girls can’t surf?!
Meet the badass women who fought sexism and homophobia in surfing
In Girls Can’t Surf, Christopher Nelius documents the struggles that professional surfing renegades like Pauline Menczer and her contemporaries confronted on a choppy playing field – and how they turned the tide
I looked around me, and everyone who was sponsored was blonde.Pauline Menczer
“When I go down to Bondi Beach to go surfing, I often see more girls than guys in the water. It wasn’t always like that. Whatever was holding women back – that’s changed. I was really interested in finding out what that was and how that happened,” says Christopher Nelius, the director behind the feature-length documentary Girls Can’t Surf.
By telling the story of the women who fought against the odds to make women’s professional surfing more accessible, Nelius shines the spotlight on the long-overlooked athletes whose determination fuelled their fight for inclusion and recognition both on and off the waves.
The rebirth of surfing and its emergence as a sport where anyone is welcome on the waves involved a great deal of endurance, as professional female surfers were persistently met with sexism, homophobia and exclusion. In a series of intimate interviews interwoven with home-video footage and original photos from the women’s lives, Nelius provides the viewer with insight into these women’s personal struggles within a hostile industry.
Surfing legends such as Jodie Cooper, Layne Beachley, Pam Burridge, Pauline Menczer, Jorga and Jolene Smith, Frieda Zamba and Wendy Botha are all featured in the film. The band of renegade surfers took on the male-dominated professional surfing world to change the sport forever.
In the 1980s, few people seemed to take women’s surfing seriously. Pro-surfer and surf journalist and author Jamie Brisick notes, “There was no buzz around the women’s side of it. I remember hearing people referring to the women’s heats like it was the lunch break. The women got sent out when the surf wasn’t good and when people ran up to get their food.”
In 1989, the organisers of Huntington Beach OP Pro, California, made a controversial decision that demonstrates the extent of the sexism in the sport. To ensure bigger wins for the top-30 male surfers, the women’s competitive event was axed, freeing up an extra 15,000 dollars for the men. The bikini contest, however, was scheduled to go ahead as usual, once again prioritising women’s appearances over their talents. “We were just angry, you know. We put up with a lot of stuff, but when OP decided to cancel our division, that’s when we had to take a stand,” Jorga and Jolene Smith recall. After numerous letters and a substantial amount of negative press denouncing the OP’s decision to cancel the women’s event, the women’s event was eventually reinstated.
For years to come, women continued to be viewed as second-class surfers, however. When Pauline Menczer won the world title in 1993, an incredible feat considering that she was suffering from an acute bout of rheumatoid arthritis at the time, she received a broken trophy and no prize money. When she went to a trade fair to try to attract sponsors, people were not even aware that she had received the accolade. “They still thought Lisa Andersen was the world champion, even though I was world champ at the time. I looked around me, and everyone who was sponsored was blonde,” says Menczer, who shortly afterwards fashioned her hair into a blue Mohawk in an attempt to stand out from the crowd.
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In 1999, the women were asked to paddle out despite the lack of sufficient waves. In their frustration, and despite fears of potentially losing their sponsors as a result, the women collectively decided not to surf and chose a representative to inform the officials that they would not surf in substandard conditions.
“The girls were scared, but I didn’t have any sponsors, so I could do what I liked,” comments Menczer, who famously financed her participation in the tour by hustling, a skill that she had learned as a child after her father was murdered in the taxi he drove for a living when she was just five years old. One of her more lucrative specialties were Levi’s jeans, which she would buy in the U.S. for 25 dollars and then resell at a significant markup of 150 dollars in France. These sales would help her to self-finance the tour despite her lack of sponsors.
The change that has occurred in women’s professional surfing since then is massive. In September 2018, the World Surf League announced its decision to award equal prize money to male and female surfers at all of its events from 2019 onwards.
Australian professional surfer Stephanie Gilmore’s seventh world title in surfing, just a few months after this pivotal decision, led her to become the face of pay equity in the sport, but in truth, the struggle for equity has been a long battle, marked by the efforts, sacrifices and resilience of many women.
“I remember being called aside for a negative comment I had made on stage after winning second prize at a qualifying women’s event,” Menczer remembers. “I had to go and apologise to the sponsor, otherwise they were going to fine me. The women’s first-prize money was 1,000 dollars and the men’s was 10,000. I went up to the sponsor and told him, ‘Look, I am meant to come and apologise to you, but I didn’t say anything that wasn’t truthful.’ My participation cost me around four grand in expenses, and I had just won 500 dollars. They were spending all the money on the setup and not enough on the athletes.”
