In her article “Confessions of a Spray Queen” Georgie Abel took apart a number of the criticisms aimed at sponsored female climbers whose sponsorships are, or are perceived to be, earned by their social media presence rather than by their climbing accomplishments. Much of what she said was true, but in her haste to fight what she identified as male establishment elitism (the existence of which I am in no way disputing), she neglected some deeper problems, namely, what exactly it means to deserve sponsorship and how this deservingness is gendered by the climbing industry.
Sponsorship is support elite climbers need, historically from national and regional governments but now largely from gear manufacturers, to sustain themselves. At the upper levels it amounts to limitless free gear and a traveling stipend, and at the lower levels it can mean as little as heavy discounts on a given company’s merchandise. There are two ways to look at this exchange. The first is the way that Abel does, that companies pay climbers with gear (and at the higher levels cash) for what would otherwise be free advertising, meaning that the climbers agree to post photos of themselves wearing/using the gear on social media, something they would likely do anyway, in exchange for their climbing costs being subsidized. This view hinges on whether one thinks that climbing is meaningful and important, and if it is, then some climbers are pushing it forward and others are not and those that are are worthy of support and those who are not aren’t and the idea that any of this would correlate with social media presence seems somewhere between, to quote a friend, “vulgar and grotesque.” This is the second view of the sponsor-sponsored exchange and with it one can begin to say things like “Alex Puccio is an important climber and Sierra Blair Coyle isn’t and it’s an absolute travesty that the former has trouble finding the funds to attend international competitions while the latter makes a living being pretty and blond and occasionally getting photographed on/near a rock.” Somewhere also rooted in this view is the conviction that the way climbing (the practice, the pastime, the passion) is starting to circle around the climbing industry (the making of stuff to sell to climbers) is a very, very bad thing.
Abel claims that the sponsorship of “spray queens” does not affect anyone but those receiving the sponsorship. This is patently illogical. If a given company has X dollars to spend on marketing via sponsorship and they choose to spend it on a spray queen then they, by definition, won’t be spending that same money on someone else. In my personal experience, it’s the opposite of the spray queens, the quiet crushers, who tend to put up the quality routes, send the lines, and win the comps, i.e. all the things that improve climbing and make it a fun thing to be a part of.
Following this line of reasoning, Abel’s last point is weirdly true. She writes that “This is about elitism. This is the idea that some climbers are more valid than others. This is an attempt at keeping the hierarchy of cool people in place. This is the notion that some people don’t deserve to have their stories told, listened to, or celebrated.” While not having much to do with “coolness” per se, some people are, in fact, more deserving than others. Some climbers are doing innovative, courageous, futuristic ascents and those climbers deserve to be celebrated, others aren’t and don’t. There is nothing wrong with being excited about a personal best, but there is something wrong with thinking that that achievement, however personally meaningful, is worthy of monetary compensation by virtue of how well it helps a corporate entity make a profit.
As a final caveat, I’d like to acknowledge that while the Spray Queen phenomenon is gendered, men are not actually less likely to be unworthy of the attention they are receiving, they are just more likely to have tricked the public into thinking that they are an important climber. While any thinking person can tell that someone like Sierra Blair Coyle is not an important climber and that her social media following is due entirely to her persona and conventional attractiveness, there are plenty of male climbers who, upon reflection, are no less egregious spray queens. The only distinction is that they tend to vigorously talk up their achievements instead of wearing booty shorts. I distinctly remember the moment when I looked up and realized that I couldn’t think of a single truly important climb that Cedar Wright had done, and yet he is one of the most prominent and recognizable climbers in the country.
The same can be said for the half-dozen male American sport climbers currently pushing the 14d/15a barrier (which, we should remember, is almost a full number grade beneath the actual cutting edge of the sport). I now kind-of cringe when I see a news bulletin that so-and-so has pulled off the 4th or 6th or 20th repeat of such-and-such famous sport climb. These achievements are cool for the people doing them, but that isn’t why they are being so widely reported. The climbing industry has learned that how you sell gear is by giving it to pretty women and strong men and then taking good photos of the women and spraying about how strong the men are. What this suggests is that the problem with spray queens is not spray queens per se, but rather the market forces that create them and merchants who exploit them.