With their 1979 semi-autobiographical novel Puberty Blues, teenage writers Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette exposed the brutally sexist undercurrent of the Cronulla surfing community they grew up in. Both the book and Bruce Beresford’s 1981 film adaptation offered a sharp rebuttal to the idealised version of the Australian beach – that of an egalitarian paradise – that has long lived in our collective imagination.
The beach is justifiably a beloved part of Australian life, but we also know that for many it can be exclusionary and unsafe. The brilliance of Puberty Blues, the 2012 television adaptation of Carey and Lette’s book that ran for two seasons, is that it embraces these conflicting truths about the beach and, by extension, our national identity.
Explicit criticism of misogyny within the characters’ surfing community remains fundamental to the series. As our heroes Debbie and Sue discover, the surfing gang they long to join rules the beach, and their bodies. Girls in the Greenhills gang must eagerly provide the surfers with food, admiration and sexual pleasure, and be content to get none in return.
Panel vans, ubiquitous throughout the series, operate as a portable microcosm of the beach: an Australian icon that is a site of freedom for boys and sexual oppression for girls. Seeing social outcast Frieda reluctantly participating in panel van group sex with the surfers was the most harrowing moment in the film, and it’s equally confronting here.
The series moves beyond the scope of the book and the film by examining sexism among adults in the broader community, from casual arse-grabbing in the workplace to the devastating double standards surrounding infidelity.
We see how this systemic inequality seeps through generations. One of the series’ most nuanced arcs belongs to Cheryl, whose mean-girl exterior is exposed as defensive acting out in response to a troubled home life and relentless mistreatment by men. Gary, apparently the only surfer with a conscience, turns to hard drugs to escape from the dual expectations of his misogynistic father and amoral mates.
Despite the series’ preoccupation with these bleak realities, there is also a lot of joy to be found, both in the storylines and in the lovingly rendered period detail. The heady nostalgia of crocheted bikinis, home phones and Polly Waffles is as appealing as the tender core friendship between Debbie and Sue, which triumphs above all else.
The series is beautifully written, filmed and acted. It’s clear that the creators hold a deep reverence for the perceived simplicity of the era, and for the appeal of the coastal communities so many Australians have grown up in. Scenes such as Sue’s spirited parents drunkenly frolicking in the nighttime waves unapologetically celebrate the beach’s libertarian potential.
The inclusion of so much positivity might elsewhere feel jarring or contradictory, but here it just feels honest. There is no explicit attempt to demonise the beach, or the 1970s, or Australia – this is just the way it was, the series seems to say – and this transparency makes the darker elements more convincing.
There are also some clear ties to sinister chapters of Australian beach history, particularly in the second season, which reinforces the sense of accuracy. That the series takes place in Cronulla will be enough to bring the 2005 riots to many minds, but a shockingly casual act of violence against a Japanese character in the final episode offers a more explicit link to normalised racism.
By laying bare the messy complexities of one beach community, Puberty Blues asks us to accept the discomfort that comes with loving parts of Australian culture while acknowledging the harm they can bring. The request is neatly captured in its opening song, Dragon’s Are You Old Enough, a brilliant and beloved pop hit that many listeners also hear as an ode to sex with underage girls. There is no easy answer to be found: the beach is glorious and dangerous, loved and feared, liberating and oppressive. In telling us something so truthful about ourselves, the series proves itself just as revolutionary as its predecessors.