Some Local Trolling: Sheffield Adventure Film Festival


Close-up image from the trailer of young, blond, white woman with nose piercing looking at the camera.


(Please note: the views, experiences and positions expressed within this blog post are those of the author(s) alone and do not necessarily represent the views of everyone involved in the LaDIYfest collective.)

We’ve been to the Showroom Cinema a few times recently and have noticed the trailer for the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival (SHAFF). It’s pretty hard to miss, at well over three minutes long.

What’s surprising about the trailer – although not entirely unexpected – is the tiny number of women who are featured.

What’s annoying – a frequent part of being a feminist is getting annoyed – is the way those few women are represented.

There’s a young, slim, blonde woman going for a run with her dog in the countryside, and there’s a road cyclist in a full-face helmet who (on a second viewing) we thought might possibly be a woman. Another young, conventionally attractive woman with a nose piercing appears in a soft focus close-up, with a look we could only manage to describe as vacantly seductive (or a bit stoned); a different woman walks, slowly, silhouetted in front of a sunset. Two women – again, attractive, young and blonde – stand together, looking happily at the camera.

The smiles are fine, we’re not against fun. However, what’s striking about these women compared to the men in the trailer is that none of them are pictured in active roles,  save, possibly, the lone road cyclist, whose gender seemed ambiguous. Instead of getting messy and sweaty from doing extreme sports, and looking powerful, exhilarated and inspiring, the women in the trailer have a role that’s largely decorative.

They’re a pretty foil to the beard-preening, macho air-punching and (at one point) naked dick-grabbing. They’re also, as far as we could tell, all young, white, conventionally attractive within the narrow boundaries of ‘acceptable’ femininity, and have no visible disabilities.

Obviously, our woman-counting measure isn’t perfect. It’s based on people conforming to a normative idea of what a woman looks like. We’ve not asked everyone in the video how they gender-identify, whether that be as a man, woman, genderqueer, or another identity outside the gender binary.

And one of the great things about outdoor clothing is that often it stops people from guessing at your gender. That is, when women aren’t being forced to buy pastel waterproofs and baby-blue hiking boots (get a grip, manufacturers).

Still, if there are actually lots of women in the trailer but they just happen to be hidden in ski kit or baggy skate clothes – which we doubt, but let’s go with it for a moment – this hardly helps change perceptions of the gender balance in extreme sports, when most of the performers in the clip whose gender is apparent are male.

To give SHAFF some credit, we noticed browsing their website that they are trying to promote films made by and featuring women in what they recognise is a male-dominated industry. Here’s their list of women-centred films at this year’s festival.

However, having a strand which promotes women’s films is self-defeating if the trailer, which will be most people’s encounter with the festival, barely features any women actually doing sports. Please try harder. Maybe even try being adventurous.

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10 Responses to Some Local Trolling: Sheffield Adventure Film Festival

  1. Hi Hannah

    I wrote this before I saw your last post- have a good time in the Middle East.

    This is such an interesting debate; and an important one. Dave described well the ethos and motivations of the guys that organise ShAFF (certainly no big money making machine), and I think he did a much better job of describing them as people for whom equality is a principle and fundamental to how they behave. So it was in a position of surprise I wrote my response.

    The success of ShAFF is I think part of the issue here, originally the market was a niche one, where the audience would recognise the faces and be part of a culture that perhaps is less main stream- in which nakedness is about skinny dipping and freedom, not rugby boys being intimidating. Now the festival is so much bigger, my perhaps naive hope is that a more open minded way of life where experiences, inspiration, relationship, responsibility for the world (the best bits of the sub culture of people who do adventure sports) might infect more mainstream culture, but of course now mainstream culture is more the lens through which these films are watched.

    I feel no need for another lengthy tome…I think we are all keen for the same thing…a better representation of women. Like I said before, that requires more inspired women, being filmed accurately, then shown on screen to inspire more women. This fantastic spiral is already happening (thanks anonymous fell runner) so bring it on.

    BTW, I am not part of ShAFF in an official way. I am Matt’s partner so get involved in thoughts and ideas, have watched it develop but I certainly make no decisions. I do think though, despite some practicalities of having the right clips in time for trailer production, that there may be more pictures of women sweaty, working hard and having fun in the trailer next year (dare I say?) as a result of healthy debate.

    If you come to ShAFF, it’d be great to meet you and chat properly about this. Blogging just isn’t spontaneous enough for me!

