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

Themes in Women's Sport Films

Carol Munroe

Throughout time, societies have had difficulties confronting and accepting the notion of women who play sports. While society today is changing, albeit slowly at times, female athletes are becoming more and more accepted and as this occurs, so does their representation in film. At times, film reflects society, at others it pushes its boundaries and as time passes, themes of race, class, gender and sexual orientation change as well.

Race, class, gender and sexual orientation are used in different ways in different films. All are, to some extent, still an issue. Looking at the film "Rocks with Wings," the main issues were class and race. In "Pumping Iron II," the regular appearance of male significant others in the film emphasized the heterosexuality of the women involved. This film also incorporated gender by mentioning that the women were partly judged based on femininity: this competition was not purely based on body building. The emphasis on the femininity of female athletes is also visible in "A League of their Own" where the players wear short skirts and are given charm classes. Sexuality plays a role in "Personal Best" where two of the female characters are in a relationship, though their exact sexuality is never defined.

All films dealing with women facing challenges, particularly women in sports, have to tread a very fine line. It's difficult for a film to deal with all four issues in a balanced way. If a film has a strong focus on lesbians, then some people will be put off and choose not to watch the film because that's not accepted, some people will be put off because straight women play sports too and yet more people will be upset because they're focusing on sexuality, not that the women are athletes or women, etc. The same applies to any of the other three themes.

"A League of their Own" is an actual Hollywood film that concentrates almost purely on women in sports. There are brief moments highlighting other features, but it primarily revolves around the difficulties women faced in the sports and the distinctions between women's sports and men's sports. Two things that particularly stand out are the outfits and the charm classes. In some ways this does emphasize sexuality in the sport -- it was not enough for the women to simply play and play well, they had to also remain feminine, pretty and refined. The teams needed to reinforce the idea that females would not be 'ruined' -- that is, their identity as women would not be destroyed -- by playing sports. They also had to look the part: the women selected were partially selected on the basis of looks. This film focuses a lot on these women's efforts to balance being a woman and being an athlete in a world where being both was not considered possible.

By the time "Personal Best" comes around -- in the sense of the setting, not necessarily the point of production -- being a female athlete is less of a problem. As a female athlete, however, sexuality is now an issue. The two protagonists are in a relationship which develops and then falls apart as one of the women becomes involved with a man instead. This film sends conflicting messages -- female athletes are lesbians but perhaps not truly lesbians and while the relationship is apparent, it's also not really a main focus while at the same time everyone seems to be okay with it. In some ways it seems as if the film makers were afraid of offending everyone and so played to both sides. Here the women are not made to wear dresses or take charm class. By this point, being a female athlete is acceptable, but the film does suggest that if you are female and an athlete, your sexuality must be called into question, which is to some extent the image that the team owner in "A League of their Own" was working to prevent. Thus one can see that the image of females athletes has not changed a great deal in the interval between which the two movies are set.

Getting women athletes in film to help change societal norms is a tricky business. Film makers are likely to push the boundaries a little bit, but not much when making films: films are more likely to reflect societal norms than change them. Portrayals of female athletes in film may help bring certain quasi-acknowledged issues to the forefront, and thus bring about societal change by forcing people to confront those issues, even if it's only within their own minds. The problem with portraying women athletes in film is that it's very difficult to do so without adhering to various stereotypes. To show several different women who break several different stereotypes within one film might require a movie three hours in length, just to explore all the different dynamics within that and then one must confront the reality that there are women who do in part fit the stereotypes and need to be acknowledged as well. That may be the type of film needed to challenge and change societal norms. Ultimately the best way for female athletes to help negotiate change in females roles in society is to make people think about what the proscribed "rules" are and then confront people with the idea that those rules and roles do not fully define reality. This could help people see women and their potential in a different light.

As time passes, women's role in sports has changed and this change is reflected and sometimes pushed by female athletes portrayed in film. As time changes, both the roles of females in sports and the portrayal of those roles has changed. Film could become a driving force in change those roles both in sports and in the rest of society, but change might be difficult and the film would have to confront many stereotypes in order to force people to think about the changes that need to occur for men and women to stand on equal footing in sport and in society at large.

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