Surfing Subculture on Australian Screens

When thinking about the hallmarks of the Australian national identity, one immediately recognises the ANZAC spirit and the notions of mateship and hard work that are attached. Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) indeed encapsulated this in a highly successful way.

But the next thing that came to my mind was sun, sand, and surf; the beach and surfing culture of Australia that lends itself to the fun-loving, laid-back larrikinism that we so many aspire to. This manifests itself in the films and TV we produce.

Puberty Blues, produced in the same year as Gallipoli (1981), opens with a wide shot of two teenage girls, Debbie and Sue, negotiating the large crowd of Cronulla Beach in the peak of summer as they make their way towards the Greenhills surf gang hanging out at the ‘cool end’ of the beach. Josephine May (2008) notes how the “beach itself underscores the indeterminate space of adolescence”. In other words, the beach is the convergence of land with the sea in much the same way that adolescence is the gateway from childhood to adulthood. The ‘cool end’ also represents the “societal divisions on the basis of class, ethnicity and subculture” that exist at the beach. (See my other post on the beach in cinema)

“If you weren’t a surfie chick, you were a nobody — a nerd.”

The surfing cub-culture approval is paramount to the girls establishing their idealised version of adolescent identity.

Puberty Blues

In more recent times we have seen Australian screen productions again highlight the thriving subculture of surfing. Sunny Abberton’s 2007 documentary Bra Boys (2007) took us into the world of the notorious surf gang the Bra Boys (of which Abberton and his brothers are a part) and the social struggle faced by its members growing up in the Sydney beach town of Maroubra. The film focuses on the darker side of the culture, detailing a “historical stigma associated with Australia’s rebellious surf community” and the way it has shaped their behaviour in a society in which they feel misunderstood and displaced. (IMDB) Ultimately the film delivers a romanticised portrayal of a band of brothers that are simply trying to deal with their sometimes unfortunate circumstances by having a good time, a reflection of this larrakin ideal.

Final scene from Bra Boys

Over time the Bra Boys culture has begun manifesting itself, overtly or otherwise, in other Australian productions. The long-running TV drama Home and Away (1988-present) introduced a group of characters called the River Boys, possessing strikingly similar attributes to the Bra Boys; a love of surfing, distinctive tattoos, and a propensity for trouble.

Bra Boys (right) and the fictional River Boys from Home and Away (left)

The other show to replicate the surfing bad boy culture was Chris Lilley’s (2011). One of the characters on the show Blake Oakfield is the leader of the Mucca Mad Boys, a surf gang from the fictional Narmucca Bay who are known to cause trouble in the local community. Again the characters are a reinvention of the individuals in Abberton’s film.

All these examples are evidence of surfing subculture’s presence in a wider Australian screen culture. We see a reimagining of surfing identity over time, from the hierarchical superiority of Puberty Blues’ Greenhills gang, to the rebellion of the Bra Boys, and the more recent reincarnations of these characters in Home and Away and Angry Boys.

References:

  • “Puberty Blues and the Representation of an Australian Comprehensive High School” Josephine May, History of Education Review, vol. 37, no. 2, 2008, pp. 61–67, University of Newcastle.
  • Bra Boys (2007) IMBD http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0951318/
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