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Shaking Australia's 'brutal sexual economy'


Puberty Blues is what you get when teenage girls with a grudge show the world what they're made of.

The book, written in 1979 by 19-year-old best friends Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey before being made into a film in 1981 (and now coming of age as a Channel 10 television series), not only made a scene — it kicked sand in the face of the establishment.

Set in Sydney's beachside Sutherland Shire (yes, that Shire), the plot revolves around the lives of a couple of brash 13-year-old lower middle-class girls, Debbie and Sue, as they explore gender politics against the backdrop of perhaps the most iconic period of recent Australian history.

It's hardly War and Peace, but this was the mercurial 1970s, and somehow these self-obsessed teens managed to tap into the unsettling mood. As Lette recalls: 'Gough had just been elected, dragging us out of the beige '50s mentality of Menzies. Cleo scandalised the Aussie male population by publishing nude male centerfolds ...'

By the early 1980s, when the book was made into a film, censorship laws dictated the girls' ages be changed to 16 and several of the book's details were absent or rewritten (Lette later complained that 'the film sanitised the plot by omitting central references to miscarriage and abortion').

But what the film did was further champion the novel's fiercely 'proto-feminist' spirit.

As then 13- and 14-year-olds with only a well-thumbed library copy of Judy Blume's Forever between us as our guide through the sexual mire, both on the page and the big screen Puberty Blues offered my friends and me a rare, yet all-too familiar voice. Our own.

It didn't matter to us that we lived in Melbourne's northern suburbs which were about as far away from the beach as you can get and still be within the city radius. Debbie and Sue not only spoke our language; they were our poets laureate.

Like us they understood what it was to be treated as the lesser sex at high school. In the classroom and on the field (including behind the shelter sheds) the boys ruled. And us girls? We sat precariously between 'frigid' and 'moll' — which were unbearable states of being rather than mere derogatory labels.

As Lette said recently: 'We girls were little more than a life support system to a pair of breasts. But sadly, at that age, you have no objectivity ... Once I realised that Germaine Greer wasn't just rhyming slang for beer, I wanted to write down our story to help liberate the other surfie girls ...'

When Debbie finally takes to the surf with a board under her arm, she shakes off more than her school uniform. So what if the subtext was about as subtle as a panel van? By defying her chorus of critics a brave new world opens up to her — and to us, because through her somehow we'd plumbed the depths of our own insecurities, too.

It was also as if we'd been handed our very own pair of prescription glasses. Finally, we could see the tribal chauvinism for, as Lette calls it, 'the brutal sexual economy' it was. And while we may have still been too young to take full advantage of this clear perspective, it piqued in us a burgeoning self-awareness.

I'm glad to say that last night's opening episode was promising. Not only is there a natural chemistry between the spunky duo, Debbie and Sue (played beautifully by Ashleigh Cummings and Brenna Harding respectively), the broader dynamics between families and peers also look set to be well mined.

I'm sure I won't be the only middle-aged woman glued to the screen on Wednesdays for the next few weeks. But I'll not be letting the warm glow of nostalgia influence me too greatly. No, I expect something more profound.

Lette and Carey wrote a book that turned the page on social expectation. Moreover, they set down a blueprint. We were creatures on the cusp of adulthood bubbling with hormones and grappling for meaning. Puberty Blues provided much-needed context for our yearning. 

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend


Topic tags: Jen Vuk, Puberty Blues, The Shire, Kathy Lette



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Existing comments

It seems that many people have lost all forms of modesty in thoughts, dress and words. To advertise a show like this on a 'Catholic' site goes so much against the 6th and 9th Commandments and the other Commandments. Impurity and immodesty are ruining many souls and offend God greatly. We should all be awaiting our own Private Judgement at death "in fear and trembling" This present sexual culture is rotten and is not Catholic

Trent | 16 August 2012  

Trent, Jen's article on "Puberty Blues" is balanced and perceptive. It is not an 'advertisement'. Gender equality is an important issue - for men and women alike. You miss the point entirely if you think "Puberty Blues" is about impurity and immodesty. And as for your last sentence "This present sexual culture is rotten and is not Catholic". Is that a joke?

Pam | 16 August 2012  

As a parent, I welcome female voices (those original P.B. authors, and Jen Vuk's) about the at-times tremendously difficult stage of development that young girls go through to become women in Australia.

A central message of the New Testament is that God is redemption embodied in compassion; that 'they who do not love do not know God, for God is love'. In light of that understanding, the whole question of gender roles and sexuality is something to be rationally, appropriately and ethically discussed, not to be shunned in the life-hating style and tradition that has given the world inequality, mysogeny, rape, abuse, and family/domestic violence.

If the tryst between male and female is one of life's most sacred dances, then the naysayers who see sexuality as evil (and women as 'lesser than') are the sad, spotty children malingering alone in the darkened corners of life's ball. Let's all join in the dance and stop sulking.

