Ambient Dominion: How 'Free Solo' Points to An Epidemic of Toxic Masculinity
“One of our people in the Native community said the difference between white people and Indians is that Indian people know they are oppressed but don’t feel powerless. White people don’t feel oppressed, but feel powerless. Deconstruct that disempowerment. Part of the mythology that they’ve been teaching you is that you have no power. Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. It is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth.”
― Winona LaDuke
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
Last June, when Alex Honnold completed his free solo of El Cap, just across the mountains I was spending time in Payahüünadü, what many climbers know as Bishop, California. It is a premiere climber destination because of its bouldering fields and its proximity to Yosemite. It’s during this time that I got to know Jolie Varela who was in the beginning stages of creating her organization, Indigenous Women Hike (IWH). Through IWH, Varela gathered fellow Indigenous women to reclaim the Nüümü Poyo, a system of ancestral trades routes that follow the Sierra mountain range from Yosemite to Tumunguya (Mount Whitney). The Nüümü Poyo, which means the Paiute Road or Paiute Trail (directly translated as the People’s Trail), has for too long been commercially known as, “The John Muir Trail.” Varela, accompanied by Indigenous women from all over, traveled 190 miles through the mountains to set the record straight this last summer, one year after we met, and one year after Honnold completed Freerider without a rope.
Building a friendship with Jolie and learning more about the history of the land and her people, it became clear how much work needs to be done to disrupt the persistent settler-colonial practices, behaviors, and narratives happening in the outdoor industry. I was also seeing clearly how much I needed to work on myself as a settler colluding with these systems of oppression.
Just south of Payahüünadü, in the abundance of space that a desert provides, lies Manzanar, the site of one of ten Japanese-American internment camps where over 110,000 Americans were interned during World War II from 1942-1945. Visiting this historical site at the end of the summer was chilling against the backdrop of stunning mountains and warm, high desert air. These painful memories of our past, along with ongoing colonization, are still felt by all of us, and still impact our communities, relationships, and daily lives.
My visit to Manzanar was juxtaposed with the hype surrounding Alex Honnold’s climb. A headline from Men’s Journal reads, “How Alex Honnold Got Strong and Conquered El Cap for ‘Free Solo.’” Honnold’s glory, and that of those before him, like Dean Potter and Tommy Caldwell, come at a historically violent cost. It is important to remember that the land that has given Honnold his fame, is land that belongs to the still thriving Miwok people. And the trails that wind through Yosemite are trails that have long been traveled by neighboring Indigenous communities like the Paiute, Washoe, Yokut, Miwok, Newe (Western Shoshone), and Tongva, for time immemorial -- the trails that were the catalyst for Varela starting IWH. Varela told me that while she was hiking the Nüümü Poyo they found abalone on the trail, which meant that coastal tribes traveled the trails as well. Yet, these traces of the original inhabitants of this land are obscured, stolen, or put away in museums.
It’s clear that this isn’t something that is at the forefront of Honnold’s concerns. In a promotional film for Free Solo he says, “I think Yosemite is the most beautiful place on earth. It’s home to so many of the most iconic walls in the world.” His word choice of “home” is unsettling because it is such a fundamental concept, of which he applies to the rock, but leaves out the fact that communities of people have considered Yosemite “home” for centuries. He forgets to take account of this glaring truth. It’s in this choice, to value this sacred land for its aesthetics alone without consideration of the history of that land and therefore, the people of that land, that promotes a culture that chooses to keep our ugly past in the closet. It’s in this absence of acknowledgment that Honnold denies his responsibility to name structural oppression and his role in maintaining it.
Erasure is pervasive in the books that make up the environmental canon. Ongoing colonization is not spoken of in the books of men like John Muir and Edward Abbey. It is not discussed by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, when he is sitting on a panel. Outdoor media is starting to slowly address this somewhat, but we still see begrudging articles in Climbing magazine that read, “Should Climbing (And Climbing Magazine) Be Political?” A naive and arrogant question that implies that politics can somehow be separated from anything that we do. People who entertain this absurdity are usually white, and are even more usually men. These are the kind of men who dismiss discussions about race, class, and gender as getting caught up in “identity politics” -- an easy way to avoid looking at how in the climbing community, just like any other space in our society, there exists threats to the inalienable rights of all.
