Where Were the Women in Matchstick’s New Ski Film?
A year after groundbreaking inclusion, the on-screen slopes are back to a bro fest with 'Return to Send’er'
Skiers huck cliffs, then blast down spines of powder while a seventies rock tune swells. The trailer for Return to Send’er, which dropped August 6 by Matchstick Productions (MSP) ahead of the film’s September release, hits all the classic ski-film hallmarks. In the promo, a narrator says of the documentary’s 11 skiers: “A common thread binds those who dedicate themselves.”
But as a lifelong skier who sat through her first Warren Miller flick before I’d graduated from the snowplow, I don’t feel very tethered to the bros in the clip, elbowing each other around a campfire. Is the common thread that they’re all men? Because they’re all men.
Just one year ago, MSP published the promo for All In, its cast an equal gender split. For every Cody Townsend and Wiley Miller, there was a Michelle Parker and Elyse Saugstad. “This is a kick-ass ski film that just happens to feature as many women as men,” boasted the Crested Butte, Colorado, film house. Powder asked, “Is the Token Female in Ski Movies a Thing of the Past?” Now, a year later, there isn’t even a token.
It didn’t take long for critics to pepper MSP’s Instagram with sentiments like “Where are the ladies?!?!” and “Movie should be called ‘Sausage Party,’ I guess.” Director Scott Gaffney jumped in to defend the casting, posting, “Not one of our trusty four women from All In were available.”
Parker, a longtime MSP star, confirms that she was approached for Return to Send’er but was busy developing her own show with Red Bull TV. She heard that the other All In women were similarly committed or, in the case of Tatum Monod, injured. But once those “trusty four” were off the table, the bench of elite women skiers was, apparently, depressingly shallow.
Parker says she wished the revolutionary All In had led to a bigger pool of elite lady shredders. “We made a huge deal about having equality [last year]. That stands for something,” she says. But it didn’t seem to change much.
On Instagram, Gaffney dug in further. It’s not that this new film stars 11 guys, he wrote: “It’s really 4 principal athletes and the few friends they naturally brought along.” And when I’m attending a raucous preseason film screening this fall, dodging sticky puddles of beer and surrounded by more dudes than women, how many will think it’s “natural” to only invite other men to ski? I don’t expect elite riders to ski with me, but it’s a kick in the shins to learn that the next Parker or Monod isn’t on the must-hang list of the film’s elites.
MSP cofounder Murray Wais says that this year’s all-male cast is an outlier, and indeed, most of its past films included at least one woman. And besides, he thought the All In 50/50 feat would garner more media attention, but it “didn’t really seem to care,” he says, though he calls it a commercial success.
And MSP is hardly alone. On August 5, the Denver-based movie company Level 1 Productions dropped the trailer for its 20th and final annual ski flick, Romance. The promo of fist-pumping snow-sports porn credits a whopping 28 men. The closest thing to a token lady in the trailer is a half-second flash of a woman in a bikini, a shot that gets as much screen time as dogs humping in the snow.
Coalition Snow CEO Jen Gurecki says she doesn’t think the Matchstick crew is sexist, just “white dudes not thinking it through,” failing to recognize that gender equity takes ongoing, deliberate work. The women’s ski maker was the only brand name to comment on the imbalance on Instagram, and Gurecki notes that this all doesn’t bode well for the industry’s other issues, like racial diversity. “Talking about why there aren’t women is the easiest conversation,” she says.
The outlook isn’t all bleak; Winterland, the big 2019 film from Teton Gravity Research, based in Jackson, Wyoming, includes five women among its 23 stars. Freeskier Hadley Hammer, one of that handful, says the industry has moved past the token woman in a good way. “If you step back, it shows progress,” she says. “We’re in such high demand that we’re too busy to say yes to everything.”
(Now the pay gap is real, says Hammer. The fact that her male counterparts can afford trucks and snowmobiles makes it clear that sponsors dish out unequal amounts of pro snow cash. “I’m assuming we’re being paid a lot less,” she says. “Unless men are making really, really poor lifestyle choices.”)
“So baffled that a ‘boys club’ theme is considered a winning choice when deciding how to promote a sport. Is it really 2019?” commented Stephanie Peterson, a Seattle account manager, on the MSP Instagram post. Then later, “How is this not blatant bias and discrimination?” Gaffney sent her direct messages with an explanation: “We wanted a woman or two in our film (including as a principal star) but it didn’t work out. It’s that simple.” But the defense got, well, defensive, and he added, “Your vitriol about our movie has gone over the top…. I feel you’re diving too deep into this.” The fan clearly struck a nerve, and Gaffney has since said he regrets his wording.
For her part, All In star Saugstad thinks Return to Send’er represents a rare departure for MSR, not a new policy. Her take: limiting the potential audience of these preseason hypefests doesn’t make sense for anyone, sponsors or filmmakers. “Ski movies are about selling a dream, and that dream does not resonate with me when women are not included,” she said in an email.
Peterson’s been one of those buyers since college, when she didn’t really notice the dismal gender breakdown on-screen; with few female partners, she felt like the token woman herself. After films like All In, she says it’s far too late for the ski world to forgo female representation. “I don’t want to go back to accepting watching just male riders,” she says. “Women are hungry to join this sport. They want people to look up to.”