Skate Culture’s Reflection on the Silver Screen
How I solve my identity crisis with skateboarding by finding common ground with Hollywood films
Ifirst got hooked onto skateboarding in 2005 when I received a Lego skate park set for Christmas. I wondered as I was building it: huh, could I like, skateboard in real life?
When my brother received a skateboard as a gift, I repossessed it and learned how to (goofy-foot) skate the bends around my pool.
Coming from a sheltered household in the suburbs, I could only wish I had spent my childhood years as a full-out skate rat at the local park. Instead, I followed skate culture via YouTube and newspapers. Skateboarding is also a huge part of Southern Californian culture, so every year, I would devour the X Games’ exclusive coverage in the L.A. Times. And come university and its ensuing freedom, I could skate freely to classes and around the college town on weekends.
I’ve never gotten fully invested into trick skateboarding myself. First reason is my current (work-in-progress!) lack of skill. The second reason is that the whole skateboarding scene always intimidated me as an Asian American female. If it wasn’t the casual misogyny in its community, or its loud rebellious identity, or the high barrier of entry to this extreme sport, I’ve been very hesitant to full enjoy this sport that I’ve been obsessed with all my life.
So I wrote this piece to dissect the identity of skateboarding in the eyes of mainstream society, Hollywood films, and that of my own scrutiny.
Being a street skateboarder is a bold and invested lifestyle. From religiously watching the X Games, I could get a sense of the pro skating community which has their own afflicted air. But street skateboarders from your local city block have a presence: punk, defiance, and youth.
Imagine a scene of kids spending their days flipping boards on steaming concrete under the hot sun. They put their all-or-nothing into pushing a piece of wood on four wheels to try to make magic out of it and make it glide.
The fact that skateboarding was born from off-season surfers breaking into empty pools on private property, cements this sport’s rebellious spirit. Defiance is so ingrained into this sport, that people might incorrectly assume that its participants don’t care about mainstream society at all. But in fact — they do.
Skateboarders position their identity as a creative alternative to the socially dominant and athletically competitive Type-A “jock” model. Cultural studies professor Emily Chivers Yochim argues that skateboarding is a safe space, but mostly for white male teens, to negotiate the masculine expectations that America puts upon them.
In her book “Skate Life: Re-Imagining White Masculinity”, she states that some boys turn to skateboarding as an alternative way to live out their adolescence. Skateboarding is an individualistic sport that allows for creativity, which compares to the aggressive competitive teamwork that sports like football, basketball, and baseball demand. Its existence displays its members’ dissatisfaction with mainstream society.
Yochim also exposes the hypocrisy of skate culture. While it may be an athletic escapism from the status quo for white middle-class boys, it still upholds patriarchal flaws in many ways. Casual misogyny is often rampant in the skating world; “go back to the kitchen” and “girls can’t skate” are frequent comments under most girl skateboarding videos. These comments’ origins date back to the grainy Youtube videos I watched in the 2000s. The homophobic f-word slur and other names are tossed around these comments to degrade fellow male skaters too.
Skateboarding may have proven to be way too much of an escapist space for its male participants that they feel free enough to speak bluntly and derogatorily in their own isolated world. Far from being the perfect rebellious utopia, this scene reveals its members’ uncertainty of their self-identities.
These were the main reasons why I felt hesitant to join the skate scene. It made no sense to me that skateboarding, as an alternative and counter culture, consisted largely of a people with a clear social dominance.
My question is: how does this simultaneous negotiation and protection of white masculinity in skateboarding, affect minorities who want to engage in the sport? Does its innate conflict of identity have a space for girls or people of color to feel a part of? Will they be allowed a similar release for their own unique baggage through the outlet of skateboarding?
I held these questions in mind when I watched last year’s three hit skateboarding movies. Each film has vastly different protagonists from separate time eras.
Skate Kitchen is a narrative film that is eponymous for the real-life New York girl skate crew it features. It is a youthful summer movie about a teenager Camille finding friendship and belonging through skateboarding in lower Manhattan.
Mid90s is Hollywood actor Jonah Hill’s directorial debut that takes inspiration from his own adolescence years in L.A. It follows a young boy Stevie seeking friendship and release from his troubled home through a newfound posse he meets at the local skate shop.
Minding the Gap, which is my personal favorite, is a documentary by Michigan-based skateboarder and cinematographer Bing Liu. He places two of his long-time friends and even himself in front of the lens to depict the release that skateboarding allows them from their abusive households and daunting futures.
