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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

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Social Issues for Women in Sports

Beatrice Lucaciu

The films that I found to be most compelling are A League of Their Own, Pumping Iron II, and Girl Fight. Incidentally, these are also the films that I believe examine the range of social issues of women in sport. In each film, women encounter challenges due to others' expectations and assumptions.

In A League of Their Own, women were given a chance to participate in a sport which they loved but only because many of the male baseball players were going to war. Furthermore, they had been expected to wear mini dresses. This alone showed that promoters were less interested in their abilities, and more interested in exploiting their looks. Even when selecting the players for the league, the scout made it clear that he had wanted attractive women to play almost overlooking a very talented woman just because she was not considered beautiful. The characters were developed, however, to show that there was much more to them than just sex appeal. As director of this film, Penny Marshall demonstrated the hard work and dedication of the women by showing shots of their dirty uniforms and many bruises.

In this film, one quickly realizes that a major challenge the players faced was getting people to actually come to their games. At that time, it seems as though women athletes were not taken seriously. Thus, attendance for their games was low. They had to use their abilities to provide the crowds with entertainment (for example, doing splits and catching the ball in a hat, etc). Eventually, against all odds, the women succeed at impressing those who had doubted them before. However, it seems to be a requirement in sports films about women to have them prove themselves as athletes. They had to show that, even though they are women, they too can play just as hard as men.

Pumping Iron II follows the story of women who are participating in a type of competition once open only to men: bodybuilding. One would assume that the point of such a competition would be to build muscle mass and sculpting form, and developing every muscle in one's body. However, it becomes apparent that these women are expected to retain some form stereotypic femininity, and avoid appearing too masculine. What I loved about this movie is that it allows for the viewer to gain perspective about the personalities of those involved in the competition. Therefore, the viewer may find herself supporting Bev Francis, the most "masculine" of the bodybuilders, even though the judges and some of her competitors are expecting her to lose because of her lack of a feminine form.

This movie definitely challenges the role of women. It seems that quite a few of the women in Pumping Iron II had started considering the contest to be more like a beauty pageant. They primped their hair, overdid their makeup, and tried to find the perfect bikini. However, because Bev Francis was more interested in displaying her muscular structure and, to some extent, I think that is what set her apart from the other, more "feminine" bodybuilders. Ultimately, one is left with the feeling that competitive female bodybuilding has a long way to go before it can distinguish itself from any usual beauty contest.

Lastly, I think Girl Fight really broke ground in terms of women in sport films. Finally, they made a movie about a young woman who succeeds in a typically masculine sport - boxing. She does not depend upon her boyfriend to motivate her or train her. In fact, she even beats him in the ring. However, the main character in this film, too, must prove herself because of her gender.

I think that the other three films are equally entertaining and enlightening, but for different reasons. For example, Katherine Hepburn as the female protagonist in Pat and Mike definitely challenged the idea of women in sports. However, the film takes a step back when aligning her with a coach who becomes a love interest. What I find upsetting is that Bend It Like Beckham seems to do something similar. This brings about the question of how far we have really come.

As I have said in my posts to the forum, I would have removed any romance between Jess and her coach Joe in Bend It Like Beckham. The movie is substantial enough without trying to bring in a typical Hollywood scenario such as that one. The movie's main character was confident in her abilities (which were, in fact, fantastic) and did not require a significant other to develop that confidence. This, of course, is a step forward compared to the story of Pat and Mike.

As for Rocky, I believe that that movie has little to do with the role of women in sports, and more to do with challenging yourself and the beliefs others have about you. There is actually nothing that I would change about Rocky. I find it to be interesting and moving as it is. The fact that there is a relationship that is a central focus of the film is acceptable, in my opinion. This relationship provided both Rocky and Adrian with a new perspective on life and a new hope, as well.

I think, with the exception of Rocky, each of these films contributes to creating a proper place for women in sports. Even in Pumping Iron II, the viewer may consider the criticism of great muscularity by the judges to be unfair. This realization may cause a demand for equality in different sports and competitions. There is no doubt that each film about female athletes portrayed these women as being very gifted and talented. And it is nice to see that the most recent of the films, Bend It Like Beckham, has a protagonist that is determined and sure of herself. This gives hope that eventually films about female athletes will not need to involve romantic relationships or require the women to have to compete to prove themselves as equals. Rather, they should have the characters compete to demonstrate their natural abilities without having a stigma attached to them because of their gender.

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