Women in Adventure... is gender becoming a distraction?

Tegan Unclipped Adventure.png

Recently I’ve seen several high profile women mentioning with frustration the fact that their gender is a talking point. I do understand that. When you’ve dedicated your life to becoming one of the most highly skilled in your profession, whether as an athlete, a survivalist, or a photographer, why should the fact that you happen to be female be a talking point? Although they might not have set out to become role models, just by doing their thing and being the best, they are inspirational role models to other women and men. That doesn’t come with the additional responsibility of representing or speaking for ‘Women’ unless they choose to. 

While gender might not feel like a topical issue to everyone, the experience of individuals who are at the top of their sport or profession is different to the experience of those who may just be entering or wanting to enter it. Most people are inspired by people they feel ‘could be me,’ and that means there is a need for more diverse role models, and not just for women. Diversity should mean people from a variety of economic backgrounds, race, body types, and age. There are still a lot of people we don’t see in film or outdoor related media. In my role as a journalist and film producer I’m very aware of that, and although I do try to photograph, film and write about a variety of people, those stories can be harder to find. In part that reflects lower levels of participation in outdoor activities - you can’t represent people who aren’t there. 

When I see discussion about issues of diversity, I often see kickback. It brings out varying opinions, from those who think diversity is social engineering - an unnecessary manufactured idea, those who don’t recognise that some groups may need positive support to access the outdoors, to those who elevate it to an academic discussion. This is a distraction. It all comes down to participation. We need to get more people active and into the outdoors, for physical and mental health, and for the sense of community it brings. That could be through freerunning, skating, and urban adventure, walking, camping, or the extremes of rock climbing and mountaineering. If the diversity of our outdoor community doesn’t reflect the diversity of our wider community, there’s more we should be doing. 

We’ve seen amazing change for women in adventure. In 2014 Sheffield Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF) received complaints about the lack of women in the festival. In response, ShAFF established the Women in Adventure Panel and film competition, now run by the BMC. It has grown year on year and 2018 saw a record number of entries. This year 8 out of 10 of the top performing films in ShAFF were either made by or featured women in lead roles. Making and showing great films is clearly not the answer on its own, but a focus on gender was necessary, and it contributed to a positive cycle of inspiration and engagement. Perhaps this can be a model for other under represented groups.

This year for the first time I am one of the judges for ShAFF. When judging the films we are asked to consider ‘does it make you laugh, does it make you cry, is it challenging, are there strong characters..?' With so many more women in film, the conversation has moved on from how to get women on screen to which are the strongest stories. The aim has always been that gender or any other characteristic is not seen as separate or a minority part of the community. Every individual should be treated as just that. Don’t talk about whether they are a Girl, Black, Fat, or Old, just tell their story. If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if you find it challenging, it’s probably a story that needs to be told. 

With huge thanks to Adventure Cartoonist Tegan Phillips for the illustration. If you haven't seen it already, check out her Instagram @unclippedadventure.

Sheffield Adventure Film Festival takes place from 9 - 11 March as part of the Outdoor City Weekender event. You can find out more and book tickets here.