On Sexism in Urbex.

In a mission strategically planned to coincide with Chinese New Year, Russian rooftoppers Vadim Makhorov (aka Vadim Mahora) and Vitaly Raskalov (aka Vitaly Raskalovym) infiltrated and scaled the world’s second tallest building, the 650-meter Shanghai Tower. Their brilliant ascent was documented in photos and video taken by both climbers:

But while Makhorov and Raskalov may have set a new bar in terms of both their daring and the sheer height they managed to achieve in February 2014, they are not alone in practicing their craft. “Rooftopping” or “skywalking,” which has grown in popularity over the past several years, originated in Moscow and has since spread to other major metropolitan areas including Toronto, London, and Sydney.

Eleven months ago, urbexer and parkour enthusiast James Kingston gained international recognition for a video he uploaded to YouTube entitled “POV Crane Climb in Southampton, UK with James Kingston – GoPro”:

Meanwhile, Bradley Garrett–who is currently on trial in the U.K. for his “place-hacking” exploits–has been profiled in a glossy GQ spread which also printed some photos taken during his ascents of cranes, bridges, and buildings worldwide.

As an urbexer myself, I respect and admire the work of these and many other, lesser-known explorers. I love urbex and consider all of these guys to be my colleagues–even the ones I haven’t (yet) met or worked directly with….

….which is why I am dismayed to report that urbex as a subculture is arguably as male-dominated and blatantly sexist as the video game industry.

I have always been aware of this somewhere, in the back of my head. It’s not like this is some new, earth-shattering revelation for me. It explains why, in online forums, I intentionally use “masculine”-sounding handles and don’t ever correct interlocutors who assume (based on my Internet persona) that I am a man. I intentionally seek to pass as male online because I know it benefits me; I’m taken seriously when I’m assumed to be a man. Today, though, I saw something that forced me to confront how sexist the urbex world can be. While flipping through rooftopping videos in order to study the performances of other urbexers and get a feel for their different climbing techniques, I encountered this:

Dated 2012, it depicts the then 20-year-old Marina Bezrukova walking precariously along the baby-blue ledge of an imposing Moscow high-rise. Immediately intrigued by the footage because of the rarity of female urbexers in general and rooftoppers in particular, I decided to do a bit of Googling and find out more about Marina. To say that the results of my Google search were depressing would be putting it mildly.

Newsweek author Michael Carroll’s account of Marina’s rooftop expedition reads:

In August 2012, Marina Bezrukova, a 20-year-old maths student, became the world’s best-known female skywalker after strapping on a head-mounted video camera and balancing 125-metres from a Moscow ledge. Her footage caught dramatic views of the city below, as well as her ample curves (bold emphasis mine).

The “best-known” female rooftopper is apparently known not just for the feat she performed–unlike, say, Makhorov, Raskalov, Kingston, and Garrett–but for her “ample curves.” Sadly, the Newsweek write-up is one of the classiest. Yes, I said “classiest.”

For comparison, here is the International Business Times‘ take on Bezrukova’s accomplishment:

The YouTube video of a Russian “skywalker” with a strategically placed video camera has erupted on the Internet. The video, which depicts a young woman balancing on a beam high in the air, gained so much notoriety because the camera is focused just as much on her cleavage as on the scary balancing act.

Marina Bezrukova, who now might be better known as the “breastwalker,” is a member of the Moscow-based rope jumping team MADS, according to the description under the video on YouTube. She’s shown walking several dozens of meters on a narrow beam outside a Moscow highrise apartment complex. The video is just the latest in the “skywalkers” series MADS has released, but certainly the one that has gained the most attention.

Beruzkova reportedly said that she joined the rope-jumping team because she wanted to overcome her fear of heights and learn how to stay in control.

The video was first posted on LiveLeak.com on Monday and has already been viewed almost 200,000 times and garnered more than 1,000 comments. Not surprisingly, the reaction around the Internet has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Nice aerial view, literally,” commented one YouTube user. “I never saw the ground,” added someone else (bold emphasis mine).

The title of that article from the International Business Times, by the way, is “Russian ‘Skywalker’ Films Cleavage As She Balances On Roof, Known As ‘Breastwalker.'”

A YouTube search of Marina’s full name reveals that she is consistently labeled, in multiple languages, as “the blond” or “the blond Russian.” One person who re-posted her video on another site bluntly re-named it “The View is Nice on More than One Level.”

