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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005
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The Language of Gender: Female, femininity, and feminism.

Katy Chen

The Language of Gender: Female, femininity, and feminism.

Female: A member of the sex that produces ova or bears young.

Feminine: Characterized by or possessing qualities generally attributed to a woman.

Feminism: Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

When we compare the three definitions of terms that sound
the same and are generally associated with one another, it is interesting to note the drastic differences in the actual meanings of the words. However, all three expressions can be interpreted as pervasive themes of the movies we viewed in this class. In particular, it seems that "Personal Best", "A League of Their Own", and "Pumping Iron II" embody the ideas of being female, feminine, and feminist, and all of the problems of interpretation that are embodied in the way we use and think about this particular type of language.
The first feature film we watched for this course was "Personal Best", a movie tracing the relationship between two friends who become lovers, and their struggle to balance their personal relationship with their athletic aspirations. I think makers of this movie were trying to take a leap in terms of broaching a topic that was taboo for the time. However, in their attempt to characterize femininity and being feminine as more than just the conventional image of a gentle, soft-spoken girl in a pretty dress, they instead ended up giving the movie a sexually charged feeling. For example, showing images of women being strong, athletic, and beautiful on the track field seems to redefine some of our preconceptions of what is feminine. However, much of the movie is sprinkled with scenes of naked females in a sauna or over the top shots of female crotches while these athletes were completing the high jump.
Although the plot seemed to facilitate thoughts on femininity and what we consider to be appropriately feminine for women to be, the writers and directors left much to be desired in terms of genuine provocation of the issue. The dialogue in this movie was lacking depth- it didn't fully explore what we kept anticipating the movie to question. The makers of this movie were well-intended, but when it came to dialogue and conveying unconventional images of femininity, I think it came off a shallow and sexual. The themes of this movie bridges friendship, femininity, competition, and sports, which build the premise for a thought-provoking film. Unfortunately, this movie did not quite accomplish what it set out to accomplish.
Next, we watched "A League of Their Own", a popular movie based upon the formation of an all female baseball team during World War II. The plot of this story centers upon the relationship among two sisters who at first play for the same time, until the less beautiful, less popular sister is traded to an opposing team. I think that the theme of femininity AND feminism play out very well in this movie because it is able to address both issues with subtlety as well as impact.
The makers of this movie were able to show from scenes that gave personality and depth to each of the characters that femininity comes in many different forms. They were able to show that beauty queens, farm girls, and sex pots are all uniquely feminine. This movie was also particularly good at showing social pressures to be feminine during that time with scenes of the girls acting feminine on the field, taking etiquette classes, and being judged on their beauty. Conveniently, the least attractive girl also happened to be the least conventionally feminine.
This movie is also a commentary on feminism because it explores women's desires to play the same sports as men and the difficulties that come with achieving this type of athletic equality. Although a women's baseball league did not persist after the war, the fact that one existed at all was a great stride for the women's movement for equality. I think it is safe to say that all of the women in this movie are feminists in their own right- they were able to break cultural expectations and stereotypes to play the same game as men.
Finally, we watched a movie called "Pumping Iron II" about female bodybuilders. I think that this movie was the most direct in addressing issues of femininity and what is considered feminine. The focus of this movie was on an international women's body building competition and the standards set for women in the competition. It poses the question of at which point in judging this kind of competition can a line be drawn at athleticism and continued through with femininity. In other words, should a woman who is more conventionally "feminine" win this type of competition over a woman who is effectively more muscular than she is? Is this a competition of physical strength or of physical strength combined with femininity?
Bev, one of the strongest competitors in this competition, probably lost it to her competitors because she was deemed too "masculine", that her muscles were too large, she was not feminine, and no longer looked like a woman. However, she is a female by definition so how can she not be feminine? It is clear that there is some type of disagreement between physical standards of being feminine or female and cultural standards. In the end, however, Bev loses the competition because of her lack of what society considers to be feminine. It is obvious at this point that the competition is not just about physical fitness? But should it be? Should a competition that is limited to females adhere to the traditional conceptions of what females SHOULD look like or should it go by the same standards of male competitions of the same kind?
The questions raised by this movie were interesting and thought-provoking. In fact, I think that watching this movie made our class question our own beliefs on femininity, feminism, and how societal and cultural influences have shaped our frameworks.
These three movies explored are vastly different, but strung together by a common thread. They also question and explore how we conceptualize femininity and feminism, and how these terms are realized in different athletic arenas for women. In my opinion, a lot of the issues that arise with femininity and feminism are wrapped up in the language of how we truly want to define these terms. I think that everyone has a different definition of these terms, based on cultural and societal norms, and from our own personal experiences. This is why the topics presented in these three movies are so difficult to talk about and to pick apart- they are inextricably entangled with our own working models of what it is to be female. However, I think it is important to keep questioning it, to keep the forum for discussion open in order to understand and accept many different models of femininity, especially with the background of the sports arena

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