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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

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image of women in sport

Marisha Banerji

Amy Campbell
Women, Sport and Film-2004
Marisha Banerji

Image of women in sport

The movie making tradition is an important one in many ways. It is a means of entertainment, functioning in that category as a principle source of entertainment to the general public, and one that has been steadily growing in importance with it's inception at the dawn of the twentieth century, having grown at the threshold of the twenty-first century, less than a hundred years since it's debut into the public arena with such films as Hearts of the World, etc into a multi-billion dollar industry that more and more people look to as a source of entertainment. Movies such as "The Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy have in recent years, broken multiple records in their box-office takings. Why is this relevant, one might ask? Only in that these are movies every one has seen, and their names have become household words, and their stars as well to the extent that the cult of celebrity that has grown around them has led to their appearance, habits, preferences and lifestyles being of endless interest to the public, serving as a kind of replacement for the heroes of old like knights and nobles, and thus movies have grown to be a very influential medium indeed.
Movies thus have become a cultural medium of no mean importance. Thus, the tales told through movies, and the images promoted through them have a lot of influence on the way these things are seen in real life, and conversely are an interesting barometer of social opinion on a wide range of matters.
The image of women in Sport is one of these. Sports movies are a popular genre of movies. Although not usually responsible for the greatest films in the history of cinematography, movies made about sport have always proved to be very popular with the public. We have not far to look for the underlying reason for this. These films appeal to a certain need in all of us to be cheered and uplifted. Sports movies all generally take the same tack; a down an outer, or a social outcast finds in themselves a certain knack for sport and go on to succeed in doing something and fulfill themselves, and ultimately satisfy us. There is always a lot of struggle and hardship, but our persevering sportsperson wins out in the end, to everybody's satisfaction.
In the vast majority of such storylines, however, the struggler is male This has been true of most of cinematographic history, from the 1920's to the year 2000. It is always a man, or a group of men, in the role (s) of leading protagonists. In the early days it was such movies as "Take Me out to the Ballgame", through such cinematic greats as "Rocky", and even today, when there are such celebrities as Venus Williams and Martina Navratilova, movies such as "Remember the Titans", "The Return of Bagger Vance". Etc, continue the trend. The leading roles, the sports- people, are always male. This reflects the continuing social trend to see sport as a male arena. One need only reflect on the incident at an exclusive golf club in Atlanta, where women are still barred, to realize the truth of this. Needless to say, the women's roles in these films have mainly been in the capacity of devoted wives, mothers, and girlfriends. A prime example would be Adrianne in "Rocky".
One of the early films to have a woman play an athlete was "Pat and Mike" starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn's role was that of a talented and athletic woman, while this idea was not a first for society, (as the Gibson girls had been an American ideal at the turn of
the century) Pat shows strength of mind in leaving her distracting boyfriend and miserable job behind in order to pursue sport on the professional circuit, which certainly was a revolutionary idea at the time, and getting support unconditionally from her agent Mike. The narrative has a key moment in which athletic Pat subdues a gangster who threatens Mike, and Mike is humiliated at the idea of having had to be defended by one of the weaker sex. This is an interesting moment, as it shows us the image of women, even athletes, was that of a weaker sex in many ways, but most emphatically physically in those days. The movie challenges this by having Pat outfight and outsmart a couple of toughs and earn their fear and respect. This is surely a seminal moment in the movie. In the end, she is a successful athlete, playing with the devoted Mike by her side in an unusually submissive role.
The movie "Rocky" on the other hand, has no female athlete making so much as a token appearance, with the lead female role going to Rocky's girlfriend Adrianne who while an interesting character in her own right is not an athlete and seems to promote the image that, in this movie that is a classic and a cornerstone in sports movies, the role of women is to stand on the sidelines until the match is over, instead of competing in the arena, to which she has as much right as a man. This does the struggling female athlete craving as much recognition as her brother no favors.
In recent years, movies like "Girlfight" and "Bend It like Beckham" present a much improved image. The character of Diana in the first movie is depicted as a worthy athlete and a worthy person in spite of her frailties and problems and her success is very much a triumph over other people's opinions of her ability and qualifications to box. By proving her case,she has made a similar case for women everywhere. "Bend It like Beckham" reinforces this message in a multicultural context.
We have thus come a long way for the image of women in film.

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