Ahistorical narratives are constantly being pushed in the outdoor industry because there are those in power who wish so badly to be exempt from politics. A recent example of this is the film Free Solo, which documents Alex Honnold’s ropeless ascent of El Cap in Yosemite. The film glorifies climbing, a sport that continuously leaves out the historical, social, and economic significance of being in sacred spaces like Yosemite. The film, as well as the larger climbing community, puts Alex Honnold on a pedestal for doing what every person who shares his identities has access to do. The glory Honnold receives for “staring death in the face” dulls when you consider all of the lives that have been taken for him to be able to be in the position he is in today -- to be able to risk his life in this way.
The Paiute reservation in Payahüünadü and neighboring Manzanar are so close to such popular destinations like Yosemite and the Buttermilks, and yet are too often left out of the conversation around campfires, at industry events, and in the media. Even when Indigenous leaders like Varela are there to speak up and educate folks, they are not receiving the respect, payment, and credit they deserve for their tireless emotional, physical, and intellectual labor. We have seen this over the past two years as the American Alpine Club dropped the ball with its shallow efforts to include Indigenous voices. It’s not enough to give Indigenous and marginalized leaders the mic at an event just for the sake of inclusive optics. You also have to be willing to work on the organization’s systemic racism and adherence to supremacist ideology at the same time. Because any organization built in America is informed and influenced by these systems. Until organizations and individuals learn how to take anti-racist action, any effort towards inclusion and equity will come up empty.
Settler co-optation didn’t stop with taking the land. It continues in forms that are hiding in plain sight. Giving credit where credit is due, as well as honoring the land through land acknowledgements, are simply places to start. It’s where the work begins. For big name climbers like Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin, Tommy Caldwell, and the rest of us who spend time in these sacred places, we need to be interrogating our identities, our histories, and grappling with how structures of oppression are hurting us and those around us.
PETER PAN SYNDROME
Free Solo is an attempt to complexify the narrative of not just climbing, but particularly free soloing, and not just free soloing, but the nation’s most recognized free soloist. The film indeed added complexity to free soloing and Alex Honnold, but it revealed layers that it probably didn’t intend on exposing. The written accounts coming out about the film divulge a repetitive and classic trope about White men. At the same time that Alex Honnold is being lauded as a hero, nearly every journalist also describes the 33-year-old as an “overgrown boy.”
Below David Erlich writes about Honnold for IndieWire:
“A lanky, overgrown boy with an ignored mess of dark hair and a long torso that gives him the reach of an Olympic swimmer...his sunken expression really sets them apart, as though Honnold has spent too much time staring death in the face. He lives in a van, feeding himself with the substantial profits from his recent memoir, and he speaks in a monotone that he may have inherited from his late father (who had Asperger’s). Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that his brain’s fear centers are basically numb, as we learn from the scene where he gets an MRI.”
Honnold is described over and over again in the media as some rendition of “boyish.” This is reminiscent of my time spent in climber hang-outs like the Black Sheep coffee shop in Payahüünadü, Camp 4, Creek Pasture, or Smith Rock’s bivvy, where often you’ll hear someone embellishing in excess about the “dirtbag” lifestyle and standing staunchly in this kind of “anti-status quo rebellion” of refusing to grow up. But this behavior is on par for those who directly benefit from the status quo.
It is because these Peter Pans are of the identities that make up the status quo (White and usually men) that they are allowed to hold these “virtues” of the “counter-culture.” I know this self-indulgent ethos all too well. I am a white woman who used to live in a fantasy of what I thought was righteously rejecting the myth of the American Dream. I thought I was living in true anti-capitalist fashion, living out of my car and foregoing a “traditional” lifestyle. But in reality I was actually cashing in on what the American Dream yields for white people like me. I was cashing in on my white privilege and class status. This lifestyle, that was my irrational idea of “living on the edge,” for so many is not a choice. Nothing about it was rebellious. There is no rebellion in the revelry of privilege that our European ancestors ensured for us through violent measures.
This Peter Pan syndrome is pervasive and problematic, because Peter Pan was cocky, stubborn, selfish, shirked adult responsibilities, and lacked emotional intelligence - many of the characteristics that Alex Honnold displays in the film. (Not to mention the film Peter Pan is chock full of racist and sexist stereotypes). His misogyny is our culture’s misogyny.