Contrast descriptions of Marina with those of her male counterparts. In the Newsweek article, Mahora, Raskalov, and other young men are identified first and foremost by the feats they perform:

The 24-year-old Russian [Mahora] from Novosibirsk became the first person to reach the 632-meter top of one of the world’s tallest towers last February. His ascent was strictly unauthorised. He outwitted security guards to make the two-hour climb, then took out his smartphone and posted his video online from above the clouds (bold emphasis mine).

And:

Without safety equipment, they scale the summits of skyscrapers to perform high-adrenaline balancing acts. Using the stairs, they climb the last 50 metres or so on the outside of the structure (bold emphasis mine).

And:

Not surprisingly the online posts emphasise the risks they face in performing their stunts. One daredevil living in Moscow, Max Polazov, is now a professional photographer who made his name by capturing stomach-churning selfies of himself performing handstands hundreds of metres above the Moscow streets (bold emphasis mine).

When and if their attire is mentioned, it is to underscore their bravery and/or skill, as when Carroll of Newsweek writes: “Wearing ordinary clothing and trainers, they take nothing more than a smartphone or a head-mounted video camera. They often work in pairs, taking turns to pose in extraordinary positions at dizzying heights” (bold emphasis mine). The “ordinary” quality of their clothing belies their hidden abilities and sets them apart from professionally trained “stuntmen,” making their accomplishments all the more impressive.

In another instance, the Newsweek author uses the young men’s clothing choices as a way of illustrating their cunning and intelligence:

They see themselves as urban free-climbers who use clever ploys to outwit the authorities in their race to the top. One tactic is to pose as entrepreneurs and book a business meeting with staff on the upper levels of the targeted building. Once the meeting ends, they take the lift to the top, peel off their smart suits to reveal ordinary clothes underneath and head for the nearest window (bold emphasis mine).

Again, the function of “ordinary” in this sartorial context is to act as a counterpoint which emphasizes exactly what is not “ordinary”–but rather very much extraordinary–about the skywalkers. Nowhere in the article do we learn about any of the Russian men’s hair color, eye color, physical build, or potential sex appeal. [1]

While we do learn about Bradley Garrett’s appearance in the GQ article chronicling his exploits, Garrett is not overtly sexualized, nor is his credibility (as either an explorer or an academic) compromised by the manner in which he is portrayed:

Despite his scholarly bona fides—his doctoral work in geography at Royal Holloway, University of London had garnered wide acclaim—Garrett scarcely looks the part of an academic, neither tweedy nor fusty. Thirty-two years old, with a trimmed goatee and a mop of straight brown hair hanging over black plastic frames, he grew up in Southern California and ran a skate shop before deciding to pursue a doctorate. His face, which is frequently lit up in mischievous, eyebrow-raised delight, still bears the pocks of over a dozen piercings he dispensed with in the interests of maintaining some veneer of academic respectability (bold emphasis mine).

In fact, the effect is the opposite. Garrett not “look[ing] the part of an academic” is a plus, since (unlike most academics?) he isn’t “tweedy” or “fusty.” The details about his “trimmed goatee” and “mop” of hair as well as “black plastic frames” and “pocks of over a dozen piercings” combine to create an image of a very cool professor: this professor is punk rock. He’s a hipster. This is the professor every millenial everywhere would want to have. Ironic, cool. A brand unto himself. He’s got an interesting backstory, but also knows how to maintain “academic respectability.” He can simultaneously be all of these things–punk and professor, explorer and intellectual–because he is a well-educated white man. He can be all of these things and still command the respect of his academic colleagues and his fellow urbexers. He is the modern-day version of Luís Vaz de Camões’ intrepid Portuguese explorers forever glorified in The Lusiads. He is, in short, a perfect Renaissance balance of arms and letters.

The photos in GQ fit the hipster-prof image of Garrett so deftly constructed by Matthew Power, the piece’s author. There is Garrett, perched dynamically atop a crane. There he is again in an array of action shots: climbing, standing, looking down over cities. His male buddies stand atop things as well, their arms extended joyfully into the air. They act. They occupy space. They are men.

