Like most Australian teenager girls growing up in the 1980’s, I hid my copy of Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey from my parents, because they definitely would not have approved of me reading this book.
I think I saw the movie Puberty Blues long before I read the book, and I do remember being horrified at the time, because I was far too young for the movie. I was too young for the book too, but I was fascinated by the story of two thirteen year old girls, Sue and Debbie, growing up in the beachside suburbs of Sydney during the 1970s.
The story is told by Debbie, who along with her best friend Sue, desperately wants to be in the popular group at school. The very first paragraph tells the reader that the popular girls, “have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-in, take drugs and go to the beach.” At thirteen, I also desperately wanted to be popular but had no clue what sex was, hated the smell of cigarettes, was too afraid of my Dad to risk wagging school, lived in the country far, far away from a drive in and had no idea what drugs were. I might have been a dag, but at least I lived near the beach.
Part of the shock value of Puberty Blues originally was because it was written by teenagers. Kathy Lette is still writing books today and is quite well known. Gabrielle Carey has a much lower profile, although I believe she also continues to write.
Re-reading this as an adult, I found the story to be incredibly harsh. Debbie and Sue do what they have to do to join the popular group. In doing so, they risk becoming pregnant, their health and even their futures with the choices they made. So do most of the other girls. The boys seemingly get to have all of the fun, because they do all of the above but instead of being branded with the sort of reputation which stay with a girl forever, (yes, even in this day and age), the boy’s reputations are enhanced.
All of the girls are incredibly critical of each other. They call girls who have sex with boys other than their boyfriends names such as “slack-arsed molls,” (I remember these words still being used when I was at school) and these girls are treated terribly by boys and girls, although for all of the girls, whether they are molls or Top Chicks, there are frequent rapes and abortions, girls who end up as single mothers. All of the girls seemingly have no value other than as the girlfriend of some boy or other.
The story races through Debbie and Sue’s experiences as they edge their way in with the popular girls, get themselves some surfer boyfriends and ‘earn’ their friendship rings. The beach and surfie lifestyle is the perfect setting for this book, which has become a cult classic. The book is actually quite funny, despite how horrendous the subject matter is and how callous these teenagers are. The story ends on a really good note, but even so, I’m grateful that my teenage years were much more innocent than those depicted in Puberty Blues.