Campus: CSU Fullerton -- May 31, 2002

Cal State Fullerton Thesis on Surf Culture Rides a Wave of Success

A cinematic morality tale called "Gidget," the music of the Beach Boys and Dick Dale, and the rise of the surf-wear industry all play prominent roles in a thesis that has earned author Leslie Boullon a Giles T. Brown Outstanding Thesis Award from Cal State Fullerton.

Boullon, a Costa Mesa resident, who wrote "Surf Narratives: California Dreamin' on a New Frontier" to earn a master's degree in American studies in 2001, will be presented with the award at the university's annual Honors Convocation Friday, May 31. She is one of two recipients of the 2002 outstanding thesis award, which is named for the now-retired founding dean of graduate studies. Also being honored is Davis resident Stephen W. Larson, who earned his master's degree in biology after writing on a subject quite different from surfing: "Identification of Heat and Light Degradation Products of Aqueous L-Tryptophan by LC-PDA-ESI/APCI-MSN."

Now an English teacher at a La Palma junior high school, Boullon traces her interest in "surfing narratives" to an ex-boyfriend who was a surfer with a romantic sensibility, a love of nature that had its genesis in the woods of her native Michigan, and the lure of breeze-swept beaches in Hawaii, Greece, Portugal and California.

Her 149-page thesis grew out of assignments for oral history classes taught by Art Hansen, professor of history. "I interviewed Doug Craig, a founding father of the San Onofre Surf Club, and it seemed to me that he lived the idyllic California dream," she says.
In her thesis, says Michael Steiner, professor of American studies, "Ms. Boullon traces the myriad manifestations of surfing from the 1940s to the present - from film and music to literature and journalism to architecture and fashion - and she brilliantly detects deeper cultural meanings and imperatives within each of these forms."

Boullon says that she has "read just about everything ever written about surfing," a list that ranges from Surfer and Surfing magazines to Kem Nunn's "surf-noir novels," Tapping the Source and The Dogs of Winter. She also sat through innumerable movies, such as "Gidget," "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini," "Beach Blanket Bingo" and Bruce Brown's epic documentary, "The Endless Summer."

Released in 1962, "Gidget" tells the story of a teen-ager who "is attracted to the freedom she
sees among the cool, rebel surfers at the beach" and "longs for entry into their world and the world of experience." Boullon says the movie never presents a surfing lifestyle as a "viable alternative or valid choice, even though surfers, then as now, arranged occupations, schedules and lives around surfing and still were contributing members of society. Rather than the celebration of a healthy, authentic interaction with a natural environment, surf ideology is trivialized and reframed as superficial, negative and detrimental to the dominant ideology of mainstream culture." In the end, adds Boullon, Gidget "retreats to the sanctity and safety of home" and becomes "the perfect image of '50s femininity."

Nonetheless, the movie's success led to a whole new genre, what Boullon calls "surf-sploitation films."

In a chapter titled "From Surfboard to Boardrooms to Realms of Myth," Boullon writes, "Surfers have come off their surfboards and into the boardrooms of million-dollar corporations. The competitive and lucrative surf-wear industry, mostly based in the Orange County cities of Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa's 'Velcro Valley,' and San Clemente, generated $1.7 billion in revenue in 1998."

Surf images crop up frequently in advertising for other products as well. "The surfer has been seized upon by Madison Avenue as a new icon of rebellious non-conformity," she writes. "The countercultural outsider has long been a marketable commodity."

In her concluding paragraph, Boullon writes, "Out of the fragmented and enigmatic ocean called the American Mind, the image of the surfer seems to be emerging as something more than a man on a wave. On what shores of the imagination he finds landfall remains to be seen. I submit that in the image of the surfer, a cultural icon is rising from the regenerative ashes of the Western hero."

Media Contact: Orman Day at (714) 278-3798 or ormanday@fullerton.edu


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