We saw the grotesque praise of lost boys without a cause in Valley Uprising, a film about the original bros of climbing, like John Bachar, and the guy with glasses, and the guy with the gross, stringy hair, and... whoever else. The film was praised as a “counterculture lifestyle of dumpster-diving and wild parties that clashed with the conservative values of the National Park Service.” The movie description continues, “...generation after generation has pushed the limits of climbing, vying amongst each other for supremacy on Yosemite’s cliffs.” Vying amongst each other for supremacy. There is nothing counterculture about this. It is actually the same story being told since Europeans first arrived on Turtle Island. Vying for supremacy is what white men are conditioned to do through our white supremacist patriarchal society, and it’s incredibly harmful to men themselves, and of course harmful to those who are barriers to their dominance.
None of us live in a vacuum. The choice to dumpster dive and scamper around boulders for a living is a privilege of those who benefit from maleness and whiteness. The climbers who first pounded pitons into rock faces without concern for the original inhabitants of the land were simply living out their allegiance to the tenets of white supremacy and patriarchy. Nothing new. Royal Robbins and Warren Harding were living off of the gratuity they received as white males in America, as does Alex Honnold today. Those of us who are white in America can live freely and take up space where we choose because we live in a culture that affirms that our lives matter. Risking your life on a rock face is easy when society is set up to keep you comfortable and in power.
Climbing and mountain literature has built the pedestals upon which “the masters of stone” and other idolized climbing “legends” sit. These texts perpetuate the myth of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” because they consistently churn out narratives that leave out the historical, political, economic, and social context of what is happening in the world. The way climbers are glorified in outdoor literature also follows suit with this country’s investment in manifest destiny, the 19th-century doctrine that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.
Manifest destiny, as well as the myth of “terra incognita” have influenced the outdoor recreation industry with slogans like The North Face’s “Never Stop Exploring,” a rallying cry to be ceaseless, without pause, or reflection. Nike’s “Just Do It” expresses a similar attitude. Colonization, though it looks different today, is still happening. None of us are explorers on land that has always been inhabited - despite what National Geographic might think. Instead of driving a stake into the ground, we settlers drive our sprinters up to the base of the cliff, because we can. Because it’s there.
Mainstream climbing culture glorifies men who never grow up, while simultaneously bolstering rugged individualism -- the kind of toxic masculine stuff that settler colonialism is made of. The book Pilgrims of the Vertical by Joseph Taylor comes to mind. A pilgrim is “a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons,” according to the dictionary. So, Joe Taylor is basically saying that the original climbers were missionaries invading sacred Indigenous spaces. Sounds about right. Climbers are just as complicit in upholding structures of oppression as missionaries, but we like to think otherwise. I know so many climbers who swear they aren’t into politics -- they are independent and have anarchic leanings. They tend to be grown versions of skate-punk kids who want nothing to do with power structures and what they call “bureaucracies.” They are highly suspicious of those in power, especially the president and the police.
The irony in this is that it’s usually white people, like me, who want to believe that they are “away from it all,” and that they live “on the fringe” because they live in their built-out van. There is an illusion of minimalism and low-impact associated with this choice. This belief in living a “counterculture” lifestyle is nestled seamlessly into the foundations of systemic oppression as a convenient safeguard from being accountable to the harm us white folks may cause in the spaces we take up, and the places we visit, whether intentional or not.
The delusion of being outside the mainstream is a recipe for the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”/"manifest destiny” mentality, in which us white folks believe we are entitled to take up space anywhere we go, no questions asked -- that we can create the life and future we want without a second thought as to how our exclusive access to resources and land comes at the cost of restricting movement for marginalized communities.
Avoiding politics is a choice that feeds white supremacy and patriarchy. When white folks disengage, we are saying that we are okay with the status quo and that we would rather play the role of Peter Pan than accept our responsibility to join to the fight against systemic oppression. Since we are the greatest beneficiaries of white supremacy it is no surprise we don’t want to look at how the impact of our whiteness bleeds into every facet of our lives, including climbing. But we must.
When you fit the Disney standard trope of the hero, cis white male, you can do no wrong. Being exalted as an “overgrown boy,” permits Alex Honnold innocence.This infantilization perpetuates a society in which white males can behave in whatever ways they want without consequence. They are excused for abusive behavior, and their “genius” exempts them from criticism.
