A tribute to Puberty Blues

What beaches, surfing, and the 70s meant to a bunch of Catholic schoolgirls desperate to escape

In the early stages of 2012, The Wonder Years’ seminal track ‘My Last Semester’ held prime real estate as the loop song that auto-played on my black and white-themed Tumblr blog. Dominated by GIFs of Effie from Skins, John Green novel quotes and heavily filtered images from Warped Tour, it screamed typical suburban angst (as the song itself even vocalised — ‘I’m just tired of this place’). This cringe-fest archive of reblogged malarkey is yet to be deactivated, and it’s a portal to a time of dissonance, misunderstanding and yearning.

Growing up in Parramatta meant dirty train stations, long distance bus rides to see friends, and loitering outside McDonalds as our preferred form of recreation. Escapism from the restrictive confines of our suburbs, schools and sensitivities came in the form of playground banter, crappy bedroom song-writing, school holiday trips to Westfield, and endless hours spent watching TV shows depicting worlds we wished were our own.

In 2012, when Puberty Blues saw its televised revival, my friends and I were immediately swept away, ingraining ourselves in its technicolor depiction of Australia’s free-wheeling boho 1970s. A take on the 1979 novel by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, the story has become an essential icon in Australiana canon, and exudes values and ideals still deeply ingrained within our national psyche. It is a piece of pop culture that has stood the test of time, its modern adaptation placing focus on the dynamics of the family home, suburbia and girlhood.

The obsession swept over my year nine grade at Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta with a fervor that was second only to the prominence of One Direction mania. Cronulla was depicted as a beach haven, an oasis free for teens to discover the intricacies of friendship, sex and growing up, free of the consequences imposed by parents, school and the Church. We watched it in long, restrictive, school dresses whilst our strict woggy parents demanded we were home by six for family dinner.

The show was an alternate reality in which adolescence was encompassed as a time of physical exploration in every sense — an idea that truly seemed other-worldly. Whilst we attempted our own teenager rebellion — within the walls of Beatdisc Records, or oversized grey suburban garages —the rolling hills, sweeping coastlines, and sun-drenched cul-de-sacs in Puberty Blues allowed our heroines Debbie and Sue to engage with experiences we never could. Whilst they were deliberating whether they’d spend the weekend on an offshore island with their boyfriends under the guise of an innocent sleepover, we were subjected to compulsory dance classes that taught archaic womanly etiquette under the watchful eyes of Mother Mary iconography.

We were, at the end of the day, entirely jealous of Debbie and Sue’s flower-child lifestyle. Our friends’ houses were never in comfortable walking distance as depicted in the show, nor were they nestled in tree-lined boulevards. And our after school adventures were most certainly a far cry from horse rides along sand dunes. But whilst our lifestyles differed, we were able to draw parallels between our heroines and ourselves. Posters of them plastered our bedroom walls, and we stared with sugar-glazed eyes at the boys who featured on them. Late night ‘D&Ms’ occurred over Facebook messenger rather than by the light of a beachside campfire, but the crux of closeness was still there. Delving into this culture, we adopted the classic and crude Australian jargon — phrases like ‘rack off moll’ and ‘deadset’ peppered our lingo, as if we were the uncouth 70s reincarnated. It was our way of attempting to connect with an era, culture and freedom that would never be available to us.

* * *

Looking back now, the characters were plagued with a similar need to escape their surroundings — only theirs was filtered through a beachy breeze and a hot summer haze. We were willing to overlook the shocking portrayals of widespread hard drug use, broken homes and above all, the blatant objectification and dismissal of women prevalent in 1970s Australia. We saw only what we wanted to, and ignored Puberty Blues’ toxic suburbia with ease.

The girls spent hours watching their boyfriends surf — unable to participate, and mocked when they did. Their first sexual encounters were marred with pain, humiliation, and strained relationships with their families. Even though ventures into relationship territory, outer-city adventures, and parties didn’t come until later for us, we were able to do it on our own terms.

Although our infatuation with a lifestyle so different to ours was so deeply rooted in a plea for an escape, Puberty Blues ultimately allowed for a new gratefulness for our upbringing. And maybe that was its greatest lesson of all.