Dazzling Blue #139: Girls Can’t Surf

Dazzling Blue #139: Girls Can’t Surf


Seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore calls it “an empowering history of badass women.” Sandra Hall of The Sydney Morning Herald hails it as “a great tribute to all of these athletes and a timely reminder of everything that led up to the decision to raise the women’s prize money to parity with the men’s just two years ago.” Alexa Hohenberg of Still Stoked writes: Girls Can’t Surf is the inspiring true story of a group of courageous female surfers in the 1980s who took on the fluoro, 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. A must-watch for any avid surfer, male or female. Warning… you will cry!



            Full disclosure: I’m friends with the director. In fact I was interviewed for the film. While the stars of Girls Can’t Surf were being treated as second-class citizens on the 1980s women’s pro tour, I was on the 1980s men’s pro tour. There was giant disparity. We dudes were clueless and sexist on so many levels. And by telling this engrossing and important story, Christopher Nelius shows us the extent of these girls’ heroic resolve and courage.



            Girls Can’t Surf opened in theaters in Australia a couple months ago. Reviews have been fabulous. Long dormant careers have been rejuvenated. A GoFundMe campaign was launched to give 1993 world champion Pauline Menczer the money she was denied at the time. It very swiftly rose to $25K. The film has even moved a couple of ex-heathen pro surfer dudes to call up the girls and apologize for things they said or did thirty-plus years ago.


            Christopher Nelius has written and directed several films, among them the award-winning series and feature documentary Storm Surfers. He lives in Sydney. We spoke via phone.


What inspired you to make this film?

I think two things. One, I’ve been surfing Bondi for 20 years, and I have seen the change in the amount of girls in the water that’s happened over that period. When I started surfing, a girl would paddle out and it would be like, ‘ooh, there’s a girl.’ And she wouldn’t necessarily get treated badly, but certainly it was a thing, you know? And now, I went surfing yesterday morning and easily a third of the people out were women. So I’ve seen that change and I thought: I wonder if these young women know the story of their sport, and the women’s side of things, the same way that the men know theirs?

            And then the other thing is from working with Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll doing the Storm Surfer stuff. I’ve always been really enamored and fascinated by the 1980s period of surf culture. There’s a charisma, there’s something there that was born out of the crucible of 1980s pro surfing. There’s an X-factor there that that generation has that I think future generations don’t have.



            So those two things of like, I wonder if this generation of young women who are surfing know their history? And then the other part of me genuinely wanting to know how these women did it. I sensed there was a dramatic story there. And whilst I was trying to put the film together, equal pay happened. So all of a sudden I was given this ending. And I think that the story broadened to be a little bit more about women’s surfing in general.


What was the most surprising thing you learned from making the film?

I learned a lot about how hard women have to work to be taken seriously, and what we should do to fix that. And that’s why I’m really proud of the film. I feel like it’s a really great polemic in that sense, and I didn’t envisage that. The most surprising thing for me, when we started to really break down the history of how it went from the 1980s to Steph Gilmore—How did that change happen? Who made that change happen? The thing that surprised me was that once the Roxy revolution happened, and all of a sudden Roxy became this big company and there was all this money and everything, that that wasn’t enough to fix things. That surprised me. You’d think that now they’d generated all this cash there’d be a commercial reason for them to be supported and so forth. But it really doesn’t change the world on its own. And it’s super interesting having young male surfers and female surfers today, whether it be Tyler Wright or a regular person, just go, “Oh, I had no idea. I didn’t realize Pam Burridge and Pauline Menczer and all these people did these things and had to go through these things.” So that’s been super gratifying.



There are some scenes in the film where ‘80s pro surfers, some of them very famous back in the day, utter terribly sexist remarks. But you kept the focus on the girls’ achievements, rather than the dudes falling on the wrong side of history.

And that was a very early stance that I wanted to take. Yes, there’s a lot about the gender politics, but that’s not the sole thing here. The sole thing is: what did these women go through in order to get taken seriously? And today it feels so much more balanced than it’s ever been across gender. And people are loving women’s surfing in numbers like never before. So it’s great. It’s really cool.


What should viewers know before watching it?

It’s a surf film, and it definitely appeals to hardcore surfers. But it’s also about much more than just surfing.



For more Girl’s Can’t surf check out https://www.facebook.com/GirlsCantSurf and https://madmanfilms.com.au/girls-cant-surf/?fbclid=IwAR3gN_b6c_vikil89xUkOVvR4BorWiPs6cZOqV9ZxLS8I7qumbPWr_TuACo and https://link.chtbl.com/lineup_ep59_Pam_Burridge?mc_cid=45f16cd669&mc_eid=93f8a5b19d