• Jane Churchill

Review: Girls Can’t Surf Documentary

Girls Can’t Surf was a long time coming. A brutally honest, jarring and confronting reflection of the absolute bullshit women have had to deal with in the sport of surfing. The film combines current interviews and testimonies with a long reel of rare archival footage from the 1970s onward. It’s an absolute must see, whether you’re interested in surfing or not. It will ignite a rage you’ve never experienced before, but will also make you cry of pride.

Women have fought tirelessly for equality in sports. But in the world of surfing, women weren't just fighting for an equal prize cheque. Women were fighting for their right to be on the beach. Their right to wear boardshorts. Their right to ride a decent wave that wasn’t on the shit side of the beach during the men’s lunch break. Their right to sponsorships, to prize money, and their right to even have a women’s competition.

The film documents a journey toward equality that wasn’t exactly linear. With interviews from Pam Burridge, Jodie Cooper, Layne Beachley, Wendy Botha, Lisa Anderson, Stephanie Gilmore, Jolene and Jorga Smith and Frieda Zamba, the film follows a timeline of two steps forward, one step back. Things get better. And then they get bad again. Prize money increases, and then the women’s comp gets cancelled because the men get word that the increase is coming from their prize pool. The bikini contest, of course, always remains.

There’s a scene in the film that shows footage from one specific contest in the late 1990s in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. The women are told to head out for their heat, despite the fact that the ocean was dead flat. It was a rest day for the men’s comp. The women collectively agree that it’s absolute bullshit, and they all remain standing on the beach with their boards, with not a single woman entering the water. It was a pretty defining moment, and what many regard as a turning point.

What this film shows is the objectification, disregard, and utter sexism that women have faced in this sport. But it also shows a competitiveness, endurance and persistence that is nothing short of inspiring. Some of these women were brutal. But they had to be.

The film ends when Layne Beachley, a seven-times World Champion, finally hands the baton to Stephanie Gilmore in the 2007 World Championship. Like Layne, Steph Gilmore has once again redefined what was possible for women in surfing. She has gone on to become one of the best surfers of all time, not just the best female surfer of all time. Steph Gilmore was sitting on the panel, beside the World Surf League (WSL) director, when they finally announced that from 2019 onward, the WSL will award equal prize money to men and women athletes for every WSL-controlled event in the 2019 season and beyond, becoming the first and only United States based global sports league, and among the first internationally, to achieve prize money equality.

This news came after an overwhelming amount of backlash was directed towards the WSL in 2018 after this photograph went viral on social media. At an under 18s’ competition in South Africa, sponsored by both the WSL and Billabong, Rio Waida won double the money as his female counterpart Zoe Steyn in the same competition. It was bullshit. And if it wasn’t for the pioneering women that came before Zoe, making surfing what it is today, the WSL wouldn’t have batted an eye. Thanks Gals.