Film review: ‘GIRLS CAN’T SURF’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Documentary Girls Can’t Surf recounts the history of women’s surfing, the competitor’s battle for recognition, respect and equal pay and the personal stories of the sport’s pioneers and modern stars.

The film introduces us to women who may well be legends to surfing fans but apart from Layne Beachley, were almost unknown to this reviewer.  Some of them, like Americans Jolene and Jorja Smith, emerged in the 1970’s and 80’s when a fledgling women’s surfing competition was looked upon derisively by the blonde ubermensch males.  The women’s skills were dismissed as inferior, they were often forced to compete when the waves had turned to a dribble which compounded misconceptions that they weren’t any good and they were paid a pittance by comparison with the men.  Inspiringly, though, they were undaunted and generations of young women desperate to win world titles kept showing up.  These included Aussie superstars like Wendy Botha, Pam Burridge, Jodie Cooper and Pauline Menczer as well as superstar Americans like Lisa Andersen.

Here, these women talk passionately about their desire to be recognised unconditionally for their surfing prowess not just, as some males contemptuously say in archival footage, “good for a girl”.  Unfortunately, for many years, as one interviewee puts, it ‘the women didn’t have the permission of the surf culture’.  The film recalls the ramshackle nature of early women’s surfing tours with low-budget accommodation and none of the star treatment afforded the males.

The film unveils a range of indignities to which the women were subjected such as being told the only way they could attract attention to the sport was to wear impractical skimpy outfits.  The film also reveals that not only was women’s prize money a fraction of the males but during the early 90’s recession, it was suggested the women’s tour be cancelled so the allocated prize money could go to the men. Some of the women had to work multiple jobs just to survive on the tour and at one point the women had to stage industrial action to try and achieve some sort of pay parity and equal treatment with the men.  It was a revelation to surfwear companies, though, to discover that the reason their profits were skyrocketing was because young women and girls were increasingly buying surf gear.

As well as the broader world of surfing, the film explores personal trials for these women including Pauline Menczer’s battle with rheumatoid arthritis, pressure by sponsors to lose weight which Pam Burridge says led her to anorexia and the negative reaction women such as Jodie Cooper faced when they came out as gay.

This film is not just about the obstacles and negativity these women faced, though, it’s also about the sport of surfing itself and the various triumphs these women had as professional athletes.  Even for the non-surfer the scenes of these women conquering pretty intimidating looking waves are inspiring.  Admittedly, it helps, that they’re accompanied by some terrific tunes from Mudhoney, The Breeders, Bikini Kill and Joan Jett.

At nearly two hours, the film is a little long and feels repetitive at times but for the most part this is an absorbing and at times moving story of disappointment and triumph in the face of prejudice.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Documentary.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Christopher Nelius.

Release date: 11th Mar 2021.

Running time: 113 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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