Though GQ is a bit more even-handed than Newsweek or the International Business Times–not going out of its way (seemingly, at first glance) to sexualize female explorers–I can’t help but realize that the only woman profiled, an urbexer going by the pseudonym of “Helen,” is singled out as:

[…] a strawberry-blonde 23-year-old photographer from northeast England, who goes by the nickname Urban Fox. Helen loved climbing bridges more than anything: Her website showed a nighttime self-portrait, taken high atop the Manhattan Bridge, posed au naturel. 

Because it’s evidently not enough to inform the readership of GQ once that Helen has posed naked, the article’s primary photograph of her also bears the caption: “Helen, who once posed in the buff atop the Manhattan Bridge, explores Paris’s catacombs.”

Got that, everyone? SHE WAS NAKED.

It’s also worthwhile to examine the characterization of Helen quoted above in its original context, which is as part of a segment designed to introduce the reader to the cast of characters with whom Garrett runs:

I was crammed into the backseat with several visiting explorers: A computer programmer from France named Marc who goes by the nom de Urbex Explo; Luca, a 28-year-old intensive-care doctor from Italy with a penchant for subterranean exploration; and Helen*, a strawberry-blonde 23-year-old photographer from northeast England, who goes by the nickname Urban Fox. Helen loved climbing bridges more than anything: Her website showed a nighttime self-portrait, taken high atop the Manhattan Bridge, posed au naturel. Given that our first adventure was subterranean, its only obvious omission was the group’s underground guru, Greg—nicknamed Otter after going headfirst into a sewer. Otter had an almost Aspergerian level of knowledge covering the hundreds of miles of sewer tunnels, storm drainages, and underground rivers that snake beneath London. The rest of the crew joke that he’s a “drainspotter.” He had been arrested in the sweep that nabbed Garrett and had a prior court order banning him from exploring in London.

Again, notice the manner in which the male explorers are depicted as compared to the lone female explorer. They are defined by their profession, country of origin, interests, knowledge, and skills. None except Helen is described physically (i.e. – hair color) or explicitly sexualized in any way. The author makes a point of including Helen’s nude self-portrait–a titillating detail he could just as easily have omitted.

The cherry on top of the sundae is that the aforementioned nude photo is buried pretty deeply in “Helen’s” website. Good luck finding it. (I did after around 30 minutes of looking.) The GQ author clearly had to search for and highlight it–deliberately favoring it over the vast range of non-nude alternatives on “Helen’s” site.

To more clearly explicate the differences between portrayals of male and female urbexers, behold one of the most famous stills from James Kingston‘s “POV crane” video:

DCIM100GOPRO

Photo credit: James Kingston

Not to be crude, but what if as an experiment we framed this image in much the same manner as Marina Bezrukova’s video footage and stills have been framed over the past two years? Bezrukova made one video, but Kingston’s website actually contains many, many stills from this same perspective.

I’ll adapt the International Business Times passage I cited earlier, since it’s a convenient template:

The YouTube video of a British “skywalker” with a strategically placed video camera has erupted on the Internet. The video, which depicts a young man hanging by one arm from a crane high in the air, gained so much notoriety because the camera is focused just as much on his package as on the scary balancing act.

James Kingston, who now might be better known as the “dickwalker,” is an avid practitioner of parkour, according to the description under the video on YouTube. He’s shown hanging from a crane 50 meters in the air. The video is just the latest in the “skywalkers” series on YouTube but certainly the one that has gained the most attention.

Kingston reportedly began “rooftopping” because he wanted to overcome his fear of heights.

The video was first posted on YouTube in June 2013 and has already been viewed more than 2 million times and garnered more than 4,000 comments. Not surprisingly, the reaction around the Internet has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Nice aerial view, literally,” commented one YouTube user. “I never saw the ground,” added someone else.

Here’s my re-make of the Newsweek quotation as well: “His footage caught dramatic views of the city below, as well as his ample package.”

Finally, the GQ take on the situation might read something like: “James [was] a sandy brunette 22-year-old photographer from Southampton. He loved climbing cranes more than anything: His website showed numerous self-portraits, taken high atop cranes and bridges, focused squarely on his crotch area.”

Perhaps to sexualize Kingston’s clothing, we could incorporate a comment like: “His skinny jeans perfectly accentuated every aspect of his package and also clung tightly to his slender and shapely legs.”

I’ve made my point.

