Surfing trades on its spirit of barefoot outsider cool. So it’s doubly depressing to discover that sewage-grade misogyny stank out the sport for decades. This documentary is the untold story of female professional surfers in the 80s and 90s. They were paid less than the men and struggled to get sponsorship. (In 1985, world number two Layne Beachley held down four jobs, working 60-hour weeks to fund her surfing.) Their sport treated women like second-class athletes: competition organisers saved the best waves for the boys, often scheduling women’s heats during the lunch break. Not to mention the chauvinist-pig arrogance of many male surfers, who saw themselves as bronzed gods – and the role of women to worship at their feet.
Needless to say, Girls Can’t Surf has its fair share of blood-boiling moments. But it’s still an enormously enjoyable adrenaline rush of a film. The director is Christopher Nelius, himself a surfer, who has done a brilliant job with editor Julie-Anne De Ruvo of assembling the archive to capture the sport at a moment in time, all youth and energy. Smartly, he lets this exceptional group of funny, tough, talented women surfers, now in their 50s, do the talking.
Women such as Jodie Cooper from Australia, who had never seen another woman surfing before she turned pro. (“‘You’re really good for a girl.’ I hated that sentence.”) She talks about the painful experience being outed as gay on tour in the 80s, after leaving her diary in a dorm. The 1993 world champ Pauline Menczer describes how she was suffering from agonising arthritis the year she won the title; she lived dollar-to-dollar throughout her professional career and was working as a school bus driver when the documentary was made.
It finally took a photo going viral in 2018 to bring equal pay to surfing. That image showed the two winners of a junior championship holding cheques – the boy’s double the amount of the girl’s. Pauline Menczer had a happy cry at the announcement of gender pay parity. Not that her cohort has any regrets, says Cooper. “We never made a lot of money but we did what we loved.”
• Girls Can’t Surf is released on 19 August in UK cinemas, and is streaming on Stan in Australia.