  2. Just a quick and final reply from me (Hannah). I’ll be out of contact for a while as I’m off to the Middle East soon for what I might cautiously call some adventuring, but if we’re needed for comments then someone else should be able to help over email.

    Emily, thanks for that reminder that not all sportspeople are young or of small build. Impressive and inspiring examples! Thanks for alerting me to your blog, too, which I’m going to enjoy reading.

    Anon, thanks for the support.

    Dave, a few points in response. First, as I’ve said a few times, the initial post was a response to the trailer and not to the festival as a whole. I do hope this isn’t seen as weaselling out of criticism – the trailer has a wide reach and I would assume was created as a taster of the festival’s offerings and aims, so it’s worth considering how successfully it manages to represent both of these. In terms of the point you make about the trailer not being the main means through which people become aware of the festival, I suspect that’s information which is available to you as a business partner of the festival, but it’s not something I would know how to begin finding out as a member of the public. I’d say similar about SHAFF’S employment practices and submissions procedures – the former is something I’m not privy to, the latter is just not something I’d be aware of from accessing the festival’s materials online as a potential attendee. Either way, as I mentioned above, the comments here aren’t about SHAFF but about how they represent themselves to people who would otherwise have little knowledge of them. Some of the levels of knowledge and research being demanded by people before we can make comment on the trailer are honestly greater than those I’d engage in before making a claim in my thesis.

    To respond to what you say about the majority of films being about men, hence the majority of men in the trailer: I’d say that if you want to change the world then you represent it as you’d like it to be, not as it is. So if you want to promote women in sport and make them feel more welcome, but there aren’t very many women in the sport at present, it does no harm to make them more prominent in a trailer. The same applies for – as you say, and as we say in the post – dis/ability, race, and so on. That’s certainly what we try to do in our promotional materials for groups that are underrepresented or historically marginalised in feminism.

    Finally, an observation on responses to criticism. We certainly don’t go out looking to get angry about everything, as I think lots of people assume that feminists do. It doesn’t give us joy to go around killing everyone else’s joy. We also sometimes get criticised by minority groups for similar issues around inclusiveness. When this happens, however, we’ve tried to use it as a chance for self-reflection on how we can improve, and if we disagree with the criticisms then we think about what we might have done wrong that could have given a false impression of our principles and practices. In contrast, a lot of the replies here and elsewhere to our post have said that we don’t know enough about sport to voice our own feelings that, from viewing the trailer, the festival didn’t feel like it was ‘for us’. Hardly a way to make people who felt alienated feel any less so!

    Lissa’s responses have been thoughtful and enlightening. At the same time, I notice from reading Lissa’s Sportsister article that almost exactly the same criticism was made of the ShAFF publicity materials and trailer last year. The solution would seem to be to make a trailer which is more representative of the festival’s actual commitments to gender equality, rather than to keep being criticised and having to repeat the same debate!

    In terms of being in the press, it’s cool if this does help raise the profile of women’s sports in the festival, but I find it a bit of a shame that we’ll be getting attention for something reactive rather than creative, in which we’re fulfilling everyone’s favourite stereotype of being miserable killjoys. We put on our own festival every year, with workshops on what we think are the most exciting topics in contemporary feminism, along with lots of gigs, and an Off the Shelf talk, and we’ve raised over £3000 for local charities since we started. In short, we do other things beyond ranting on the internet! Thanks again, Lissa, for the positive engagement and good luck with the festival.

