Discussion: Lack of women in adventure sports films
Following this years Sheffield Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF) and the Banff Mountain film festival tour, Lissa Cook discusses the lack of women in adventure sports films with three women at the heart of the industry; Jen Randall whose debut film ‘Push It’ focuses on the story of her and a friend climbing the 1000m El Capitan rock face; Jules Pickering, the first woman to climb and snowboard down the three highest mountains in Arctic circle whose film ‘Taming the Bear’ charts her first descent of Alaska’s Mt Bear; and ShAFF judge Lucy Creamer, Britain’s most accomplished female climber.
“Having seen the trailer for ShAFF and your brochure I am assuming that women do not have adventures? Who exactly are you trying to appeal to? Certainly not me.” Pip Mactaggart.
It was a real bubble burster of an email. My defensive reply was, in essence, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’. It was our most successful year but are we honestly doing enough? Yes, we had more films featuring female athletes than ever before but that was still only 10-15% of the total and only a handful starred women. Who’s to blame?
Jen: “I was pretty stunned to be told last year by a dude-who-shall-not-be-named that as a female I would never find myself being invited to film on expeditions because a woman would upset the dynamic of a male team to the point of those men not knowing how to act…!”
Lack of desire?
Jules: “I honestly find it very difficult to find other women to do these types of expeditions. There are some amazing women rocking it in the park, pipe and freeride competitions on skis and snowboards. But when it comes to camping in seriously cold temperatures to climb and ride a big mountain in an extremely remote environment, I struggle to find other girls wanting to do it. As in ‘Taming The Bear’ I am often the only female.”
Fear of failure?
Lucy: “Women generally aren’t as gung-ho as men. I remember early on in my career that even though I was one of the better climbers I’d think ‘I won’t be able to do that’. I got over that but it was a good lesson – men didn’t care how they looked or what people were thinking – they just had a go.”
Lucy: “Adults say to boys ‘Go on, give it a go’ even if they don’t want to but with a girl adults are a lot more inclined to say ‘If you don’t want to, you don’t have to’. It’s almost like girls are encouraged to not to try. And if you grow up in a society like that women don’t feel so confident.”
Jules: “A certain popular online adventure film website frequently features stuff that encourages the idea that women should be hot, blonde and in a bikini to make it in this genre. This stereotype is often placed in girls heads at a very young age. They are not exposed to strong women breaking the mold in an expedition environment.”
Jules: “There’s less women’s specific kit available. It’s a vicious circle that if the women aren’t out there doing it then brands don’t want to put money into creating and marketing it and then there isn’t the advertising or promotion of female role models to encourage or inspire women. [My sponsor] Berghaus is seeing a rise in female clothing sales and is actively working to improve on what’s out there for us. I’m sure other brands are doing the same but at the moment it still a small but importantly growing market.”
Lucy’s fellow judge, sports writer Nik Cook argues top female cyclists like Tracy Moseley in the blockbuster bike films like ‘Strength in Numbers’ are impressive but he says, “Run a men’s World Cup winning downhill run side to side with a women’s and, even with the helmet and all the padding, you’ll be able to tell which is which. For filmmakers after the biggest and gnarliest tricks and jumps it’s the guys who can physically deliver on the big screen. That said, the welcome trend towards more creative story-telling and less extreme action means I hope we’ll see more women in adventure films.”
Jules wonders if the pressure to do what the boys are doing in the big budget, ‘action’ movies like last year’s ski/board blockbuster ‘Art of Flight’ is putting women off. For her, the answer isn’t to try and compete. “I feel our niche is to do it in only a way girls can. We want to get out there and show off our talents because we love to do it and its fun rather than a series of one-upmanship, trying to kill ourselves with more and more extreme feats.”
Jen agrees: “I didn’t want my film to be novel just because it was women instead of men. I realised it would work if we didn’t make a big deal about it. It could be a story about people trying to do something hard for themselves, who happened to be female.”
Jules cautions: “Filmmakers need to be careful of using women as a ‘token female’ – my running joke nickname in Alaska.” Jen echoes that: “It’s a fine line to tread – you don’t want to make an adventure film about women just for the sake of it being about women, and you don’t want to screen an adventure film by a women just because it was made by a woman. The quality of the film and story need to be just as strong as the competition or what’s the point?”
The good news is that Jules, Jen and Lucy all agree that things are changing with more story-driven films about female athletes like Bibi Pekarek, who has recently become the first woman to appear in a film by [big mountain snow-boarder] Jeremy Jones.
My personal resolution is to take Jen’s message on board and push ourselves harder to look for more female film-makers and athletes. (PS Pip – I hope this is a better answer to your question).
Lissa Cook, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine