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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004
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The Traditional Hollywood Narrative and Its Role in Women's Sports Films

Katie Hall

The traditional Hollywood narrative in a sports film usually plays out in a very easily recognized sequence of events: man introduced as an athlete in his sport, man gets a chance to reach his goal within the sport, man has or meets girlfriend who inspires and supports him, man reaches goal after much hard work and overcoming of obstacles, and man wins girl as well as the match, game, etc. This tedious list of plot-points makes up a structure that has emerged as the norm over the years. The identification of this pattern is not to say that the movies that follow it are not entertaining or meaningful in their own rights. Often times they are true stories that leave audience members with that well-known "fuzzy feeling" that accompanies a happy ending, and that feeling is certainly an enjoyable one. However, it is not very often that these films push the envelope in any way. Films that cross social lines are not as apt to inspire that fuzzy feeling. Obstacles present themselves, but they are always eventually overcome, and, as an audience, we know from the very beginning that they will be. In women's sports films, however, there is an obstacle that is never really overcome: the adversity women face as athletes. They bear this burden from the start of the opening titles to the last credit that rolls by at the end of the film. This characteristically unavoidable obstacle exists because of the way our society generalizes and interprets the roles, appearances, and behaviors of women. Because of this, films about women athletes are given the chance to challenge the typical Hollywood narrative. Their protagonists are women and as such change the rules from the get-go. However, only a select few of the six films we watched took it a step further by abandoning the aforementioned formulaic plot and allowing their protagonists to be identified as athletes above anything else. In my eyes, the films we watched had to leave the lasting characterization of the protagonists as athletes in their sports and not primarily one half of a relationship.

The first film, Pat and Mike, was quite unique in the context of its production date, but, overall, did very little, if anything, to stray from the typical Hollywood narrative. A female professional athlete was not a very common or acceptable idea at that point, and, most likely, neither was the idea of a woman being away from her fiancé for so long in order to pursue a career in sports. In these ways, the film broke away from what was traditional. On the other hand, Katharine Hepburn's character, the protagonist Pat, left much to be desired in her role as a strong female, in that I did not walk away from the film feeling like Pat was a female athlete above anything else. Her dedication to the two sports she played, golf and tennis, seemed to waver at times. For example, when her fiancé Collier came to her tennis match, the nets grew to enormous heights in her mind. She could not perform in Collier's presence, signifying that her mind was not totally on the sport. When she did find a man whose presence did not disrupt her concentration, their relationship overshadowed her sports career. As the credits rolled by, I found myself thinking, "So she ended up with Mike," rather than, "So she got to be a professional athlete," and that perfectly sums up the problem with a lot of these films.

I felt that the film that definitely and most outwardly challenged the typical Hollywood narrative was Girlfight. After having watched Rocky, the quintessential male sports film, the differences were quite obvious. Diana faced head-on the reactions of "But girls don't fight," and went on to be better than her younger brother, who, in contrast, was much weaker and less cut out for boxing than she was. Diana ended up with a guy at the end, but that did not interfere with her role as female boxer. In fact, she fought him and won. Throughout the course we have discussed whether the female protagonists would be willing to put the sport above the relationship if pressured to do so. For example, Dottie, for all intensive purposes, was ready to drop baseball as soon as Bob came back, and only played one season. In my mind, that is what truly challenges the typical Hollywood narrative: these women being dedicated enough to temporarily or permanently – whatever the case may require – their relationships in order to remain dedicated to their sport. Diana did exactly this. In the practice ring, she didn't hold back because she was afraid of losing him: she told him, "I love you, I really do," and then proceeded to punch him in the face. When it came about that she had to fight Adrian, she was more than willing to do that because she felt secure enough in herself as a boxer and as a woman to do so. He voiced his displeasure at the notion immediately, but she did not let that sway her, and even told him, "Then maybe you shouldn't be a boxer." She had been fighting for a relatively short amount of time, but she had become so committed to it that she refused to avoid a match for a boyfriend. It is this pure and lasting dedication to the sport and faith in herself as an athlete that makes Diana the perfect example of a female protagonist who was able to break the mold.

In male sports' films, athletes are shown in complete comfort with their sports, dedicated and naturally able to devote their whole lives to it. They have no obligations to do something else with their time. Women, however, have always been portrayed as having their place in the home, with children, sitting back while their husbands do what they want to do. Relationships have always been placed as the be-all, end-all of women's lives; it is the epitome of their happiness, the goal that they strive to achieve, the measure of their true worth and accomplishment. In the films we watched, though, most of the female protagonists found sports to be just as fulfilling, if not more so. However, this was not necessarily enough to break the "typical Hollywood" film narrative. In order to do that, these women had to make their sports their lives, and allow the rest to unfold from there. The vast differences between Pat in Pat and Mike and Diana in Girlfight perfectly exemplify the progress that was made in the films we watched. While Pat found true happiness when she settled down with Mike and got to play sports as well, Diana was willing to put her relationship on the line for her sport and was rewarded for it. In this way, a protagonist having the faith in the sport and in herself to put it above a relationship, that the typical Hollywood narrative was challenged.

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