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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004
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Challenging versus Overcoming: Women's Sports Films and the Traditional Hollywood Narrative

Tegan Georges

To challenge something and to succeed in overcoming it are not the same thing. A person can challenge another to a boxing match, for example, lose, and still have been The Challenger. Failure at beating whatever has been challenged does not change the fact that a challenge was rendered: and really, in a lot of contexts, challenger in some very real sense means the person we are all expecting to lose.

So in talking about sports films with women as the protagonists--and their ability or inability to challenge traditional film narratives—it is important to remember that failing to completely topple or otherwise upend the traditional narrative does not mean that the film itself didn't challenge it. It only means that narrative structures of traditional Hollywood are powerful. The traditional narratives of the cinema--boy meets girl, boy does thing, girl watches, boy wins girl as prize for job well done: alternately, girl meets boy, girl's ability to trap boy is threatened by shrew/slut, girl eventually succeeds in trapping boy through various acts of cunning/virtue/luck, and shrew/slut is left crying over her failure to deter boy from rightfully pursing correct girl--are representative and in some ways indicative of overarching structures of power in our society: so large, in fact, that no one person--or, for the purposes of this work, no one film--could successfully challenge and overcome them entirely.

In women's sports films, there is an inherent challenge presented to these and other traditional Hollywood in just being women's sports film: the conflict which comes forward in representing the female athletes as athletes--as active agents, as bodies-in-motion. Traditionally, female characters in films are objects and not subjects; their bodies are displayed as being beautiful and not as becoming strong.

Each of the films reconciled this aspect of their stories differently: Pat and Mike's choice to have Pat be strong from the beginning, thus playing down Pat's body as a source of strength and potentially rising agency.

The focusing in A League of Their Own on the league's insistence that the women learn to be ladies, and the choice of having the main protagonist be the woman in the film who lines up most closely the traditional Hollywood model of a good woman, thus downplaying the shift from object to subject that the women who played baseball enacted.

In Girlfight, the object/subject conflict is resolved in Diana's transition from fighting-in-the-halls delinquent to boxer-in-training; channeling her unfeminine aggression into a more appropriate medium for such behavior resolved and dissolved her tendency towards threatening the structures of society more broadly--school, her family, etc, making her character's transition in woman-as-active subject less threatening.

The threat of masculinization in Pumping Iron II is in some respects very much in line with the traditional representation of women's bodies as objects: the big question of this film is not whether women should be lifting weights, but rather what sorts of physical qualities their bodies need to display in order to be perfect: it is a question of reshaping themselves as object, and doing so in terms not properly aligned with hetrosexual masculine desire--what the judges and competitors all refer to as simply "feminine"--is, the film tells us, inappropriate for those ladies who want to win.

Jess's ability to play sports is not the focus of Bend it Like Beckham: she struggles to fulfill a sense of agency that is being granted by her understanding of the world but is denied by her family. The focus of much of the camera work is on bodies, though, on the way bodies move: through society, through the family structures, through tradition and through breaking with it. But in contrasting shots of the challenging narrative--Jess' playing sports--with the very traditional narrative--Jess' sister's wedding--the filmmakers have make a subtle point: that the challenging notions of women as athletes is really not all that different from the traditional modes of women's behavior in film, and as such, the narrative of marriage is shown to be the same as winning the game. In saying they are the same sorts of things, Bend it Like Beckham is also denying that the way that thinking about female bodies in terms of subject/object representation complicate the narrative.

But in each of the films watched for this course, the very fact that these reconciliations had to be worked out shows that the traditional modes were challenged. And for each challenge these films present, a concession had to be made as regards the narrative. So victories, if one wants to speak in terms of progress, are apparent: even if the narrative still stands, it changes ever so slightly because of the way women as athletes are represented.

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