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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005
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Femininity, Athleticism and Gender Equality

Katharine Shepard

Kate Shepard
Final Essay: Women, Sport and Film
March 22, 2005
Femininity, Athleticism and Gender Equality

Of the films that were discussed in the course of this class, Dare to Compete; A Hero for Daisy and A League of Their Own shared strikingly similar themes. The issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation was discussed cohesively and intelligently by these three films. One of the most interesting aspects of the juxtaposition of these films was the fact that each of them tackled different issues. Dare to Compete discussed race and sexual orientation and gender equality; A Hero for Daisy dealt with issues of gender and equality; while A League of their Own took on issues of family, gender roles, and gender equality. The common theme of these films is the discussion of gender. However, it is clear that a pertinent discussion of gender is reliant on these peripheral issues. Although gender is the most evident unifying theme of these three films, it is a term with many shades of meaning. Among other meanings, this term encompasses the link between femininity and power and gender equality.

One of the central themes of this course was an appreciation for the struggle that women faced in gaining equality in athletics and other forums. The first film Dare to Compete highlighted these issues extremely well. From the early history of women in sports, it was clear that women's participation in sports faced many opponents. This film also related the struggle for gender equality in sports in a larger historical context. At one point, the film recalled Sojourner Truth's moving Ain't I A Woman speech. In one part of the speech, Truth exclaims:

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?1

This outrage that women could work as well as men, but still not have equal rights permeated to the movement for greater participation in athletics. At this point, women were still struggling to gain participation rights into sports.

Later, this desire for equality in sports was portrayed by the film A League of their Own. However, although the women were finally getting their own league, the terms were not at all equal. It was clear that the women were only a temporary substitute for the men's league, and more of a spectacle than an actual team to many observers. At this point, women were still struggling to gain acceptance in sports.

In the last film chronologically, Dare to Compete the Yale women's crew team struggled for equal rights as their male counterparts. And after all the initial struggles to participate, and to gain acceptance, women were still struggling to achieve equal facilities. Initially, this seemed like a less important issue of gender equality. But in this case, it is necessary to consider the time frame in which this disparity took place. Since the early history of Dare to Compete women had made tremendous strides in the quest towards social equality. That women's sports lagged behind was an appalling and crippling social anachronism.

In all three of these films, the link between femininity and athleticism, and femininity and power has been discussed or implied. In the Dare to Compete the narrator noted that certain athletes were infamous for their masculine attitude and appearance. One of the most striking examples was the televised match between Chris Evart and Martina Navratilova. Evart was petite and feminine, with a defensive, passive style of play. Navratilova was muscular and aggressive, which made Evart the media darling. The contrast was unmistakable, and implied that femininity equaled passive athleticism, while aggressive behavior was strictly a masculine domain.

Next, A League of Their Own also wrestled with the issue of femininity and power. Dottie was the feminine ideal, attractive and athletic but with a strong sense of propriety and family. In other words, her husband could admire her athleticism but not be challenged by it. Her younger sister Kit was the opposite, a tomboy who lacked the grace of Dottie. Kit also lacked the natural athleticism of Dottie. It seemed as if the film contrasted these two characters: Dottie was of the older generation of female athletes, the women who were gracious, naturally gifted, and never broke a sweat, while Kit was of the new generation.

Finally, in A Hero for Daisy we learn the story of the Yale women's crew team. The protagonist is more of a Kit type, who faces the challenges of being a world-caliber female athlete in a physically demanding sport. While she is not feminine in appearance, she is most notably masculine in terms of her use of confrontation. Recalling the Evart-Navratilova match, it was clear that femininity meant passivity, while masculinity was equated with aggressivity. The most notable masculine aspect of the protagonist is her aggressive way of solving problems.

Upon further reflection of these films, it seems that in many of these narratives, female characters had to chose between femininity or athleticism. This forced choice is clearly detrimental. Breaking this barrier would be the next step in women's movement for athletic equality.


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