It has been a little strange to sit back and watch the rise of the AFLW over the past few years. I remember the first night of the competition – Carlton took on arch rivals Collingwood at a packed to the brim Optus Oval. People were hailing it the new dawn yet only a few years later we see posts about the sport spark sexist comments and a very vocal minority refusing to call it ‘real footy’ or even acknowledge it as a sport.
This week I sat down to watch Girls Can’t Surf and I realised that everything that the AFLW players are going through now are things that female surfers went through nearly forty years ago. I will admit that the themes and stories explored in Girls Can’t Surf surprised me. See I grew up in an era where the likes of Layne Beachley were celebrated for their sporting success, although I have since learned she was certainly not paid the same as her male counterparts.
Directed by Christopher Nelius (Storm Surfers 3D) Girls Can’t Surf opens up the eyes of its audience by exposing what life was like for the first female surfers on the world surf tour. It tells the story of many surfers that we knew as household names – Pam Burridge, Jodie Cooper, Wendy Botha – but never knew the dark times they were going through to reach the success they did.
The docco tells stories of young female surfers being told to get out of the water or running away from abusive homes to join a surf circuit where they were unwanted by the male surfers, were forced to compete for one tenth of the prize money of their male counterparts and were then made surf when the waves were a mess just so the men could surf at the times when the waves were better.
Hearing surfers tell stories about how they almost had to beg, borrow and steal to raise enough money from sponsorship to stay on the tour is enough to make you feel angry, but then when you hear about a surfer posing nude for Playboy in order to raise cash you simply feel sick. And that is why Girls Can’t Surf is one of the most important documentaries you will watch this year. This is a side of world sport that deserves to be exposed to the light of day.
To its credit this documentary doesn’t become a man-hating exercise instead it also talks about what it was like for a young gay surfer being ostracised by other female surfers on the circuit while another surfer was hated because she was ‘pretty’ and could easily gain sponsorship because of her capability to get modelling jobs. Then of course there was the decision by a female official to end the female surfing part of a competition to save money, but then placed that money into the men’s competition.
Girls Can’t Surf is a powerful documentary that exposes the wrong-doing by so many organisations and individuals in the past but I also found it to be a celebration of the surfers who won championships throughout those years despite the obstacles that were placed in their way.