thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?

In gender, race on October 14, 2011 at 12:31 am

Melissa Sexton

If you had asked me what film would have been most likely to get my mind seriously cranking on issues of race, class, and gender, I would not have thought it was going to be the 2011 Reel Rock Film Tour.  A yearly redux of climbing films, heavily sponsored by gear vendors and climbing organizations, the Reel Rock Tour has a kind of anti-establishment, counter-cultural appeal, but not necessarily the kind to bend gender expectations or advocate for class consciousness.  I’ve only dipped my toes into the pool of climbing culture, so I can hardly speak with great knowledge; but climbing seems like a no-nonsense, do-or-die realm that would like to pretend it doesn’t care about race, class, or gender. Those who know me are not surprised to see that I’ve toyed with climbing – it appeals to all my gender insecurities and issues with toughness.  Climbing rewards strength, endurance, and the ability to fight through pain. Climbing is one of those weird, ambiguously gendered spaces…because, to a certain extent, there is no gender in climbing. If you can send a climb, you’re awesome, and your gender doesn’t matter. Elite women climbers exist and can outclimb many a man.  But…if you hang out near the bouldering wall in your local rock gym, you’ll probably see what a boys’ club the climbing world can still be.  And often it’s a white boys’ club. To pretend that there is no race or gender in climbing is naive. And indeed, while I really enjoyed a lot of the films in the 2011 Tour, most of them would reinforce gender stereotypes about the climbing world: nary a woman to be seen, except a few that hang around the camps of the kooky guys – guys that oscillate between, on the one hand, sentimental visions of home while they’re on death’s doorstep atop some mountain in Pakistan – and, on the other hand, a perpetual adolescent desire to defy death through flat-out stupidly risky behavior. There are uber-competitive guys racing for climbing speed records, ripping their skin to shreds and throwing safety out the window, posing for bare-chested photos before El Capitan and veiling their competitiveness between platitudes about peace and wilderness escape. Like I said – I loved and enjoyed these films, the way I love and enjoy Moby-Dick and Walden and William Faulkner. Because the wilderness enthusiast and wanna-be climber in me can outweigh the gender critic, and I can revel in physical performance, wild landscape, intellectual quandaries…I love these places because I can embrace the fantasy they provide, a realm where you’re judged solely based on your mettle.  Yet I can also see the holes in these visions, the way even the “pure” realm of the rock is a constructed space that favors certain people, relies on certain resources for access, rewards certain kinds of attitudes about ability and embodiment.

But then, halfway through the line-up, there was the film “Origins: Obe and Ashima,” which might be one of the most interesting commentaries I”ve seen on athleticism, race, and gender ever…because it hardly makes these things an issue, while featuring them front and center. It tells the intertwined story of two elite climbers – Ashima Shiraishi, a 10-year old Japanese climber from New York who can finesse her way up bouldering problems that would make the bare-chested boy-climbers at the bouldering wall blanche…and her coach Obe Carrion,  once a teenage kid from the bad part of Allentown, PA who got out and made a name for himself through climbing. I can’t figure out exactly what his ethnic background is, but in an interview with he identifies as a minority, though only to mention that it’s “cool” with him to be a minority in the climbing world. I point out this race issue to highlight just how much the climbing world downplays issues of race and gender. What is remarkable for both of these climbers is not their race – in what I assume (correct me if I’m wrong – my evidence is entirely anecdotal) is a predominantly white sport in the United States. Instead, Obe is revered for helping to make bouldering a legitimate sport, and this short film further applauds him (and rightly so) for taking all his competitive spirit and climbing passion and using it to help kids learn to climb at an elite level. What is remarkable in Ashima’s case is not solely gender, nor race – it is, instead, that she is (at the time of the filming) a nine-year old girl. Her youth is her most remarkable attribute.

Ashima and her coach Obe at Hueco Tanks, a bouldering proving ground in Texas

Problem solving. Ashima took a V12 that trip. I can do V1's on a good day.

(Both photos thanks to Climbing magazine).