Women were expected to look and act a certain way, and those who did not fit the prescribed image found it difficult to obtain sponsorship. This pressure led Menczer to conceal her sexuality, as homophobia often led sponsors to drop homosexual athletes from their books or prevented them from sponsoring athletes in the first place. While Menczer’s partner accompanied her on the tour, she would tell the press that her girlfriend was her coach to avoid rumours.
Others, whose looks aligned with surf brands’ desired image of blonde-haired, bronzed women on the waves, faced over-sexualisation and objectification. Pam Burridge, a pro-surfer who struggled with anorexia, drinking issues and depression, tells Nelius about the difficulties that came with rising to fame as a professional surfer at an early age: “I was pro way too young. I probably could have done with a few more years in the amateurs. Having a camera in your face and promoting the sport of surfing in bikinis and swimmers, (we) got some flack, ‘All you girls need to lose however much weight, then we can promote this sport.’ Is it a coincidence that two years later I was anorexic and on the verge of death? I think not, you know?”
The candidness of the women in the film is striking. Nelius attributes their honesty to the fact that he caught them at a time in their lives when they were no longer competing at a professional level, and enough time had passed to allow them to speak openly about their experiences. “I must have convinced them that it was going to be good by asking the right questions. They got on board very quickly,” he remarks.
While gaining access to the women who had shaped the surfing industry did not prove to be a major challenge, it was far more difficult to piece together an accurate record of all of the winners of the various women’s competitive surfing events. “You’d think that stuff would be online, and it is for the male side of surfing, but we had to dig out old documents with details about who had won which contests,” Nelius says.
“Thankfully, I also managed to track down Al Hunt, who has been keeping record of professional surfing since the 1980s. He was an absolute blessing.”
The lack of books documenting the trajectory of women’s professional surfing meant that Julie-Anne de Ruvo, the film editor, and Nelius had to do extensive detective work before they were in a position to begin filming. The aim was not to create a typical surf movie that focused on long surfing sequences, like those that can be seen in the cult classic The Endless Summer, but instead to make a more traditional documentary that focused on women’s place in sport and society. “Yes, it’s about surfers,” Nelius says, “but you certainly don’t have to be a surfer to get it.”
The film shows that individuals can make waves, rather than just ride them, and that shifts in direction are possible, if people are willing to speak up and make themselves heard, even if their presence seems to be unwanted at the time. Now, the women who shaped surfing are finally receiving the recognition they deserve.
A mural by artist Megan Hales has now made Menczer a permanent fixture in Bondi, and another initiative is raising money to get the 1993 world title winner erected in bronze to inspire future generations of surfers to take to the waves. What is more, a GoFundMe campaign, originally set up to raise 25,000 Australian dollars to compensate for Menczer’s lack of prize money for her world title, led to over 60,000 Australian dollars of donations. One thing is clear: the stories of the women who shaped the surfing industry are speaking to people in a powerful way, and inspiring them not only to donate, but also to believe in themselves.
Since the film’s release, Menczer has received messages from people who want to try surfing in their seventies and a mother whose child was inspired to create after-school club to support young homosexual people after watching the film. One person suffering with autoimmune disease even contacted Menczer to tell her that he had reconsidered suicide after watching the film, as her achievements as a fellow sufferer of the same illness had made him realise his own potential. In this vein, seven-time surfing world champion Layne Beachley once said, “Ultimately, it’s choice, not chance, that determines our reality.” If anything, this film serves as a reminder that while the waves may be strong, the women riding them are a force of their own.
Ultimately, it’s choice, not chance, that determines our reality.Layne Beachley, the winner of seven world championships
Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
It’s inspired by The Egg – and a cracking good read
What’s so good about this?
Surfing used to be a male-dominated sport where women were actively made to feel unwelcome on the waves. Through many years of hardship, sweat and endurance, these renegade women made surfing a more accessible sport for female surfers.
Meet the writer
Melita Cameron-Wood is a half-British, half-Maltese freelance journalist, voice-over artist, language tutor and creative writer, based in Valencia, Spain. She usually covers business stories and all things culture-related, in particular indie and art-house films. In her spare time, she can be found wild swimming, writing poems, moon gazing or salivating over a plate of spaghetti.