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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005
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Femininity, Sexuality and Gender

Keti Shea

Select three of the films we watched and trace the themes that connected each of the films. Discuss what the director and writers might have had in mind when choosing the topic, story line and outcomes.

Pumping Iron II, A League of Their Own and Personal Best all highlighted the obstacles facing modern female athletes. Some of the recurring themes running throughout them were that of femininity and how it is defined in the context of women's sports, questions of sexuality and sexual orientation among women athletes and finally, the predominance of gender roles as they influence interactions between men and women.

Each film discusses the notion of femininity and its competing definitions. In Pumping Iron II, Bev faces discrimination from those within the sports arena. In other words, it is not just non-athletes who question the femininity of women athletes but also other athletes as well. This added an interesting dynamic to the film because it showed how women athletes themselves contribute to the negative stereotypes surrounding women's abilities in sports. For example, Bev's muscularity was treated with disdain and even disgust by some of the other bodybuilders who were themselves women. The main tension presented in the film was that between achieving one's maximum potential physically and adhering in some manner to social norms. Bev chose the former and was therefore castigated by various judges and other competitors who saw her as being overly masculine in her appearance.

A League of Their Own similarly treats the issue of femininity by presenting the tension between women as athletes and women as sexual objects. For example, the women were required to wear uniforms which impeded their ball-playing abilities and even began to put on "peep shows" for the audience in order to get more people to come to their games. In addition, the team members were subjected to etiquette lessons where they were taught how to act like a lady. Just as in Pumping iron II, there was a tension between reaching one's potential as an athlete and adhering to socially acceptable norms concerning what it means to be feminine.

Never was this tension more evident than in the case of Dotty who gave up a career in baseball in order to become a wife and mother. The end of the movie brought this decision into question by presenting Kit, the sister who persevered with the sport, coming into the baseball hall of fame surrounded by a huge entourage of family members. The film seems to suggest here that being feminine and being an athlete are not necessarily mutually exclusive: you do not have to give up one in order to have the other.

In Personal Best, it is not so much the notion of femininity of female athletes that is discussed as it is the idea of their sexuality. The two lead women in the film were displayed as sexual, perhaps even overly sexual, beings and as the film seemed to suggest, this was a direct result of their athleticism. The tension in the film was not between playing sports and being feminine but between playing sports and sexual orientation. Personal Best was the only film which portrayed a lesbian relationship and yet it did not overtly discuss questions of sexual orientation. Lesbianism among athletes was a sub-text to the main trajectory of the film. It seems as if Chris and Tory's relationship was simply a by-product of their athleticism, almost as if physicalness of females athletes induces them to be more sexual. Interestingly enough, the fact that Tory slept with a woman does not bring her femininity into question as we see her later on sleeping with a man. This adds an interesting if ambiguous layer to the film because although it bypasses the issue of sexual orientation in a somewhat superficial manner, it does not equate lesbianism with a loss of femininity as one might expect.

Another interesting theme discussed was that of gender roles and the relations between male and female characters. Personal Best presents the idea of sisterhood that bonds female athletes. In A League of Their Own as well, we see the team members come together in recognition of their common womanhood which is at odds often with a chauvinistic male coach. In these two films, the coaches express their initial unwillingness to coach women; it is only something they did because they could not find jobs with men's teams. Therefore, it is the women who provide the cohesive bond that hold the team together.

Pumping Iron II portrays men in a more positive light and also points out that women can be just as judgmental of other women as can men. In the film, Bev's boyfriend was presented as sympathetic and unceasingly supportive while it was some of the other female competitors who were the most critical of her. In an interesting reversal, it was the female judge who was disgusted of Bev's muscles while it was a male judge who was the most sympathetic. One reason why the films differed at times in how they present these themes might have been due to differences in who the intended audience was. For example, A League of their Own was clearly intended for a broad audience and therefore touched on some potentially controversial themes in a superficial manner. The director's intent was not to shock or even enlighten the film's viewers but rather was to provide entertainment value. The same might be true for Personal Best as well. The purpose of the film was not to invoke questions or elicit discussion but to provide a compelling storyline.

This is what differentiates the two films from Pumping Iron II in which the intent of director/writers was to evoke a reaction from the audience. The viewers are drawn into the film by the story of Bev but in so doing, we are confronted with certain issues and unsettling questions which force us to think about what it is we are watching. Furthermore, the audience in Pumping Iron II is sympathetic to Bev not just as a woman but as an athlete. This is different for the other two films where the viewers are so subsumed by the human story line, in the characters as women, that their role as athletes is almost incidental. For example, A League of Their Own could have been (with a slight title change) a film about some other sport besides baseball. In short, the human interest that we have in the characters is more important than what the characters represent as athletes.

In conclusion, the three films discussed above illustrate some of the debates surrounding the role of women in sports. These include issues of femininity and more specifically, how it is defined both by outside critics and among athletes themselves. A related theme is that of sexuality and the underlying connection between sexuality, sexual orientation and sports. Finally, we see the interesting dynamic of gender roles which at time reverse common stereotypes regarding men and women.

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