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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

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Challenging the typical Hollywood narrative

Mo-Gyung Rhim

Using sport as the theme and women as the protagonists presents the opportunity the challenge the 'typical Hollywood' film narrative. Did any of the films successfully challenge the film narrative? Why or why not?
Though Hollywood as a powerful force in this culture certainly affects and helps shape the societal values, norms and stereotypes to some extent, it is mostly in response to the changes and demands that it perceives is coming from the public. So, the 'typical Hollywood narrative' can be understood as much of as a product and reflection of societal pressures, stereotypes and pressures as a product of Hollywood or the entertainment industry. The typical Hollywood narrative shows females as passive and at times submissive. In many of the films we viewed for class, the women were challenging the traditional narrative by taking the lead role and being an athlete. Many of the women were strong and independent in many aspects of the films. However, by the end of some of the films, it was apparent that the film as a whole did not stray from the typical Hollywood narrative. The leading female protagonist is still dependent upon men in several of the films. Even though the female may be strong, forceful, independent in almost every other way, her one weakness is inevitably love and emotion. Basically, though the films may try to challenge the typical narrative, they still fit the mold in the end when the guy gets the girl. The ending of any typical Hollywood narrative, no matter how much it may stray from the Hollywood norm in other aspects, must include the comfortable romantic relationship.

In the movie Pat and Mike, Pat is first introduced as this amazing athlete. We see that she has an enormous talent that is just natural to her. This definitely goes against the typical narrative in that she is the main character, a female, and amazing at sports. However, that is about the extent to which the movie challenges the typical narrative. Though she may be good at sports, within the first ten minutes of the movie we realize that her one apparent weakness has to do with men. She cannot play in front of her fiancÚ. Her fiancÚ has some hold over her by just looking disapprovingly at her. Even when we do see her rebel against him and jump off the train to pursue an athletic career, she first says she is doing it to partially prove herself to her fiancÚ. Also she just ends up running straight to another man who ends up controlling her other ways and whom she becomes dependent on by the end of the movie because she ends up falling in love with him. Pat is dependent upon Mike in a very father/child dynamic and needed him to make decisions for her. She needed him to "manage" her. This fits back into the typical mold of the Hollywood leading lady or of the general portrait of women in films as being incapable of taking control of their own lives. In the end, though she is still a professional athlete instead of simply quitting and becoming a wife, the audience gets the sense that the most important part of the ending for Pat and the producers of the film is that she is empowered or enabled to pursue her athletic career because of Mike and the romantic relationship that is realized in the end.

In A League of Their Own there are certainly elements that challenges the traditional narrative, but there are also elements that keep it from challenging the narrative completely. First, the entire movie is about women athletes where all of the leading women in the film are athletes. This would seem to put them inherently in a place of action and of empowerment, but there are certain factors that keep them from being completely acting. First, they have to be dependent upon men to form and financially back the teams and in the end, the audience sees that the league did ultimately disband. Secondly, the movie showed distinct moments where the women seem vulnerable and passive. Many of the women are married with kids and are seen as having to struggle with both roles as mother/wife and athlete. In the end, one player is forced by her husband to bring her child along with her on all the road trips. Other moments of passivity include when the organization was threatening to shut down the league unless the girls could bring in more people by using they feminine powers. They basically sold tickets through the promise of short skirts flying, kisses for viewers who caught a ball, and doing splits in order to add a "show" aspect to the game. The women were not allowed to simply play a good game as men would be expected to do. Instead, they were forced into passivity by having to act in a way that was not at all a part of the game, but rather a part of them just being desired objects performing theatrics. Also the main character Dottie is seen as the best athlete, but one who is constantly saying that she wants to put her husband and her role of wife first. In the end, she gives up the chance to play in order to go back and be a wife.

In Rocky Adrienne did not strike me as a particularly strong character who challenges the typical female role. She was strong for Rocky and was a support system for him, and though there are moments where she challenges the men in the movie like Paulie, for the most part she is still the supporting female in a romantic relationship with Rocky, the real hero.

In Girlfight, Diana does challenge the traditional female role, but the ending does not challenge the typical narrative as she still gets together with her boyfriend. Diana does however challenge the typical female in movies in many ways. She is tough, aggressive, angry, and actively pursues boxing training. The sport itself is a very unusal place for females to be active in and by the end, she seems to have actually found a foothold and a place within the sport or at least her gym. She also attacks her father and is empowered by acting finally upon all of the emotions that she has towards her father. However, the movie does not really challenge the typical narrative as a whole. Firstly, it still had to show her heterosexuality and her growing attachment to a man. Though she does beat him in the end in the ring, he still has some power over her. When he brushes her off, she cannot just let it go. Rather, she is seen watching him at work. Though she won in the ring, which does challenge the typical female role as well as the typical narrative, he still has a power over her outside of the ring. The movie, though challenging in many ways, could not just let Diana be a boxer with no real romantic interest. They also had to put her in the typical comfortable role in a man-woman relationship in order to counter the other ways in which she challenges the typical role.

Pumping Iron II most challenges the traditional narrative. Though Bev does not win in the end because she was not the most 'feminine' of the women, she is seen as not really compromising or being affected by the way the judges scored her. She is aware of who she is and seems very comfortable in that skin. We also see Bev as independent from being placed into a typical relationship of romantic nature or of dependent nature. She does train with a man, but the audience also sees her many times training by herself using her own body, not weights, as the only tool to work out with. Though there were other characters who did not fully challenge the typical female like Rachel and Laurie, the main character and main bearer of the message of the movie was Bev, who remains and independent individual very self-aware and comfortable with herself.

In Bend It Like Beckham, Jess remains a challenge to the typical female role though the movie may not be a challenge to the typical Hollywood narrative. The film still has to place Jess in a romantic relationship I think in order to basically add more pull into the movie as a 'fun' movie. The relationship with Joe is used in order to add some plot twists and character development but ultimately it does play into the typical Hollywood ending of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl overcome challenge and eventually end up together. However, throughout the film, though it is obvious that Jess likes Joe, she never throws herself at him and does not seem to pursue him as if he were her first priority or even really a priority at all. She does not seem to be pining after Joe and even when everything was cleared up and she could have easily just kissed him and created that nice typical moment on the field, she pulls back and is active and in control of the situation. Even though they end up together, he is the one coming to her and she seems to accept because she wants to but not because she is at all dependent upon him.

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