(SWET)ing for the Summit: A Feminist Cultural-Studies Analysis of Singapore's First Women's Mount Everest Team

Article excerpt


This article is a feminist cultural-studies analysis of Singapore's Erst all-female mountaineering team to successfully summit Mount Everest. A feminist cultural-studies approach was used to explore the highly male hegemonic domain of mountaineering and the ways in which the Singapore Women's Everest Team (SWET) was situated within the sport and their local Singapore culture. Qualitative, face-to-face, semi-structured interviews with six elite-level Singaporean female mountaineers (ages 25 to 39) were conducted by the first author in January 2009, before their attempt to summit Mount Everest. Using inductive analysis and feminist deconstruction, several salient themes emerged from the data: (a) disrupting norms, (b) sexism in extreme sports, and (c) women-centered spaces. The interviewees demonstrated unity as an all-women team as they overcame challenges in their pursuit of climbing Mount Everest. This study attempts to expand the sport studies literature with multicultural and gendered perspectives of female mountaineers.

Mount Everest's strength, beauty, and intimidating presence have long shaped the perception of mountaineers who seek the ultimate challenge of "conquering" the Earth's highest continental crust. Looming at 8,848 meters, climbers who attempt to summit the mountain average a two-month journey from base to summit. Part of the Himalayan range, Everest transcends borderlands, reaching out between Nepal, Tibet, and China. Critical interpretations of the ascents of Mount Everest reveal a history of colonization, class privilege, and masculine hegemony that highlight the ways in which Everest has been symbolized as an "imperial archive," and as the highest male preserve on Earth (Birrell, 2007; Slemon, 1998).

This article analyzes the narratives of six Singaporean female climbers who illustrate how the intersections of gender, race, and social class were negotiated in their attempt to summit Mount Everest. Pulling from the work of feminist scholars such as Birrell (2007), Appleby and Fisher (2005), and others, this article will also attempt to understand the experiences of these women specific to the culture of Singapore. Considered an extreme or "high-risk" sport, mountaineering has seen rising numbers of female participants. Some scholars attribute the rise in the number of women participating in extreme sports to the untraditional nature and non-exclusiveness of such sports (Anderson, 1999). Many argue that extreme sports are built on a different model, a paradigmatic shift, "one in which females and males might see equal opportunities for participation, exposure, monies, respect, and individual and group growth within and through sports" (Rinehart, 2005, p. 238). Yet, critical and feminist perspectives provide slightly different interpretations that illustrate how extreme sports such as mountaineering, ski jumping, and rock climbing have subtly contributed to the exclusion and marginalization of female athletes in order to preserve male dominance. This has been most recently epitomized by the exclusion of female ski jumpers in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where elite competitive women were not permitted to compete due to the extreme nature of ski jumping and because it was deemed by the International Olympic Committee as "too risky" for women (Bennett, 2008).

This study is particularly significant due to the dearth of research focusing on female climbers (Appleby & Fisher, 2005) and mountaineers, particularly women and women of color. This project is also unique in that it examines the experiences of a group of women from Singapore (Singapore Women's Everest Team [SWET]), the first group of women from that country to attempt the summit. Specifically, the purposes of this project were to explore the women's perceptions and experiences of social and cultural influences as participants in the male-dominated sport of mountaineering and to reveal the barriers and challenges they overcame in the pursuit of summiting Mount Everest. …


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