The New Documentary on Women’s Surfing Everyone Should See
Girls Can’t Surf is the tongue in cheek title of a new documentary, which delves into the gritty and engaging story of womens pro-surfing in the 80s and early 90s.
Due for release in March of 2021, the film wastes little time illustrating a setting where women surfers were confronted with entrenched sexism and major inequalities while being forced to climb over giant male egos to get a taste of the pro surfing dream. One of the opening scenes features a young, Jorja Smith doing a piece to camera in the early 80s. As the handy-cam pans across the contest area, she delivers the cutting narration,“ This is where the men are surfing and this shitty, hell-hole, scum pit of the ocean is where the women have to surf.”
We are taken back to a time where Women Pro Surfers were handed a skimpy, one-piece bikini by contest officials and told to paddle out in horrendous conditions, before collecting a pittance in prize money. While the message of the film is serious the delivery is often hilarious, thanks to the candid insights from the cast of ex-pros. Commenting on the impracticality of the contest bikinis, Jodie Cooper quips. “I ended up getting an enema so bad, I thought I was going to die… It felt like someone had put a bayonet up my ass.”
While the film works hard to deliver perspectives from a range of voices, including Layne Beachley, the narrative zones in on the stories of Jodie Cooper, Pam Burridge, Pauline Menczer, Wendy Botha, Frieda Zamba and later Lisa Andersen. This may have been a group of women who were underpaid, marginalised, and largely ignored by media at the time, but do not make the mistake of assuming their conquests are somehow less heroic or their stories any less intriguing. Take for example Pauline Menczer. We are told how the diminutive dynamo from Bondi, who went on to become a world champion, grew up with her single Mum and three siblings after her dad was murdered while driving his taxi. To make ends meet the Menczers would scour Bondi after the daily crowds for left-behind goods and sell them in garage sales. While on tour, Pauline who also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, was eternally struggling for sponsors. To keep her pro surfing dream alive she would sleep at contest sites, and pay her way around the world by buying stacks of Levis in the USA and flogging them for a profit when she arrived in France. It’s hard to think of a male pro surfer with a more compelling tale of overcoming adversity to claim surfing’s highest prize.
By mining the intriguing backgrounds of each of its main subjects, the doco remains engaging while simultaneously making a number of salient points. Big issues like body image, sexuality and pay inequality are all explored.
Jodie Cooper and Pauline Menczer detail their struggle to talk frankly about their sexuality in an era when admitting you were gay literally meant losing your sponsorship. Paradoxically, four-time-world champion Wendy Botha discusses why she elected to pose for Playboy at the height of her fame. “I did it just to stick it up to the men,” she explains. Meanwhile, Pam Burridge openly discusses her battles with Anorexia; suggesting the illness was inspired by a surf industry that set rigid boundaries about what its female stars should look and behave like.
On the subject of the fight for equal pay Girls Can’t Surf, is careful to acknowledge the part played by womens surfers in the 80s and 90s. In September of 2018 professional surfing broke new ground by becoming one of the first international sporting organisations to offer prize money equality for women and men. However, long before the likes of Steph Gilmore, Tyler Wright and Carissa Moore were able to hoist hefty paycheques above their heads, another generation of women’s surfers toiled away on a pro tour that offered considerably less favourable conditions in and out of the water. Alisa Schwarzstein-Cairns, ( married Ian Cairns in 1996) was a decorated pro surfer, and former number 4 in the world, who eventually served on the Women’s ASP board for ten years. Schwarzstein-Cairns, who features in the film, is just one of those who tirelessly pursued better conditions for Womens surfers in an era when men undeniably hogged the spotlight, the sponsors, the best waves, and the prize money.
It’s worth noting that a few, high-profile male surfers are served up saying things on film that they may live to regret when this film reaches a wide audience. While the comments were made in a different time and context you can almost hear the screams of “Ouch!” as surfing luminaries are caught on film saying things like, “I think the top (male) surfer from any beach could defeat any woman I know…”. Truth be told many men are guilty of making imprudent comments about women’s surfing over the years. It’s just these guys who have been caught saying it on camera.
‘Girls Can’t Surf’ certainly delivers its message but it never gets preachy and amongst the heavy subject matter, it is also a classic sporting documentary about a group of women who were perhaps even more competitive than their male counterparts. There’s a wonderful piece of archival footage where Jodie Cooper is in contention for a world title and is asked by an interviewer how she might beat Frieda Zamba ? “With a big lump of wood,” quips Jody whose pithy one-liners are a feature of the film. The point is, the rivalries were real. We are told how the impossibly muscled Frieda Zamba was dubbed ‘Robotron’ by the other girls because of her chiseled physique and laser focus. Then there are characters like Frieda’s buff boyfriend/coach, Flea, who would show up in a pair of glad-wrapped boardshorts and deliver mid-heat signals with ping-pong bats – glorious.
The movie is also a must-see for any retro-tragics. The graphics, the soundtrack, and the vision will send you blasting back to the 80s in a frenzy of fluoro and hair-metal riffs – only this time it’s told from the women’s perspective as you arrive back on the beach at Huntington for the OP pro with a 100 000 screaming fans.
Ultimately Girls Can't Surf accomplishes the most difficult of objectives for a documentary. It educates and informs its audience while also delivering meaningful entertainment. Yes, for male viewers there may be a few moments where your girlfriend punches you on the shoulder or your daughter asks a question that makes you squirm, but that’s part of the purpose of a film like this, to transform the way we think and behave… it's also one of the best documentaries ever made about surfing. Don't miss out just because you are too Blokey to enjoy something told from the other side of the heat draw.
Girls Can’t Surf will be released nationally in March 2021