Both Obe and Ashima are incredible athletes – and even if you don’t climb, you can’t help but be blown away by the amazing things they can do with their bodies.  And as a culture critic, I can’t help but be blown away by their sudden appearance, sandwiched in between testosterone fueled speed races up the Nose of El Capitan, brutal winter brushes with avalanches up Gasherbrum II, and crazy stunt slacklining, basejumping, and high-lining that pushes safety to the side and “the rush” to the forefront:

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the world of Ashimi and Obe escapes the competitiveness or odd relationships between one’s self and one’s body that appear in the rest of the climbing films.  It’s still a tangled ideological web, as it always is. But I’m just saying it’s startling to see a break in the constant stream of young, toned, white male bodies.

1. Class

I’ve heard climbers say, “There’s a leisure class at either end of the social spectrum,” alluding to the semi-classless life of the itinerant mountain climber. I’m not knocking the economic hardships that many a dedicated climber goes through to get to the top.  Living in a van, driving from site to site, living off of gear sponsorships that are just enough to get you up the rock and occasionally overseas to climb some other rocks – climbers are not making it rich by a long shot. But I would contend that they’re not on the other end of the social spectrum from the remarkably wealthy, either. They’ve made a choice, and while the homeless climber is not living the economic high life, he or she is still living a version of the American Dream: getting by while doing what you love – existing in a state of freedom. What first blew me away about the Obe and Ashima story was the way class wiggled its way in. Obe describes how his childhood home in Allentown was raided by cops searching for stolen goods – how he lived in a neighborhood marked by drug dealing and poverty. His rise to rock-climbing glory was not in the John Muir tradition of wilderness, adventure, and epiphany; his story sounds more like a hip-hop impresario’s struggle to get by and get out.

Obe's Ad Campaign.

Following his glory days, full of braggadiccio and swagger, cue his crash and collapse. The competition got to him; he walked away from climbing; he became depressed and started drinking. But then he started coaching climbing and found a way to participate yet again. Eventually he ended up as Ashima’s coach in a New York gym. And while the film does not mention Ashima’s class background, it does position her as an urban climber – she first climbed in Central Park. These are not wilderness narratives, but stories of determination and strength. What fascinates me is how Obe’s class background always lurks in the background without framing the narrative. We aren’t supposed to note his difference, except to see it as another indicator of his incredible determination. He, like all climbers, powered through. We hear him in the Reel Rock trailer and in the film itself encouraging Ashima, on a brutal V12 bouldering route, to fight for it. He fought for it and he won. That is the synthomic pleasure of rock climbing – the moment of ideological immersion that is simultaneously pleasurable and troubling. Rock climbing lets you fight for it, all the while hiding the many ideological things which you may well be fighting against: not just gravity, slippery holds, lactic acid in your muscles – but your class background, your race, your gender, your age. It lets you believe, as I have well experienced, that for a few moments it’s really just about you as an embodied being taking on the complicated and gymnastic problem before you.

2. Gender, Class, and Other Forms of Mobility

It’s strange, trying to be ideologically savvy while watching Ashima climb in the midst of all these other climbing videos. You don’t want to point out her gender or her race – it seems somehow belittling to do so.  She’s just an athlete, I want to say, doing what all climbers do, but better. But the subtext just doesn’t go away.  All the while you’re aware that she’s a nine year old girl, she’s urban, she’s Japanese. These things make her even awesomer as a climber, right, because they’re the things she has to fight against. But…you’re not supposed to notice them. Watching this rock climbing film just made me incredibly conscious of how difficult it is to navigate race, gender, and other conditions shaping our lives. What’s the most sophisticated way to watch this film?  Acknowledging and drawing attention to race, class, and gender? Ignoring these categories and simply appreciating remarkable athletic skill? I don’t know.  I don’t have any answers. But I think these questions are worth mulling over – and that it’s naive to pretend that we don’t notice these categories in films and sports dominated by the young, the white, and the male. We need to keep thinking about how to pay homage to people for their remarkable work while also challenging the invisibility of class, race, and gender.

Ashima killing it on the rock.

