As fireworks erupt at a night beach party, socially isolated teenager Frieda lays prone and sad in the back of a panel van, while a string of boys “take turns” with her. Others stand around and watch, and as Debbie and Sue wander past they remark: “There’s Frieda”.
They look back at her for a moment and then turn away, pinky-fingers linked, to rejoin their boyfriends. Frieda gazes sadly at them as the two best friends walk away.
This was the final scene of episode three of Puberty Blues, and at work the following day I mentioned how horrified I was by this scene and many other sexually violent situations depicted in the show. My colleague suggested that the experiences of female characters in the show are not the norm for girls of that age*.
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When I was an early ‘90s teenager in 501s, Doc Marten boots and often some variation on burgundy crushed velvet I can tell you with great certainty that I was not dressed anything like my mother.
Nor were any of my friends, whose originality could be measured by whether their Doc Martens were black or cherry. We all pretty much looked the same, and photos from those days place us smack bang in our era. You can look at the pictures of us in black long-sleeve tops and high-waisted Levis and say, yep, that was 1991.
From that photo you would also have been able to say what we listened to and what issues we cared about.
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Thirty years ago Nell Schofield played Debbie in the film adaptation of Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette’s book Puberty Blues. The new television series of Puberty Blues starts tonight on Ten.
Back in 1981, the world was a different place. There was no internet, no mobile phones and having unprotected sex wasn’t a potentially lethal activity. With the advent of HIV AIDS, wearing condoms became a whole lot more critical.
Safe abortion clinics became legal in most countries but we are at risk of going back to the dark ages with the rise of reactionary politics. We need to do all we can to help girls grow up to be the best they can be, even if they choose to put off having a family or not have one at all.
There is a societal pressure on girls to marry and have children. But having kids often knocks women out of the work force and many never return.
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When the 1981 film Puberty Blues hit the big screens, parents across Australia recoiled each asking their teens with wide-eyed alarm. “Is this really what goes on?” Somehow teenagers of the ‘70s and ‘80s whose parents had survived World War II and Vietnam had been left to fend for themselves.
It was only when the youthful Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey penned their brutally honest account in their book Puberty Blues of what it was actually like to be a teenage girl in Australia that modern society sat up and noticed.
Deborra-Lee Furness starred in a film in the 1980s called Shame that depicted the practice in rural Australia of using girls as “training” for sex. It was basically about the accepted ritual of gang rape. Girls in so many ways were at the mercy of young men. Young adult males ruled supreme. It was the task of young girls to ingratiate themselves into the inner circle.
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