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 FrontRangeBouldering.com 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.
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