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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005 StudentPapers On Serendip

Women's Achievement in Sports in Documentary Films

Rosemary Malfi

Women's Achievement in Sports in Documentary Films

The collaborative efforts of a film production staff are always directed toward a certain end goal. All of the ideas, tweaks, and physical labor are done with an end product in mind, with a set of expected results. Often, that goal is the conveyance of a story or a message. In the case of documentaries, the goal encompasses both of these things the aim of a documentary is to capture reality and put actual people and events into an edited framework that relays a message about those same people and events. I am choosing, in this paper, to discuss and evaluate the three documentary films we watched in class, Dare to Compete, Pumping Iron II (a pseudo-documentary), and Rocks with Wings, all of which were different, but which were bred from the same desire to bring women's struggle and achievement in sports to the limelight.

Dare to Compete traced the careers of several important female athletes throughout the last century and the difficulty women have experienced throughout recent history in attempting to participate in sports and gain as much acclaim as men for their accomplishments. It was clear, as the movie progressed, that the filmmakers wanted to capture the stories of certain women in sports history who were extraordinarily talented, and use their personal struggles to explore the larger battle that women were fighting equality as a sex. The audience bears witness to incredible feats; a woman swims the English Channel in record time, another wins every tennis match she plays (but one, when she was a bit intoxicated), and yet another fights for acclaim in a society where athletic women are only given the utmost admiration when they fulfill society's constructed idea of what a woman "should be."

A theme that arose time and again in class discussion, and one that was addressed by this documentary, was the concept of a woman as seen through the (theoretical) eyes of society. Dare to Compete attacked this issue in an historical context, and showed through footage the evolution of the woman, as an idea, throughout the past century. The woman, traditionally, has been seen as delicate, passive, and, ideally, beautiful. When a woman did not fit this definition of "effeminate," she experienced even more hardship than her fellow females. Billie Jean was one of the prime examples of this in this film. She was a fantastic tennis player, arguably the best, but because she did not fit the stock definition of what a woman "should be" she was slighted by the media, and afforded fewer opportunities than her female peers.

Pumping Iron II, a pseudo-documentary, also focused on this issue. The filmmakers, in a very clear and direct manner, set up the movie so that the message they were attempting to convey would be easy to discern. From the "behind the scenes" meetings with the administrators of the female body-building competition to the conversations between certain characters or amongst specific groups of people, it was clear that the issue at hand was the definition of "femininity" and how firmly society has its hands gripped on the word's meaning. The filmmakers make the audience love Bev, the protagonist, and mildly despise her primary rival competitor, Rachel, who embodies all of the aspects of the competition which are unfair. While she possesses toned muscles, she also maintains society's idea of "femininity." She wears make-up, fixes her hair, and tans in a booth for hours on end, while Bev pushes the envelope and participates in her sport for the sake of the sport.

Bev is not out to please the ancient male administrators or the judges, and knows going into the competition that she is something that they have never seen before, and that they might not accept that they might not accept her anomalous physique. The outcome of the movie emphatically reinforces the truth that women, despite all they have achieved, are still held to a set standard. Bev comes in last in the competition, a result that would blow anyone's mind. The fact that she was undermined was so blatant, so obvious it lacked discrete subversion, which one would normally find in a situation like this. In other words, it's not just that she didn't win, but that she came in dead last. The filmmakers built up the film perfectly, so that when she lost this way, you really felt the impact. You really felt disgusted by society, and rattled by the affirmation that a standard still exists (and in a really bad way).

The third movie, Rocks with Wings, was farther removed, with regard to thematic content, from the other films we watched in class. This film focused more on the use of sports as an outlet for success by an arguably even more oppressed group the Najavo. In this documentary film, the goal of the filmmakers was less immediately discernable. It appeared that they wanted to link the cultural attitudes and beliefs of the Najavo people to their behavior in areas such as sports. One woman interviewed said how the Najavo think cyclically, rather than linearly like "the white man," and so it is against their nature to forget what happened to them and to move on, while "the white man" just keeps moving, not looking back, not dwelling on the past. This attitude, this inability to forget, in a way, characterized the way the girls on the Shiprock basketball team first performed, when the new coach just arrived. They were accepting of defeat, and even more, according to the coach, they did not really have the drive to win. Since the dominant presence of the colonists in early American history, the American Indians have experienced nothing but tragedy and defeat they are a dieing culture. The movie implied that this history of defeat was reflected in the performance of the Shiprock girl's basketball team until an outside force came in and transformed the attitude of the team.

Unlike the other films, this one did not focus on sexualized women in sports or the objectification of women in sports, but on sports as an outlet for women to achieve, and to succeed when other outlets are not available. Sports provided a way for these young people to achieve when they could not always flex their academic muscles. In the same respect, sports throughout history have been an outlet for women to achieve when they could not assert themselves otherwise. In Dare to Compete, women excelled in sports, and showed the world just how capable they were, and in Pumping Iron II, Bev dared to question the idea of "effeminate."

In all three documentary films, the filmmakers had different goals and different messages in mind, but the ideas conveyed in all of the films very interrelated. The sports arena has allowed women to pave a path for themselves it allowed women throughout history to push societal boundaries, and to affirm themselves as equals in a world where equality is still a dream, as opposed to a reality, for many people. These three films were about extraordinary women, and most importantly, women who actually existed or exist today. Their achievements are tangible to us, because they actually asserted themselves, reached beyond their limits, and did things that no one expected them to accomplish. Documentary makers strive to give that reality to an audience to make extraordinary things seem possible.

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