What I do know is that Ashima has crazy ability. She has to come up with her own alternative ways up some of the bouldering problems, because her nine-year-old arms aren’t long enough to reach. Watching her rethink a problem, stick her fingers or her foot on a nub of rock that shouldn’t bear any weight, is amazing. It reinforces what those of us who climb long ago discovered, but that many people who haven’t climbed would not assume from watching popular depictions of rock-climbing: bigger is not always better. You’d think that muscle-y guys with giant arms would be better at climbing, but they’re not.  Sure, at the level of elite climbing, there’s a certain base-level of power that you need; as Obe points out, Ashima can do multiple one-armed pull-ups if you ask her to. But even that just reinforces my point – that you never know what to expect from a body by looking at it.  To watch Ashima dangle from the roof rock by her arms is crazy – she’s like a kid on a jungle gym, but she’s hanging by her fingertips from rough rock! And her ability to climb shows that power can look very, very different. Climbing is also a pleasurable sport because it mixes brutal physicality with problem-solving capabilities as well as grace. I’m not the only spindly-armed young beginning climber I’ve known that can outclimb guys who work out daily through a mix of patience, balance, and planning. So, on one level, rock-climbing prowess repeats the American story of hard work and fortitude: it’s not just something you can be born to, with a big-muscled body – you have to learn the techniques and do the work and do the thinking in order to succeed, mixing talent and lots of work.  What an American sport! Yet Ashima also challenges the American wilderness mythology of masculine virility that seems all tangled up with rock climbing and other extreme outdoor sports. Rock climbers sometimes seem like the new face of the American myth of the West – tough and strong, dismissive of family ties and traditional employment, constantly venturing away from society in search of adventure, glory, and aesthetic pleasure; they love the rock by dominating it. But Ashima dominates it too, starting from Central Park but then bringing her tiny frame out to the wild Western climbing spaces of Texas. Her body and its ability challenges our myths of virile strength; to conquer the rock does not reinforce the muscled-up legitimacy of masculine domination. She sends climb after climb, showing us that power and domination are not just for white boys. It may be an ideological mess, but that’s a sport and a climber that I can really get behind.

  1. You’re probably the first and only writer (that I’ve come across anyways) to tackle race, gender and class in the world of climbing. You made a number of good points which the Reel Rock Tour only seemed to perpetuate (with the exception of Obe and Ashima). The scene that reinforced this to me the most was with the two ice-climbers who were using a metal detector to find their bolts. This struck me as odd and ridiculous, one of those things that would end up on the blog “What white people like,” and to an extreme at that.
    Yes, there are times for taking risks, but this seemed on the verge of stupidity, as did the film on the winter ascent of Gasherbrum.

    Not to get off topic, but a number of the films at the RR, specifically the number on Gasherbrum, seemed overly narcissistic. The first thing the cameraman does after he’s hit by an avalanche is video himself cry? I feel like the world of climbing films needs to take a hard look at itself, and focus more on “Obe and Ashima,” than some jackasses on the verge of suicide half-way around the world.

  2. LOVE this … so interesting and complicated and wonderfully written

  3. So glad that you wrote about this! So many things I could say but I’ll just leave you with two clips that are also interesting on the issues of gender and race.

    The first is of Lynn Hill doing the first free ascent of the Nose on El Cap:

    The second is Catherine Destivelle soloing in Mali and it’s presented by a male, Brit in the manner of anthropology videos that seems to be “assessing” both the woman climber and the African villagers:

  4. I had a student in a composition course this summer who wrote an essay connecting her feminist upbringing and her love of rock climbing; we had a great conference in which she talked about the men she climbed with, and how they continually referred to skilled female climbers as “unicorns,” because they “don’t exist.” It brought to mind watching the Imax film “Everest” back in the 90s. I remember a segment in which one of the female members of the climbing team (Paula Viesturs?) was shown doing a free-climb somewhere in the Mediterranean, and thinking “holy cow… I could never do that.” That film marked my introduction to the world of rock climbing — something I’d heard about but never had information on — and so I think, for me, the concept that women could be just as skilled at climbing as men has always been a given.

    I’ll just say this in closing: The last and only climbing I’ve ever done was on an indoor gym wall, with a female friend and colleague. Neither of us had tied a figure-eight and gotten on the wall in about a year, and yet she made about three ascents, on different routes, in the time it took me to complete half of an ascent, get bungled up, and go back down to start again. Granted, I’m a terrible climber, and it was an easy wall — but I knew from the start that she would walk all over me, and she did, and we still had a great time. But we both knew who the better climber was!

