Girls Can’t Surf: a bittersweet story of women on the waves

Charting women surfers’ struggles and successes from the 1980s to the 2010s, Christopher Nelius’s documentary is a reminder of how unionising and public pressure can bring about change.

19 August 2022

By Rebecca Harrison

Girls Can’t Surf (2020)
Sight and Sound

Archive tape with a washed-out look like bleached ’80s hair gives glimpses of sun-soaked beaches and curling waves. Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’ blares over the credits as colourful graphics skim across the screen. Welcome to the world of pro surfing, where men with ‘an impossible sense of their own magnificence’ are worshipped like gods.

Girls Can’t Surf takes a deep dive into the sport’s far murkier treatment of women. Behind the carefree façade of surfer chicks from the 1980s through 2010s, there’s financial precarity, an eating disorder, disability, injury, unwanted sexual advances, objectification, and homophobia. Misogyny is ever present; former world champion Pauline Menczer describes being kicked by a male surfer furious that she took a wave he couldn’t manage. ‘I’ve had a few guys want to hit me, try to push me off my board’, she says. Meanwhile Jodie Cooper describes being outed as lesbian and shunned by peers, judges and sponsors alike. It may require physical strength to surf, but these women needed even greater mental fortitude to endure competition tours, where they were positioned, says Cooper, as ‘a sideshow’.

The documentary, by contrast, keeps women front and centre. With surprising candour, former world champions including Wendy Botha, Pam Burridge and Lisa Andersen discuss their personal and professional lives, criticise the sport’s governing bodies and sponsors, and celebrate their rivalries. It’s remarkable to hear so many women name their ambition – to be the best – and take such pride in themselves. At times, the film is a little confusing as it cuts back and forth between narratives, and its ponderous linearity is sometimes a drag. But by interspersing the women’s stories with archive footage of their achievements, the film succeeds in balancing the infuriating with the exhilarating.

Girls Can’t Surf also offers important insights into the financial and cultural stranglehold that sponsors have on the sport – indeed, as Andersen says, ‘it sounds like a Wall Street story.’ There are echoes here of the 1920s film industry, with the ‘professionalisation’ of surfing a tired euphemism for ‘corporatisation’ and its inevitable erasure of women.

This is why Girls Can’t Surf is so vital. In many ways, it’s an uplifting story about how unionising and how public pressure can bring about change. It’s also, at heart, a story about women’s struggles and successes that acknowledges all those who came before and all those who will come after. It all makes for a bittersweet historical record that will ensure women surfers’ contributions to the sport are never wiped out.

► Girls Can’t Surf is in UK cinemas now.

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