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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005
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Don't Mess with Me: How Female Athletes Challenge Cultural Norms

Kelsey Smith

The major theme in all of the movies is challenging cultural the cultural norms, particularly in reference to gender, class, and sexual orientation. These themes, first observable in the movie "Dare to Compete", can also be seen–in various combinations– in "A League of Their Own", "Pumping Iron II", and "Rock with Wings"

One of the main themes in the movie was gender and how it is portrayed. Men had issues with this change in gender norms because they wanted women to continue to dress like stereotypical women. For this reason, women were forced to wear skirts and to look like ladies. This theme existed in "Dare to Compete" and again in "A League of Their Own." In "A League of Their Own", men forced women to wear skirts while playing baseball. In addition, women were given lessons on beauty and grace so that the men who watched the games could be reassured that the players were just as ladylike while playing baseball as they were while they were at home doing housework.

The depiction of gender is a major theme in "Pumping Iron II" where female body-building has two objectives: the first is to be a lady; the second, to be strong. This is obviated by the fact that it is an issue for Bev to be as strong as she is. It is also an issue for Rachel's suit to have two layer because the judges perceive the outcome to be that her breasts are accentuated. The two main objectives of the competition are also apparent because more time is spent observing the women flexing their muscles than is spent watching them lift weights.

In "Rock with Wings", by contrast, the exclusive focus is on women and what they can achieve in terms of athletics, rather than in terms of their appearance. The Lady Chiefs, in nearly winning the championship one year and winning it the next, proved that they can accomplish their goals when they want to do so. In the process, they bond their fragmented town together behind them. Therefore, this movie is not so much about changing gender roles as it is about altering their self-confidence.

An additional theme is competition versus camaraderie. This is observable in "A League of Their Own" where some amount of competition occurs within teams. However, this is minimized by two other types of competition. The first type is that between the different teams. The second—and arguably most significant—type is the competition that occurs between men (both the coaches and the general population) and the female players. This last type of competition forces the players to join together in camaraderie, at least on some level.

This theme reasserts itself in "Pumping Iron II." There, the competition between women is less intense because the women have little control over the power that is being commanded by the male judges. As a consequence, this movie is another example of where the male-female competition is the one that is dominant in terms of the movie.

In "Rocks with Wings", there are several types of competition that are distinctly different from those that exist in the other two movies. The first type is the competition between the Lady Chiefs with American culture. By that, I mean their initial inability to comprehend the extent to which they can work toward a goal and ultimately achieve it. I view this as the most significant source of competition in the movie. A second type that is fairly dominant is the relationship between the players and the coach because the players require less criticism and more nurturing as they learn about what they can achieve with basketball. The third type of competition is that between teams. However, this is most likely the least significant type as it is portrayed by the movie.

A third major theme of commonality among the movies is that of sexuality. In "A League of Their Own", it is clearly a fairly important theme. This is because the women who are feminine (and, it can be interpreted, heterosexual) are the ones who are viewed most highly. To this end, they are the ones that everyone else should strive to emulate.

This same view is also present in "Pumping Iron II" where being too strong (and, consequently, too masculine) is an issue that interferes with a woman's chance to win. By contrast, those women who effectively characterize themselves as sexual objects are viewed highly by the judges. Those who cannot do the same suffer by default.

By contrast, "Rock with Wings" is highly unsexualized. This is because appearance is largely irrelevant for either the men or the women. Instead, actions are viewed as more significant. For this reason, the major barrier that the women face is that with themselves and their perceptions of what they can achieve towards bringing the entire town of Shiprock together after they succeed where they never have before. This, rather than their sexuality, is what makes an impression on their coach and the non-basketball players in the town.

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