Girls Can’t Surf – movie review

The documentary Girls Can’t Surf is a look at those pioneering female surfers who fought against the entrenched sexism of this male dominated sport.

In the 60s, the male surfers were the heroes, while female surfers were largely relegated to the sidelines, forced to wear skimpy swimsuits and were treated almost as a sideshow or a distraction when the waves were too small, and the males took a break. They were not really taken seriously. But they wanted the same opportunities as their male counterparts, and they were driven to succeed. Once the sport turned professional in the late 80s, they found that the same sexist attitudes still prevailed. The women were still treated as second class and largely exploited, even though they were often the face of many of the clothing and swim wear companies that sponsored surf competitions. They were often considered little more than pin-up models.

A group of rebellious and determined female surfers challenged the patriarchy of the sport. They just wanted to be taken seriously, they wanted parity and equal pay and recognition as they were surfing the same waves.

This documentary looks at that small group of women surfers who made a stand against the entrenched chauvinism of the surfers and even the organisers to fight for inclusion and fairness. It took them nearly three decades to achieve their aims, but they inspired a whole new generation of female surfers and changed the culture of the sport forever.

The film has been directed by Christopher Nelius, himself a surfer and documentary filmmaker who has made numerous sports themed documentaries. He previously gave us the superb Storm Surfers, which was shot in 3D.

The film unfolds in largely chronological fashion, and Nelius has assembled a bevy of interview subjects including Pam Burridge, Freda Zamba, Wendy Botha, Lisa Andersen, Goldie Cooper, Australian Pam Mencer, and even latter day stars like Layne Beachley. In these surprisingly candid interviews these pioneering surfers talk about the sacrifices they made, their treatment and some of the psychological and personal problems they faced. While travelling on the competition circuit their accommodation was second class and they had to pay their own way. We also hear from a couple of sympathetic male surfers and some sports journalists also weigh in to give some context to the women’s struggle.

Nelius co-wrote the film with Julie-Anne De Ruvo, who has also deftly edited together a wealth of archival footage with the talking head interviews. The colourful, vibrant visual style perfectly echoes the whole 80s vibe. There is lots of great surfing footage, ensuring that Girls Can’t Surf is a must for surfers, but its themes of sexism in sport and gender politics and the struggle for equality will also strongly resonate.

Greg King

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