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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005 StudentPapers On Serendip

Spoon Full of Sugar

Amy Stern

In class this semester, we have studied many different types of films based on female athletes. One which we have avoided, however, has been that of the high school athlete. The female high school athlete has pressure from all sides. The stereotypical student athlete receives pressure from all sides; their coach wants them to be an athlete first, while their teachers want them to ignore athletic pursuits in favor of strict academia. Other students want them to be attending parties instead of training, or judge them for how much they fit the gendered status quo. It is imperative that a film about high school athletes would not gloss over this, but rather embrace it, allowing a three-dimensional figurehead to emerge, who is both a construct of society and a construct which can break through same.

When we watched A League of Their Own, we discussed whether or not the story was improved by the fact that the story at the forefront was not that of female athletes, but rather that of sisters. Honestly, I think that's the story that needs to be told, for multiple reasons. One is the "spoon full of sugar" methodology; to convince a wide-spread audience to absorb something with a lesson, there needs to be something keeping them there. In light of this projected film being about students in a high school, something along the lines of a main romance would be imperative to keeping the plot moving.

Furthermore, this must be looked at simply as a film. At the end of the day, no matter how interesting and/or pressing a social issue is, people are more likely to react to a story of an individual over the story of a cause. This is why even when we watched documentaries in class, they seemed to have a focus on the individuals behind the sport, who made the sport. The bodybuilders we cared most about, for example, were the ones we knew most about, who had lives which made us empathize and genuinely care where this would lead them in the future.

All of which is to say that, in my ideal film about women and athletics, their athleticism would not be the only thing at the forefront. This is not because athleticism isn't important, but because I think it's important to show examples of women who are athletes, and athletes who are women, without assuming that one has any more power over the person's individuality than the other does. We like the characters in A League of Their Own not because they are athletes, or because they are women, but because they are human beings which have blended these two facets of their personality. To write a film about high school student athletes would be in large part about the form of identity; that is, how they are capable of being student, athlete, woman, girlfriend, best friend, etc., all in a single physical form.

Too often, films about teenage female athletes fall into certain categories, due to their demographics. You have films like Blue Crush, where Anne Marie's athleticism is secondary to how good Kate Bosworth looks. You have films like Bring It On, where, it must be noted, that no matter how strong, talented, and powerful the cheerleaders are, and no matter how much they discuss how they are clearly the powerhouse of the school, and no matter how much they get applause while the football team falls flat, their official capacity still lies in showing up and encouraging their incredibly inept all-male football team to throw balls through posts. And you have films like Ice Princess, which actually discusses female athleticism, with impassioned speeches about how it feels to be strong and powerful and athletic, wherein the sport used to demonstrate it is one which is so traditionally not just feminized, but overtly female. That is to say, the strength, skill, and training are all important, but so is the pretty flouncy dress that Casey gets to wear. Ice Princess is, in fact, an interesting example, as Casey's mother is an ardent feminist who argues against Casey skating on the basis that the sport is entirely based on pretty outfits and image; the implicit understanding by the end is that strength and beauty must combine. The question then arises over whether, by fusing strength and beauty, the viewer/textual reader is granted the freedom to see both as good, or is forced to believe that the fusion must make a woman good at both, and to be more focused on one or the other is embody a lack of something important.

My focus, then, turns to how one can approach the most ideals without forcing upon the audience a single ideology as the "correct" one. Films like A League of Their Own accomplish this by not favoring any one POV over another; Dottie and Kit are both considered reasonably "equal" in their prioritizing of self as Wife vs. Athlete. Yet other issues are raised and then pushed under the rug; racial inequality or homophobia are touched upon but not fully addressed.

Perhaps the best way is to simply focus on a single Issue, both in terms of marketing and in terms of the audience. Again, the spoon full of sugar principle is in effect; a film about female student athletes should focus equally on a form of inequality in their preferred sport, their desire and drive as genuine athletes, and a plot which has nothing to do with athleticism but is rather a universal theme which would appeal to all audiences, regardless of their status as athlete.

In my ideal story, the focus would be, predictably, on the captain of a team. A softball, basketball, or volleyball team would be ideal, as these are known for fostering both strong athletes and strong team spirit. There would be three storylines: one of training and practicing for a big competition/game/demonstration of skill sets as athletes within their given sport; one of competition for respect within a school which traditionally favors male teams, and one which would integrate the two into a chiefly social setting. The most clichéd and popular possibility would be to create an attraction between the team captain and the captain of the rival male team, which would culminate in him understanding that her sport is just as important as his is.

Yet perhaps that would be too overplayed. And I don't think it's fair for those who are currently going through these battles every day to see complex issues settled in a ninety-minute movie. Regulations don't change overnight; a team of women athletes could be able to, for example, score a major win within their competitive sport, while not getting the proper amount of respect from their school even though it's deserved. The emotional climax, then, could draw from both of these; perhaps the female athlete, fed up, could be asked out by the male captain of the team, but decline, choosing a rejection of current societal standards over the dreamy boy in a jersey. Maybe she could end up finding another boy- one who is a solitary athlete, or not an athlete at all. Maybe she could end up in a romantic relationship with a girl on her team. Or maybe, in perhaps the most striking gesture, she could simply choose to end the film by going out for pizza with a group of friends, allowing the hypersexualization of both women and athletes to take a back seat to the humanity of a girl who just won her fight.

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