for some brands to advertise to women without oversexualizing them. Although things have certainly improved, they're far from perfect.

Karen Knowlton learned this the hard way while she was online shopping at Billabong, a popular surf brand, when she said she noticed the clothes for men and women were being marketed in two very different ways.

In a screenshot that Knowlton shared on Medium, shoppers were prompted to click on an image of a man surfing to view the men's collection, while shoppers were prompted with an image of a woman posing in a bikini on the beach to view the women's collection.

In an August 8 Medium post entitled "F--- You Billabong. Seriously, F--- You," Knowlton accused Billabong of being sexist and objectifying women. And now it's going viral.

"I literally couldn't believe it when I went to billabong.com," she told INSIDER. "The sexism was so blatant. It made me so furious that this is what women have to deal with, I just needed to address it."

In her essay, Knowlton analyzed the images in her post: "Man as subject, shredding waves. Woman as object, back arched and head dropped back for ultimate titillating effect on the viewer. This doesn't even pretend to be an image of a woman having fun on the beach, actually enjoying her beautiful body in the perfect swimsuit. It's just straight objectification."

Knowlton also explained why she thought the brand's alleged objectification of women is harmful.

"This is how you, as a company, see women, and it is also what you are trying to sell us about ourselves," she wrote. "Billabong makes products for men, who go out there like badasses and catch awesome waves, and also for women, who basically just lie around uncomfortably, waiting to be looked at and desired."

"I get that sex sells, but just do better," she continued. "This kind of imagery impacts the psyche of women and girls far beyond whatever marketing moron you entrusted your site to could even imagine."

It seems as though her message has really resonated with people. Her post went viral in just a few days.

People on Twitter applauded her stance.

Billabong has not responded to Knowlton's post. INSIDER also reached out to Billabong for a statement, but the brand did not respond. INSIDER also could not find the landing page in question, and at the time of this post, the US landing page for Billabong did show a female surfer in action:

Knowlton, an avid surfer, also acknowledged that Billabong didn't create a sexist surf culture. However, she accused them of continuing to perpetuate negative stereotypes and not actively working to help solve the problem.

"Surfing is still such a Boys Club. Nine times out of ten, the make-up [sic] of people in the water is 90% male. Easily. Half the time, I'm the only female out there," she wrote. "Why continue to propagate this idea that even according to a surf apparel company, a woman's place is on the beach, not in the lineup?"

She finished by offering some advertising advice to the company.

"Show me some badass (and beautiful, if you must) women out there shredding waves and having fun on the beach," she wrote. "Show me what is possible for me, as a woman, if I buy your products. Sell me that dream. Isn't that what this whole business is about anyway?"

When reached for comment, Knowlton told INSIDER that it was affirming to see that she could effect change. Now that she knows that her voice makes a difference, she plans to keep speaking out in the future.

"I'll keep using my voice. Keep surfing. Keep calling out BS when I see it," she told us. "It's been made crystal clear to me my voice matters, and now I have no excuse not to use it."

We hope Billabong and other surf brands will actively work toward representing a more inclusive surf culture in the future. You can read Karen Knowlton's full Medium essay here.

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CALLED OUT reads like a sequel of sorts to Harold Kushner’s WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE via A. G. Mojtabai’s two most recent books, the novel ORDINARY TIME and BLESSED ASSURANCE: AT HOME WITH THE BOMB IN AMARILLO, TEXAS. Often predictable and at times unpretentious to a fault, CALLED OUT proves nevertheless deeply moving in its portrayal of ordinary people struggling to do their human best in trying circumstances. Strangely reminiscent of both Raymond Carver’s short stories and Walker Percy’s Catholic existentialist novels, Mojtabai’s narrative deals with the crash of a passenger plane into a field in a Texas township a little too patly called Bounds. Mojtabai plays down the crash itself while playing up the reactions of a handful of townspeople: the local postmistress, a cocktail waitress, a ne’er-do- well who sneaks onto the crash site and tries to sneak off with a severed hand, a journalist who just happens to be passing by, a priest more than a little unsure of both his vocation and his effectiveness, and through them a number of lesser voices: police officers, disaster workers, the mayor, a local radio evangelist, a few survivors, and later a sampling of the victims’ friends and relatives who make the pilgrimage to Bounds.

The novel focuses first on the time just before the crash, then the immediate aftermath, and finally the subsequent fallout, moving back and forth between various first-person accounts. As a result, the novel possesses a certain immediacy (even more in the wake of the 1994 crash of an American Eagle flight in Indiana), as if the characters’ thoughts have been recorded in a cosmic black box or by some meta-journalist with a tape-recorder as they look back on the crash, a mystery that goes well beyond mechanical failure or meteorological event. As the author explains in a prefatory note, at the heart of the book is “a long-ago conversation with a Roman Catholic canon lawyer” on the efficacy of the Last Rites when administered in a disaster situation in which the religious affiliation and spiritual condition of the victims cannot be ascertained. The canon lawyer’s answer—“wasted oil and a wistful prayer”—is precisely what Mojtabai examines. In the conflict between “authority” and “humanity,” this spare yet often powerful and strangely reassuring novel puts its faith on the side of the latter.

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