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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

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Believe in Yourself

Stephanie Masiello


Women in sports are a topic that is not always as heavily discussed as men in sports. Even less discussed, however, are the films made about women in sports. In this class, we watched many versatile movies depicting different women and the role of sports in their lives. Each director clearly chose certain actresses to convey the parts, but even more importantly are the images in which the director portrayed them. A very different effect is put upon an audience when you see a woman playing a sport and looking dainty and pretty versus a woman playing a sport that is sweating and possibly bleeding or crying. Some would say that the directors have presented images like this to affirm that women are equivalent to men. That is true but instead, I think that they are included in the movie to show a woman competing with herself and not the opposite sex. "I believe in me more than anything in this world", said by the Olympic gold medal runner Wilma Rudolph, which sums up what the directors try to portray. These women must battle themselves in sports not necessarily battle other people. In the movies Pat and Mike, A League of their Own, Rocky, Girl Fight, Pumping Iron II, and Bend It Like Becham the directors choose to portray women in not conventional, not pretty scenes in order to show the theme of the character's inner competition with defining herself.

In the first movie, Pat and Mike, starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, the director portrays Pat in a conventional manner at first. She is a woman who sacrifices her athletic ability for her fiancée and even changes her clothes to set the "right" picture with him. Then as Pat realizes she needs to make something of herself first, before she can be married, the audience rarely sees her in a skirt. She starts to become this different person. She wears slacks throughout most of the movie, which was quite a big deal for Katherine Hepburn's time. The audience also gets to see Pat's injuries. She becomes sore and experiences pain. Her struggle to become this great sports woman reflects on Pat's personal need to find out who she is. She is competing with herself to see if she really can become this amazing woman she wants to be. The harder she works at her athletic ability, the closer she is to becoming the woman she knew she could be. She even solidifies the new her by choosing Spencer Tracy over her fiancée since Tracy was the man who also always knew she could be this great woman. At the end of the film, Pat truly is a winner. Having competed with herself on what kind of woman she wanted to be, her involvement in sports lead her to become a stronger one, as depicted by her transformation of clothing and soreness from athletics throughout the movie.

A League of Their Own is another movie in which the depiction of women in non-conventional images portrays the theme of inner struggle. The women of the leagues are shown in scenes where the sweat, get huge bloody bruises, and even get into fights with each other. These women are fulfilling a dream of theirs and taking it to new levels. Each woman struggles with being a lady and being an admired baseball player. In the film, the players take an etiquette class. A few scenes later they are punching each other in the dirt. These images convey the struggle each player felt between being a woman of her time, who was waiting for her husband to come back from the war or trying to do more with her life, and a talented, chosen athlete who has something to offer the sport. To these women it meant more to play the sport, than to play each other.

Rocky and Girl Fight also express the theme of non-conventional images used by a director in order to show personal struggle. Though Rocky is about a male boxer, his brutal beatings and the scene were his eyelid needs to be cut open depicts just how hard he needs to prove to himself that he can go the distance. In Girl Fight, the character of Diana is not that different. Instead of Rocky needing to prove to himself that he can go the distance in this one fight, Diana needed to prove to herself that she could go the distance in life. Each time Diana hit the punching bag, or took a jab at someone, she was struggling with herself to prove that she can have a better life. Her bleeding and multiple bruises that the audience witnessed were reminders that she needed and wanted to do this for herself. She needed to believe that she could have that better life like Pat and the women of the ABL when she put her mind to it. In Girl Fight it is interesting, because at the end of the movie, when Diana reaches that goal within herself, we see the sunlight directly on her face for the first time in the whole movie, an image that would be used commonly to portray beauty and gentility in a woman.

In Pumping Iron II, the central theme was this idea of a womanly woman who was also strong. Each bodybuilder in the film struggled with her own idea of what the competition was looking for. Bev had to struggle with the fact that she was strong, but perhaps not womanly enough for the judges. This was depicted by Bev's dance performance in the movie. She added little hand waves and hip motions at the end of her dance that was distinctly feminine. Rachel had to struggle with being pretty and perhaps not strong enough. Each woman had to define strength and beauty for themselves before they could go out on that stage and be judged. Some women cried while working out, some women felt foolish while getting "prettied up". A few seemed to be able to really feel comfortable with who they were. Bev did settle her inner struggle in the movie after losing. She knew who she was, and was proud of it as shown by her immediate happiness at ordering food after an unfair loss. Like the women above, Bev's bodybuilding struggle and unconventional appearance lead her to define what kind of woman she is.

Jess in Bend it Like Becham used her struggle in soccer to define what kind of woman she was as well. She was depicted as a non-conventional girl for her background. Jess used soccer to help show her family that she was still apart of their culture, but needed to define her own life a little differently. The image that depicts this the best is when Jess puts on her sari after a soccer game. Suddenly all the bruises and sweat are covered by this lovely garment. The director shows us the two sides of Jess. She can be strong and feminine at the same time. This is who she knows she is, she just has to convince other people of it as well. In Jess going against the grain of her culture and playing soccer, she is able to finally define herself as an adult to herself and to her family.
The directors in all of these films use non-conventional and sometimes not pretty images of women to reflect the inner struggles that the characters are dealing with. For Pat, with her pants and pain, she uses sports as a guide to a better life and better man. The women of the ABL use their baseball bruises to help them fulfill a part of their lives that most women were not able to at that time. Like Rocky going the distance, every bruise and bloody knuckle made Diana push that much harder for a better and happier life for herself. Bev's struggle with the definition of femininity helped to define who she was to herself. Similarly, Jess used soccer as a catalyst to change her life so that she could become the woman she wanted to be. All of these women suffered pain and hard emotions in each of their sports. The directors depictions of these two things expressed to the audience that these women needed to "believe in themselves more than anything in this world" before they could truly begin living.

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