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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005
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Women in Sports: Three Films, One Message

Joanna Scott

This semester, we watched a series of films on women in sports—some documentaries, some fictional screenplays. But all of these films showed the human drama of their characters as female athletes. It highlighted their struggles and their triumphs, as well as giving the audience food for thought about the issues that still exist for women in society. Sports is not just a recreational activity; sports mirrors life. Sports cannot be separated from society. 'A League of Their Own' (1993) and the documentaries 'Dare to Compete' (1999) and 'Rocks With Wings' (2002) demonstrate the many complications that can arise in trying to reconcile their identity as athletes with their identity as women in society.

'A League of Their Own' is based on the formation and first season of the All- American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAFPBL) during World War II. The actual AAFPBL continued until 1954, thanks to the incredible efforts of the players in the league who proved they more than deserved the chance to play baseball. This film drives home the stress society places on these women to uphold the norm for femininity. People at this time are, for the most part, convinced that turning women into baseball players is abhorrent! They believe it is not acceptable for women to be athletes; that it is dangerous and jeopardizes the female players' very status as women. As a result, the women have to participate in regular beauty and etiquette classes, to help them 'preserve their femininity'. At this period in time, women are challenging the norms in all sorts of way, leaving the home and joining the workforce (as their country asked them) while the men are overseas. Yet women playing baseball seems to be a more difficult pill to swallow than women on the assembly line.

The unveiling of the women's uniforms emphasizes the stereotypical view of femininity. In fact, many of the male executives involved believe that the only way to attract people to the sport was to use the women's sex appeal. Short skirts, which Mae points out "is not a baseball uniform", is the expected attire. When the women protest, the message is clear: "either you play in this, or you don't play for us". The pressure on these women to be feminine is demonstrated several times through the movie. When the scout visits an incredible hitter, Marla Hooch, he turns her down because of her masculine appearance. Marla can hit home-runs with her right and left arms, but not up to par! Fortunately, the scout reconsiders (after pressure from the Hinson sisters). Sadly, I think the movie itself conforms to societal expectations in developing Marla's character. She is made more 'feminine'—her features are softened, and she meets a man in a bar wearing a dress and make-up who she ends up marrying in the middle of the season. While it is nice to see Marla happy, why did her character have to marry and be softened up? She is an incredible athlete and member of the team, but her story is cut short. On a more positive note, the AAPBL, after a slow and difficult start, begins to draw large audiences who cheer the events on the field instead of the sexuality of the athletes. Although sexuality is still employed as a marketing strategy ('Catch a home run and win a kiss'), the emphasis is on these women being great athletes who deserve a place in sports even when the men return from the war.

The documentary 'Rocks with Wings' tells the story of the Lady Chieftains, a Navajo basketball team in the little town of Ship Rock, New Mexico during the late 1980s. This film highlights not only issues of gender, but also issues of race and class. The coach, Jerry Richardson, is an African-American former basketball player himself, who is still reeling from his own racial struggle during high school and college. There is an initial clash of cultures when Jerry arrives in Ship Rock, but it is never addressed. Jerry inherits the Lady Chieftains as a losing basketball team, whose players only play for fun and not to win. He becomes determined to instill a winning attitude in these girls, but fails to understand their perspective as young Navajo women. He pushes for too much too soon, always criticizing the girls even when they do win. The film takes the time to show the Navajo culture, and to emphasize that this is a group of people who are not used to winning—they are used to victimization. Through sports, however, the Navajos—not just the women on the team, but the whole town—learn what it is like to overcome obstacles, to be winners. Ship Rock is contrasted to neighboring Kirtland, a predominantly white town with much more resources. Kirtland's ladies basketball team has been winning, pretty much unchallenged, until Jerry Richardson arrives and decides to shake things up. Ultimately, through basketball and their triumphs on the court, the Lady Chieftains start to believe in themselves and are encouraged to follow their dreams. Their first championship is a victory for the whole town, and means more than winning in basketball. Sports has brought them pride and self-belief which can carry them through the other challenges in their lives.

Finally, the documentary 'Dare to Compete: The Struggle of Women in Sports' is an uplifting journey through the history of women in sports. A large portion of the film traces how the women-in-sports movement coincides with the greater women's rights movement that occurred in the 1960's and 1970's. It addresses gender, race, and sexual orientation. Martina Navratilova, an amazing tennis player, discusses her struggle with the media in particular. Instead of focusing on her exploits on the court, the press continually asked her about her sexuality and used their sports pages to speculate on this, rather than to laud her for her victories. Another incredible athlete, Babe, also represents the fascination of the media—and society in general—with female athletes and their stereotype that a women who is good in sports might be a lesbian. Babe excelled in whatever sport she took on. Her appearance was initially considered 'masculine' and thus the rumors started to fly; later, when she returns as a golf player, she has grown out her hair and eventually marries. Even in class, we speculated whether or not she married out of societal pressure and was really a lesbian; her talents were yet again pushed to the side.

The media also played a large role in setting women's sports backward when, in the first Olympics that women were allowed to run a longer distance, the runners were reported to have "fainted" and been very distressed. The myth that physical activity jeopardized a woman's ability to conceive persisted for years and represents society's struggle to accept women as athletic and feminine. Being a mother is really the ultimate in femininity, and is the very thing society thought athletics must interfere with.

Another interesting piece of 'Dare to Compete' is the progress of black women in sports. Black women were given the chance to compete in track and field before white women; they excelled in it too. These female athletes may have helped inspire other athletes to push themselves and defy society's expectations. Thanks to everything that women achieved--from Babe, to African-American women's track teams, to Billie Jean King's beating a male tennis player—the way was paved for my generation to participate in sports and continue to challenge ourselves on the athletic field and to challenge society's norms for women. There is still work to be done, but each story of women succeeding in sports is a victory for all women.

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