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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2005
Student Papers
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M. Leonard

Films about women are endlessly suspect simply because they are a popular, easily definable subset. It can be easy to see societal pressures in them, whether or not such messages actually exist, and this is particularly, almost famously, true of the 2001 "chick flick" Bridget Jones' Diary. But some movies seem more easily to escape such scrutiny, and in some ways sports films centered around women can most easily be ignored for such overanalyzing purposes, because they are relatively atypical. Whether Bridget Jones is more affected by society's expectations of women than a sports film like Bend It Like Beckham is a question worth investigating.

The titular Jones is a poster child for romantic neuroses. Oscillating endlessly between eyebrow-plucking desperation and alcohol-guzzling renunciation, it's all too easy for the viewer to understand why she can't just find a nice man. But whether she is simply a character, anxious and flighty, or a societal daguerreotype meant to remind the viewer that women are unsteady louts too boy-crazy to be competent at work is perhaps unclear.

Consider, however, Bridget's relative progress. The film's sole truly dynamic character (with the possible exception of her wandering "mum"), Bridget is surrounded by men who make few if any changes in their lifestyles despite upheaval: her father, who sits at home watching his wife on the telly and goes to parties where she'll be, if not with her; Daniel Cleaver, who literally runs from Bridget and any other real commitment he's faced with; and even Mark, who only appears to change because Bridget misinterprets him at every step, but is the same nice, guarded man at the end of the film as at the beginning.

Bridget's progress, while perhaps limited when compared to, say, Scarlett O'Hara, is nonetheless superior to that of any other character in the film. She finds her voice after Cleaver's betrayal and uproots her life, leaving a menial job she clearly breezes through for a position that requires much more of her. The final straw may have been a romantic falling-out but it was clear from day one that Bridget was bored, detested her coworkers and superiors, and simply didn't care about the books her company published. If this film is passing along a secret message about women, it would seem to be that even the neurotic ones go after what they want: Cleaver, a better job, Darcy. Even her mother goes after Julian and the modeling spot, while the men can't seem to put in much effort to do anything; all Darcy does to get the girl at the end is show up.

Bend It Like Beckham seems an even less likely place to find the misogynistic conspiracy so many seem to suggest of chick flicks, as this is more a sports film than a romance and more a family movie than that. Jess is less neurotic but also flawed: she's guilty but still quite willing to lie to her parents, ditch various responsibilities, and ignore social mores. This last is the most interesting: Jess' family has quite strong opinions about a woman's role. If the film was indeed enforcing old, troubling mores, it seems obvious that these ideas would maintain the top role and win the day. Instead, Jess ends up with every culture-destroying goal she could dream of: studying abroad, playing soccer (in shorts!), not only dating openly but seeing an Irishman, and so on. Her parents' feelings about women's roles are dashed at every turn, though they seem to control her somewhat towards the beginning of the film.

There are nuances, however; Jess' resistance to a relationship with Joe is a notable turn towards respecting her parents' wishes. She also attends the wedding (although her sullen countenance is hardly what they were aiming for, and I almost thought she shouldn't be let to attend the match because she was being quite the brat in that way, much as I like her) over her own final match, learns the dinner preparation, and so on.

She's not a complete iconoclast, but nonetheless she's far more independent than Daddy's girl Bridget, which perhaps suggests the role sport played in her life. If Bridget, with no apparent hobbies beyond drinking and reading horrible self-help books, is all too tied to her family's wish (she ends up, after all, with the exact man her mother wanted, and back at the Turkey Curry Buffet at the beginning of the sequel, putting herself through all the same hoops for her annoying family), Jess, with an extended family and a cultural heritage that tells her to respect them, no questions asked, is the strange one. Perhaps she merely fights back harder against her family's decisions because they're more binding, but perhaps a family-free obsession and individual success within that hobby were the real motivators behind her independence. Since the movie clearly paints Jess' decisions as the best possible choices, it can hardly be suggesting that this independence is too much; indeed, it would seem that rather than supporting 50s-like mores and roles for women, it shoots them down quite forcefully.

While some in the class seem convinced that all media is simply a new format for oppressing women by whatever means necessary, I can't help but feel the opposite. With strong, likable female characters whose foibles and neuroses are just like our own—if hyperbolized for humor's sake—these movies seem to stomp all over the mores they're said to represent. If anything they suggest that society has a new expectation for women: be ambitious, be spirited, and for heaven's sake be funny.

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