The penultimate scene in Puberty Blues is for most viewers including this writer, the defining moment in the film. Over the course of the narrative, schoolgirls Sue Knight (Jad Capelja) and Debbie Vickers (Nell Schofield) have progressively ingratiated themselves into the cool Cronulla Beach surfie set. But they gradually come to realise the toll exacted in belonging to that unashamedly and oppressively chauvinist tribe. In the film’s most celebrated scene, to the hostile taunts of watching surfers (“Chick’s don’t surf!”), they take to their newly purchased surfboard to prove otherwise.
When Schofield – allegedly cast because she was the only girl who auditioned who could actually surf – eventually stands up and masters a wave, there are few other scenes in Australian cinema that rival the sheer exhilaration and visceral thrill of that moment (1).
What makes this scene such a definitive “Key Moment” is not simply Don McAlpine’s lyrical images of Schofield surfing underscored by Split Enz’s anthemic “Nobody Takes Me Seriously”. The emotional potency is rendered equally in the reverse shots showing the reactions of those on the beach looking on. The boys’ hostile incredulity turns to grudging admiration while the girls shift rapidly from mortification – that two of their own have betrayed them (“How embarrassing”) – to bemusement and finally, a distinct distaff pride in Debbie’s success.
The scene is so emotionally loaded and the reverse shots register so powerfully precisely because of the graphic nature of the teen gender politics that have gone before. The suburban surfie-style bastardisation that Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey describe in their autobiographical novel on which Beresford’s film is based makes clear that in this particular urban subculture, female identity is entirely subsumed to male demands. The boys display an unabashed disregard for women in general and a casual brutality towards their girlfriends throughout. Arguably more disturbing is the way in which their female counterparts collude in this inequitable regime.
But as with the novel, Margaret Kelly’s screenplay gives Debbie opportunities for insubordination (contesting the surfing hegemony by asking to borrow a surfboard and at another point making the heretical observation that “There is more to life than surfing”). Following the mourning ritual for her former boyfriend Garry (Geoff Rhoe) – from which the girls are comprehensively excluded – Debbie’s pithy summation of the surf crew’s skewed sexual politics (“It stinks”) sets the scene for her ultimate act of rebellion in taking to a board herself. And while Schofield’s gleeful smile as she surfs into shore is payoff enough, the nascent female empowerment registered in the dawning comprehension on the faces of Debbie’s fellow surfie chicks is what makes this such a literally liberating moment.
This scene also resonates so strongly because it expands on similar thematic concerns in a small but significant group of films in the preceding decade of Australian cinema. Determined, opinionated female characters featured in a series of films during this period including Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Donald Crombie’s Caddie (1976), Beresford’s own The Getting of Wisdom (1978), Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) and Don McLennan’s Hard Knocks (1980). Whether overtly or obliquely expressed through character, dialogue or situation, these films responded to and engaged with the burgeoning ideology of feminism. Feminist notions of female autonomy and assertive sexual identity found direct expression on the screen in Henry Handel Richardson and Miles Franklin’s independently minded early 20th century heroines and subsequently, in Lette and Carey’s late 20th century counterparts.
Co-author Lette has described Puberty Blues as a “strong feminist tract” (2) so it was apposite that the 2002 republication of the book included a foreword by Germaine Greer (perhaps less so the contribution from Kylie Minogue). In typically trenchant fashion, Greer contends that the “tribal society into which Sue and Debbie are so painfully and destructively inducted still rules in the dead reaches of suburbia wherever it may be found” (3). While Greer’s is a somewhat gloomy reading of contemporary Australian sexual politics, she does foreground the nature of the novel and film’s enduring cultural purchase.
Lette has pointed to the immediate and substantive effect the book and film had on women’s participation in the surfing world (4), while Schofield has described how frequently people cite the penultimate scene as a formative influence (5). So while the film deals with a very particular period and milieu, it also speaks more broadly to the gendered divide beyond the 1970s surfing subculture it so vividly depicts. And the two short minutes Beresford takes to establish Debbie’s triumph on the surfboard equally carries a symbolic import that far exceeds its functional weight as narrative denouement.
- Schofield on an extra included with the DVD release of Puberty Blues, Umbrella Entertainment, 2002.
- Transcript of an interview with Kathy Lette on “George Negus Tonight”, ABC: http://www.abc.net.au/dimensions/dimensions_in_time/Transcripts/s780748.htm. Originally broadcast on 2 February 2003.
- Greer’s introduction to Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey’s Puberty Blues, Picador, Sydney, 2002, p. xi.
- Paul Scott, “Chicks on Sticks: Women, Surfing, Celluloid”, Coastalwatch: http://www.coastalwatch.com/news/article.aspx?articleId=3706#ixzz1CCHdZWTN