  3. Dave says:

    I’ve resisted the temptation to post a comment partially because it would be the only male comment but have finally given in.
    As a business that supports ShAFF I’m appalled by the original post. One of the main reasons why we support the festival to the point of organising the photo exhibition and kit sale is their attitudes to equality. I’m not just talking about promoting women in sport but in actually treating EVERYONE as equals and with equal respect.
    Unlike many similar festivals they do not charge film makers to submit films – opening the field to less well off amateurs. They strongly promote youth interaction with the Young Adventurers theatre and screenings and a Young Adventurer space in the photo exhibition alongside world leading adventure photographers. The kit sale enables literally hundreds of people to buy serviceable equipment at affordable prices, and giving those on low income a chance to buy equipment normally well outside their budget. ShAFF promotes films about disabled athletes but as someone registered disabled myself I, and others, am absolutely delighted with the way everyone is treated completely equally with neither positive discrimination.
    As for being a large commercial festival with multiple paid employees………you couldn’t be further from the truth. The festival only functions because of its volunteers, who incidentally include a complete mix of male and female of almost every ethnicity and with and without disabilities. In short ShAFF is as good a representation of non discrimination as you’re likely to find but it does it in its actions rather than spouting on about it. And the reason they act rather than talk is something you’d soon discover if you went to ShAFF and met the people behind it, it’s because they believe in equality so deeply it’s embedded subconsciously in every decision they make.
    Is there a reason why there’s a male dominance to the trailer? Yes, because the vast majority of films are male dominated – that’s not the fault of the festival organisers. Is there a reason why the women all seem to look fit and toned? Hell yes there’s a reason – you don’t get to be as good as these athletes without taking care of yourself.
    As for the trailer being the primary means by which people will become aware of the festival a little research will reveal that the traffic generated through supporting media and social media not including the trailer is an order of magnitude higher than the number of trailer views.
    While I agree that there should be more films featuring female athletes I also think there should be more featuring ethic minorities – who are much more underrepresented, and more with disabled athletes I don’t think basing an attack on the festival that probably does more to foster a spirit of equality than any other is the way to reach those goals……especially if the attack is based on a 3 minute trailer of an event you haven’t attended.
    MyOutdoors supports and will continue to support ShAFF as a shining example of how to treat people equally in practice.

  4. Hi all,

    Thanks for all the debate & replies. We’re hugely grateful and listening and I’m writing a follow-up article to my piece for SportSister which will run next week. We might even end up with an Industry Hangout debate on this subject during the ShAFF weekend which would be v cool.

    Quick point of fact in reply to Hannah’s point saying: “You’re a major festival with paid employees, sponsors, funding and access to the press”. We’re dead chuffed that we come across this way but in fact we have no paid employees. Matt (of Heason Events) is a one man freelance business also organising 2 other festivals & the Cycle to the Cinema series and I’m a freelance PR who works for him just 2 days a week. It’s just loads of hard work which is why I’m writing this at 19.21 on a Friday night and will be finishing off the article in response to your post this weekend!! Everyone else are amazing volunteers & the Showroom team. A lot of sponsorship’s in kind so we’re not on big budgets raking in the cash. ShAFF is a labour of love & a festival we’re really passionate about.

    But more importantly, we’re just pleased to be having this debate and it’s great to get comments from people looking in from the outside as this is what keeps us on our toes. And huge credit to LaDIYFest for replying and hopefully by linking back to you in the SportSister article we’ll be getting you in the “national press” too!!

    Have a great weekend, Lissa Cook @Heason_Lissa

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi Sophie,
    I think the work SCHAFF are doing, both explicitly and implicitly, to promote adventuring women (in film) is really great. I came to see the documentary about the Dragon’s Back race a couple of years ago it’s that film’s featuring of Nicky Spinks, Helen Whitaker and Wendy Dodd (all over 50, come to mention it) that I really remember. I started fellrunning recently and that’s in no small part down to the prominence of inspiring women in the sport-films, festivals etc all contribute to this, as you have obviously recognised.
    I just think it’s a shame that the women in the trailer were so decorative-I’m sporty/outdoorish but not familiar with any of their names or specialisms, so to me, although I assumed they were there because of what they did, they were purely window-dressing. I’m not sure knowing who they were really matters though-they are still being presented as though what they do is less important than what they look like, a message that’s reinforced countless times for successful women across all male-dominated fields.
    I know the trailer did feature women and you and the rest of the SCHAFF have thought about this carefully. It’s a shame that the effort to screen films by women didn’t go very well, but making sure the festival presents women in a strong, positive way in its publicity is the first step to broadening access and participation. Apart from that I’m looking forward to the festival, and i hope the running of it goes smoothly for you!

    P.S. I’m nowhere near quick enough on my feet to be in a film, but if you ever want anyone to do a short* speech on why it’s bullshit that the women’s runningwear section looks like the under-5s doll aisle in Toys ‘R’ Us, I can help you out.

    *long, bitter.

  6. @Sophie: thanks for your comment. It was quite long, so this could be a long reply. Obviously you’re closely involved in organising the festival and so are very invested in how people respond to it. As we’ve said, it’s commendable that you’re conscious of the issues around women’s inclusion and representation in adventure sports and are trying to do something about it in the ways you’ve listed. However, I think it’s worth me adding here that we’re coming at this from very different angles: I’m a person who went to the cinema to watch a film, saw a trailer that I thought had some problems, talked to others who felt the same, and wrote a blog post about it. I do some sports but it’s not something in which I have the same passionate interest as you, so I wouldn’t recognise any of the people featured. However, the apparently stereotyped representations of women in trailer seemed to confirm other experiences I’d had about attitudes towards women in sports culture, and this was why it seemed worth writing about.