Throughout Free Solo, Alex expresses a commitment to outdated gender roles, which was made painstakingly clear when he said, “Having a girlfriend in the van is nice. She’s cute, small, livens the place up, doesn’t take up too much room...makes life better in every way.” As if she’s just there for his pure pleasure and enjoyment - a small, decorative piece that hangs out in the van.
Filmmakers Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Mikey Schaefer, and Cheyne Lempe, chose to sit by and watch Honnold’s callous, self-serving modus operandi play out even capturing abusive moments like when Sanni and Alex were hanging out in the kitchen after Alex was injured from a sprained ankle. We see Alex sitting at the kitchen counter talking about how he’s been waiting for watermelon. Sanni appears, picks up the knife, starts slicing, and says, “It must be nice to have a human slave.” And Honnold agrees. This paired with unnecessary segments about Sanni’s beginner climber mistakes, as well as Honnold’s statement that he would “hardly characterize Sanni as a climber,” (despite the fact that she had been climbing months before they ever met), means that yet again we are being served a hot plate of misogyny.
The scene took me aback, as I know it did for many other women who watched with mouths hanging open or faces twisted in anguish at the exchange. It is a familiar interaction because we have all experienced what Sanni was dealing with: emotional abuse and disrespect at the hands of a mediocre man. Though it wasn’t the focus of the film, we see a typical story unfold of how women are silenced, and how their pain goes unnoticed. As I sat in the audience hearing laughter at inappropriate times, it had never been more clear to me how our society breeds men to be emotionally crippled, as well as how we condition women to seek intimacy from men who belittle them. In a loving relationship any abuse is unacceptable.
Despite all of the ways Alex Honnold showed abusive disregard and disrespect for Sanni throughout the film, people across social media rushed to his defense saying “He’s focused and dedicated,” or they go so far as to say, “Well, his boyishness might be explained by the possibility that he has aspergers,” or “he might be neurodivergent,” and then they point the finger at Sanni saying that she is too “clingy and needy.” This is awfully familiar. There are countless examples in our culture of white men who are pardoned for speaking and behaving in violent ways because they get to be “mentally ill.”
The flurry of people coming to protect Alex Honnold from any criticism is nothing surprising as it follows the script that we have always seen play out when our golden boys are “under attack.” The status quo wouldn’t be upheld without people rushing to prop it up. There are always cries to save the reputation of men who have behaved in deplorable ways. We don’t have to search too far and wide to find prime examples. Those who critique men are met with the consequences of being described as too harsh, too critical, too judgmental, or lacking in compassion. Those who speak out against the patriarchy in this way are easily dismissed as man-haters trying to find something, anything to be rageful about.
These are the ingredients for a society stewing in toxic masculinity, which excuses the poor behavior of grown men — a society that directly results in people like Brett Kavanaugh. The defendants of toxic masculinity are playing into Kate Manne’s notion of “Himpathy.” In her book, Down Girl, Manne illustrates the phenomenon of himpathy by examining what happened in the public discourse around Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six people in Isla Vista in 2014. The way narratives in the media exculpated Rodgers from his crime made him the object of empathy rather than his victims. Though the violence Rodgers committed isn’t the same as the emotional abuse that Honnold employs, there are interwoven threads. The messages that both of these individuals received is that they are permitted, even entitled, to act in these harmful ways.
Manne’s notion of himpathy exposes how there is a peculiar fixation in our society on the psychology of the perpetrator. She says that there is an urge to isolate the incidents of harm instead of treat them like expressions of a political syndrome:
“Rather, he’s symptomatic of an individual illness; he’s a lone wolf in his crimes or a sick individual who needs therapy. That’s just bullshit...In terms of mental health issues, it’s a red herring. As we know, mental health is very diverse and often makes people vulnerable to violence, not more likely to be perpetrators of violence. Secondly, it’s a way of decreasing individual responsibility and excusing his behavior in making it out to be something he’s not fully in control of. So, it’s exonerating and it’s also, once again, making him the subject of this sympathetic narrative that’s centered on him and his mind.
