As blockbuster cinema overwhelmingly dominates our cultural discourse, the spotlight has fallen onto the women who are crafting the era’s new heroines. Female superheroes are billion-dollar hits, Oscar winners like Chloe Zhao are shaping cinematic universes, and a new dawn of icons is led by the likes of Carol Danvers, Furiosa, Rey, and Mako Mori. And accompanying each of these women is a stunt double to help kick all of that ass.
Stunt work has existed for as long as Hollywood has been making movies, and women were a key part of this burgeoning industry. At a time when stunts were wildly dangerous, women like Pearl White (nicknamed the Peerless Fearless Girl) and Grace Cunard threw themselves — often literally — into the action. During the Wild West of the early days of cinema, it wasn’t uncommon for leading ladies to be as brutally physical as their male counterparts. One actress, Helen Holmes, was known for leaping from moving trains to moving cars. Kathlyn Williams, the star of the 1913 serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, notably worked with wild animals, no cages in sight. Pearl White, the industry’s most popular star in 1916, headlined much-watched serials like The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine, which required her to learn everything from flying planes to swimming across river rapids. Alas, these pioneering women saw their places in cinematic history erased almost as soon as they stepped away from the spotlight. While it wasn’t uncommon at the time for men to dress in drag to act as stunt doubles for actresses — even Pearl White used such services when she suffered injuries — it soon became a disheartening default for the industry. But stunt women never disappeared.
Katie Rowe is the President of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures. She has credits on the likes of Swiss Army Man, Crank 2, and multiple episodes of CSI: Miami. “I’m sure it was a notion of civility that made people think they were keeping women safe 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 were women ready, willing, and able to do stunts on camera. These women were the true pioneers of the modern age of stunts and the Stuntwomen’s Association continues to this day supporting and promoting women not just as performers, but also as coordinators, 2nd Unit directors, and producers.”
Stunt performers used to be kept out of sight, partly to help maintain the illusion that the megastars in front of the camera really were doing it all themselves. Nowadays, even the biggest actors in the business proudly credit their stunt doubles. 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 baseline of who she is.” It’s not uncommon to see the likes of Reese Witherspoon sharing selfies with their doubles and celebrating their collaborations. Rowe notes that the rise in popularity of major franchises means that “we are seeing more and more female action leads” and with that, more work for stuntwomen. Yet there are still barriers in place.
The practice of “wigging”, to dress a man up as a woman for stunt double purposes, has never truly been erased, even as female stunt performers become more prevalent. In 2018, stunt performer Deven MacNair filed what was reported to be the first legal complaint against the “historical sexism” of wigging. She felt that she had been overlooked for a driving stunt on a film in favor of her male colleague, who put on a wig to double for Kate Bosworth. MacNair later told the Guardian that she felt her opposition to the practice had hurt her standing in the stunt world and hindered her ability to find work.
This historical sexism also has an insidious racist aspect to it. White performers have often been known to don blackface to double for Black actors, a practice known as “painting down.” While pioneering Black performers like Jadi David doubled for Pam Grier in the ‘70s, the racial disparities in the field have been exacerbated by such archaic practices. Crystal Santos, a stunt woman who campaigned against painting down, described it in a statement to Deadline as “unnecessary, antiquated, and lack moral decency.” Anjelika Washington, who stars on the CW’s Stargirl, spoke out on Instagram about a series she worked on in 2017 where she was given a white stunt double in blackface and a bad afro wig. She even shared a picture of her standing next to the performer.
Tiffany Abney, a stunt performer who has doubled for Gabrielle Union and Aisha Tyler, took to social media to highlight the problem at the time, tweeting: “I called on my fellow Black stuntmen and stuntwomen to post pictures of themselves on social with actors they’ve doubled using the hashtags #BlackStuntWomenExist, #BlackStuntMenExist, #BlackStuntDoublesExist, #BlackStuntPerformersExist.” Jwaundace “JC” Candece, who has performed stunts for the likes of Tiffany Haddish and Viola Davis, founded Stunt POC, an organization advocating for stunt performers of color that offers mentorship to younger Black stuntwomen trying to break into a business that frequently seems to forget they exist.
As stunt work becomes more prevalent in film, and its workers more openly celebrated, it remains galling that the Oscars continue to refuse to acknowledge it as worthy of celebration alongside their industry peers. Despite many years of campaigning from stunt performers and big-name Hollywood figures alike, the Academy is hesitant to introduce such a category. Rowe says, “Unfortunately, the Academy has been on a slow path to irrelevance for several years now. Hopefully, someday they will recognize no one goes to see ‘Casting Films’ or ‘Lighting Films.’ They do go to see ‘Action Films!'”
Gender parity is, as Rowe laments, something “we will probably never have,” but that progress is happening. Stunt performance continues to be a difficult and often dangerous job, with a 2018 piece from The Hollywood Reporter noting that there had been an increase in injuries and even deaths among performers. SAG-AFTRA put together a new pathway towards stunt coordinator eligibility designed to encourage gender and racial parity, and groups like the Stuntwomen’s Association continue to fight for opportunities, fair pay, and the appropriate safety measures. As Rowe says, “I’d like to see this path we are on continue. Women are being recognized and appreciated and hired for their skills. The door is open, it’s up to us to seize this moment.”