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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004
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Compelling Films

Laura Sockol

Which three films did you find the most compelling? Which films explored the range of social issues of women in sport? Why and if you were the director what would you have added, deleted or changed to make the three others as compelling?

I found the most compelling films to be the ones who used sports as a lens to look at other aspects of women's lives: A League of Their Own, Girlfight and Bend It Like Beckham. I think these were the strongest films, the most original, and the most daring in terms of the way they dealt with women in sport because the sports became the context instead of the main story. If I were to change the other movies, I would make sports less central to the plot and use it instead in the way that the directors of these three films did.
I felt that A League of Their Own was less about baseball than the relationship between Kit and Dottie. Had the movie been about baseball, Dottie would have been the protagonist she was the star player; the movie would have had to focus on her. Instead, the movie is about the changes Kit goes through to get out from under her sister's shadow. This is most clear at the end of the film, when we see how they have ended up forty years later. Dottie is not the strong woman we saw her as; she has retreated to her room following the death of her husband. Kit, however, is surrounded by a large family. We know she has become adventurous because Dottie thinks she will be away traveling when the museum opens the AAPBL wing. Kit goes from being second to her sister in everything to surpassing her. The baseball field is the arena on which she does this, but she does not do it by becoming a better baseball player. She does it by becoming a stronger woman we see this progress as she becomes closer to the girls and gets more involved in the off-field activities of the league. Dottie avoids having close relationships with the other girls. She does not change, she simply waits for her husband to come home. The image of Kit knocking the ball out of Dottie's hand is emblematic of Kit's triumph over Dottie in a larger sense. Dottie, following the game, will go back to her farm life. Kit, though, will stay in the league, travel, and do greater things. Kit triumphs over her sister and becomes her own person. The movie examines this sibling relationship in the context of baseball, and as central as baseball is to the plot, it is not a movie about baseball. It is a movie about two sisters who play baseball and the struggle as they attempt to differentiate themselves from one another.
Girlfight, similarly, uses boxing as a lens through which to look at poor, urban society and the way in which it treats women. Diana's problem was not that she wasn't a good boxer. Diana's problem was that she had attitude as a result of living in a society that devalues and is violent towards women. The relationship Diana had with her father shows how subordinate women were expected to be. It was Diana's job to make dinner and clean up; her father sent her on errands without thanks. Many of the images and sounds in the movie contributed to this idea of violence against women. The shows Diana flipped through on the TV all supported the idea of a submissive, vulnerable woman there was a news report about a woman being killed by her husband, and a soap-opera on which a woman pleaded for a man's love. Diana's friends are also typical women. They are overly concerned with their physical appearance and the way in which they are perceived by men. There was no discussion of schoolwork in the school scenes. The other women had accepted society's label of them to the point that they did not even try to gain acceptance through any other means than to be validated by a man.
Diana's triumph was over this patriarchal society. The true turning point in the movie is when she beats her father in the kitchen. Diana shows that the strength she has developed through her training sessions can be used against this society. She completely surprises her father, who obviously has no idea that women are even capable of such physical power. She brings up the similarity between what she has done to her father and what he did to her mother in the past. This is a reversal of her cultural norms and shows that she has broken out of the restrictive path that her society expects her to follow. When she ultimately triumphs over (her boyfriend?), but he accepts her for it, they fully differentiate themselves from the culture that discriminates against women and forces them to be weak and submissive. Diana is able to be a strong woman and be accepted by the man who loves her. As in A League of Their Own, her victory in the match has less to do with her boxing ability than her struggle against culture.
Bend It Like Beckham also used sports as a lens through which to look at an individual's struggle: in this case, Jess' conflict between her individual desires and what was expected of her by her family's culture. Football was not the only conflict between Jess and her parents they were concerned with her femininity, but as it was expressed in multiple arenas: her dress and appearance, her sexuality, and her ability to cook, for example. Jess' sport was emblematic of the difference between what she wanted to do with her life and what she was expected to do. The fact that she won a scholarship to play at an American college shows that it is not only the sport that is important: Jess will also be getting a different education and experiencing a completely different culture. It is more daring for Jess to date her coach than for her to play football. The object of the movie was not for Jess' team to win the championship, or even for Jess to get to play professionally. The conflict between Jess and her family simply happened to occur in the context of her identity as an athlete.
I feel that these films were the most successful because they used sports to look at women's social issues, not because they addressed the idea of women in sports. Though women have not achieved equality in sports, many advances have been made in America today, it is not revolutionary for a woman to be an athlete. These films normalized the woman athlete and instead used sports as a means to identify other issues women face in society, be they cultural expectations, poverty, or the normal conflicts women experience in their daily lives. I think something similar was accomplished in Rocky, although it looked at a man's life. Rocky did not win the boxing match at the end, however, he triumphed over his previous life. This is the ultimate message of these films: sports can be the way in which you learn to respect yourself and overcome obstacles.

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