It would be bad enough if sexism in urbex were confined to the sport/hobby/practice being male-dominated to begin with and encouraging sexualized descriptions of and commentary on the few women urbexers, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

Many male urbexers seem to view women as props or accessories rather than as fellow explorers. Rolling Stone notes: “For safety, roofers climb in pairs and often with a girl in tow. ‘The best team to go up is two lads and a girl,’ says Vasilisa. ‘Two can help each other and the girl can soften the situation. We say, we have an anniversary. We think something up. It really helps.'”

The girl is “in tow” and her role is to “soften the situation” if the boys get caught. The sample excuse provided is also telling: “We have an anniversary”–of course, a romantic interlude. Naturally the (male) police or (male) security guard(s) will go easier on the boys (and the girl “in tow”) if they believe that the ascension is an attempt at a romantic gesture–something the boy is doing to impress “the girl.” A date, really. “The girl’s” role is passive almost to the extent of being non-participatory. She is, literally, nothing more than a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for the boys, who are the only true, active participants of rooftopping and the heroes of each and every climb.

Interestingly, there seems to be a tradition among male urbexers of taking nude or semi-nude photos of women in abandoned buildings and other “risky” locations. Googling “nude urbex” will bring up a starter kit of images for the curious.

When women and girls are not being asked to act as “models, they are often photographed in remarkably docile postures and scenarios versus their male counterparts. I leave you with these two sets of images of “rooftoppers,” both culled from Kirill Vselensky’s Instagram account:

Women “rooftoppers”:

http://instagram.com/p/hVwGTBoBf1/

http://instagram.com/p/j0LVXEoBf9/

http://instagram.com/p/mp7HKVoBav/

http://instagram.com/p/m52h43IBbh/

http://instagram.com/p/nQ1gIUoBbN/

Men “rooftoppers”:

http://instagram.com/p/mZbYMtIBeZ/

http://instagram.com/p/mQxNoVoBQI/

http://instagram.com/p/mSdk-6IBa5/

http://instagram.com/p/mA7ALFIBVL/

http://instagram.com/p/j_f2LMIBVd/

***FIRST DRAFT – MONDAY, MAY 13th, 2014. 00:16H EDT***

Notes

1 – I’m not counting the one brief instance in which Max Polazov is quoted in the first-person as saying: “[…] I have been athletic my entire life, so I know my capabilities.” Polazov himself selects the adjective “athletic”; it’s not being applied to him by the author of the article or anyone else. Further, Polazov clearly prides himself on being “athletic,” in that he follows the description with an assertion of his intellectual and physical prowess: “[…] I know my capabilities.”

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6 Responses to On Sexism in Urbex.

  1. londryfairy says:

    I wouldn’t deny that there is a strong thread of sexism. I would add that these women are complicit. They pose for the pictures, wear tanks instead of t-shirts, accompany male Urbexers with the knowledge of their “role,” and preview their own videos before posting (then choose to post them). Perhaps, a female Ubexer should start an all female group with an eye to changing the image of female Urbexers. As an all female group, in a male dominated sport, perhaps it could draw enough attention to counter balance. It might work even better if there was a “brother” group that would help promote a greater respect and less sexualized view of their “sister” Urbexers. It would rock if as a group the women had some “firsts” to demonstrate their prowess. I’m not sure what if any feedback you were looking for. I did note that this was marked as a draft. The writers you quote chose to sexualize the women. Writing an article about Urbexers, I assume they had a male target audience. Sensationalizing certain aspects will certainly draw readership. I don’t like it either.

  2. elizabeth says:

    I read this piece and your other on the pedagogy of urban exploration back to back. I think they’re both wonderfully written and thoughtful. In your pedagogy essay, you argue that urban exploration is a “sport for the poor,” and your point about the hobby being removed from systems of consumption is well taken. However, urban exploration certainly has its own system of capital built around status, and this status is awarded to men by men. Usually, white men of at least some disposable income (cameras, travel, a job that would look the other way on a minor trespassing charge, etc). I’ve been exploring for ten years, and gradually came to the conclusion that despite the democratic principles of urban exploration, the “places you aren’t supposed to go” look and feel a lot different as a woman (or person of color) and there’s little room for the hobby to acknowledge that. But very happy to have stumbled across your essay. Best wishes.

  3. Gillooly says:

    Ahem.
    Eyes are up here, thankyouverymuch.

  4. nevr says:

    thank you so much for writing this, i’m angry about a lot of things but mostly about the blatant sexism in both urbx and graff communities

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