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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

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Challenging the "typical Hollywood" Film Narrative: Pat and Mike and Bend It Like Beckham

Catherine Barie

Film, in many ways, is a window to society in that the narrative reflects societal trends and thoughts present at any given time. Film narrative evolves just as beliefs and preconceptions evolve within society; as time passes, so do the definitions of what is or is not acceptable. The portrayal of women, in particular, is continually changing as society grapples with the transformation of female identity from that of a narrow definition of femininity to one that is broader and less restrictive. Sports are one particular arena in which women have become involved relatively recently. (Previously, female involvement in athletic activities was greatly restricted.) As time progresses, however, more and more opportunities arise for women to become involved in sports. As female participation in sports becomes more and more common, so does the appearance of female protagonists in sports films. As a genre, women's sports films challenge the "typical Hollywood" film narrative because they feature female protagonists who decide to participate in sports despite the resistance they face. Yet, as female protagonists appear in sports films with increasing frequency, the definition of "typical Hollywood narrative" evolves to incorporate the female athlete. Thus, a film that challenged the "typical Hollywood narrative" in the 1960s may now be considered trite and "typical Hollywood." Two films that challenge the "typical Hollywood narrative" (or at least did at the time) are Pat and Mike and Bend It Like Beckham.

The film Pat and Mike, set in the 1950s, chronicles the exploits of Pat, a determined female athlete who decides to play tennis professionally; she is undoubtedly incredible athlete, however, whenever her fiancÚ is around, she becomes flustered and unable to play well. As a character, Pat is an independent and determined woman who decides to play tennis despite the disapproval of her fiancÚ. This film (at the time) challenged the "typical Hollywood narrative" because it features a female athlete as the protagonist, which at the time was very rare. She also is highly motivated and independent; not only does she decide for herself that she is going to play sports professionally, but she also seeks out a coach to help her make this transition. Furthermore, Pat is an atypical Hollywood heroine because she is resourceful and can basically take care of herself. This is especially apparent when she helps her coach to "deal" with the loan sharks who came to beat him up at the restaurant; not only did she rescue her coach, but she also outwits and beats up the loan sharks (who are strong, large men). Thus, the film Pat and Mike challenged the typical film narrative (at the time) because it featured a strong, independent, and determined female athlete as the protagonist. Yet, this film today appears to be rather trite and typical; Pat, despite her independence, is very emotional and relies heavily on her coach. She also seems, at times, to be very weak and dependent on her coach, especially in the scene where she is awakened and startled by her fiancÚ and screams to her coach for help. In the end, Pat also "ends up with the man," as is incredibly common for female characters in films; not only must they overcome whatever challenge they face, but they also have to have some sort of romantic conclusion. However, the fact that this film doesn't really appear to challenge the "typical Hollywood narrative" demonstrates an evolution of female identity with relation to sports.

Another film that challenges the "typical Hollywood narrative" is Bend It Like Beckham. This film follows the life of Jess, a young woman who wants to play soccer but whose family vehemently opposes such an endeavor because they feel she should be more of a traditional Indian girl. Jess is torn between the sport she loves and her family, and spends much of the movie attempting to balance these two facets of her life. This film challenges the "typical Hollywood narrative" because it suggests that it is no longer unusual for women to play sports. The emphasis of this film is cultural identity, and being able to preserve family traditions while at the same time playing sports (something which is very non-traditional for Indian women). Since the emphasis is on cultural identity and not so much on female identity, it is clear that the idea of a female athlete is no longer considered "abnormal" or rare. Jess' challenge is to be accepted as an athlete by her family, not by society. In this way, the film is rather atypical.

In conclusion, two films that challenge the "typical Hollywood narrative" (or at least did at the time) are Pat and Mike and Bend It Like Beckham; they challenge the "typical Hollywood narrative" because they feature female athletes determined to play sports despite the resistance they face. Since the portrayal of women is continually changing as society grapples with the transformation of female identity, film narrative also changes to reflect societal perceptions during the time. As female protagonists appear in sports films more and more often, the "typical Hollywood narrative" changes to incorporate the female athlete, just as beliefs and preconceptions are evolving within society. Thus, films that challenge this "typical Hollywood narrative" now may not challenge it in the future. For this reason, films are windows to society; what is seen through the window today may be totally different from what is seen tomorrow.

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