Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Great Outdoors: Room for All?

The path for outdoorswomen isn't always clear-cut to navigate. Is a lack of media representation to blame?  ♦ 
YETI brand coolers are tough. The outdoors company sells hard-shelled coolers under names like the “Tundra Haul” and “Roadie” and measures the volume of its products by how many cans of beer can fit inside (up to 259 cans, should your hiking trip need to be that boozed). Created in 2006 by brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders, the company initially only sold these coolers but has since built its brand to include merchandise like hats, clothing, and travel mugs with the YETI logo. The merchandise, not the sale of actual coolers, makes up the bulk of YETI’s growing profits that tripled between 2014 and 2015 alone. Why has the image and appeal of YETI begun to overshadow their products?

YETI grew its brand recognition by seeking influencers on social media and in the outdoors world to make brand representatives out of them. These “YETI Ambassadors” include world-class hunters, pro-outdoor sports athletes, and adventurers who embody the tough, free-wheeling spirit their coolers supposedly invoke. It also built up a loyal base by producing gorgeous short films, which are distributed through its social channels, particularly YouTube.

The YETI Presents series shows badass ambassadors skiing down pristine snow-capped mountains or wrangling massive boars to throw on the barbecue. While the scenery of each video is captivating and the characters in them wild, eventually a pattern begins to emerge. These outdoors people are sinewy, have wiry overgrown beards and are each dedicated to their unique passion in the wilderness. Almost every YETI video has one thing in common: they overwhelmingly feature men.
   Masculinity and the “wilderness” have had a long history together in the U.S., from the ambitious writings of Whitman, the explorations of Lewis and Clarke, and from John Ford’s westerns to the westward expansion. The messages in the media have been clear: little boys go outside and get dirty while little girls stay indoors and play house. A study by the Girl Scout Research Institute found that preschool-aged girls are 16 percent less likely to be taken outside by their parents to play than boys their age. What you’re exposed to as a child shapes your relationship to it, and girls who do not have the chance to connect to nature as children may very well not seek out the outdoors as adults.

The outdoors continues to be a realm where women do not seem to venture with the same frequency as men. In 2016, an online women’s rock climbing community put out a survey of 1,500 responses that found many women experienced sexism both in climbing gyms and in the outdoors, with 65 percent of women reported experiencing microaggressions from men while climbing, and 64 percent of women reported that they felt uncomfortable in certain areas of the gym, largely due to unwanted staring (39 percent) and unsolicited climbing advice (32 percent) from men.

The lack of representation of women in the outdoors seems to transfer to the media that had arisen around the outdoors lifestyle. SURFER Magazine, for example, calls itself the “bible of the sport.” While the June 2018 “Surfing: Through Her Eyes” special issue featured a woman on the cover, no other cover of the past years’ worth of issues featured a woman (seven men were featured and five issues didn’t include people on the cover).

Mickey, a whitewater rafting guide who has worked four seasons on the Arkansas River (the most heavily rafted river in the U.S.) gave an inside look at what it’s like to be a professional outdoorswoman, behind the statistics and the magazines.

“It feels like you have to do more,” she said. “It’s possible to be recognized but you have to give a hundred percent every day to be recognized at the same level as the male raft guides.”

The company she rafts for is one of the good ones—she estimated the gender divide among guides is about 50/50 (which isn’t bad compared to other companies which only have one or zero female guides) but the male spirit of the sport permeates even her oasis. Given the male-dominated culture at some rafting companies, female raft guides are often the punchline of lewd and inappropriate jokes.

She outlined how many rafting companies are hierarchal; the longer you’ve been there the more respect you have, and the most respected also tend to be men.

“We have this old rafting dude named Kurt [name changed], and he gives women these long hugs we call ‘Kurto hugs’ where he puts his crotch in right on top of yours before even going in for the hug, then he holds you for way too long.”

Mickey said she receives these Kurto hugs because she was one of the few women who Kurt decided he liked and would always compliment her on her job on the river, whether she had actually done well or not. Her friend “Hotdog” was not one of the chosen women.

“I had the opposite experience of Hotdog. Kurt always complained about being put on a raft trip with her and would yell at her regardless of how well she rafted. He once threw his helmet at her,” Mickey recalled.

Once, Mickey and Hotdog were on a five-boat trip with Kurt with three female guides and two males, and they overheard Kurt say to the other man, “There’s too many bitches on this trip” in exasperation. Regardless of these interactions, Kurt’s position in the company is clear. “He is the most experienced and therefore respected guide at the company,” Mickey said.

Whitewater rafting is a bit of a niche outdoor sport. Leading trips means Mickey has to command customers to paddle on cue and lean a certain way; they have to trust her judgment for the safety of the entire crew. Unfortunately, the sexism doesn’t stem only from other guides.

“Every single Boy Scout dad tries to mansplain the river to the female raft guides, telling them where the rocks are,” Mickey said. “It’s so common, it’s basically a trope. Sometimes it’s bad enough that they will do different paddle strokes than what you’re telling them to do. I use a deeper voice when talking to a boatload of men so they can take me more seriously and we can all make it safely down the river.”

Given all the challenges, it’s easy to wonder what makes Mickey continue to return to the Arkansas River season after season. “There’s a certain camaraderie between female raft guides that shouldn’t go unnoticed. I basically know all the women on the river, and we all know what it’s like to constantly prove yourself. We definitely have each other’s back, and there’s also something special about being a female raft guide because there are so few.”

It’s entirely possible that the obstacles that women like Mickey face in outdoor sports are not directly related to the lack of media representation of outdoorswomen. But even if it’s not part of the problem, increasing the amount of representation could be part of the solution. In the meantime, it’s clear that plenty of progress still needs to be made. YETI Presents has a video detailing whitewater boating, titled “In Current,” which features raft guide Amber Shannon. At first glance, the video seems like progress, as Amber’s voiceover details how she always longed to be near rivers as a child. However, about a minute in, the voiceover switches to the bedraggled man sitting behind Amber as she rows, identified as John Shocklee.

“Rowing the Grand Canyon is the most coveted job in the world. The kids that want this job, they understand that,” he said. “They have to prove it to me that they can do it. You gotta get through me first.”

Is it the kids who have to get through the gatekeepers of the outdoors, or is it the women? Shocklee seems to be optimistic about Amber’s future, ending the video by saying, “Yeah, she’ll prove herself.”

  • About the Author
    Phoebe Myers once debated the merits of the Harry Potter series with a monk in Thailand. Her nonfiction has been published on the blog for Tricycle, the national Buddhist magazine, and her poems and essays have appeared in the journals Inklings and East End Elements, with a video essay forthcoming in The Florida Review's online counterpart Aquifer. Her nonfiction essay won second place in the 2016 Creative Writing Awards for College Writers sponsored by the SCCC Creative Writing Festival. She is a senior at Miami University in Ohio, and is currently choosing a Creative Writing MFA program to attend this upcoming school year.

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