The Whitewater Kayaking Video that Has People in a Tizzy

Recently I’ve been seeing this video of a female whitewater kayaker making the rounds on Facebook, and it’s been pretty interesting to see the response. Most people appear to be put off by the title of the video, which is “Whitewater Woman Kills the Kayaker Sterotype” – in a sport where, I’ll agree, I don’t think there is much of a stereotype for the most part.

But aside from the title, which she likely had little to do with, I actually think it’s a really well done video and the kayaker, Maranda Stopol, appears to go out of her way to avoid perpetuating any stereotypes about either women or men in the video. So it was kind of eyebrow-raising to see her take heat in some of the online comments I read, kind of as though people got peeved at the title and then disregarded the actual video content. Clearly she is shown paddling with a guy and they both scout and unload boats together, and she mentions several times that many challenges in kayaking are personal and not gender-based. 

OK – for the record, I totally understand the annoyance with allusions to gender stereotypes in whitewater kayaking. I can’t speak for what it’s like in the rest of the country, or what it was like 15 or 25 years ago, but having started here in the Pacific Northwest in 2008 I can tell you I was amazed at how open and friendly the community was in general, and also by how encouraging and inclusive the male kayakers were. It’s one of the reason that for years I avoided “girl-only paddles” on principle, seeing as if the guys had held “guy-only paddles” I would have had no one to kayak with once I started getting out on III+ and beyond.

(I did start bending that principle a bit when I helped out on a girl’s paddle event organized by Ellie Wheat, one of the nicest and most generally inclusive people on the river, and realized that some of the girls who showed up would have been too intimidated to try running that river on a regular group paddle. So that was a bit of an eye-opener for me.)

In general though, the whole women’s empowerment thing in First World whitewater kayaking makes me form fists with my toes – especially because I’ve found it is sometimes highly promoted by women who in actual real life, ON THE RIVER WHERE IT COUNTS, are the last people to be inclusive or offer an encouraging word to their fellow ovary toter, especially if they feel like there’s any kind of ground for competition. So seriously – seeing them hashtag ‘girlpower’ on Facebook doesn’t quite make up for that gaping void. (Obviously I am not talking about Ellie here.)

But I don’t think Maranda makes a big deal about gender stuff in the video, and I do think she makes a valid point when she talks about media showing male whitewater kayakers running the gnar, and then the first photo of a woman will be in a spa scene. When I read kayaking magazines and as part of some gnar female kayaker coverage there’s a rear shot of them with their booty hanging out of a bikini in what is clearly a booty shot, I just wonder why this is marketed as female empowerment – especially when the paddler in question is supposedly all about that.

Basically, if the caption for the photo or video could just as easily read “Old, fat chicks need not apply”, it might be many things, including art, but chances are it’s not a women’s empowerment statement.

So here’s a thought: Whitewater kayaking is often referred to as “male dominated”, but if the guys are friendly and inclusive, isn’t it really just “male intensive”, which is about numbers and not attitude? Why make it sound like the guys are to blame for the fact that there are fewer female paddlers?

Anyway, ironically after saying all that, I think Maranda may have taken some extra heat in part because she is a female. That’s just my opinion, but it does seem awfully acceptable to pounce on women online these days. I’m in agreement with the people who felt the title is annoying and pretends to address a problem that doesn’t really exist, but what she said came across to me as well thought out, not stereotype-based, and honest.

I also liked that she’s not shown in there running something incredibly hard, seeing as that wasn’t really the point – even though she looks like a super smooth boater, with that relaxed but super “on it” posture that I strive for and usually manage to maintain on Class II+, but that typically flies out the window on Class IV (OK, Class III+) and beyond. :)

In searching around to figure out who the kayaker in the video was (Maranda’s name is mentioned in tiny letters in the very beginning) I found this quote by her from an interview for NRS’s Duct Tape Diaries“I think the best advice I could give is not necessarily specific to just women. Ironically, it’s something that my mom always told me: always treat others with humility and respect. I think by building mutual respect, women have more success empowering themselves and others by integrating rather than separating from men in the sport.”  Hard to argue with that.

Irene