How does skateboarding affect boys of color in their pursuit of ‘alternative’ masculinity in America?
Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap answers this question the most thoroughly. One of his stars, Keire, is a black skateboarder whose own family says he seems different from them because he skateboards. Keire turns to skateboarding to find transcendence from the financial issues and abuse back home. However, Keire’s release is conditional. At one point of the documentary, his white friends cackle over a video repeating the N-word while he stands uncomfortably in the background.
He also reveals that he has been stopped by police in town before and gotten a gun trained on him for attempting to reach for his driver’s license. While his friends talk openly about an online video of a black man being shot down at a gas station like it is a spectacle, Keire’s sentiment is: “I could die really easily here.”
Keire recalls that he couldn’t understand why his dad would choose to be black again in his next life. “Why would you wanna be black when all that shit’s happening to us?” Skateboarding becomes part of his release. On Keire’s worse of days, just being able to escape and go skate would make everything completely fine again. The unfortunate part is that he needed this outlet for the problems he faced.
Even in Jonah Hill’s mid90s, the skate pack’s revered leader Ray Ray confesses that there’s more pressure for black skaters. When he skates in Beverly Hills with his friends, he gets the most disapproving stares and will most likely be the one to get stopped by the police. Ray Ray shares this insight after a black policeman singles him out of his friend group by yelling at him that “black people don’t skate.”
How does the skate scene, that can give free reign to misogyny, affect girl skateboarders?
In Skate Kitchen, the all-female skate group band together out of social survival. In one scene, a pack of boy skaters swerve into the girls’ section of the park in an attempt to drive them out.
This scene is interesting because it accurately reflects a part of skateboarding history that affected girls tremendously. The mass closing of many skate parks in the 1970s due to high liability costs and rise of “vert” skating, pushed many women out of the skate scene.
Former professional skateboarder Cindy Whitehead skated professionally in the 1970s until “skateparks started dying off and once that happened we did not have sanctioned contests.” Because girls no longer had skate parks which were safe spaces that could somewhat be regulated for them, opportunities for them dwindled immensely. It became a majority “boy’s club” in the 1980s and America began to identify the sport as such because male-ran skate companies brought it to the mainstream.
Singling out female skaters also proves to take a toll on their mentality. One of the Skate Kitchen girls, Janay, says in the film that the best skaters “do not think… And us girls, we think too much.” She believes she cannot do advanced skate tricks, but says in contrast, “Once boys hit puberty, they just get really good. I don’t know. You notice that?” This affects her confidence later when the girl posse go to the boys-dominated Midtown area to ollie over a large set of stairs. Janay feels unsure of herself as she attempts the trick, and ends up getting injured.
Judging from the verité depiction of the skate world in these films, skateboarding could stand to be more socially conscious. Fortunately, the solutions lie in these movies themselves.
Creating spaces for representation and visibility means all the world to minority skaters. Rhianon Bader from the NGO Skateistan said that establishing all-girl skating hours at a skate park helped girls feel more comfortable. “I think a lot of the attraction to the sport just comes down to girls seeing other girls doing something.”
Vibe wrote an article back in 2016, contributing the rise of the sport among black millennials to the visibility of rappers who skateboarded. But even back in the 1960s and 70s, the Chicago South Side similar to the neighborhood in Minding the Gap, saw skateboarding’s popularity boom. “I started skateboarding because everybody else was doing it,” says former resident Greg Collins. This reflection of relatability helps minority skaters find their footing.
Director Bing Liu reveals to Keire that he chose to film him as one of the main leads in his documentary because, “I saw myself in your own story.”
To imitate the artful Bing himself, I wrote this article for the same reason. Sometimes people can’t face what they actually want to be. So, they find the best mirror they can and hope some of the light shed will reflect back on them.
I wasn’t able to understand the qualms I had with identifying with skateboarding until I watched these movies. I was able to discover the layers of rebellion, the illusion of control when there is none, and the dismissal of societal expectations that lies in wait for a skateboarder. My understanding of the flaws of skate culture actually makes me fall more in love with it. I identify with its purposes more than I would care to admit.
And just like with me, the sport’s identity struggle is not yet complete. This sport’s push-and-pull of which mainstream masculine values to uphold, must lean to one side soon. As a woman of color and skateboarder, I hope that it chooses the path that allows skaters of all backgrounds to follow. Skateboarding is a cloak of hope, possibility, and yearning, but until we allow it to impact all its participants equally, it still holds gaping holes of reality.