  5. The thing about climbing and gender, well, the things now I think about it, are, first, that the majority of the strength is about strength to body weight ratio, which has nothing to do with sex or gender and everything to do with body type and how fit it individually is. Big people need more muscle to pull their bodies up the rock; small people do just as well, if not better, with less. There’s also the issue of what we favor, what gets called “bad ass.” One is bouldering, which tends to be more powerful, thereby favoring explosive strength (which men tend to have more of); the other is the dangerous/stupid stuff, which, for some reason, men seem more likely to attempt. But if we were to favor who ascends a wall with the most grace or who can balance on the smallest crimpers and slopers or who does the best with endurance, I think the gender dynamic would be far more equalized. Which is to say, climbing is by no means essentially favorable to men, but we make it more of a masculinist sport because of what we pay most attention to in it and, as Melissa says, the narratives we construct around it.

  6. […] on Girls Like Giants: Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race and Gender on the Rock? Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterTumblrPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  7. When I searched for the Obe and Ashima video that took me completely by surprise while watching Reel Rock 2011, I was taken completely by surprise again to see that someone had written about sex, race, and class– and was addressing so many of the things that I’ve been thinking about since I began climbing just over a year ago. When climbing began to become a serious passion, I had to negotiate with being queer, Asian American, and female in a straight, white, male-dominated space. I had to overcome my own feelings of incongruity with the environment and just allow myself to love climbing. This passage captures the feeling so well that I became emotional reading it: “Rock climbing lets you fight for it, all the while hiding the many ideological things which you may well be fighting against: not just gravity, slippery holds, lactic acid in your muscles – but your class background, your race, your gender, your age. It lets you believe, as I have well experienced, that for a few moments it’s really just about you as an embodied being taking on the complicated and gymnastic problem before you.” Thank you for writing this.

    • I’m glad my post spoke to some of your experiences, as well as my own. As a multiracial female, the Obi and Ashima video really gave me heroes I could root for and spoke to my own long, complicated relationship with predominantly white/male extreme outdoor pursuits. But things don’t have to stay that way!

      • I completely agree that things don’t have to stay that way. Activist James Boggs talked about how we have to love America enough to change it. I realized that while I sometimes feel uncomfortable in the community, I love climbing enough to keep doing it.

        There’s been some buzz lately in the online climbing media about tackling deeper issues in the community, some of it originating at This seems like a good piece to bring to the attention of climbing media editors (if you haven’t already, that is)!

    • In general, climbing may be a white male dominant sport, but at the same time while I was at the local gym tonight there was an asian woman, an african american man, and several other asian men. And they are regular climbers, not just trying it out. I think that climbers in general are always more than willing to accept anybody who is interested into the sport. And as it becomes more accessible to more people, the number of minority climbers will also grow.

  8. […] thanks to the reader who passed along this article from the blog Girls Like Giants in which the writer, who I don’t think is what one would consider a “hardcore” […]

  9. This is a good exploration of the masked factors that affect the sport of climbing. Narinda, thanks for the mention.

  10. Great article!! Thanks for getting my brain buzzing this Monday morning. Incredibly refreshing to read about Ashima and Obe from a perspective that I had not heard or though about myself. Ashima has been an inspiration to me because of the way she is able to use her size to her advantage (I’m hoping I’ll be as balanced with my body someday), but now I have a newly formed respect for her.

  11. “But…if you hang out near the bouldering wall in your local rock gym, you’ll probably see what a boys’ club the climbing world can still be. And often it’s a white boys’ club. To pretend that there is no race or gender in climbing is naive. ”

    Yes, climbing is primarily white guys, but climbing is by no means an “exclusive” community. It is what it is, and I’m not quite sure why people are turning it into a race/sex issue. People who want to climb, do. People who don’t, don’t.

    You say, “I’ve only dipped my toes into the pool of climbing culture, so I can hardly speak with great knowledge; but climbing seems like a no-nonsense, do-or-die realm that would like to pretend it doesn’t care about race, class, or gender.”