It’s not that I’m up for particularly punitive treatment of misogynists, it’s just that it’s their business -- between them, their families, therapists, and communities. I think politically what we need to do is look at what they’re doing, and that’s enormous damage to girls and women, the kind that we can’t make excuses for or see as something that requires treatment and cure and education and management. That’s not really our place, that’s for psychologists and those intimately acquainted with the person in question. We need to focus on the victims and the way that this is a pattern of victimization.”
When white patriarchy is questioned the himpathizers cry out. In Alex Honnold’s case, people will explain away and justify his toxic behavior by advocating for his complexity and humanity. They try to vindicate him from his misogyny by talking about how he might have aspergers, but this is not about mental illness. Many toss in the fact that he started The Honnold Foundation, as if his attempt to be charitable means he can’t be critiqued. White men get pardon after pardon, chance after chance, to make up for how they dehumanize their loved ones, or act in obscene ways. This is not the behavior of an overgrown boy. This is the behavior of a 33-year-old man who has never had to be accountable for his actions.
Throughout his career, Honnold’s blunt and flippant responses have earned him the nickname “No big deal” Honnold. His flippance can be heard in how he responds to an interviewer in the film who asks, “So, you have a girlfriend now?” And Honnold corrects him, “Trending toward a girlfriend.” He goes on to say that he will probably have many girlfriends in his life and that he “will always choose climbing over a lady.” The film sets us up to perceive Honnold’s arrogance as the behavior of an incredibly dedicated athlete, on par with Olympic/“warrior” standards, who grew up in isolated geekdom. He’s the epitome of the “I Work Alone”/”Ineffectual Loner” trope that bros like Jared Leto drool over. But being of Olympic athleticism is no excuse for dehumanizing others.
In all of the media coverage about Honnold and the film, we see how he vacillates between the tropes of Peter Pan, moody genius, and stoic warrior, but not a single review calls attention to the painstaking, triggering, and downright cruel ways he treats and speaks to Sanni -- his biggest emotional support. Like so many women I know, myself included, Sanni was giving everything and getting nothing in return. Honnold’s complete disregard for Sanni was excused throughout the film by his friend, Tommy Caldwell, who said you need mental armor to climb El Cap without a rope. Caldwell says that a “romantic relationship is detrimental to that armor. You can’t have both at the same time.” But there are countless athletes, Olympic and otherwise, who have flourishing, respectful, and communicative relationships with their loved ones, and they don’t have to sacrifice or abuse these emotional bonds.
As bell hooks writes in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, “Patriarchy rewards men for being out of touch with their feelings,” (p. 70). While I have compassion for men who have had their self-esteem and emotional parts slaughtered by patriarchy, I also do not find it helpful to excuse men from their toxic behavior. Similarly, as a white woman, I wouldn’t expect to be absolved of the harm I cause, knowingly or not, as a racist white person just because white supremacy also harms white folks. We need to change the focus of our discussions on these issues so that we prioritize those who have been harmed - not those who caused the harm. We need to focus on the impact, not the intent, of the perpetrator.
In one part of the film Honnold fills out a questionnaire complete with personal questions that he has to answer by choosing “agree” or “disagree.” The scene is tense and uncomfortable. He reads, “Emotionally stable…agree. Tends to find faults in others...somewhat agree. Is depressed...hmmm.” He pauses. We watch him consider this for a while and the scene ends without us hearing his answer. Later, Honnold admits that several ex-girlfriends have accused him of “personality disorders,” yet we see no signs of him taking this feedback seriously. He finds no reason to be accountable for these disturbing accusations. Like many men, Honnold probably thinks all of his exes are illogical. His attitude is textbook misogyny: Why put serious thought behind a chorus of women who knew you intimately?
All of these factors, including the mantra that his mother repeated to Alex as he grew up, “Almost isn’t good enough,” paints a picture of how Alex came to be the person he is today: a man who has gone his whole life denying and suppressing his emotional capacity to feel, while simultaneously internalizing his trauma associated with emotional abuse and neglect. The result has caused him to emotionally abuse and disregard his loved ones and friends.
Free Solo subtly exposes why men have the highest suicide rates. The pressure to “be a man,” manifests in how Alex speaks of his isolated childhood and the once “bottomless pit of self-loathing” that pushed him towards his obsessive desire to perform and achieve. Alex’s mom recalls that, “when Alex would do something and we’d call him a bozo… if you learn that about your self-worth when you’re this big, I don’t think that goes away.”
