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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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The Social and Cultural Implications of Gender-Crossing in Sports

Jennifer Chang

It seems that the year 2000 was one full of gender-bending films, including Girlfight, starring Michelle Rodriguez. This movie was about Diana, a troubled teenage girl from the projects of New York City. Sent on an errand for her father one day, Diana discovers the secret world of boxing at a gym in Brooklyn. She watches her brother unenthusiastically box in the ring, and then tries to convince the coach to work with her. With time, she starts competing with other lightweights - both male and female. With this newfound confidence, she pulls herself together at school and is able to stay out of trouble.

Also made in 2000 was Billy Eliot, starring Jamie Bell, about a boy in Northern England who schleps to weekly boxing classes only to encounter reoccurring defeat in the ring, similar to Diana's brother Tiny in Girlfight. One day, a bunch of tutu-ed girls and their sour instructor begin sharing the space at the gym. All of sudden, Billy becomes hopelessly passionate about dance. Like Diana, Billy rejects conventional gender roles but must hide his new love from his chauvinistic father.

The parallels between Girlfight and Billy Elliot are uncanny. Both Diana and Billy enter sports that are not typical for their genders but somehow draw inspiration from the love of their deceased mothers and withstand the rejection from the rest of society. Furthermore, each film ends with triumph - Diana wins the match against her boyfriend, and Billy becomes a ballet star and flies across the stage as the male lead in Swan Lake. Both individuals have tread against the conventions of society. And ironically, in both films, boxing is seen as the epitome of male sport.

What happens in the "real world," when individuals enter sports not traditional for their genders? Certainly, it seems that both films revealed realistic outcomes for gender crossing in sports, although Girlfight and Billy Elliot seemed to focus only on the negative social and cultural implications of gender crossing in sports.

First of all, gender roles are a very important issue. According to Diana's father and most of the coaches working at the gym, boxing was "a man's sport." In the film Girlfight, Diana was only seen fighting one other girl, while all of her other competitors were male. Furthermore, Diana was the only female practicing at the Brooklyn boxing gym. For anyone walking into the gym, the idea that boxing is in the male realm become perpetuated. Although female boxers are now becoming more prevalent, it is still a novelty for many people. And for those people, crossing genders in sports is unfortunately something that is looked down upon.

Another conservative viewpoint is that, stepping "out of the [gender] box" can also be interpreted as stepping "out of the closet." In Billy Elliot, Billy's father and brother, learning that Billy was taking ballet lessons, feared that Billy had turned gay. As a result, they constantly challenged his masculinity. Amazingly, Billy remained unfazed by any of the verbal abuse he received throughout the movie. Interestingly, males have always had an important role in the lyrical world of ballet. However, many men in the field are stereotyped to be gay. Furthermore, the typical icon for ballet is a slender woman in a tutu.

However, aside from all these challenges and drawbacks depicted in films such as Girlfight and Billy Elliot, crossing genders roles in sports can actually be very beneficial both to the individual and to society.

Athleticism in general can be very beneficial physically, mentally, and socially. Any sport can help the body to stay in shape and healthy. Sports can also instill discipline and self-respect. Furthermore, sports can be an outlet for aggressive energy. These three things were all true for Diana in Girlfight. She built up muscles throughout her body, became more disciplined about her schoolwork and how she dressed, and she stayed out of trouble. Whether an individual enters a sport typical or atypical for his or her gender, the athleticism involved with that sport is undoubtedly beneficial to the body in a variety of ways.

A second reason why crossing genders is necessary is because society lacks role models in these sports. People like Diana and Billy, who are able to break down gender barriers in sports, are able to make a difference in the lives of youngsters who are becoming involved in sports. The movie Girlfight sends a message to little girls that can be successful weightlifters, or even boxers just like Diana, that they don't have to do "girly" things like their sisters. Although these girls will realize the challenges of entering a sport atypical for females, at least they'll know that their dreams are possible. And boys like Billy who aspire to be brilliant ballet dancers or synchronized swimmers, sports atypical to men, will feel this same hope that their dreams are unattainable.

Overall, with modernization, crossing gender barriers in sports is something that will inevitably happen. It is society's job to allow individuals to freely excel at sports that are atypical to their genders, without persecution or pressures to conform to tradition. For now, gender crossing in sports will be an uphill battle, a definite challenge, but with time, sports will hopefully become an arena free of gender distinctions.

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