    If you want to know what a snippet of the actual climbing community thinks, check out:

  12. Thanks for posting this story and hosting the discussion. I’m writing this reply from the Yosemite Lodge. I just arrived from South Lake Tahoe after the first meeting of an all-African-American team of climbers that’s currently training for an ascent of Denali in 2013. We’re working with NOLS to directly address the issue of diversity in outdoor recreation in general and climbing in particular. Our primary goal is to demonstrate that everyone is welcome to explore and enjoy a fulfilling life in the natural world. Our climb will be covered as a documentary by the CNN program Black In America and I personally aim to write a book about it.

    As a journalist one of the many things I cover is the issue of diversity. Currently I’m on an extended road trip through the west dropping in on prominent climbing spots in between coverage of the 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale Colorado and the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride. As you can imagine I’m one of a few people of color in most of the places I visit. But regardless of my own race I continue to find the outdoors accessible and I can only encourage more minorities to venture out into the world of adventure. Climbing films with more diversity will inevitably follow. BTW Obe & Ashima took the top prize at 5Point. 
    Check my most recent blog post:
    And please follow along on the Joy Trip Project
    Sorry for the typos. Damn iPad!

  13. The post is blowing up right now, and I don’t have time to respond to everything – but one point that I feel the *need* to clarify and that I think will speak to many comments – I’m not accusing any climbers, any climbing communities, or climbing the sport in general of being deliberately exclusive or “racist.” That’s not the point, in my opinion, of highlighting race imbalances or drawing attention to cultural constructions of race and gender. Rather, systemic imbalances are worth noticing because of what they say about opinions, ingrained cultural attitudes, and trends. A repeated theme in all my posts here is that reflecting on race/gender/culture doesn’t have to make us give up things we love, even if we notice that these cultural items (be they sports, music, television, or movies) do not always align with the ethics we espouse.

    I never claimed to be an expert on climbing and I am not trying to accuse anyone of hidden racism or to tell people to give up the sport or to accuse people of anything due to their own background or experiences. I’m not a hardcore climber. I am an academic and a cultural critic. I am a backpacker, a camp counselor, an outdoor educator, and a hiker. I love wilderness and athleticism, but I try to think about these things critically, and I’ve wrestled with cultural attitudes and cultural constructions of wilderness spaces, gender, and race for years now. What I am an expert on is the history of American attitudes towards wilderness and the outdoors, and I was bringing that to bear here.

    Noticing race/gender imbalances does not have to be an accusation, and what I have a hard time understanding is the level of hostility that noticing race can generate. I was excited by the Reel Rock film, as I explained in the post itself. Being critical of something does not have to mean we stop loving it. And talking about race in sports isn’t a new thing – Jeremy Lin? Tiger Woods? The Williams sisters? Many student athletes in my class have written (and written well!) about race and gender in sports too, which makes me think it’s something that non-(crazed)-academics have to think about in their own experiences. Which is why I feel saddened by comments that reduce this to a disagreement between the “real climbing community” and the “academics run amok.” Two different communities, two different sets of questions and ideas – but I don’t get the antagonism…

    • And, I should add, I completely invite more responses – especially if other bloggers/readers can explain why they had this reaction to the post. I’m curious to know! Does it feel reductive, diminishing the sport somehow? Does it distract from the larger goals and pleasures of climbing? Does it seem to imply a threat of racist accusations? I’m really, really curious to understand where the strong response comes from, and I would be excited to hear what people have to say – though if you want your comments to get posted, do please check out the GLG policy on comments:

  14. Thank you so much, Joytripproject—your comment on this site and climbingnarc was well-put, and I very much respect your project. I can’t wait to find out more about it on your website.

    I see articulated in the article’s backlash a bifurcation between the industry of climbing versus the “authentic” culture of climbing (the “lived experience”). I would stress that it’s important to address them distinctly but not disparately.

