Looking at the mix of surfers who continually flood Sydney’s coastline, you’d be forgiven for thinking the world of professional surfing is full of sun-kissed, salt-drenched men and women riding the world’s biggest waves for even bigger paychecks.
However, that glossy fantasy has been far from true for many in the sport with the new documentary Girls Can’t Surf – covering the ebb and flow of the sport’s popularity, and the challenging reality many female athletes have faced as they try to succeed in a male-dominated culture.
Introducing us to pioneering women surfers from around the world including Wendy Botha, Frieda Zamba and Jodie Cooper, along with more recent champions like Layne Beachley and Lisa Andersen, Girls Can’t Surf is a history lesson in the female fight for equality in the competition, and their road to being awarded equal prize money.
For those who have only even seen surfing as a weekend hobby, or the fuel behind big brands like Billabong, Quicksilver and O’Neill. Girls Can’t Surf takes you into the engine room of an international ecosystem that’s largely fed off the strength of its male representatives.
There are plenty of lightbulb moments as you see the subtle ways women were undervalued on the beach – from having to do their heats when the waves were low, to entering the water at the same time the bikini competition was taking the attention of fans on the sand.
Girls Can’t Surf also offers a nuanced commentary on the power struggle between men and women in the late 80s through to the early 2000s, and how its evolution changed what became acceptable in and out of the water. Some men sincerely believed it was effeminate for women to compete in the surf, and you see each of the female athletes struggle with the tension of being both good at their sport and attractive to sponsors as well as fellow competitors. For some it mattered more than others – giving us an insight into the sassy side of these trailblazers – but every single one of them had a media narrative to wrestle with.
Girls Can’t Surf is far from being ‘man-hating’, giving due celebration to the blokes that broke the mold of the time and welcomed these passionate sportswomen into the fold, filling the role of a big brother for a number of them.
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Girls Can’t Surf is far from being ‘man-hating’, giving due celebration to the blokes that broke the mold of the time and welcomed these passionate sportswomen into the fold.
It is a story about inequality and fighting for appropriate recognition and value, but also a deeply sincere gesture of honour. This documentary offers a salute to the women who fought to pave a way for future generations to follow their passion, and make a career out of something they love.
It highlights the people behind the scenes of a lifestyle we’ve now come to accept as normal for females to aspire to. As they say in the film, no girl now would grow up now thinking surfing is something they can’t do.
Girls Can’t Surf doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of trying to be a pro-athlete, delving into some of the hard reasons many of the women pursued the sport, but it is refreshingly hopeful in the picture it paints of the baton being passed between generations of women who all hold the same dream.
Girls Can’t Surf is in cinemas now. Rated M. Viewers should be advised there is minor coarse language and adult themes. But, all of it serves to accurately reflect the history of the sport.