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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2005
Student Papers
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Themes in Sports Films

Laura Silvius

One of the challenges of women in sports is combating the standards and traditional ideas of femininity, of what women should be. All of the films we watched in the 'Women, Sports and Film' class addressed these challenges in some way or another by showing that there is more to women and more to femininity than the traditional notions. Three of the films which showed opposite sides of the spectrum were 'Hero For Daisy', 'Pumping Iron II', and 'A League of Their Own'. These three films in particular address not only the pressure put on women to be "traditional", but also the pressures put on them to perform at standards equal or even greater to those of male athletes.

'Hero For Daisy' is a documentary about the women's crew team at Yale and the challenges they faced in being taken seriously as athletes and as women. In particular, the women of the Yale crew team argue that under Title IX, they are entitled to facilities equal to those of the men. This includes everything from weights and machines for working out to showers on the river for after the morning practices. The story of the struggle of the crew team is told through the eyes of Chris Ernst, who, along with her teammates, organized a demonstration aimed at getting the athletics department to provide showering facilities for the women's team. Before the demonstration was held, the women had been told by the athletics department that there was no money in the budget to build showers for them, that there was nothing to be done but to bear the burden of having no showers for use after their morning practices. This was on top of battling the hierarchy already in place at a prominent school like Yale, which, at the time, had only just started accepting women. The women's crew team wasn't taken seriously by anyone at Yale, and they had to make their fellow students, fellow athletes and the administrators take them seriously. Their demonstration, and their foresight in bringing along a newspaper reporter and a photographer, made the local news, and the story was then picked up by other newspapers around the country as an example of Title IX going unadhered to even in the most prestigious of universities. The initiative of the women's crew team not only got them their own facilities, but also set a precedent for other universities throughout the nation that the equal treatment of women's athletics under Title IX was not being taken lightly. Not only were they able to get their facilities, but they were also able to prove it a great investment the documentary follows several of the women on the team to their Olympic try-outs and, ultimately, victory for the United States women's crew team. They were able to prove themselves as women who were able to impact their situations and combat the prejudices against their team, and also as athletes, who were able to be just as good as, or better, than the men's crew team. At some point in the film, Chris Ernst's mother talks about why her daughter chose to go to Yale: she wanted to go there to show the men of Yale that she could be just as good as they were, to beat them at their own game. This is a theme which is continued throughout the film; the women expect facilities equal to the men's, since they are performing on a level on par with the men.

'Pumping Iron II' was another film which challenged the idea of femininity in a way that none of the other movies really did. 'Pumping Iron' is a documentary about a women's body-building contest. The film follows several of the top contestants in their struggle to get in shape for the contest and deal with the competition from the other women. In particular, the challenge with this contest comes with the entrance of an Australian named Bev, whose body is likened within the film more to a male body-builder's physique than a female's she has wide shoulders and highly developed muscles in her arms and thighs. The other competitors have well-defined hips, waists and breasts, as well as small legs and arms. The huge controversy in this film stems from what the standards for the contest should be; if the women should be judged according to their looking like women (i.e., with shapely bodies), or if they should be judged by the same standards which male body-building were judged by. Bev is a quintessential example of the latter standard; big and well-defined muscles everywhere on her body, and one who could lift enough in weights to impress any man in eyesight. Another competitor named Rachel, however, was skinny and had muscles only in places that girls were expected to have muscles. She had small arms and legs, six-pack abs, and that's about it. At the end of the film, the winner of the competition is a woman, Carla, whose body type is somewhere between the two not as petite as Rachel, nor as buffed as Bev. The competition in this case is tricky because most of the women are of Rachel's body type, and think the contest should be judged according to how women are "supposed to look". Bev's challenge to the competition was to show that a woman could be as muscular as a man and still be sensual and feminine. On stage, she is confident and in control of the image she is portraying and the reasons why she is portraying it. Rachel plays to the traditional ideas of what a woman's body should look like, and what women should be like; she caters to the males in the audience and on the judge's panel because she feels it's what she needs to do to win. In the end, it is not a complete victory for either side of the debate, though those of Rachel's way of thinking arguably have a sweeter defeat, since Rachel finishes third place in the contest as compared to Bev's eighth place.

'A League Of Their Own' differs from the other two movies I've mentioned because it is a narrative film instead of a documentary, but its theme is similar to the other two; it is about female athletes being expected to perform like men, but still expected to act and appear like ladies. This film about the women's baseball league during World War II, but the women are held to standards both on and off the field that their male counterparts were never held to; they are recruited based on their looks rather than their talent, are forced to play in skirts rather than pants to protect their legs, and are required to attend lessons in "lady-like behavior". At the same time, they are also expected to maintain their positions and responsibilities as wives and mothers as well as the bread-winners. One of the women on the team has to bring her disruptive son with them on the bus to games because her husband refuses to take care of him, saying it's her job as the mother to take care of the kids. Another feels obligated to leave the team and return home after her husband gets back from the war oversees. The women in the league are required to perform in every aspect of their lives. Some make a conscientious decision to live up to these performances, while others play unhappily along. Continually, they are expected to perform like men, but act like women.

The directors and writers of these three films, despite their different methods (documentary versus narrative films), have something in common they all wanted to make a point about female athletes being held to the standards of their male counterparts and still being required to be feminine in order to be accepted. They have to be athletes but often have to go an extra mile to prove themselves and be taken seriously. All of these films are about women trying to be taken seriously for what they choose to be rather than for what outside forces want them to be. It can be seen in the Yale women's crew team struggle for equal facilities; it can be seen in Bev's refusal to get a smaller body like some of her fellow competitors; and it can be seen in the pressures put on the women of the baseball league in 'A League of Their Own.' All of the women in these films are forced to make a conscious decision to either play into the pressures, or defy them.

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