Sanni goes to great lengths at her own emotional cost to teach him emotional intelligence, a job that too often falls on women’s shoulders. As bell hooks writes, “Everyone needs to love and be loved -- even men. But to know love, men must be able to look a the ways that patriarchal culture keeps them from knowing themselves, from being in touch with their feelings, from loving.” hooks also says that if only one party in the relationship is working to create love, the abuse will continue. If men were to work on their emotional capacity, not only would our intimate relationships thrive, but our communities would also be safer and stronger.
Free Solo is propaganda for patriarchy as it lures the imaginations of boys and men. It celebrates the mentality of war in subtle ways, at the same time that it glorifies fighting for a cause you don’t understand, like climbing a rock face risking your life for no reason. Throughout the film, Honnold frequently mentions being a “warrior,” as if he is going to battle. Honnold says in a cheesy voice-over: “It’s about being a warrior. It doesn’t matter about the cause necessarily. You face your fear because your path depends on it. That is the goddamn warrior spirit.”
This isn’t the first time “warrior” is brought up in the context of climbing. The warrior is a recurring trope in climbing culture, films, and literature. You might refer to someone as a “weekend warrior” if they only have the ability to climb on the weekends. Molly Mitchell is featured in a film called “Becoming a Warrior.” In episode 93 of the Enormocast (a climbing podcast), climber Armando Menocal is referred to as “The Peaceful Climbing Warrior.” Warrior Peak, Warrior Roof, Wounded Warrior -- all names of climbs or rock features. Arno Illgner even wrote a book called, “The Rock Warrior’s Way,” which is now a business that focuses on mental training for climbers.
“Warrior” has become synonymous with being a strong climber pushing your limits to the absolute extreme, so much so that a writer for Indie Wire reflected that watching Honnold cook bean stew and drive around Yosemite before sunrise felt like “...an intrusion on some kind of sacred warrior ritual.” This is a complete bastardization of the meaning of a warrior. Driving around Yosemite, eating beans and rice, and preparing for a climb that could kill you on the land of the Miwok people who were murdered and forced out because they were seen as “primitive” and less than, is not acting out a sacred warrior ritual. It is just what you get to do as a beneficiary of white supremacy and patriarchy in this country.
The glorification and hyperbole of calling a guy who happens to climb a “warrior” is born out of a subscription to white supremacist patriarchy. It follows suit with the tenants of what it means to “be a man” in our society. Because being a warrior is the most manly thing you can do, as long as your version of being a warrior aligns with patriarchal masculinity.
In the podcast called Men, hosted by John Biewan and Celeste Headlee, they focus episode 6 on “Warriors.” They talk about our culture’s idea of being a warrior, and the impact of the military on gender, and vice versa. Joshua Goldstein, an emeritus professor of international relations at the American University in Washington, D.C., who wrote a book called War and Gender, is featured on this episode and discusses how, “...we raise boys to be tough, to not cry, and to suppress their feelings, except for anger; anger is okay, but sadness and stuff, not supposed to feel it, not supposed to show it.”
Honnold’s emotional detachment and inability to express himself, exemplifies the construction of masculinity in our society and how it is based in the same ethos of a soldier. Soldiers are bred to go to war and solve problems using physical force. Emotions, connection, and things of this nature -- basically anything associated with our Westernized, socially-constructed idea of femininity -- will only get in the way. Throughout Fee Solo, Honnold has confused his toxic masculinity with being a “warrior.”
In our society, regardless if a man goes to war or not, the patriarchy conditions him to be ready by donning that “armor” that Caldwell talks about. Honnold doesn’t consider his loved ones’ concerns about him climbing without a rope, except for when he voices that it would be “messed up” for his friends to see him die. He is pretty callous towards whether he lives or dies, showing that he doesn’t really care about his own well-being either.
There is heedless and senseless toxicity in Honnold’s messaging throughout the film. At one point he says, “Nobody ever achieved anything great from being happy and cozy.” The choice to be cozy or not, is a luxury.
