You and Me against the World Revisiting 'Puberty Blues': Depicting Thirteen-Year-Old Girls Having Sex, Consuming Alcohol, Smoking Marijuana and Defying Adult Authorities, Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey's 1979 Novel Puberty Blues (1) Caused a Scandal upon Its Original Publication

Article excerpt

For many of the Anglo-Australian girls who reached puberty in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the novel and Bruce Beresford's 1981 film adaptation coincided with real-life aspirations to engage in the activities depicted therein. (3) More recently, the republication of Puberty Blues with two new forewords has imbued Lette and Carey's depiction of Cronulla 'surfie chicks' (4) with a further historical dimension and positioned it as a potential object of nostalgia. This article uses the novel's reappearance as a starting point for examining the significance of the Puberty Blues phenomenon, which encompasses both the book and film. A feminist analysis of Puberty Blues is developed here with reference to nostalgic youth films, women's writing and the female voice.

Revisiting Female Youth

The theme of coming-of-age has been identified with Puberty Blues at various levels. Not only did two teenagers write the novel, but also the film has been linked with Australian cinema's comeing-of-age. In order to address the larger cultural significance of Puberty Blues, this article positions Lette and Carey's novel and Beresford's film as two halves of the same phenomenon. This approach reflects the close association that exists between the novel and film, as evidenced in the fact that many of the people who saw the film during its original release did so because of their familiarity with the novel. As Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka have shown, Beresford's Puberty Blues was released at a time when the Australian film industry was achieving a new maturity. Along with films such as Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981) and Gallipofi (Peter Weir, 1981), Puberty Blues heralded the increasing marketability of film depictions of Australian subjects. (5) This was a period in which newly introduced taxation incentives prompted increased investment in the Australian film industry, resulting in turn in a proliferation of market-driven Australian films. As one of the top forty most lucrative Australian films since 1966, (6) Puberty Blues is, moreover, the most prominent in a cycle of Australian youth films that emerged in the late 1970s and depicts subcultural themes, a cycle that also includes The FJ Holden (Michael Thornhill, 1977) and Hard Knocks (Don McLennan, 1980). While thus associated at more than one level with Australian cinema's coming-of-age, Puberty Blues also offers a nascent feminist perspective of adolescence.

To date, the feminist significance of the Puberty Blues phenomenon has received little attention from feminists. Although the novel and film of Puberty Blues have long been perceived as feminist texts, many of the commentators who express this view do not identify themselves as feminists. For example, a 1979 review by social worker Eva Learner dubs Lette and Carey's novel 'a feminist's book; an analysis of social role conditioning from an early age'. (7) Similarly, Jim Schembri's 1982 review of the film highlights 'the almost brutal singularity of the girls' subservient sex-maiden roles', the way in which 'the ritual-like pairing of Deb and Bruce outlines the group's respective sex roles' and the surfie gang's 'repression of the girls' desires'. (8) A few years later, Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka suggest a feminist reading of the film through noting that the script's positioning of 'the girls, however passive, as subjects, and the boys as merely their temporary adornments, of little importance or character' creates 'a line of resistance in [this] moral comedy'. (9) In Peter Coleman's 1992 study of Beresford's work, Puberty Blues is described as 'the sunniest of his feminist films'. (10) In addition, Kathy Lette has recently dubbed Puberty Blues 'a strong feminist tract' that she believes prompted an increase in Australian girls' participating in surfing. (11) Meanwhile, the perception of Beresford's Puberty Blues as a 'teen-flick, surfie-style comedy' (12) seems to have inhibited sustained appreciation of the film among feminists themselves; indeed, until the 1980s, feminist scholars displayed little interest in 'low' genres such as horror, comedy and teen film. …