GIRLS CAN’T SURF is the inspiring true story of a group of courageous female surfers in the 1980s who took on the fluro, egotistical, male-dominated professional surfing world in a fight for inclusion, recognition, and equality. Their efforts turned women’s surfing into the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today. This film by Chris Nelius, this is a must-watch for any avid surfer male or female. Warning… you will cry!
“You should make a film about it. We really were mean to the girls back in the 80s”. Those words, or something to that effect was said by Nick Carroll, treasured surf journalist of over 40 years, ex-editor of Track Magazine, and big brother to big wave charger Tom Carroll. Nick was well qualified to make that observation as he watched all those years from the sidelines. When recounting those memories for close friend and film director Christopher Nelius, it got the cogs in Chris’s brain turning. “Well I better make a film about this before someone else does!” he told the eager crowd at the Sydney State Theatre premiere of Girls Can’t Surf, 2 years later.
Initially titled “Side Show” or rather “Shit Show”, more aptly put by 7x World Champion Layne Beachley who stood proud alongside Chris at the premiere. That working title soon became the more pointy GIRLS CAN’T SURF… A point-of-view that even to this day, many of us women find ourselves defending.
The 5 main women in this film, South Africa’s Wendy Botha, Western Australia’s Jodie Cooper, Sydney’s Northern Beaches’ Pam Burridge, Bondi Beach’s Pauline Menczer, and Florida’s Frieda Zamba, I had heard of before, but I didn’t really fully understand the context as to why. Embarrassed to say, I was completely oblivious to the battle they all waged well before I took my ignorantly place in the line-up as a proud female surfer. Whereas today’s more recent gender surfing battle has been about equality especially over equal pay and women’s big waves events, back in the 1980s, these women had to fight for the simple honour of inclusion. Let alone enough money to carve a living from! “If it was that hard for the guys [to make a living]” said filmmaker Chris, “How the hell did the women do it?”. Bloody good question!
The girls who got into pro-surfing in the early 1980s were pretty much the same as the boys. They had the same dreams, the same visions but they didn’t have the permission of the surf culture.”– Nick Carroll
Through eyes filled with bubbling tears, I heard the story of these courageous, determined, ratbag group of tomboy surfer girls. A story that Chris and team so eloquently weaved together despite it literally being a film about how nobody filmed the girls back-in-the-day! GIRLS CAN’T SURF does an astounding job of condensing close to 40 years of archive footage, old photos, news clippings, articles, and straight-talking interviews of clashing personalities and rivalries that to this day, still sting open wounds (Lisa Anderson still has it out of Layne Beachley!). It is a story as shocking, as it is awe-inspiring, and through the diligent skill of the production team, thankfully it is being told today.
“Aesthetically, so much comes through in the music and literally just the archive itself,” says Director Chrs Nelius. “You see early images shot on film, through Hi-8, VHS, early digital video tape, all the way to present day HD sports broadcasting. It’s almost like a history of film that parallels the progression of women’s surfing itself.”
It was an all too familiar scene for the women back then. While the men went on lunch break, talking with their sponsors, and bathing in their own demigod glory, the women were made to surf on the shittest of waves, in the skimpiest of swimsuits as the ‘side show’ to the men’s event. Only to be awarded prize money a 10th of the men’s. In 1991, that prize money was $1.7 Million to the women’s $165,000.
“There was no buzz around the women’s side of it. I remember hearing people referring to the women’s heats like it is the lunch break. The woman got sent out when the surf isn’t good and when people ran up to get their food.”– Pro surfer, Jamie Brisick
Degraded, demeaned, but still determined, this group of Motley Crew ladies banded together and fought for their right to exist, to be heard, to have a sponsor, and to one day have a women’s surf tour that could afford them a wage, just like the men. That fight many of them endured for 10+ years on tour. Pam Burridge for 18, Pauline Menzcer for 20 years. Sadly, a poignant reminder of just how awful the earlier days were, the year that Pauline won her World Title in 1993, the ASP didn’t have any money to even give her a prize. I wonder how much money the ASP awarded to the men’s 1993 winner Derek Ho…?
…… Pssssst, join Still Stoked in buying Pauline a coffee and make her smile all these years later. Donate here via PayPal.
“I knew Billabong Girls was accounting for 50 percent of Billabong’s turnover yet when it came to contract negotiation time, they would often say ‘listen, Joel Parkinson sells boardshorts but Layne you don’t sell bikinis, so we’re only going to pay you a third of the men’s world champion’”– Layne Beachley
Intimate, honest, and deeply personal, the journey of these women strike chords that are reminiscent of the same struggles the girls on the tour endure today. Themes of anorexia, depression, and drug abuse are recalled by the early female pioneers, reflective of the recent admission by poster-girl surfer-babe Alana Blanchard discussing her own anorexia, a direct result she says, of the pressure from sponsors and the industry.
While today’s governing surfing body the WSL awarded equal pay to the women in 2019, being an openly gay woman on tour still comes with fear of losing sponsors and livelihood. It was openly gay, proud and vocal women like Jodie Cooper, Pauline Menzcer, and year’s later a defiant Keala Kennelly, that paved the way for 2x world champion Tyler Wright to recently find a new spring in her step and come out as an openly bisexual athlete on Australia’s 60 Minutes, but also use her platform to fight for LBGTQ rights, and make a stand against racism. While Tyler surely knows the plight of the women that stood before her, Pam Burridge like myself, wonders if the young girls in the lineup today have any inkling of the past? “It is important to tell our story so all the young surfer girls around the world have a greater appreciation of how far their sport has come and the sacrifices that were made by others along the way” says Burridge.
Who knows what modern women’s surfing would be like today if surfers Rochelle Ballard, Pauline Menczer, and co. hadn’t collected their contest jerseys at the 1999 Jay Bay contest, to sit at the water’s edge and refuse to surf in the atrocious conditions. Declining to paddle out, they stood together united, until the clock ran down. “We knew it was right. There were no waves and we shouldn’t be surfing but we were also scared. You were making a stand but also living with a lot of fear of what are they going to do to us. Organisers had to cancel the heat. They couldn’t do it without the women. That was a pinnacle point, where we all started to realise, we can do something now,” says Menczer. And thank goodness they did. Without their fight, there very well may not have been a women’s tour today. THANK YOU.
GIRL’S CAN’T SURF will be released in Australia and New Zealand on March 11, 2021. There will also be a series of Q&A premieres in February across Australia and showings in the Open Air cinemas. For more info on dates and to get tickets, please head to the distributer’s website MadMan Films to find a cinema near you. Sadly there are no plans as of yet for International release. We will let you know via Still Stoked social channels as soon as we hear otherwise.
Say thank you by buying 1993 World Champion Pauline Menczer a coffee. That year, the ASP said they had no money to award her for winning the highest surfing title. Pauline spent 18 years on tour. Join female surfers of today, who would like to make her smile, all these years later.
Written by Christopher Nelius | Julie Anne De Ruvo
Producers Michaela Perske | Christopher Nelius
Production Manager Kiki Dillon
Sound by SongZu
Made with support by Screen Australia