Earlier today, Georgie Abel published an open letter to Andrew Bisharat, one of the most prominent, widely-published voices in the climbing community. This wasn’t just some personal attack or dramatic reaction to one specific thing, but rather a response to the shameful double standards ingrained in our culture. As a female climber with a growing frustration for the lack of diversity in the media, it is important for me to voice that I completely stand by Georgie in calling on this industry to rise above its toxic, systemic sexism.
Speaking out against an authority figure and challenging him to check his privilege is BRAVE AS FUCK.
Personally, I don’t agree with Andrew, but because he’s so well-respected, I want him to like me. There have been so many times during my professional journey that I’ve wanted to call out brands, media outlets and personalities for disrespecting women, but fear stopped me from doing so each time. Fear of losing my job and credibility. Fear of burning bridges with influential people. Fear of being exiled from the climbing community, the only place I’ve ever felt truly accepted. Finding climbing felt like finding my tribe; it came with a sense of home I’ve never experienced before, so the thought of jeopardizing that terrifies me. However, that same passion for this community has driven me to speak out — because I wholeheartedly believe we can do better.
A big part of the problem is the lack of diversity in outdoor media. When the majority of exposure is given to white men, you’re going to get a very distorted view of reality. Although 50-percent of all outdoor participants are women, they lack proportional representation across the media landscape. Even with gender-based stories like Female First Ascents, men have the loudest opinions. Case in point: Bisharat’s essay, The Curse of the Female Ascent, where he compared professional female climbers against one another and told women how they should approach their climbing objectives if they want to achieve his standards of equality. This is no surprise coming from someone who has also taken the time to investigate the industry’s most pressing matter: Athlete or Model: What is Sierra Blair-Coyle?
Sadly, this isn’t just some random dude with a blog. Bisharat is an influencer with a wide reach. When he writes these things, he places himself in a position of authority over women. Women spend their entire lives being told to not get dirty or compete with men because our value is based on their acceptance. So NO, you do NOT have the right to tell the women brave enough to challenge that narrative what they are still doing wrong. Not only is it entitled and offensive, but it grossly misinforms people on how women are valued within climbing culture.
I felt the same way after seeing REEL Rock 10, a wildly successful international film tour that prides itself on being the bridge between the core climbing community and the mainstream. What message did their films send last year? That the best way to get the most screen time as a female climber is to carry Alex Honnold’s clipboard or have Tommy Caldwell’s baby.
Peter Mortimer, founder of REEL Rock film tour, defended his decision by saying that he should be able to freely express his creative vision. I completely agree – he worked his ass off for more than a decade to gain an audience of that magnitude and is entitled to create whatever he wants. I know he is coming from a good place and cares about this community very much. A common argument is that there are less professional female climbers pushing the limits of the sport, which is what they tend to focus on because risk is inherently sexy and what sells in this industry. That is true: there are statistically less women putting up first ascents.
Here’s my problem with that argument: the media tells us what’s important and who’s hot by the stories they choose, how they tell them and where they place them; it’s called agenda setting. How many people knew about Honnold before REEL Rock launched him into the spotlight, creating a media sensation featured in mainstream outlets like 60 Minutes and credit card commercials? Putting him there made him more recognizable and created the demand that exists today. Not to take away from his accomplishments because Honnold is very much an inspiring badass, but we only think of him as a hero because of REEL Rock’s quality storytelling and subsequent influence.
It’s not their fault there aren’t enough strong or talented female characters to feature in climbing films, right? I’ve come to realize that this concept, while infuriating, is not malicious or intentional. That is how privilege works – it is invisible to those who have it. But if you’re not considering half of the population, you are simply missing out on telling the whole story. Compelling and interesting stories about female climbers exist and are deserving of recognition. There is no excuse. If you can’t see that, then you are failing your audience.
Why am I calling these people out? Because these are some of the biggest voices in our community and it’s important to recognize the impact they have on our culture. Mortimer and Bisharat didn’t cause these problems alone and they won’t be able to solve them alone, but they can use their influence and privilege to create waves of change. There are key people in positions of power: filmmakers, editors, athletes, festival directors, sponsors, etc. We need to put pressure on these individuals and companies to encourage a diverse narrative by putting more women behind the camera and in creative roles.
This industry is progressive in so many ways, but gets very defensive when confronted with its systemic sexism. It’s not a special interest and the responsibility to improve these things should not fall solely on women. I honestly did not want to create personal drama by writing this, but I genuinely believe that ALL media leaders should be made aware of and excited by this opportunity. This is not an obligation, this is your chance to make this community a better place for everyone involved.
Edit: I completely acknowledge that this post has “privileged white feminist” written all over it. I strongly believe the outdoor industry should give more air time and print space to nonwhite people as well. Nature is a place where people escape to feel alive and free themselves from societal constraints. I believe it should be a welcoming, supportive space for everyone. James Mills has written extensively about this if you’re interested in a refreshing, research-based approach to the topic.