I grew up much like Honnold, a white child of privilege with access to being happy and cozy, and when I got into rock climbing I felt noble and inspired, as if everyone else was living in monotony and I had found an enlightened path. Like many other white kids, instead of working to heal my internalized whiteness and misogyny, I desperately sought outward sources for validation. I indulged in the self-absorbed ideals of characters like Chris McCandless from Into The Wild. Similar to Alex Honnold, I didn’t know how to locate the root of my feelings of isolation, loneliness, and inadequacy. This is the generational trauma that we carry as white people who have been complicit in oppressive structures for centuries. It took me a few painful years to begin the work of deconstructing the harmful beliefs that white supremacy and patriarchy had built up inside me. And this work is never-ending.
When I started rock climbing, I didn’t know, or rather didn’t want to admit, that I was participating in a recreational activity made accessible to me solely due to the fact that my ancestors violently built the world we see now. As I continue to climb on land upon which I am a guest, I am constantly working towards dismantling my inner supremacy, so that I can heal the child inside me that grew up in a state of delusion and self-hate, the kind of self-hate we hear Honnold speak of in this film. In an interview with Tim Ferris Honnold says,
“Sometimes you just feel useless, you know? But in some ways I embrace that as part of the process because you kind of have to feel like a worthless piece of poop in order to get motivated enough to go do something that makes you feel less useless. But then ultimately that still doesn’t make you feel any less useless, so you just have to keep doing more.”
This kind of self-hate and feelings of worthlessness are the byproducts of being conditioned to fulfill the demands of white supremacy. Honnold feeling this pressure to achieve, to be perfect, to perform, are symptoms of being committed to the construct of whiteness. Myself, Honnold and other white people will find intimate familiarity in the following list:
Valuing formal education over life experience
Right to comfort/entitlement
Sense of urgency
Belief in one right way
Being status oriented
These key characteristics of white supremacy culture are what hold racial barriers in place, as well as cause all of us inexplicable harm. Add to these characteristics the way patriarchy employs psychological terrorism on men, and we have a nation of men like Honnold who are living in isolation without a sense of value and worth.
A LEGACY OF OPPRESSION
In Free Solo, the camera zooms out to reveal a Yosemite infested with Sprinters, and perfectly manicured roads and pull-offs. We see in high-definition how Alex’s “warrior” path was laid out long before he started climbing. The “warrior” path that Alex speaks of is for white men who think they are trying to escape unbearably happy and cozy lives. But what climbers are really trying to escape are the oppressive norms of supremacy and patriarchy that harm them as well. Without inner reflection, self-awareness, and internalized healing, men like Alex Honnold are doomed to inflict the pain they are experiencing onto those around them.
The isolation that Honnold felt when growing up is part of the American cocktail of toxic masculinity. It’s the glue that holds white supremacist patriarchy in place. As bell hooks writes, “... it is actually emotionally damaging to young males to be isolated and without emotional care or nurturance… Even though masses of American boys will not commit violent crimes resulting in murder, the truth that no one wants to name is that all boys are being raised to be killers even if they learn to hide the killer within and act as benevolent young patriarchs. (More and more girls who embrace patriarchal thinking also embrace the notion that they must be violent to have power.) (p. 44).
The ways that Free Solo glorifies Honnold as a benevolent young patriarch needs to be addressed not as an isolated case, but as a symptom of a larger phenomenon, in which the climbing community, as well as the outdoor industry as a whole, permits harmful patterns of abuse that ultimately lead to the dehumanization of women, Indigenous communities, people of color, immigrants, and disabled folks. We have all either witnessed it, or experienced it first hand, and now we are seeing it play out on the big screen.
The assault that a movie like Free Solo enacts is personal and retraumatizing. None of this is really about Alex Honnold. He is not an exception. This is about an epidemic. Films like this give us an entry point to discuss the nuances of these issues that reach out and span further than the world of climbing. We can interrogate these social issues that have been brought to light and work to change the landscape, as well as our collective consciousness.
In order to shift climbing and outdoor media from patriarchal pedagogy to narratives that honor and uplift the humanity of all, that celebrate loving connection instead of power, dominion, and isolation, we will need filmmakers, audience-goers, journalists, athletes, retailers, event planners, consumers, publishers, photographers, and social media influencers, to reject the codes of white supremacist patriarchy. To do this is to follow a path that is not actually easy and cozy. It goes against societal norms and it is met with derision. But if we relinquish the power we hold due to our privileged positions and identities, whether from class, race, or gender, we open ourselves up to knowing community and joy in the truest sense.