Battling sexism in the surf

December 24, 2020
2018 photo showing Rio Waida (left) won twice as much as Zoe Steyn
2018 photo showing Rio Waida (left) won twice as much as Zoe Steyn

Girls Can’t Surf
Documentary film directed by Christopher Nelius
Showing at the Perth and Sydney Film Festivals, in cinemas in March

Beginning in the 1970s surfing began to evolve from an amateur hobby into a professional sport. Pretty quickly sponsors were throwing serious money at the big names and big pay checks for competition winners – the male winners, that is.

Women were only reluctantly accepted into the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) and they were second-class citizens at best. Girls Can’t Surf is the epic tale of how women surfers fought their way into equal status.

All the big names from the 1970s through to the 1990s are here: Lisa Andersen, Layne Beachley, Wendy Botha, Pam Burridge, Jodie Cooper, Pauline Menczer and Frieda Zamba. And there is plenty of film showing just how good they are in the waves.

Theirs was a damned long, hard fight, it is a powerful story and often not pleasant. These women were subjected to industrial strength sexism, some of the worst that can be imagined.

The stories of what they endured are mind-boggling. They were harassed, defamed, told they couldn’t surf as well as men and treated like dirt.

While the male professionals were feted and given free flights and the best hotel accommodation the women had to pay their own way around the world competition beaches and camp in crowded dorms. Men’s prize winnings were huge, women’s were miniscule.

The ASP was not only in the habit of paying women half the winnings as the men, when economic conditions were bad, they cut the women’s pay checks so as to protect the men’s. In 1993, for example, when Pauline Menczer won the ASP Women's World title, she received zero prize money.

That didn’t change until a public scandal erupted following publication of a photo of the 2018 Under-18’s championship in South Africa. The male and female winners stand side-by-side holding their large cheques – and the woman’s payment is clearly half that of the male’s.

The social media storm that erupted from that panicked the ASP and finally, starting in 2019, equality was cemented.

Girls Can’t Surf should be watched alongside Women of Steel. The lessons are the same: women won’t win equality by being nice and waiting for the patriarchy to bestow fairness.

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