M, 108 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Not that long ago, surfer girls would either lie on the beach boosting their tans or sit in their boyfriend’s ute to keep warm. It all depended on the weather, and they were only there to watch after all, while the action took place in the water.
Then again, the bikini, shrinking fast, was a novelty so the girls were expected to do their bit. While the boys were riding the waves providing spectacle off shore, the girls would provide the scenery on shore.
As one of the champion female women in this new Australian doco so graphically explains, the bikini is totally impractical as a surfing outfit anyway. The appearance of board shorts for girls, a defining moment in the surfing culture and industry, was still some time off.
Who knew that from as early as the 1950s and 1960s a small and growing band of girl surfers were beyond the breakers too, riding the waves with the guys?
They might have been somebody’s kid sister, or a ‘terrible tomboy’, as one of the female champions interviewed in this documentary reveals, but they were easily as competitive as the blokes. If not even hungrier.
Yet, there was nothing to be seen about them in Tracks, Surfing Life or the other surfing magazines.
Girls Can’t Surf, directed by Christopher Nelius, is in the main the story of a band of breakaways who began during the 1980s to step up and compete for some of the action. It was the decade when the female competitors began to go ‘on tour’, getting themselves to the major surfing events around the world.
Gutsy women surfers from that time like Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Wendy Botha, Pam Burridge and Pauline Menczer, tell their story to camera. The latter three women were world champions.
They recall how they were rewarded with opportunities to compete when the conditions in the surf were poor, or during a lunch break. And how they shared accommodation without running water, or where they had to sleep in their board bags.
Then there was the prize money. A pittance, sometimes as low as ten percent of the figure the winning men received.
The women surfers simply didn’t have the ‘permission’ of the surfing culture at the time to participate on equal terms.
Surfing Life, Surfer and Tracks magazines kept their readers focussed on the blokes. With their moulded golden arms and their blonde highlights, the men surfers strode into the water like demi-gods with a sense of ‘their own magnificence’, as one of the (male) surfing journalists says.
As teenagers, Kathe Lette and Gabrielle Carey tried to buck the trends in Aussie beach culture with their semi-autobiographical novel Puberty Blues in 1979. It was turned into a film in 1981.
Who said girls can’t surf as good as blokes?
At the movies, Sandra Dee’s Gidget was also riding the waves on her board, but the prevailing view that female surfers would never be as good as the men was tenacious. Then again, it’s been a similar story in many sports.
Well, hello from 2020s, when women’s cricket, and other team sports have at last broken through.
When change came to surfing culture, it was the corporate world that had begun to see the value in the female competitors, even if the men hadn’t. Board shorts for girls by Roxy became very big business indeed.
It is fascinating to hear in Girls Can’t Surf from Layne Beachley about this turning point, when she became the poster girl for Billabong.
This history of women in surfing told by director Nelius and his co-writer and editor, Julie-Anne de Ruvo is a story that needed to be told.
Editing the wealth of material here would have been a massive task. Recent and archival interviews, original footage including grainy video, newsreel and location footage from some of the world’s most famous surfing competition venues like Bells Beach and Hamilton Beach, CA.
Almost too much for one film. Less material, well-chosen, could have had even more impact.
What works best of all are the interviews with the female surfing pioneers, hearing their stories told in their own sparky words
And it all leads to the phenomenal successes of Australian world surfing champions Layne Beachley and Stephanie Gilmore.
The subtitle for Girls Can’t Surf could go something like this: ‘Why girls can’t surf as good as blokes’. It is another film for woke times.
First published in the Canberra Times on 14 March 2021