The Eagle Huntress

Struggling against gender roles

Talented bird whisperers train eagles to help them hunt for food and fur in treacherous, bone-chilling winters.

Matthew Kauffman Smith with special guest writer, Ella

When I took my daughters to the bank when they were younger, the teller would always offer them a sticker. He or she would offer a Disney princess sticker to my daughters, even though one time I saw Spiderman stickers in another stash that was offered to the boys. Given the option, my girls may have selected the princesses, but there’s a good chance they would have chosen an alternative.

Now my girls are old enough to say “No, thank you” or “Do you have any other options?” These days, I’d like to think the bank offers more choices because, while there is still work to be done, at least mainstream movies have done a better job of highlighting strong-willed, determined young women. From Mad Max: Fury Road to Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Star Wars: Rogue One, females are assuming the leads in action movies and reenergizing a fairly tired formula. I’m not suggesting that I want my daughters to grow up shooting Stormtroopers, but at least they’re getting to see a different portrayal of a female then I did growing up (apart from Princess Leia: RIP Carrie Fisher).

The Eagle Huntress is a new documentary that features another powerful female figure in her attempt to change gender roles. The movie follows the story of 13-year-old Aisholpan, the oldest child in a nomadic Kazakh family that lives in a remote, desolate part of Mongolia. Like her father, grandfather, and many generations of men before them, Aisholpan wants to learn the trade of eagle hunting. These talented bird whisperers train eagles to help them hunt for food and fur in the treacherous, bone-chilling winters.

From an early age, Aisholpan takes an interest, and despite traditions that suggest only men can become eagle hunters, Aisholpan’s parents embrace her curiosity. The movie follows her journey as she catches her own baby eaglet, trains it, enters a prestigious competition, and finally takes her eagle to the wild to hunt. While I felt the filmmakers manipulated the story in some places, this is a flaw present in pretty much every documentary. In this case, it wasn’t necessary to overdramatize the story because Aisholpan and her father—and their actions and relationship—speak for themselves. Her father, Rys, doesn’t question his daughter’s desires, which in turn makes her comfortable pursuing her dreams.

Ella and her father.

Since my eldest daughter, Ella, will be 13 in two months, I was interested in her thoughts. I told her I would write questions/comments on the computer and then she could answer them while I was at work. Below are the results:

Dad: What do you think makes Aisholpan an interesting character?

Ella: I think her audacity to do what she wants to do makes her a strong and interesting female character.  

Dad: What difficulties did she have to overcome?

Ella: Aisholpan is underestimated for her gender and is forced to work twice as hard to become accepted as an eagle hunter. The elders feel she is not fit to do “a man’s job,” and she has to prove them wrong.

Dad: You and Aisholpan live very different lives, but what could you relate to about her story?

Ella: Though it happens to us in very different ways, we are both faced with gender inequality. She is struggling to be accepted as an eagle hunter, and I try to get passed to by a boy in a PE sports game.

Dad: I thought it was pretty appropriate that Daisy Ridley was the narrator. What do you think?

Ella: In Star Wars VII, Daisy Ridley plays the strong female character Rey. Ridley’s character related to Aisholpan in a way probably no one else would have been able to create.

Dad: What did you think of the cinematography?

Ella: I thought it was great. I was very absorbed in the movie and felt I was right in the mountains with Aisholpan.

Dad: What rating would you give this out of four stars?

Ella: I would give it a 3.5 out of 4.

Dad: Do you have anything else to add?

Ella: Can I have an eaglet?

Dad: Um, no.

Ella: Dang it.


Rated G and very family friendly. I agree with Ella’s assessment of 3.5/4 stars.