I never read Puberty Blues nor have I ever seen the film. I am not entirely sure how I missed both of these. Of course, I knew what the book was about broadly – girls in the surf culture of Sydney in the 1970s and the implications in terms of sex and other things. Nonetheless, it means that coming to watch the series I have very limited preconceptions.
The series was beautifully acted and directed for the most part and I thought the writing was very strong. I really enjoyed it. But that didn’t mean that it was without its moments of discomfort. In fact, the moments of discomfort were its strongest feature. Puberty Blues confronted the sexism and misogygy face by women of this subculture – particularly young women, for whom joyless sex was a compulsory rite of passage. One had sex because it was the entree card to being cool – as long as one didn’t do it too soon, or with too many different people. And this role of women to be used as objects for sex in order to gain acceptance, was reflected in the ways their mothers acted – except in the case of Debbie and her mother the school principal.
For me, the characters one really feels for in Puberty Blues are the girls on the periphery – Cheryl and Freida in particular. Cheryl is the chief “mean girl” dictating permission to enter the “cool” group. But her role in this group is tied in a complex way to her relationship with the boys. For most of the series she is not “going round” with anyone, but she is expected to provide sexual services to the boys, while they also dismiss her as a “moll” when she engages in what the boys deem is socially transgressive behaviour such as getting drunk. Meanwhile Freida is repeatedly gang raped by the boys, and then is shunned socially when not being used sexually. Freida’s plight is ultimately what moves Debbie and Sue to act decisively against the established social order.
What is interesting though is the timing. A version of Puberty Blues has not been made since 1981. It is thus possible to see the production of Puberty Blues at this time politically, particularly given the bleak depiction of teenage sexuality and the treatment of girls and women. To me it says that the debate about the treatment of women has been reopened in this country – before Julia Gillard made her speech about misogyny, before Jill Meagher’s murder sparked Reclaim the Night marches, before we looked on in horror at the recent events in India. The way Puberty Blues approaches these issues does not indicate to me a view that these are closed topics or the past. The series calls into question the treatment of women, the dismissing of their sexual needs and the exercise of power that is involved in the sexual degradation of women. Puberty Blues is about power relationships, and the exercise of power, and speaks to the need for women to work together to support each other and increase their power.