    While writing the post, I looked at your website and found the page on films with & by women, which suggested the organisers had a different view on women’s participation in adventure sports to the (to us) quite negative one which came across in the trailer. It appears later in the post because I encountered it much later on in my own narrative of thinking about this issue, and because most people viewing the trailer in the cinema would be unlikely to encounter it, as finding it required further research. The trailer is still the main way in which ShAFF is going to be encountered by most people, most of whom, like me, will also not recognise the people featured, which is why I concentrate on it for much of the post. If women in adventure sports is a major concern for the festival, as you’ve demonstrated that it is, I’d maintain that it really would seem helpful for the trailer to give more of a sense of this.

    In terms of right of reply, as I think you mentioned on twitter, this is a personal, quite informal blog and not a national newspaper, in which asking organisers for their comment would have been more appropriate. You’re a major festival with paid employees, sponsors, funding and access to the press; we’re a tiny group of people with very different and hectic day jobs, fighting an unpopular cause with little cash, and the Star has never said any more about us than a passing sarcastic comment implying that we are obsessed with toilets(!). I wasn’t expecting you to even notice the post (though it’s nice that you have) but there are already many ways in which your voice is more powerful than ours and will be more widely heard.

    I’m now going to respond to your claim that we did a ‘disservice’ to women in the trailer, because I’m quite bothered by it. A number of people (mainly organisers or those closely involved) seem to have commented on this, but it’s not something I considered when writing the post. I have no interest in attacking other women – the opposite, in fact. As a woman who works in a male-dominated field, I naturally want to support other women doing the same, because I know it can be tough. I wonder if the frequency with which people have commented on this aspect of the post stems from a misunderstanding: namely, that criticising the way a person is represented isn’t the same as criticising the person who is being represented, but is a criticism of the person who has created the representation, i.e. the trailer creator. If anything, I think that it would be this person who did the women a disservice (in combination of course with the sexist culture – speaking not just about sports but the wider world – in which this representation was produced).

    To make a comparison in case this helps with clarifying my point (I hope it doesn’t come across as patronising to do so): there was an image circulating recently of Mark Duggan, which was a larger view of the image that had circulated after he was killed. The first, smaller image made him look angry and was used by the right-wing press and police to imply that he was a criminal and therefore a legitimate target of police violence in the service of public safety – but the larger image showed that he was in fact at a funeral, suggesting that the expression interpreted as being of anger was more likely to be one of distress. The decontextualised, smaller image produced a particular impression of Duggan – but one which seemed inaccurate and problematic when the larger image was viewed. In the same way, the decontextualised clips of women seen in the trailer seemed to paint a negative and stereotyped image of women – but you say that the longer films give a different impression. I fully believe this and it’s good to know, yet it’s a shame that the trailer, which will be the experience most people have of the festival, doesn’t make this more apparent.

    In terms of the point about the naked skiing film, yes, I do think that including women from that clip might have seemed to us like objectification, because of the wider context in which images of naked women are used in our culture. However, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other clips of women doing cool things, fully-clothed, that could have been included. I highlighted that clip because it did seem like an encapsulation of a particular kind of macho, laddish, ‘banter’ sports culture – the sports team that strips off at any opportunity to show off their muscular physique and potentially to intimidate women or less ‘manly’ men. It reminded me of an experience as a 20-year-old undergraduate when walking home alone one night on an empty street – I encountered a large, drunk men’s university sports group, all naked except for shoes, who ran at me and tried to hug me. In hindsight the image is comic, but it felt threatening, and for others it could have been hugely (re-)traumatising. I know this is one anecdote, but I have other examples, and to me the story I’ve described seems indicative of wider issues which I’m raising here.

    I genuinely do wish you luck in your task of increasing women’s participation in adventure sports! We’re happy to share info on our facebook and twitter pages about things that you’re doing to work towards this.

