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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

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Female Athletes in Society

Catherine Eichhorn

The three films I found most compelling were Girlfight, Bend It Like Beckham, and A League of Their Own. Although the three have very different settings (contemporary America, contemporary England, and America during the 1940's, respectively) all deal with similar themes regarding women's place in society as compared to men's. In all three films women are told they shouldn't play sports professionally – that it is unfeminine and unnatural. However, each main character works to achieve her dream and ultimately achieves success.
Girlfight was very compelling because although it challenged the traditional narrative it still had a nonabrasive plotline and was enjoyable to watch. The story of Diana was told in such a way that anyone watching could put themselves in her place. This film portrays more realistically than most the harsh realities of life and the challenges most people face regarding poverty. Diana faces many problems in her home life and as a result is angry and violent. She goes to the boxing club where her brother has lessons and realizes that boxing is something she could focus her anger on and use it as a productive outlet of frustration. Although her life is surrounded by men who see women in a negative light, especially her father, Diana does not succumb to the wishes of others – she fights (literally) to follow her dreams no matter what the cost. Her relationship with Adrian is an example of this. He dumps Diana when he finds out he will have to box with her because he does not want to fight her, but she still wants to fight him. He thinks of Diana as the typical woman in his life, like his girlfriend earlier in the film, who needs to be protected and who cannot stand up for herself. He is probably also scared of losing to a girl and fears a loss of masculinity. However, Diana does not back down – she is willing to lose someone she cares about because she has a plan for herself and believes in herself, and her attitude is "if you have a problem with it that is too bad." Diana learns focus and control from boxing which helps her in her relationship with others. She subtly changes from a violent, uncaring teen into someone likeable.
Bend It like Beckham is a film that I have seen many times yet never thought of in the context of the societal pressures that continue to control the future of women today. Jess has more of a problem culturally playing sports – her parents would probably have as much of a problem of her playing soccer professionally if she were a man. Jess does not have the same problem that Diana has in Girlfight where she has only her trainer as an example of a man who supports her. Jess's friend Tony and Jess's father to an extent support her soccer playing. Jules has more of a societal problem because her mother does not approve of her playing sports. Jules' mother wants Jules to wear a padded bra and go out with boys and to parties. However, Jules is more interested in playing sports, which her father supports. This film is compelling because although it touches on major issues such as the retention of femininity in sports, cultural and social barriers to women in sports, and homosexuality, it is still a very commercial and superficial film designed for the big screen and not to make a major statement like Girlfight was designed to do. One point that is interesting is that although both the main female characters have very feminine names (Jesminda and Juliette) they go by somewhat masculine nicknames: Jess and Jules. Whether this is to attempt to make these characters more masculine to make a greater impact that being masculine is all right for women, or to show both character's parental designs for them since birth in unclear. This film is compelling because it presents multiple facets to the issue of women in sports.
A League of Their Own is compelling because each of the women had their own inspirational stories to tell and each character could be related to. It is also compelling because it questions the values of the times by contrasting Kit's desires with those of Dotty. Dotty is an amazing baseball player but decides to act the part of the traditional woman of the time and return home to have children and be a housewife after her husband returns from World War III. She probably wants to do this, and I do not think she regrets her decision at the end – she simply has different goals than the other women who take baseball more seriously. Kit, on the other hand, loves baseball and wants to follow that path to whatever end it will take her to. She is constantly competing with her sister and is the underdog for much of the movie. Kit and Dotty are both portrayed positively and negatively – their characters are filled out fairly well, and I think that the directors portrayed Dotty in a positive light for much of the movie because they do not want the audience to dislike her because she has different values from the rest of the team. This film too explores the social issues of women in sport during the 1940's in America, and to an extent portrays the social issues that women continue to face. The women's league wasn't taken seriously until the women playing decided to turn the league from a form of entertainment for others into a serious sport that was competitive and challenging. Even today some women's sports are not taken seriously and are viewed as jokes. One example is women's wrestling, women's bodybuilding, and women's rugby. The women portrayed in A League of Their Own turned something that was designed to belittle women into something that women could be proud of.
The other three films (Rocky, Pumping Iron II, and Pat & Mike) were also important and engaging but I felt left something to be desired to the social issues of women playing sports. If I were the director of Rocky, I would have made Adrienne a stronger character. She exists solely to support Rocky. True, he only begins to succeed after he starts to date her and he does find inspiration from having someone who believes in him, but if she were a stronger character then women in general would have more of a positive role in this traditionally "macho man" film. If I were the director of Pumping Iron II, I would have tried to focus more on the attitudes of the audience or the general attitude of the city where the championship took place. What were the average people who watched these women think? Did they think these women weren't feminine? Did they view Bev in a supportive or negative way? The only points of view we have of societal issues are the extremely aged men – few age groups are shown. Perhaps younger people would have been more supportive of Bev, which would have changed this film from other's negative attitude towards bodybuilding into more of a neutral attitude that reflects the changing of the times. Bodybuilding has changed radically in the past twenty years since that film was made – women who are built like Bev now win bodybuilding competitions. If I were the director of Pat & Mike, I would have made Pat work harder to play sports, I would have given her more of a passion for either golf or tennis, and I would have taken away her inability to play whenever her fiancé is present. These characteristics she has really weaken the character, and she would have been a stronger, better character if she had the drive to succeed instead of being excellent at something she was passably interested in. Her playing ability whenever her fiancé was near was demeaning and suggested that women are incapable of performing athletically when they are in love. Pat can play when Mike is near after they become involved, but their relationship is really more of a partnership that is agreed upon rather than a love match.

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