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Frieza Zamba surfing
Frieza Zamba surfing

This documentary explores the radical history of women’s surfing

Girls Can’t Surf celebrates the women who battled misogyny and homophobia to make female surfing a global phenomenon

In the process of every revolution, there comes a time when mainstream history needs to be revised. So it’s no surprise that, three years after a photo went viral of two surfers holding unequal prize cheques (the boy’s double the amount of the girls), a new documentary is addressing the origins of female competitive surfing and setting all the records straight.

Girls Can’t Surf is a riotous, fun, impassioned 108 minutes of women, waves and neon-framed speed shades. It takes us back to the birth of international competitive surfing in the 80s and, for the first time on screen, tells the story from the perspective of the underdogs. Although women had been included on the World Tour since its inauguration, they had remained a tokenistic part of it – paid a fraction of the men’s prize money, traditionally competing where the waves were terrible, usually at a point in the day where spectators would leave, and barely with any documentation or remuneration.

Considering all that, it’s a miracle that there was any source material to work with at all. “[Finding] the archive was easily the most difficult thing,” says director Christopher Nelius, a seasoned advertising and documentary director who’s been immersed in the surf world since he first picked up a board in his early twenties. “Back in the 80s, no one really photographed the women’s events, let alone filmed them… thankfully, as it went into the 90s, it was hitting that affordable home video camera world.”

The footage they did find was more than worth the scouring: there’s 1993 World Champ Pauline Menczer selling Levis out the back of a van to survive; Jodie Cooper’s majestic World Cup win at Sunset in Hawaii, 1985; Freida Zamba icing out the competition with aggressive cutbacks (and the most iconic muscle beach fits ever), and Lisa Anderson winning World Titles with one hand and feeding her newborn daughter with the other. There are perfect waves, podiums, after parties, laughs and tears. All of it is woven together poetically, painting a picture of a community that has largely been excluded from the professional surfing narrative. 

Nelius had witnessed a lot of it from the sidelines but was still surprised by the personal challenges that came to light through his research. “Two things stand out,” he says. “[Australian surfer] Pam [Burridge] opening up about her battles with anorexia and drinking. And Jodie [Cooper] talking about the homophobia she experienced once she came out. There are actually a couple of stories that didn’t make it into the film that would make your blood boil.”

“I didn’t expect to learn about just how heroic those women were, [and] all in different ways. You could make a film about any of their life stories. Like [World Champion] Layne Beachley, for example, who is adopted and used that to be a driver to be a world champion and one of the greatest surfers of all time.”

Another thing that stands out in the film is how long things took to change, even after the industry realised it could make a lot of money out of selling surf culture to women: brands like Roxy, Billabong Girls and O’Neill’s female division all proved to be extremely lucrative (at one point Roxy was outselling Quiksilver and making $600 million a year). But still, this success did not trickle through to the women on the front line. “You would have thought that [the Roxy boom] would have changed the game,” says Nelius, “[but] it was still the men who were running the show... They had to fight in an almost suffragette way to have decent waves to surf in front of the cameras, to have money, to have all those boardroom battles they went through… It’s no coincidence in my mind that equal pay happened when there was a female CEO at the World Surf League. You’ve got to have women in power in order to make that change.”

But change did eventually come. Go to any surfing beach now and you’ll see almost half women and men in the lineup, with seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore considered one of the most idolised and respected athletes in the world. The furore around equal prize money in 2018, and the World Surf League’s resulting decision to commit to equal pay, has made competitive surfing a progressive sport again – making it the only American-based global sports organisation to have fixed the gender pay gap. This inclusivity at the highest level changes the face of surfing culture and opens the door for a whole new generation. While competitive surfing has historically not been that ethnically diverse, new organisations like Textured Waves and Brown Girl Surf in Oakland, SF, are also continuing to push the sport forward.

[I hope that] young men understand how the world is a better place when women are given that space to flourish... Even just the athletic ability of women is going to go nuts, and you’re going to see that in football too”

“The women’s side being lifted has already changed the identity of surfing, and it will only continue to do that,” says Nelius. “It will lead to new ideas and new possibilities that we can’t imagine, which would be limited by a purely male-dominated version of the sport. [I hope that] young men watch the film and understand how the world is a better place when women are supported and given that space to flourish. It just made surfing heaps better... Even just the athletic ability of women is going to go nuts, and you’re going to see that in football too… They’re starting to do greater and greater stuff.”

He also hopes that the women at the core of this doc, who achieved incredible things in surfing against all odds and now live in relative obscurity – running surf clubs, training young surfers, driving school buses – will get the recognition they deserve. “A lot of young girls don’t even realise how bad it was for those women and how much the world has changed,” adds Nelius. “They didn’t know their history because they had nothing to show it to them… These women are all sort of superheroes in hiding… Hopefully, people watching the film will see that now. That was the motivation behind wanting to make it.”