    – Hannah

  7. As a feminist I was really interested to read your blog about ShAFF. I am the woman who curls up on the sofa in the winter months and helps screen most of the 250 films sent to Heason Events trying to get into ShAFF. I would call myself Ms Heason Events, except Lissa is Matt’s business partner and the real other half of the ShAFF team. She is not a woman to contend with; both she and I love adventures of our own kind. We have had many debates on the role of women in adventure films.
    It’s true, we can’t get away from it. There are not enough women in outdoor sports. Why? There have been so many articles on this topic. It is so much better now, I remember being the only woman on a crag, and regularly having to ignore some old man’s advice on how I could do it better. Now it’s awesome how many strong women climbers there are, loving what they do. But it’s also true that outdoor kit sponsors like pretty young women so they are the ones that can afford to carry on, or are publicised. Actually the industry really mainly sponsors ripped young men as well. It’s also really interesting how societal views that a lot of us try to get away from in the adventure sports world still are a lens through which we are watched. There are loads of naked women in the naked (dick grabbing) skiing film. But if they were in the trailer there would be accusations of objectifying the women.
    You’ve done quite some disservice to a few women in the trailer- the “young, slim, blonde woman” going for a run with a dog is Sarah Ridgway, an amazing mountain runner. There are two clips of Hazel Findlay, young, attractive and blonde for sure, but actually most climbers would recognise her as one of the best female climbers the UK has ever witnessed. There is a clip of her dancing on a small ledge in the dark halfway up a Big (and I mean Big) wall. That’s pretty adventurous if you ask me! I think (but haven’t checked it’s her’s) that there is a picture of the sailing boat that a 15 year old girl sailed around the world solo in.
    You’ve also done a bit of a disservice to ShAFF as well, waiting till your 10th paragraph to recognise the web page on films made with and by women. There’s a link to an interview with 3 women in the industry debating the lack of women in adventure sports films. A few years ago ShAFF tried a screening of films made by and with women; it wasn’t well enough attended. There was a symposium last year on women in adventure sport, I was really inspired by that.
    So, what do we do? Suggestions on the ShAFF facebook page, please. I really did spend many climbing club nights down the pub debating the under representation of women in the climbing world with a bunch of mates. One of us now works in Sports Development, another is a personal trainer for women who want to start sport, all of us have introduced other women to sport somehow or other. That’s where we can actually make a change so that there are enough films of women represented as the same as men in adventure films, by going and doing it, and filming it ourselves.

  8. I’d like to address the point of most professional adventurers being young – two of the most impressive achievers of the last few years are Rosie Swale Pope, who ran around the world (and through two Siberian winters) in her early sixties, and Diana Nyad, who became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida (102 miles!) when she was 64. Both, incidentally, are also female. See also Sarah Outen, who has rowed two oceans, kayaked the Channel and cycled across a continent, and is much more substantially built than any of the women in the trailer.

    I’d also contest the idea that ‘adventure’ necessarily means “hardcore acts of extreme sports”, but that’s perhaps a much longer argument, that isn’t entirely relevant here.

  9. Hi, thanks for the comment. I see your point about that clip being decontextualised in the trailer and we’re certainly not saying that the women depicted are ‘decorative’ in real life rather than being skilled athletes. Criticising other women isn’t something that, as feminists, we’re into. Clearly we’ve not had chance to see any of the films featured as the festival hasn’t started yet, so in the post we were talking about the ways the women were represented in the trailer by its creators, rather than by the original filmmakers. And regardless of the content of the film from which this clip was taken, in the trailer the sunset walk looked a lot less exciting to us than the boys’ activities.

    I don’t accept the point about the lack of ‘old fat ladies’ as I don’t think that’s an accurate way to characterise our argument. Besides, the person who featured most frequently in the trailer was an older man with a conspicuously massive grey beard, which would seem to undermine your claim that the filmmakers are just portraying a majority of young people by accident because younger people are more likely to be at their physical fitness peak. I think focusing on ‘old fat ladies’ sidesteps the wider diversity issue that we flag up here, which is that race, dis/ability, gender presentation and perceived attractiveness aren’t barriers to doing extreme sports, yet aren’t represented in the clip (I might need to watch it again to take a closer look at the men featured, but I don’t remember them being a particularly diverse group either). I know you can’t represent everything, but in three and a half minutes you surely have room to have a pretty good go.

  10. I think you should go watch the film that features the girl walking across the sunset, Hazel Findlay. You’ll see she’s being far from decorative! Also I think that most professional athletes will be young and at the peak of their physical fitness, hence the lack of old fat ladies in these films whose purpose is to show impressive, hardcore acts of extreme sports.

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