Stunt girls deserve big credit and a lot more respect

As blockbuster cinema overwhelmingly dominates our cultural discourse, the spotlight has fallen on the women who craft the new heroines of the time. Female superheroes are billion-dollar hits, Oscar winners like Chloe Zhao are shaping cinematic universes, and a new era of icons is being led by Carol Danvers, Furiosa, Rey and Mako Mori. And each of these women comes with a stunt double to help kick all that ass.

Stunt work has been around for as long as Hollywood has made movies, and women were a key part of this burgeoning industry. At a time when stunts were extremely dangerous, women like Pearl White (nicknamed the Peerless Fearless Girl) and Grace Cunard threw themselves – often quite literally – into the action. During the early Wild West of cinema, it was not uncommon for leading ladies to be as brutally physical as their male counterparts. One actress, Helen Holmes, was known to jump from moving trains to moving cars. Kathlyn Williams, the star of the 1913 series Kathlyn’s Adventures, worked especially with wild animals, no cages in sight. Pearl White, the industry’s most popular star in 1916, was the headliner of highly-watched soap operas like Pauline’s Perils and Elaine’s Achievements, which required him to learn everything from piloting airplanes to swimming through river rapids. Alas, these trailblazing women saw their place in film history erased almost as soon as they stepped away from the spotlight. While it was not uncommon at the time for men to dress in cross-dressing to act as stuntmen for actresses – even Pearl White used such services when she suffered injuries – it is quickly became a disheartening defect for the industry. But the stunt girls never went away.

Katie Rowe is the President of the Association of Cinema Stuntwomen. She has credits on the likes of Swiss army man, Crank 2and several episodes of Expert: Miami. “I’m sure it was a notion of civility that made people think they were protecting women from harm by not allowing them to do certain things,” she told us. “[Our organization] was founded to let stunt coordinators and casting directors know that there are women out there who are ready, willing, and able to perform stunts on camera. These women were the true pioneers of the modern stunt era and the Association of Stuntwomen continues to this day to support and promote women not only as performers but also as coordinators, 2nd unit directors and producers.

The stunt performers were kept out of sight, in part to help maintain the illusion that the megastars on camera were really doing everything themselves. Nowadays, even the greatest actors in the business proudly credit their stuntmen. Brie Larson brought her Captain Marvel stunt doubles, Joanna Bennett and Renae Moneymaker, on stage with her at the 2019 MTV Movie Awards, hailing them as “the living embodiment of Captain Marvel” and “the benchmark for who she is”. It’s not uncommon to see people like Reese Witherspoon sharing selfies with their doubles and celebrating their collaborations. Rowe notes that the rise in popularity of major franchises means that “we’re seeing more and more female action leads” and with that, more work for female stuntwomen. Yet barriers are still in place.

The practice of “wigging”, to dress a man as a woman for stunt double purposes, has never really been erased, even as stunt women become more common. In 2018, stuntman Deven MacNair filed what would have been the first legal complaint against the “historic sexism” of wigging. She felt she had been overlooked for a driving stunt on film in favor of her male colleague, who put on a wig to double-cross Kate Bosworth. MacNair later told the Guardian that she felt her opposition to the practice had hurt her standing in the stunt world and hampered her ability to find work.

This historical sexism also has an insidious racist aspect. White performers have often been known to don blackface to dub black actors, a practice known as “painting down”. As pioneering black performers like Jadi David dubbed for Pam Grier in the ’70s, racial disparities in the field have been exacerbated by such archaic practices. Crystal Santos, a stuntwoman who campaigned against bottom painting, described him in a statement to Deadline as “useless, antiquated and devoid of moral decency”. Anjelika Washington, who plays on The CWstar girl, expressed himself on Instagram about a series she worked on in 2017 where she was given a white blackface double and a bad afro wig. She even shared a photo of herself standing next to the performer.

Tiffany Abney, a stuntwoman who has doubled for Gabrielle Union and Aisha Tyler, took to social media to highlight the issue at the time, tweeting: “I called on my fellow black stunt performers to post photos of ‘themselves on social networks with actors they I dubbed using the hashtags #BlackStuntWomenExist, #BlackStuntMenExist, #BlackStuntDoublesExist, #BlackStuntPerformersExist. Jwaundace “JC” Candece, who performed stunts for Tiffany Haddish and Viola Davis, founded Stunt POCa stuntman advocacy organization of color that offers mentorship to young black stuntwomen trying to break into a business that often seems to forget it exists.

As stunt work becomes more prevalent in film and its workers are more openly celebrated, it remains infuriating that the Oscars continue to refuse to recognize it as worthy of celebration alongside their industry peers. Despite many years of campaigning by stuntmen and Hollywood personalities, the Academy is reluctant to introduce such a category. Rowe says: “Unfortunately, the Academy has been on a slow road to irrelevance for several years now. Hopefully one day they will recognize that no one is going to see ‘Casting Films’ or ‘Lighting Films’. They’re going to see ‘Action Films!’ »

Gender parity is, as Rowe laments, something “we’ll probably never have,” but that progress is happening. Stunts continue to be hard and often dangerous work, with a 2018 piece from The Hollywood Reporter noting that there had been an increase in injuries and even deaths among performers. SAG-AFTRA has established a new pathway to stunt coordinator eligibility designed to encourage gender and racial parity, and groups like the Stunt Girls Association continue to fight for opportunities, fair pay and appropriate security measures. As Rowe says, “I’d like to see this path we’re on continue. Women are recognized, appreciated and hired for their skills. The door is open, it’s up to us to seize this moment.