For years, the debate of the visibility of stunt performers has waged on, and for good reason. Although they put their lives at risk on the daily, the despairing reality is that they are hardly celebrated in the film industry’s biggest public platforms, including the most well-known awards ceremonies. And particularly in a time when the most prevalent onscreen trends lean toward dynamic tussles, haphazard car chases, and massive explosions (thanks, tentpole movies), stunts truly make up a huge chunk of effective storytelling.
But for as long as the realities of stuntwork have gone underappreciated, so has a disconcerting elephant in the room festered. The profession hasn’t always been the kindest to women, who find it hard enough to get hired for such jobs in the first place because of processes like “wigging,” where men double for women.
Furthermore, once stuntwomen do get on set, they are more likely to be physically injured on the job due to skimpy costumes that simply don’t accommodate enough protective padding. Add that to reports of harassment behind-the-scenes and it’s clear that film sets must do so much better to keep stuntwomen safe.
Thankfully, pockets of the film industry appear to be taking steps to reach parity in the stunt department as its more glamorous onscreen facet shifts towards increasing gender, race, and sexuality inclusion. The Hollywood Reporter’s feature on high-profile stuntwomen is the latest dissection of what it means to be empowered as “Hollywood’s most unsung behind-the-scenes heroes.”
In the piece, numerous actresses and their respective doubles discuss their work in some of the most enduring spaces in pop culture. These days, it happens to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DCTV. However, there is also the notable inclusion of a pioneering 1990s icon: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“Ultimately, if we were any part of shaping the path for other female shows, for women who could be strong, who could be sensitive, who could make mistakes and who could still kick some…bleep,” says Buffy lead Sarah Michelle Gellar in her THR interview while sitting between her erstwhile stunt team comprising Michele Waitman and Melissa Barker, “then I think we’re just honored to have been a part of that progression and I’m glad that we’re still part of that discussion.”
Gellar also affirms that actors and stunt doubles “are creating a character together” in their collaborations. After all, if a stunt performer was only present to take punches without the context of a story’s narrative flow, that would make for some tediously boring, meaningless action. Rather, doubles actually have the capacity to help actors develop core character traits in order to generate cohesive and memorable performances that can make or break a movie.
This is demonstrated when Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, in the Marvel films, commends her double C. C. Ice for understanding how to interpret her character’s complicated hand gestures and body movements. Meanwhile, MCU veteran Scarlett Johansson declares that she can totally rely on her double, Heidi Moneymaker, whom she has known for 10 years. They first began working together on Johansson’s MCU debut, Iron Man 2.
Apart from these group of women, we can note deliberate off-camera diversity in stunt departments this year. Avengers: Infinity War enlisted the skills of Monique Ganderton as its stunt coordinator, who fills the leadership role most commonly delegated to men. With her authoritative opportunity, she actively aimed for gender balance in her hires for the big blockbuster, stating to Bustle that, “I’ve always… looked forward to being in this position where I could hire a team and it be diverse. […] just really trying to represent every person in reality.”
Ganderton openly attests that the broadening of the stunt landscape could perhaps organically lead to a less hostile environment for all performers, as well, saying:
“I think that, especially in this business, the more we can give [stuntwomen] parts and have it be more fair for them in the stunt world, eventually it will build and maybe we’ll be able to support each other rather than competing against each other.”
This very sentiment is especially crucial for projects populated with characters of color (which frankly, in this day and age, it should be all of them). As Candice Patton of The Flash recounts to THR, having to witness white stuntpeople utilize brownface to double for black actors is completely unacceptable. Notably, Patton’s character in The CW superhero show, as well as other instances of diverse hiring in popular media, has been an important gateway for stuntwomen of color. Patton’s double, Rochelle Okoye, says:
“When I first started doubling, there wasn’t a lot of women of color playing [action, superhero] roles. It is great for me and other stuntwomen of color because it means more opportunity.”
This phenomenon of diversification isn’t just breaking barriers in the United States, either. For instance, stunt women in the United Kingdom are trying to change the game for themselves, too, and have found inspiration in the same inclusive stories that have found a wide audience, such as Marvel’s Black Panther.
Now more than ever, it’s obvious that we can’t just attribute our favorite characters to a single actor. Stunts are too vital to the movie community as a whole, let alone for it to remain the all-boys’ club of old. So, although there is still a long way for movie-making to go, honoring the incredible women who make our stories so much more immersive and intricate is a good place to start.