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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

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Challenging Tradition: Hollywood Narrative of Women's Sports Films

Angeldeep Kaur

Since before the birth of cinema, social roles, especially with respect to gender, have been created in a rigid mold. Through the years different mediums of thought and expression have explored these roles assigned to men and women, and often they have questioned them, challenged them, and reformed them. However, despite these attempts, even today gender roles exist in society, and these are reflected or challenged in the creative mediums of today, one of which is cinema. 'Women in sports' is an image that challenges these gender roles to a large extent. Women are meant to be caretakers, looking after the husband, the home and the family. Tradition would say that being involved in sports requires a personal involvement and time commitment that takes away from a woman's ability to fulfill this role. Thus while placing a woman in the role of an athlete and a protagonist in the narrative in this capacity does challenge tradition to an extent, the ever changing nature of tradition does not allow this alone to classify these films as a break from tradition. Thus while some of these films do break from the traditional narrative to some extent, none of them are very radical in their approach, other than the documentary Pumping Iron II.

The first film we encountered, Pat and Mike, told a story of a woman who is a natural athlete but finds herself handicapped and unable to perform around her fiancÚ. She feels that she has lost her identity, so she goes out on her own in an attempt to rediscover it and she does through the medium of sport. Thus while the protagonist is a female athlete, the actual narrative is not about the athletic struggles of Pat. Instead the story is centered around her discovering herself through playing sports, and getting out of a bad relationship and entering one that is healthier for her and allows her to express herself much more freely. Thus, while Pat and Mike is a film that breaks the tradition of the era it was made in because of its choice in protagonist, it does not break the traditional narrative structure of Hollywood films, especially since it does not address the issue of gender roles with respect to sport much at all.

The next movie we saw was A League of Their Own, a movie about an all women's baseball league that is formed during WWII as a means to temporarily fill the void created by the members of the male league being at war. This movie is more effective in its representation of women as athletes, because it shows their struggles as a team and as individual sportswomen, and also questions how their involvement in the world of professional sports affects their personal lives and their ability to fulfill their roles as women. Characters within the film showed the evolution of the thoughts and ideas regarding the role of a female athlete. The league starts off as a group of girls made to look nice and behave like ladies so the audience has something to see, but over time, people begin to see them as ball players and not just beautiful women who serve as eye candy. The character played by Tom Hanks also shows this progression, as does most of the general population. Their decision to keep the league at the end, to me, makes this movie one that breaks from the traditional narrative. While the relationship between the siblings, as well as the various interpersonal relationships of the other players is portrayed in the film, the film is ultimately about women's baseball and how it was recognized and legitimized by the world. In this way, it allows women to break from the traditional roles assigned to them, that of a mother, a wife and a sister and shows that women can in fact be successful in their societal roles while participating in things outside the house.

The next set of movies we watched were Rocky, followed by Girlfight. These movies were very interesting to compare as it allowed us to view a traditional narrative of a men's sports film and there contrast it with a woman's sports film dealing with the same issues but from the perspective of the woman. Girlfight does not break from the traditional narrative much, because while it is a movie about a girl who takes up boxing as a professional sport, it tells the story in a form very similar to that of Rocky. Instead of class barriers, the boxer in Girlfight has to deal with gender barriers as well as her own personal demons. This is another reason why it does not radically break from narrative tradition, because though both movies are about boxers, Rocky emphasizes the struggle of becoming a good boxer, while Girlfight emphasizes the struggle of boxing while being a woman.

Next we viewed Pumping Iron II. This movie definitely was not a traditional narrative because it did not give us the same story of a woman trying to make it in a man's sport. Instead we have a story of a woman who is at the level of men's fitness with respect to body building, but has to find a place in the world of women's weight lifting. Her femininity is called into question, which is not seen in any of the other films, where all the women are taken more seriously when they take up more masculine characters. In this case however Bev, the protagonist, has to defend her so called masculine characteristics, and prove that just because she has very well developed muscles does not mean that she is not feminine.

The last film in the series was Bend it Like Beckham. This movie tells a story of an Indian girl in England who is a football player but has to deal with the concerns of her family in order to be able to play. This movie is similar to Girlfight in that both movies tell stories of women who want to take part in a sport, but have to deal with their personal demons and their families before they can be successful. In this respect, the movie has a traditional narrative. However, if we look at the evolution of the thoughts shown in the movies from the film we started from up to this one, we can see that the traditional has been modified. While in Pat and Mike, Pat's ability to play was a novel idea, in Bend it Like Beckham, the novelty is not that Jess is a sportswomen, but the fact that she is an Indian sportswomen. Thus we have come a long way with respect to what is an acceptable role for women to have. Most of these movies show that it is possible for women to have a fulfilling life in all aspects despite being in sports which puts women in a much better light, that Pat was in the beginning of the movie Pat and Mike.

Thus, while tradition is a term that changes with time, most of these movies do work within the confines of a traditional narrative, even if they are telling stories that have aspects that may be considered radical. In my opinion A League of Their Own came closest to breaking the mold as far as popular cinema is concerned, allowing women to be successful in their societal roles while playing a sport, while films like Bend It Like Beckham allow us to see how the idea of the female role does change over time.

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