Barry G | 16 August 2012  

The avowed enemies of God are rejoicing--temporarily--at having brought about an almost total collapse of the virtue of modesty among once virtuous Christian womanhood, while those commissioned by God to teach and uphold this angelic virtue insist on cowardly silence and indifference about it and on gutless permissiveness in manner of dress everywhere. Meanwhile, vast numbers of supposedly "good" people remain as if without a conscience, being morally blind and insensitive as to what has really happened to a God-given virtue that was once a distinctive trademark of theirs. This type of blindness seems to go hand in hand with a brazen contempt and a sassy resentfulness towards any attempt to revive and restore the missing sense of modesty.

Trent | 17 August 2012  

Oh, Trent, what about the modesty of gold-plated chalices and silk-lined priestly vestment robes and marble-floored cathedrals? These are all man-made vanities. At least healthy bodies are naturally God-given. Your attitudes may have become part of a Catholic tradition - but even in the Catholic tradition there's a time for the bridegroom to sing, dance and celebrate the simple joys of life.

AURELIUS | 17 August 2012  

Trent, oh Trent , your life must be so difficult

michele | 17 August 2012  

I wonder what turns so many of them into comfort women for our clergy, who out of lonliness and the need for intimacy prevents them from maintaining their vows.

L Newington | 17 August 2012  

"War and Peace" it may not have been but a coming of age story about teenage women in this country in the late 70s. This unreflective coming of age sexually probably holds true for a lot of young people today as well. It all seems fairly mechanical, hedonistic, to some extent exploited (bear in mind young men are often just as naive and victims to prevailing culture) and tragic.

There seems no poetry nor romance.

I think the answer is not to condemn it but to hold up an example of a practicable and liveable alternative. There's the rub: no preaching but observable practice in suburban Australia today.

A celibate priesthood cannot give the example, nor can nuns: it's up to married laity.

Can you spiritualise sexuality? Can you give it deeper meaning? Is something else rather than short, sharp, uncommitted sex possible today?

I am fortunate in that I have seen examples to follow of real, deep love between men and women which bears the test of time. I wonder how many really have?

Edward F | 17 August 2012  

Incidentally, did people really say 'cool' in the late 1970s?

Penelope | 17 August 2012  

Edward, I guess mothers can continue encouraging their son's and daughters to keep themselves for "that special one", and hoping it's the first one.
With the yard stick of the fear of sexually transmitted diseases to aid them.

L Newington | 18 August 2012  

I wasn't trying to preach a simple "Keep yourself pure till you find the right one" message, L. Newington, although I have no problem with the concept of not trivialising the depth and meaning of sexuality between people who really feel something for each other and who are committed to more than casual coupling without depth. Sex without emotional depth or commitment seems pretty common these days. Martin Amis lamented the effect modern pornography was having on some Cambridge undergraduates he talked to in its effect in persuading them you can have sex without emotional commitment. Debbie and Sue, to me, seemed to be looking for something deeper but not finding it. I think many Australian women do. I suspect, if you gave them the choice of grown-up versions of the adolescent males in "Puberty Blues" or the likes of Mr D'Arcy, they'd take the latter. It's maturity, the ability to see your mistakes, rectify them and really relate that counts. I'm not sure how many of us have emotionally grown beyond the "Puberty Blues" stage, whether we were part of the surfie culture or not. It's about a mature ability to love. Really great novels have been written about it. I think we, as a nation of men and women, are a little immature in this regard. Middle aged sex tourism to places like Pattaya is where a lot of the young, attractive men from Cronulla, now of sagging belly and divorced, graduate to. Or casual affairs. Talk about a vast emotional and sexual wilderness: PB is one.

Edward F | 21 August 2012  

Edward, it's still a good ideal. And your right about maturity. One of the regrets of the wonderful Sally's who reared me, was that they didn't prepare us for the outside world. We had no fear of being palmed off to the male species with "bird collars", thank God.

L Newington | 21 August 2012  

Well, I guess, Ms. Newington, no woman, or man, should be metaphorically "thrown to the wolves" like a piece of meat at feeding time. That sexual objectification is really crass and I think is what lies at the heart of the dreadful feeling of alienation between the sexes which exists here today. The Sallys who raised you would have had the good old Nonconformist values which saw you as a person entitled to your self-esteem and the respect of others. The "Cronulla surfie values" tend to concentrate on whether someone (male or female) is "hot" with the appropriate "bod" and "a good lay". A stark contrast. As I said, I have no problem with the old moral standards myself, but I think they are valuable because of the respect for the whole human person they embody, rather than being a series of prohibitions cast in negative language.

Edward F | 22 August 2012  

Edward they did have the old fashioned "Nonconformist" mentality which helped me grow spiritually. The same "old nonconformity" that taught me not to be afraid to go out on a limb for others, something not akin to my newly found spiritual home.

L Newington | 22 August 2012  

As the episodes unfold I am impressed by how good the series is; how true a picture of the era it presents; how excellent some of the actors, particularly some of the women: including Ashleigh Cummings; Claudia Karvan and Susie Porter are and how much the book; film and series needed to be created. The book is an Australian Classic and should not be denigrated, nor the film nor TV series. Some may find it confronting but I think PB brings up unpleasant facts without endorsing them. Neither Gabrielle Carey nor Kathy Lette has gone on to become a typical faded surfie chick. I would take the book's implicit message as this is not the way to go. Implicit. This to me is a message of hope.

Edward F | 23 August 2012  

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