Updated: Apr 20, 2022
Parkour practitioner Alessandra Prunotto explores how 2015 action film Tracers represents women in parkour and the implications this has for the wider parkour community.
CW: mention of sexual assault and abuse
At the time of writing, B-grade action movie Tracers (2015, directed by Daniel Benmayor) is virtually the only representation of women in parkour in mainstream, fictional English-language film. While there are innumerable social media videos and documentaries that highlight the parkour community’s diversity and altruistic values, this film instead links the discipline with violent crime, depicts it as elitist and unfriendly, and through multiple damaging tropes suggests parkour is mainly meant for athletic, risk-taking white men. Since I’m interested in promoting greater diversity and inclusion in parkour, I’m particularly concerned about the way these representations may discourage women and gender minorities from starting parkour.
The plot raises a single eyebrow. In a nutshell, a New York bike messenger called Cam (Taylor Lautner) enters a world of crime to flirt with an ‘evasive’ parkour practitioner named Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos) and get himself out of debt with a local gang. He conveniently learns advanced parkour skills in a matter of months and after several cringe-worthy rites of passage is invited to join Nikki’s crew, headed by a man called Miller – who later turns out to be in an abusive, controlling relationship with Nikki. The group steal some diamonds, kill some people, Cam clears his debt and ‘gets the girl’. The film would be swallowed by the maw of inconsequence if not for the fact that it’s one of very few mainstream, English-language films featuring parkour as parkour – the movement culture, as opposed to parkour-inspired action scenes.
Positioned explicitly as ‘a parkour movie’, Tracers has the responsibility to represent parkour to the general public with some modicum of social awareness. For many audience members, this film might be their only extended exposure to parkour, with the potential to influence their perception of what parkour is, and who can or can’t be included in parkour culture. This article highlights that an important factor that attracts women and gender minorities to parkour – as with other sports – is their visibility as both elite athletes, and also as coaches and peers in grassroots communities. Conversely, lack of representation and damaging tropes can have the opposite effect of discouraging participation. This is one part of the complex reason why the proportion of women practicing parkour in the US is less than one-fifth, according to a 2017 estimate by the same article (gender minorities were not included in the estimate). Without overstating its brainwashing potential, I believe a film like Tracers has some influence on how women and gender minorities view their possibilities for engaging with parkour.
The way that Nikki’s character is represented – basically, as some romantic spice to the action – doesn’t do us any favours. “That girl just did a sick gate vault and I can already tell she is his love interest,” says practitioner Lorena Abreu as she reacts to the film in this YouTube video. As Lorena so concisely captured, the way the film portrays Nikki’s skill in parkour only serves to make her more ‘mysterious’ and ‘alluring’ to Cam. Even though Nikki is meant to be highly experienced and accomplished, we hardly see her in action close-up, compared to the amount of full-screen time devoted to Cam’s ‘beginner’ parkour. Instead, her sexual attractiveness is what’s amplified, with more close-ups of her face than her athletic movement.
In between heists and parkour training, Cam’s romantic pursuit of Nikki (and I use ‘pursuit’ intentionally) is what bookends and underpins the film’s narrative arc. Tracers begins with Nikki accidentally crashing into Cam while fleeing a crime scene. Cam then scours the streets for her, asking advice from random parkour-appearing people, until he spots her and makes chase even though she is clearly attempting to evade all interaction with him. (As Omar Zaki says in the aforementioned YouTube video, “What guy is like, ‘Oooh a female, I’ll chase her down’… she’s not a Pokémon!”). Cam unsuccessfully flirts with Nikki until she confesses she’s with Miller, but would much rather be with him, and they have the obligatory sex scene. The film ends with happy-ever-after heterosexual couplehood.
So, not a great intro to parkour for any women or gender minorities in the audience. The only female parkour athlete is depicted primarily as a romantic side note in an androcentric narrative, rather than primarily as a brave and creative athlete who might inspire anyone not a cisgender man to try parkour. Even more concerningly, the film legitimises uninvited sexual advances that people who appear as women often experience exercising in public. The film portrays Nikki’s evasion as coy desire, while Cam’s pursuit is portrayed as quiet tenacity, rather than borderline harassment. Experiencing these kinds of advances from other parkour practitioners is one the reasons why women and gender minorities who do start parkour leave or turn to spaces that specifically support them. The subtext of this film basically says to heterosexual men: go ahead, this is a great idea, because it all turns out like a Hollywood romance in the end!
The aspect of the film I find the most perturbing, though, is the way that Nikki’s character is ensnared in paternalistic, and at times highly abusive relations with men that the film makes no effort to critique. While Nikki is superficially painted as a ‘free spirit’, soaring across rooftops et cetera, as the narrative develops we realise that she’s trapped by relationships with possessive men around her. Nikki reveals that the reason she joined the parkour crew was that her brother Dylan found protection from Miller after beating up a man who sexually assaulted Nikki. In return, Nikki was “pimped out” to Miller (as Cam so delightfully terms it in the film), and she says that she can’t leave because she owes Dylan. (It appears to be lost on Dylan that a controlling, abusive relationship is just as bad, if not worse, than a one-off sexual assault.) Enter Cam, who whisks Nikki away into the sunset in his refurbished car.
The effect of positioning Nikki within this web of paternalistic relations and denying her any friendships with non-men is that the film fails to highlight the strong support networks that many women and gender minorities form with others like them through the discipline. There are so many local parkour communities that are welcoming and supportive of women and gender minorities, and which provide safe spaces for them to train together (for an example, look up Women of Melbourne Parkour). But this film makes parkour culture appear to be a hostile environment, where a female practitioner is portrayed as isolated, the odd one out, sexualised and infantilised by the men around her. I’m not sure who would want to join her.
Let’s end with a refreshing contrast – an alternative narrative of parkour in New York – by considering the Instagram page of Marie Avgeropoulos’s stunt double, Alexa Marcigliano. Self-described as a “Stuntwoman, parkour instructor, [and] adventurer”, Alexa’s feed is filled with photos of a vibrant and gender-diverse stunt and parkour community, videos of her athletic skill, and rainbow displays of LGBTQIA+ community support. It’s this kind of narrative we want to amplify, if we want more women and gender minorities to get involved in parkour and other action sport culture
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