No woman had ever served on a racing yacht competing in the Whitbread Round the World when, in 1989, 20something Tracy Edwards decided that that was precisely what she wanted to do. But no crew would take her on: women were bad luck, or too much of a distraction, or some such bullshit. So she said, Screw ’em, and started her own crew… an all-female one. Her team became the epitome of that apocryphal Gandhi quote: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you…” etc.
Does the crew of Maiden win? I’ll let you to find out, which you should do, because this new documentary about Edwards and her stupendous, groundbreaking, misogyny-busting effort is simply terrific, whether you’re into yachting or not. Filmmaker Alex Holmes crafts a riveting tale from archival footage and new interviews with Edwards and others: Maiden is as beautifully modulated as fiction; it’s full of twists and turns and delicious ironies; it even sports a perfect ending. Yet it’s all true.
Part of what we see here is a stunning reminder that, even today as we continue to push back against outrageous sexism, we have indeed made some progress in the past 30 years. The endless barrage of grown women — Edwards and her crew were all well into their 20s, at least — being called “girls” here, over and over again, by sports journalists and TV hosts and the like, is appalling. (No one would call men their age “boys.”) Things don’t feel quite that bad today. But the way Edwards and her team were treated apart from that isn’t very different: they were dismissed and ridiculed, diminished and underestimated at every turn. “The further we got,” Tracy says today, “the nastier this stuff would get.” That is sadly still very timely.
(One thing that slips by yet shocks with its indication of change for the worse since then: When Edwards was, because of pure sexism, unable to find corporate sponsors and hence raise the money needed to build a boat, she decided to buy a used one and refurbish it. The money needed for this? She remortgaged her home. She was in her early 20s and without a high-paying career — barely even much work, as far as we can see — and she was able to buy a house. What an incredible fantasy that would be today.)
Enormously heartening here, though, is the portrait of Edwards and her teammates as women relishing physical adventure, courting danger on killer seas that was, they recall today with glee, “absolutely exhilarating.” They speak of anxieties and “horrendous flaws,” but also of pushing past those, of challenging themselves to go to their limits and beyond, of proving themselves not only to the world at large but — perhaps more importantly — to themselves as well. We have so few female role models like Edwards and her crew, so few women who tell us it’s okay to doubt yourself and follow your dreams anyway, whose stories tell us that to try and perhaps fail is better than not to try at all. Maiden should be taken as a massive inspiration to girls and women… and for boys and men, too.
Maiden is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for June 28th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.