Culture //

Westie wogs and fish-faced molls

We shouldn't overlook the sexist and racist culture in Puberty Blues.

When my twelve year old self first watched the 2012 TV adaptation of Puberty Blues, I was prepared for a season of Cronulla teenagers in the 70s grabbing Chiko Rolls, rooting in the back of panel vans, and ripping bongs in the RSL carpark, silently suffering through the awkwardness on the opposite end of the couch from my mother. What I wasn’t prepared for was the confrontation of seeing girls experience sexual assault in full view of their friends; of hearing complaints about “bloody Westie wogs” in just about every episode; of watching every female character getting called a moll, a slut, a slag, just for existing. Puberty Blues confirmed my long-held suspicion that there were people that didn’t like my people – women and wogs – and were pretty keen to show it. As much as I loved the show, especially for its portrayal of Sue and Debbie’s beautiful friendship, I never felt totally comfortable obsessing over it, acutely aware of the fact that if I were in that universe, I would be an outsider.

Nine years later, Puberty Blues has gained a new teenage fanbase after its recent release on Netflix. After growing older, I assumed that some of these new viewers would express similar problems to those of my twelve year old self watching the show for the first time. But instead, my social media exploded with mostly Anglo teenage girls and young people romanticising the lifestyle depicted in Puberty Blues and ignoring the critical intent of the writers, by conveniently forgetting the misogyny and racism which permeates nearly every interaction on the show. TikTok was the worst offender; my FYP has been inundated with videos of girls dancing in front of photos of the cast, bemoaning how “this show makes life seem so boring” and crushing on male characters who are repeatedly shown sexually assaulting and harassing girls. 

To be clear, I’m not trying to demonise these new young fans, especially the girls. There’s a reason that they’re not more critical of the misogyny of even the ‘best’ male characters; men still aren’t held to the standards of behaviour that women are, and can get away with doing a whole lot less to be deemed acceptable. No character sums this phenomenon up as well as Gary, the blonde haired, blue eyed grom who captures Debbie’s heart. He didn’t make her sleep with him immediately after their first kiss, and with that, became the Shire’s number one champion for women’s rights, making countless 21st century Australian teenagers fall desperately in love with him. Never mind that he does almost nothing to challenge the appalling sexism of his friends, cheats on Debbie, and calls her a moll when she dares to suggest that she and Sue leave their Chiko Roll-holding post to have a surf. The fact that Gary is the heartthrob of the show despite this behaviour speaks to the way women are socially conditioned to sing the praises of men who pay them the bare minimum level of respect – and how, despite feminism becoming increasingly mainstream, this tendency continues. 

The fact that many fans of the show overlook the characters’ inherent racism is somewhat more sinister. Cronulla isn’t by any means known for its hospitality towards non-Anglos such as myself – the 2005 Cronulla race riots are one of the most infamous events in Australia’s racist history, and although its population has become more diverse in recent years, the Shire is still known as one of the whitest areas in Sydney. Despite this, I’m still appalled at the frequent, casual, vitriolic racism spewed by the characters of Puberty Blues, invariably against “wogs” and Asian people. And yet, in online discussions and posts about Puberty Blues which are mostly made by Anglos, I’ve seen next to no references to it. When considering how the term “wog” has been used in pop culture in the last decade, it’s possible that teenagers aren’t as fussed about the racism shown in the show because of genuine ignorance. The popularisation of “ethnic comedy” on social media, especially Superwog, divorced the term wog from its offensive meaning in the eyes of many teenagers in the 2010s. That, combined with the process of reclamation of the term by people of Southern European and Middle Eastern descent, created a widespread (and wrong) perception amongst Anglo teenagers that wog is a descriptive term, and it has been used accordingly. 

But maybe that’s letting the writers and viewers off the hook. Puberty Blues’ criticism of its characters’ racist behaviour is fairly subtle, and seems more like an afterthought, shoved in amongst scenes of waves crashing on Greenhills beach, teenagers drinking and laughing, and the more explicit criticisms of misogyny. Although the show does represent how the insularity of the Shire created a culture of casual and extreme racism, it doesn’t go to nearly the same lengths to criticise this behaviour as it does with rampant sexism. Only one racist incident on the show is explicitly shown as a means of criticism, when an older man is met with disapproval when he turns up to a party in a yellowface costume. With this in mind, maybe young Anglo viewers with no personal experience of or connection to racism can be almost forgiven for not picking up on the racist aspects of the show. But it’s also possible that the viewers just don’t care. After all, to say that even the wokest of Anglos have difficulty grasping the nuances and impacts of racism isn’t exactly a hot take, and I’d be willing to bet that there’s a portion of Puberty Blues’ audience that watch it as a reminder of “the good old days” of white Cronulla.

None of this is to say that I don’t understand the temptation to romanticise the world of Puberty Blues to a certain extent. The 70s surfer aesthetics of Puberty Blues and its idealisation of teenage freedom are undoubtedly attractive, and pop culture has exploited teenagers’ longing for connection and authenticity through nostalgia ever since the impacts of social media on our mental health became apparent. But as much as these sources of appeal contribute to the success and popularity of Puberty Blues, they also obscure the social and political critiques which pervade the show. Then again, why think about these things when there’s blonde haired groms and Chiko Rolls?