Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
It is 2017, and yet it’s extremely rare for climbing films to feature women as lead characters.
Never Not Collective, a new media group formed by four outdoor industry veterans, plans to change that in short order. But they need your help. They’re currently fundraising for “Pretty Strong,” which will feature “all your favorite token climber girls all in one film.”
The collective was started by four climbers: Julie Ellison, editor-at-large of Climbing Magazine (and the first woman to be the title’s editor-in-chief), Shelma Jun, founder of Flash Foxy and the Women’s Climbing Festival, Leslie Hittmeier, a former editor of Skiing Magazine and Teton Gravity Research, and Colette McInerney, an adventure photographer and filmmaker and former professional climber.
We caught up with Ellison to find out more about the project and why it’s important.
1. “Pretty Strong” will feature women climbers front and center. What do you hope people will take away from this? Why is it needed?
It’s needed because it’s crazy that it hasn’t happened yet. We did some initial research by counting segments in feature climbing films, and a staggeringly low percentage showcased a woman as the lead character. The few that did used the same women (Lisa Rands and Beth Rodden, absolute heroes!), and a few other segments featured women….with men. The four of us all separately had this thought since we first started climbing that what got us really psyched were images of women doing badass stuff, but most of what we saw was men. It was something I had felt for a while, but hadn’t quite put my finger on what it was until the last few years. Colette [McInerney] has wanted to make this film for most of her climbing career, and when she brought it up in one of our brainstorm meetings, we all jumped on it so fast, no one even questioned it.
It was super clear that if we were all having this shared feeling, it meant plenty of other lady climbers thought the same thing. Plus, look around the next time you go to the crag or the gym—it’s probably closer to a two-to-one or even equal split. It used to be that climbing was 100 men to one woman, then 20:1, then 10:1, and 5:1. The number of women climbing now is much closer to even, and that should be reflected in the media. We want people to be inspired, to get psyched to climb, and to understand that women are freaking strong on their own, without being compared to men.
2. A lot of companies and publications want to be seen talking about women right now. They’re all raising awareness about incredible women, but they’re doing it through the lens of “here’s a powerful woman,” instead of “here’s a powerful person.” We don’t ever talk about “powerful male CEOs,” we just talk about CEOs. What’s the best way for us to empower women athletes without tokenizing them? How can the outdoor industry step up to the plate and be a leader?
I struggle with this very idea a lot, especially as “women in the outdoors” is becoming such a hot topic marketing campaign. On one hand, the more visibility that women have in the outdoors or as business leaders is a good thing; that’s how it becomes more “normal” to have equal gender representation across the board. But on the other hand, part of me rolls my eyes and thinks, “Oh geez, how much longer is this going to last?”
I think a lot of it stems around the idea of what we joke about in climbing, and it’s where we got the name of our film, Pretty Strong. There’s a saying in climbing that you hear all the time: “Oh she’s pretty strong for a girl.” Like, what is that?! Seriously, tell me. Can’t you just be pretty strong? Why does that “for a girl” qualifier need to be put on there?
My dad wrote to me once: “Women’s achievements don’t need to be pumped up because they are done by women. They need to be pumped up because they are f***ing achievements!” That has always stuck with me, and I think it can be done in how we represent women through these initiatives. Don’t shove down my throat how what a woman has done is cool…. because she’s a woman. Just show me what she’s done that’s cool.
Part of that is increasing the pure numbers of women and people of color that we’re seeing. We have to seek out interesting people who might have achieved something that isn’t the biggest/baddest/boldest, but is still impressive and inspiring, and we have to lift those people up. Given enough opportunity, those people will start to achieve the biggest/baddest/boldest. The outdoor industry is the absolute perfect place to do it because so much of what we do is wild and unheard-of to the mainstream world.
3. Why are we still so far behind in the battle for equality in outdoor sports like climbing?
Well, let me just say that I think in the grand scheme of things, the outdoor world, and climbing in particular, is miles ahead of most other parts of life. To have the health, time, money, and resources to walk out your door and do any leisure activity is an absolute privilege in every sense of the word, and I think we need to recognize that first and foremost. That said, I think the battle for equality is behind for a few different reasons. I think numbers play a big part; like I mentioned earlier, climbing used to be 100:1 and now it’s much closer to a 1:1 ratio. When you have such a gap, it is going to take longer to have equal representation.
Also, when it comes to anything in this world, people in the majority typically have a difficult time letting go of some of their power. They’ve been the majority for so long, it’s hard to see a world where they’re not the majority, and that’s a terrifying realization, to go from being the ones with all the power to maybe not having as much power as you used to. So they’re not just going to hand over the authority they have. That means the minority groups have to fight and claw their way in to seize some of that control, which then makes the majority hostile or defensive. And it’s this back and forth that tends to go nowhere. However, I think the outdoor world is open-minded and more willing to listen than other places, and we’ve already seen huge strides, which will hopefully continue.
4. What will it take to make a significant change, and what can we do individually to make a difference?
In my mind, significant change means legislation passed, or entire laws overhauled, so that’s a bit tricky when it comes to something like inequality in the outdoor world. But I think individual change is the absolute most important because that’s what affects us on a daily basis, who we meet, talk to, what is said, how we felt, etc. I think one of our biggest issues, particularly in climbing and other outdoor sports, are these deep-seeded assumptions about people. We walk to the crag and see other people and usually just assume that they’re not as experienced or not as strong as us, and then we treat them a certain way based on that. It’s not helping anybody! Secondly, let go of your ego and recognize that somebody else might be able to teach you something, if you just ask. Listen to others, learn their story, and factor that in your future decisions about the world. And for God’s sake, be nicer online. Just ask yourself one simple question: How would my mom feel if she knew I was saying this?
Cover image by Julie Ellison.