Despite spending most of their screen time falling off a building while on fire, a stunt double’s main job is to not draw attention. They’re the unsung heroes of the action scene, their faces forever obscured, so audiences forget they’re watching some rando in a bald cap risk his life driving a truck into the moon just to make Vin Diesel look badass. But what audiences also don’t realize is that while witnessing these intense stunts, they’re often witnessing some intense workplace discrimination to boot.
It may sound like a practice that should’ve disappeared with women being seen as too brittle to operate an elevator, but female stunt performers are still heavily discriminated against on account of their perceived physical weakness. These badass ladies continue having work stolen from them through the practice of “wigging,” where on-set male performers simply put on a weave and a loose-fitting dress and do female actors’ stunts themselves. And even when they do manage to snatch those wigs off, they still have to deal with the kind of hostile industry that doesn’t even offer maternity leave, forcing many pregnant stuntwomen not just to risk their lives but those of their unborn babies as well.
If you think putting a wig on a stuntman seems like Stone Age discrimination, how about them putting on blackface? Despite minority stunt performers having fought against this flagrant racism for over half of a century, the stunt industry still condones “painting down” -- stunt jargon for the celebrated Hollywood tradition of giving minority jobs to white performers and slapping some shoe polish on them. As recent as 2014, the show Gotham got into trouble when it couldn’t find a minority stunt performer for a black actor and so decided to put one of their white stunt people into the make-up chair and let the stylists fill in the difference.
Why is this kind of flagrant sexism and racism still okay on movie sets? Part of it is that the stunt industry does a piss-poor job of self-regulation. Even SAG-AFTRA only insists that stunt coordinators, almost exclusively white veteran stuntmen who’ve done enough jumping off buildings dressed in booty shorts and an afro in their time to have a vested interest in pretending that’s not a big deal, ‘make an effort’ finding a qualified stunt performer of the right race and gender. Unsurprisingly, these bros will often point to the lack of female and minority stunt performers with lots of experience (gee, I wonder why that is) when they instead decide to hire one of their buddies to double Whoopi Goldberg.
While that excuse holds a bit more weight in an industry where the difference between being a veteran performer and an untested one can be a swift decapitation (In 2017, rookie stunt driver Joi Harris died during the shooting of Deadpool 2 while doubling for Zazie Beetz), it doesn’t change that the practice is racist, sexist and is allowed to continue because most moviegoers don’t know they’re not just signing up to see an action-packed romp but a minstrel show as well. The latter might change soon, as, in the past few years, more and more stunt performers have decided to resist their stunt-conditioning to be seen, never heard, in order to voice these issues and tackle institutionalized discrimination head-on. Through a plate-glass window. From the seventh floor.
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Top Image: 20th Century Studios, Ron Balicki, Wikimedia Commons