This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

On Serendip

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Rocky: Non-Traditional Vs. Traditional Sports Films

Lauren Doughty

The question of which films supported the traditional narrative and which did not requires a definition of the traditional narrative. Essentially, the traditional narrative involves a male athlete winning a game or match of some type, after a considerable amount of hard work. He always has to overcome some type of obstacle in order to make it to the final match. Of course, his "little woman" is always there on the sidelines cheering him on to victory. In contrast, films that did not follow the traditional narrative would have some crucial difference from the above. For example, the protagonist would be female instead of male, the film would deal with issues outside of sports, like cultural identity in Bend it like Beckham, and there might or might not be a man on the sidelines supporting her. Given the considerable variety of films in the course, some followed the traditional narrative and some went against it. I think that Rocky, and to a lesser degree, Pumping Iron II, followed the traditional narrative the closest of all of the films. Girl Fight and Bend It Like Beckham both went against the traditional narrative.

Rocky had many elements of a film that followed the traditional narrative. The protagonist was a working-class male athlete who had to fight his way to the top (pun intended). He was extremely "macho," as he practiced his boxing skills by punching sides of beef in a freezing meat locker. His girlfriend Adrienne was a "typical weak female" who lived with an abusive brother, Rocky's best friend. Adrianne needed Rocky's support to change and acquire some backbone. The one point on which Rocky is not a traditional sports film shows up at the end of the movie, with the outcome of the final match. First-time viewers (like me) hoped that Rocky would win the match, in traditional "underdog-comes-out-on-top" fashion. However, he technically lost to his opponent, the famous Apollo, symbolically named after the Greek god of the sun who represented the perfect male form. Rocky did not lose completely. He did knock Apollo down first, before Apollo knocked him down. They were very well-matched in the fight. Also, Rocky achieved a personal victory for a working-class person from a poor neighborhood, because he followed his dream and got to show people what he could do.

Pumping Iron II appeared, at first glance, to go strongly against the traditional narrative. It was different from all of the other films in the course because it was a documentary. The idea of female body-builders seemed ground-breaking and exciting. Even the judges were not sure how to handle the sport, which I think caused problems. Having a male body-builder do the show at intermission provided a contrast to most of the women in the pageant, except for Bev. However, the woman who won the pageant, as I do believe it was a beauty contest and not a body-building contest, gave the most sexualized performance and portrayed a weak, scared woman alone in the jungle. I was rooting for Bev all the way. She was clearly physically strongest and considered the most "masculine" because of the way her considerable muscle mass had made her body look. If she had won the competition, which she should have in my opinion, it would have sent the concept of traditional gender roles completely out the window. However, those same gender roles that she was defying were the reason that she came in last, because she was too different from some of the judges' conception of what a woman should look like.

In contrast with Rocky, Girl Fight involved a female boxer. There were some interesting parallels with the movie Rocky. The protagonist's name was Diana, who was Apollo's sister in mythology. Apollo was Rocky's opponent in the final boxing match, as I mentioned above. Diana's boyfriend's name was Adrian, whereas Adrianne was Rocky's girlfriend's name. It differed from the traditional narrative because the protagonist was a girl. She also had to deal with her father being against her boxing. She had to confront him, because she didn't want what had happened to her mother (suicide because of her father's abuse) to happen to her. Diana ends up dominating over all the men in her life: her brother, her boyfriend, even fighting with her abusive father and practically killing him near the end of the film.

In Bend It Like Beckham, the film was more about the protagonist Jess, a teenage Indian girl living in England, having to overcome cultural and familial barriers to playing sports than actually having to come to terms with being a female athlete in general. Her family expected her to find an acceptable (meaning, Indian) boyfriend and get married soon after, if not during, college. Her goal to be a professional soccer player definitely conflicted with the role she was expected to fill as a young Indian woman. She had to hold onto her ideas about what she wanted for herself and be willing to defy her family at points during the film, which definitely goes against the traditional "submissive female" role in the traditional narrative.

In conclusion, the variety of sports films in the course all challenge the traditional narrative of "a male athlete trains hard, overcomes obstacles, wins the match, and gets the girl." Rocky challenges it the least, because he achieved a personal victory but technically lost the final match. All of the other parts of the traditional narrative hold true. Then comes Pumping Iron II, a documentary on women's body-building. This challenges the traditional narrative more than Rocky because the athletes involved are all female and they are participating in a sport that is usually considered very masculine. However, traditional gender roles are essentially not challenged because the "most female" body-builder is the one who wins the competition, by giving a performance that portrayed a "classic," sexualized, "typical weak female." Girl Fight challenges the traditional narrative because Diana ends up dominating every man in her life, and, lastly, Bend It Like Beckham challenges it because Jess has to overcome cultural barriers to be an athlete, not societal barriers to be a female athlete.

| Course Home Page | Center for Science In Society | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip
© by Serendip 1994-2007 - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:22 CDT