“Girls Can’t Surf” documentary, 2021 directed by Christopher Nelius……..comments by Cynthia Webb, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia

Image: Wendy Botha ( 4 time World Women’s Champion, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1992. She is taking part in a Q & A after the screening, along with Cheyne Horan, a surfing contemporary of hers, who knew the right questions to ask! Photo by Cynthia Webb

How many times did I hear that (Girls cant surf!) during the thirty years that I was a practising surfer?

I spent most of my lifetime either inside or strongly connected to the world of surfing, in New Zealand, and then from 1970 at Gold Coast, Australia. I observed the whole history, since I began to surf in 1960 with the earliest of them, in my homeland, New Zealand, and where, in 1964 and 1965 I was the first (and second) Women’s Champion. It was an era of amateur competition, just organised by enthusiastic local people, and there were not yet any big surfing based companies. In 1964, New Zealand’s organisers didn’t even program a Women’s Event, when there would have been enough to have at least one competition heat.

I am telling my own history to explain the difference in the surfing experience, once surfing became a professional sport. Also to show that I have my own personal experience of observing the story told in this film. Even though I was not actually involved in it, I knew full well just what women surfers were having to put up with.

I started so early that I didn’t have to go through the discrimination and prejudice and plain abuse that the women in this film suffered. There were so few surfers then – male or female. Often I was the only surfer out at my home beach, Whangamata, NZ. By the time there were quite a lot of guys out in my home break, I was as good as a lot of them who were still learning, just because I had started several years earlier than they did. It didn’t last long, I have to admit!

This documentary film, which has been so long coming, tells the story from beginning of the era of professional surfing, so it covers from 1980 on-wards. By then I was busy with family and watching from the outside, but feeling the pain in empathy with my surfing sisters. I personally, had no real competitive urge, but was in surfing for the sheer love of it. The difference between these professional surfing women and me is huge.

These amazing women, featured in Chris Nelius’ remarkable film, are so brave, ambitious and determined, and I am in awe of them for their ‘never-give-up’ spirit. I could never have withstood the obstacles they faced in their path to fame and renown, as Women’s World Champions. Nor could I have matched their incredible surfing ability.

They are, Wendy Botha, Jodie Cooper, Pam Burridge, Pauline Menczer, Lisa Anderson, Freida Zamba, Layne Beachley, and finally we see Stephanie Gilmore….all of whom won a World Title…and also the sisters from California who were in there too, but the obstacles so often stalled their careers. Wendy Botha said that from the age of 14 or 15, she wanted to be Number One. She came to Australia from South Africa to pursue this ambition.

The typical obstacles they faced were:

1. A general entrenched attitude amongst the males, that “Girls can’t surf”. (Even though if those men looked honestly they would have seen clearly that girls COULD surf, and some could surf a lot better than a lot of them!)

It eventually happened that Lisa Anderson (USA) had the cover photo of a leading surfing magazine, in a most awesome position on a wave. A woman on the covers was unheard of beforehand. AND, the mischievous editors put a caption in a most noticeable spot – bottom right corner reading, “Lisa Anderson surfs better than you.” Most buyers of these surf magazines are male.

By then Lisa was also the mother of a very young baby, waiting on the beach! This scene brought a loud cheer from the largely female audience in the cinema where I attended the Queensland Premiere of this excellent documentary film. Note that even now, I suspect that the men are not really interested in women’s surfing or more of them would have been there, at HOTA,(Home of the Arts) Gold Coast, at a screening organized by Gold Coast Film Festival in a series called “Trailblazers”.

Obstacle 2. Bored judges with that preconceived notion in their minds.

Obstacle 3. At contests, the women’s events were usually held at the worst possible times for surf conditions, such as lunch-break, low tide and smallest surf times, or after the on-shore or crosswind has come up.

