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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005
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Treatment Of Women In Predominantly Male Sports

Angeldeep Kaur

The course Women, Sport and Film this semester dealt with the issues of race, class, gender and sexual orientation in films with regard to women in sports. Some of these films dealt specifically with the problems that are faced by women who participate in sports that are not traditionally thought of as sports meant for women. Examples of such sports are crew, baseball and bodybuilding. Three films in this course dealt with these sports at length: Hero For Daisy, A League of Their Own and Pumping Iron II. It is interesting to note that while two of these films are documentaries, the third is a film that is based on real events as well. Each of these films showed how the women who chose to take part in this sport were not taken seriously and how there were specific regulations that were placed on them just because they were women. The women in these films had to stand for what they believed in and prove that they were serious athletes and could chose to challenge the norm and still be successful.

Hero For Daisy is a documentary that tells the story of the women's crew team at Yale University in the mid 1970s. As women's crew was still a relatively new sport, the women's crew team got the short end of the athletic stick very often. They did not get locker rooms at the boathouse, and so they could not shower after they had been on the river. Several members of the team got sick because of this, and the authorities did not make any changes even though the team was a very competitive team and was having a better season than the men's crew team. Not only did the women have to put up with the ridicule they were exposed to because of their athleticism, they were also not supported by the school system, even though Title XI was in existence. Frustrated by their situation, 19 members of the team, lead by Chris Ernst, a student in the team who later went on to be an Olympic rower, carried out a demonstration to fight for their rights. They went to the athletic director's office and stripped, their bodies marked with the phrase "Title IX." The team voiced their disappointment at the way they were treated and read out their complaints to the director. This famous demonstration led to equal rights and facilities being provided for all the teams on the Yale campus from then on.
The director tells this story by following the life of Chris Ernst, and shows us the individual behind the rower and the strength of a woman who was willing to break the social norms in order to achieve what she had set out for. Even though she is a Yale graduate, Chris is a plumber by trade, and it is challenges to society such as these that reflect on the strength and courage of these women to be who they want to be without any concern towards what is expected of them. The personal touch that is leant to the narrative of the film because of the focus on Chris helps to bring the message of the film to the forefront much more effectively than if we had just been shown the facts relating to the demonstration.

A League of Their Own also tells a story about women in a sport they were not seen to be in, Baseball. Even the player who is appointed to be the coach of the team, played by Tom Hanks, is not ready to believe in the women as ball players. He even says in the movie, I don't see ball players, I see women. Not only did these women have to convince their coach that they were in fact ball players, even though they are women, they also have to convince the masses of the same sentiment. In this movie, in addition to the tension that is created by the fact that an all female league was being formed, there was a tension observed in the image that women in sports had to reflect. The girls in the league had to wear skirts and make up when they played and had to reflect their femininity in their manner. They had to take lessons on how to be ladylike and while all this seems preposterous to us, it is how the league functioned back then.

In this film the director presents the story by focusing on the relationship between two sisters who both played in the league. While this angle again lends a more personal air to the story, it also brings forth the director's judgment on the matter, especially in the last scene. When we see the two sisters at the end of the film, Dottie, who had chosen to give up Baseball and just be a wife, had ended up being all alone as she came to the inauguration of the section of women in Baseball at the Baseball Hall of Fame. In contrast, Kit, her sister, who had chosen to pursue her passion for Baseball, had been accepted for who she was by her family and they had all come to the opening with her. In effect, the director seems to be saying that it is okay for women to be in sports as it does not mean that they have to give up all the other roles that have been given to them, like those of a wife and a mother.

The third film that I have chosen, Pumping Iron II, tells the story of female bodybuilders. This film addressed very directly the question of what kinds of limitations are placed on women when they enter a sport that has been predominantly male oriented. Bev, a bodybuilder who had reached new heights with the way in which she had shaped her body, was targeted by the judges at the competition and was not considered the best bodybuilder, even though her body was the most developed, because in the eyes of other people she had lost her femininity. The question about the definition of femininity is raised several times in the course of the film, but is not entirely resolved. Some of the characters continue to create a stereotype with respect to what women are meant to look like, whereas other characters in the movie are able to look beyond the masculinity that is reflected in Bev's body structure and are able to see the woman inside.

By giving the documentary a slightly dramatic touch, the director is able to draw the viewers into the lives of the characters, thus enabling us to sympathize more with Bev and thus be more convinced that femininity really isn't something that can be defined as easily as the way in which a women looks physically.

Thus, these films raise the concerns with regard to way in which women are treated when they are athletes participating in a predominantly male sport and what stereotypes are attached to them. These films use the plot and narrative to draw the spectators into the stories and identify with the protagonists so that they can feel the injustices that are felt by these women and appropriately understand the situations.

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