    Representation affects public perception and public perception is an economic target—marketing provokes action, and for this obvious point we can’t compartmentalize material and performative spheres. The 2011 Reel Rock Tour film might not be guilty of misrepresentation but it is certainly complicit in under-representation in that it does not develop the Ashima and Obe segment in the right way. Sandwiched between two normative depictions of climbing culture, its strange juxtaposition invokes the “other” face(s) of climbing but it goes without comment. However, this under-developed depiction of alternative experiences of climbing is not the same as the under-representation and misrepresentation common to other outdoor/athletic/recreational media, such as that of mountaineering or climbing’s “sister” sport, yoga (a South Asian meditation practice that wears the face of the fit, white cosmopolitan female in mainstream global media). These representations alienate practitioners and consumers much more sweepingly (and much more blatantly, I’d add) than climbing vids. That said, climbing vids are still complicit in under-representation, and since media affects the popularity of the activity being represented, these videos and advertisement campaigns discourage underrepresented individuals from the sport and its economy; moreover, it robs minority climbers of exposure, further marginalizing their success.

    I’m a hard grade female climber, and for as long as I’ve been climbing and consuming climbing videos and “boulder porn” I have marked a palpable homogenous aesthetic in climber profiles and delivery. (This is also true of climbing magazines.) The trend in videos eliding diversity is rendered ironic given the fact that much of the musical aesthetic appropriates hip-hop. On that note, the videos also narrow the spectrum of female climber identity by reserving the harder core soundtrack choices for male montages while the women often climb to airy-voiced singer-songwriters. These trends can be positioned in larger gendered aesthetic patterns in film-making, so the climbing genre is not solely to blame, but considering it’s representing a sport that prides itself on democratic and independent lifestyles and ideologies, this is cause for concern.

    Anyway, I’m hopeful that discourse like this will stimulate a new, heterogeneous approach to climbing media-making.

    • Thanks for writing such a thoughtful, nuanced comment that addresses a lot of subtleties I haven’t had time to consider and that ties these climbing issues to other sports. I really think you said so many things well!

  15. […] I should be writing right now about The Avengers for Girls Like Giants. That’s what I told them I would do (not that they’re particularly stern taskmasters thereabouts). But I just can’t; I am too overwhelmed with conflicting emotions over another GLG post, Melissa’s “Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?“ […]

  16. Melissa, thank you. I thought it was a great post and feel that a lot of the backlash you’re seeing is exactly what you are writing about. It is a hard concept to grapple with–especially with those that never have to deal with these issues. I say that as a white, male, and college educated person that happens to love climbing. People need a bit of agitation to think more critically about their places in the world. Thank you again.

  17. […] submitted the link to Melissa Sexton’s article Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?”  to Climbing Narc because recent discussions made me feel like there were people in the climbing […]

  18. […] submitted the link to Melissa Sexton’s article Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?”  to Climbing Narc because recent discussions made me feel like there were people in the climbing […]

  19. I don’t know if many people took the time to read your article several times. I wouldn’t have either had I not been enticed by its polarizing qualities.

    At first blush, your article DOES feel accusatory to the climbing community. It has a tone that leaves the reader (as a climber) as if they have turned their back on women and minorities not only as climbers ,but societally as well. Regardless of whether or not climbers “get it” in regards to social and racial issues, a lot of us pride themselves in trying to be progressive as our small, privileged minds can be. It hurts when we feel we have failed.

    After reading the article several times, I realized that all the references to climbing could be removed (for the most part) and it would simply be an article regarding the acknowledgment of race and gender issues in the world. I think that is what a lot of climbers have seen in this article but they can’t justify why climbing is being “attacked” in this article. I agree that there are some inherent social issues at work here, but they are at work everyday, in all walks of life. The nice thing about climbing is, once you’re here, we don’t care how you got here and you can stay as long as you want. We might not do the best job getting the word of climbing out to the far reaches of society, but we are by no means, exclusive.

    I hate to say it, but I think when enough people have missed the message in a story, it could be time to look at the way the story was presented and not how it was interpreted. I don’t know if it came across the right way.

  20. […] ever recently. While I was working on this post, Girls Like Giants posted a thoughtful rumination on race, gender, and class in climbing, focusing on the video about Obe and Ashima in the 2011 Reel Rock Tour. It sparked an interesting […]

  21. Please let me know if you’re looking for a writer for your site. You have some really great articles and I think I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love to write some material for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me an email if interested. Many thanks!

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