Obstacle 4. The prize money for the Women’s Champion was vastly less than for the Men’s Champion – at least one-quarter, or less. Sometimes in the earlier days, one-tenth! One time there was no prize at all, not even a trophy! Please note: It took 40 years (until 2019) for the World Surfing Association to announce that at long last, the Women’s World Champion would receive equal prize-money as the Men’s Champion. Some of the responsibility rests on the sponsors, the surfing companies, who didn’t have much interest as they didn’t really have much stock for women. The coming of the ROXY brand, made a big difference, because then they actually needed some top women surfers to wear their products in the surf and in advertising.

I might be a bit cynical, but I have been inside the surfing scene, and seen and heard a lot about attitudes, so I wonder if they were just forced into it by political correctness, world opinion, and concerns that the brands of their sponsors might suffer if they didn’t surrender, and treat the women surfers with more respect.

Obstacle 5. The worst one of all was verbal and even physical abuse sometimes experienced at a most appalling level.

A glorious moment in the history of women’s surfing and in the film, was when at a contest in the USA, the OP Pro, the surf conditions had become totally unsurfable… tiny waves, low tide, and breaking into the rocks, and yet there was a huge crowd on the beach, there to see surfing! The sponsors expected the organizers to HAVE surfing, so those organizers decided that the women should go out and surf. This was just the last insult to the brave women, brilliant surfers who had had enough! They went on strike. They just sat on the beach beside their boards and refused to go out into the water. This shocked the board-shorts off the organizers, and in the end had the desired effect. I was writing in my notebook, “These women need a Union”, immediately before the film showed the footage of the women on strike. I had tears in my eyes..

The World contest organizers had been pressured at one time (after a recession in the early 1990s when sponsorship money from the biggest surf companies dried up to low levels) to cancel the women’s events altogether, so that there would be more money for the male competitors! I hadn’t heard about this, and was aghast when it came up in the film.

Even back in my years as my country’s champion, The amateur Surfing Association wrote to me that I should get a passport, and smallpox vaccination ( which was required for overseas travel back then) as they had sponsorship money from Air New Zealand, and the male junior champion ( Alan Byrne) and senior champion (John McDermott) and I would be going to compete in a world championship competition in the USA. A few weeks passed, and after I had done both of those things, they contacted me again to say there was now less money, so I would not be going! This was in the mid 1960s.

The brave professional women surfers tell their personal stories in this documentary too and there are many moving moments. Most of them have been through immense personal trials, but all through it, their love for surfing prevailed and gave them courage and a reason to carry on. Their stories of their competitive careers in the 1980s and 1990s are told, and they all still surf now.

I have seen a lot of the major movies about surfing that have been made since about the mid 1960s, and none I saw featured women surfers in an equal light as surfers, but only brief shots of shapely bikini clad women on the beach, (eye-candy for the blokes who watched the films.)

Surf movies were just one more thing to feed “the impossible sense of their own magnificence” as Nick Carroll said in the film, describing the attitude of the blokes towards the female surfers.

(He is a former professional surfer, and surf journalist.)

After 40plus years, Christopher Nelius has at last treated women’s surfing with equal respect to men’s surfing, and told a story that must be told.The fact is, it was an era that lasted far too long, where plain male-chauvinism in the upper levels of the professional association and surf corporations continued until 2019. I hope some of them are sorry, and some of them angry about it, if and when they watch this excellent piece of documentary cinema. They will see and think for the first time about how while they were staying in 5-star hotels in international surf venues, the women were sleeping in a kind local person’s backyard in a tent, or sharing a motel room with a large number of them, sleeping on the floors, sofas, chairs.

Following the screening was a Q and A with Wendy Botha, who was a 4 times World Women’s Champion, 1987,1989, 1991 and 1992. She also won a major title in 1979 in South Africa, before moving to Australia and becoming a citizen. She told the stories of some of her own accommodation experiences. They usually travelled with little or no money, and depended on having ‘friends in every port’! The moderator was Cheyne Horan, (yes a male!) who was a champion in the same era and knew the right questions to ask.

As for me, I am so proud of these heroic women, my surfing sisters.

Copyright, Cynthia Webb – 9 February 2021

Image: Ex World Champion, 1987,1989, 1991, 1992 -Wendy Botha speaking with Cheyne Horan ( yes a male surfer of the same era) as Moderator. He knew the right questions to ask.

About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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