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


Brittany Pladek

Brittany Pladek

Brittany Pladek

Women, Sport, and Film

Final Paper


It's 1930 in Brest, France. Europe is still recovering from World War I, both physically, spiritually, and financially. Money is tight, and everyone is feeling the pinch---though some more than others. The film opens in a small farming town on the coast, where a family of six children is forced to send its eldest daughter, Jean, 16, away to work. She becomes a maid in a nearby boarding school for well-to-do young boys. The movie then switches focus to the boys' school, which, though not in abject poverty, has had to cut back on some of its more extravagant expenditures. One of the most relatively "painful" of these cuts has been the resources of the school's all-star polo team. During the war, the school patriotically surrendered its best stallions and geldings to the war effort. Not surprisingly, none of the horses were returned. There is now a nation-wide horse shortage. The school is forced to purchase a group of mares for their polo team, as opposed to the stallions it had previously supplied. The polo team despise the new horses, critiquing their strength, speed, and stamina---even before they have ridden them---because they are female, "mares."

Because she's a former farmgirl, the school assigns Jean to be stable-keeper. She's already good with horses (having ridden bareback on the family farm), and while there she becomes very familiar with all the mares. One day she's watching the boys practice. They are frustrated, spoilt, and short-tempered riders. Eventually she gets fed up with their behavior. After one of the boys dismounts, calling his filly unmanageable and tossing her reins disgustedly to Jean, Jean mounts the horse and proceeds to whip half the polo team. Thenceforth, Jean slowly becomes the boys' comrade and secret tutor, teaching them to respect and handle their mares; however, her status as a female peasant forever forbids her from actually participating in any polo games, despite the fact that she's the best rider in the bunch.

During this time, the foremost nations of Europe (trying to be friendly post-war) propose an international polo tournament. Jean is reassigned as a permanent stable-hand to the polo team, and travels with them to their tournaments. But what the schoolmasters don't know is that she does much more than watch: she and the polo boys (now her friends) cycle her in every other game. And they keep winning. Eventually the tournament narrows down to the Brest school and a prominent German team. The German team is comprised entirely of well-to-do, blonde-haired, blue-eyed gentleman's sons; they are mounted on imported stallions. They scoff at the Brest team, naturally, and, naturally, their cockiness gets them pummelled. But during the final minutes of the game, one of the German boys---fed up with failure---takes an illegal swing at Jean with his polo stick. It catches her horse's reins, wheeling him into a wall; Jean is thrown off, unhurt, but her helmet unsnaps and she is revealed as a girl. Though obviously the superior team, Brest is disqualified. They return to France, but only the headmasters of the school feel that the game was a loss. The team and coaches are more than satisfied. However, once they reach Brest, the school tries to fire Jean. The polo team rebels, refusing to play any more games should Jean be dismissed. Their tactic works: Jean remains at the school, and eventually succeeds to a coaching position. As for the horses, mares become the school's most prized polo ponies (as they are all over the world today).

This film would examine not only feminist, but also class and nationalistic issues. During the 1930s (and for a long while afterward), society was segregated along lines of class and gender. Jean, because she is a female peasant, lies at the very bottom of this scale. Her employers, wealthy sons of landowners, lie at the opposite end. Also around this time, theories of social Darwinism began to grow in popularity. Peasant girls like Jean were believed to be naturally weaker and stupider than her rich male employers; females in general were considered physically inferior, unable to compete with males in strength, speed, and stamina. This prejudice extended beyond humans to animals like horses. The boarding school at first balked at using mares because they were seen as sub-par (in fact, in terms of polo, it's usually the opposite).

These types of prejudices, while widespread in Europe and America, were particularly embraced by Germany, which was still smarting from its loss in WWI. Hence the German polo team's ridicule of Brest's riders and mounts: the Germans honestly believed that their blonde hair, blue eyes, and thoroughbred stallions gave them a Darwinian advantage. Their loss demonstrated the fallacy of social Darwinism as a theory, though, unfortunately, it also added to the French/German animosity which would flare up a decade later (when many of the boarding school boys would be shipped off to war and Jean would be saved by her gender----perhaps the film could make an epilogue of this?) The Germans' final loss also disproved the connection between class/gender and physical/mental performance. Poor female Jean was the driving force behind the success of the overwhelmingly rich male polo team. Not only that, but the "second-rate" mares the school's budget forced it to employ actually turned out to be better horses than the stallions they used when they had more money.

I chose this particular setting and story for three reasons. First, while there are several films about girls and horses, few of them deal with the fact that until very recently, women who rode at all were expected to do so sidesaddle, wearing heavy skirts. I wanted a film that reminded people of the Victorian notion of an equestrian woman, then promptly shattered it. Second, I wanted a film that involved international tension, in the tradition of "Miracle," which chronicles the 1980 USA-USSR hockey match. I like the idea of pitting two countries with (rhetorically, not practically) different philosophies against each other (France, author if not constant adherent of the "Rights of Man," and Germany, big-time supporter of Social Darwinism) and then forcing one of them to re-think those philosophies. Finally, I wanted to deal with the issue of class in sports. Jean is disrespected not only for her status as woman, but for her status as peasant. In France, this class-position has a particularly complicated history. Invoking that history by juxtaposing Jean's paucity with the bourgeoisie riches of an upper-class boarding school would add a dimension to the film that I have not seen treated very extensively elsewhere (in other movies, at least).

Final notes:

Jean, of course, is named after Jean d'Arc, Joan of Arc. If I had my way as a filmmaker, I'd probably name the boys of the polo team after Les Amis de l'ABC, the group of revolutionary students from "Les Miserables"---just to add a literary dimension to the movie's handling of class issues.

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