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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

Images of Women in Sports

Emily Hanson

Emily Hanson

March 16, 2003

Women in Sports and Film

Images of Women in Sports

Since the beginning of the 20th century, society has undergone a massive change in outlook regarding the concept of women in sports. At the beginning of the century, Victorian ideals still ruled and many believed that a woman playing sports was both unseemly and dangerous because if could harm her ability to have children. However, with the Roaring Twenties and greater freedom for women, old ideas of feminine athleticism gave way to a new breed of women athletes. As time went on, more women became involved in sports and when Women's Lib hit its peak in the 1970's, the passage of Title IX in Congress guaranteed the already growing number of female athletes equal access to scholarships and equipment. As society's attitude towards women in sports has evolved, so to have the images of female athletes presented by the media.

The first film we viewed, Dare to Compete, gave a chronological description of the rise of women's sports including some of the first female star athletes. In discussing the history of women in sports, Dare to Compete illustrated the shifting image of women in sports. One of the greatest female athletes of all time, Babe Diedrickson, when she began her career in the thirties, presented a more masculine image than many people of age were comfortable with. As she became more successful and more famous she toned down her image, by growing her hair and wearing skirts. Diedrickson also changed her choice of sport. Rather than participating in more traditionally masculine sports as she had, the Babe began to focus on golf, a more acceptable sport for women. Even as women have become more accepted in the sports world, many still find it necessary to "prove" their femininity, and often find the media questioning their sexuality as Martina Navertalova did.

Dare to Compete gave us a historical perspective on the many obstacles female athletes had to overcome, our next film, National Velvet, took a looked at the story of one young women who was determined to enter her horse in the Grand National, even if it meant riding herself. The story of Velvet Brown, despite being made in the 40's and taking place in the 20's, gives a very sympathetic portrait of women athletes. National Velvet succeeds in making women athletes heroes by comparing and contrasting the female characters in the movie, most importantly, Mrs. Brown. Portrayed as sensible and sympathetic, Mrs. Brown provides Velvet with the inspiration to see her dream through. We also learn in the movie that Mrs. Brown was an athlete herself and managed to swim the English Channel, a feat few believed women had the capacity to complete. In comparison, Velvet's sister, Edwina, a typical "girly girl" is seen as flighty and insipid.

However, what makes National Velvet a truly sympathetic portrait of women in sports is the general reception Velvet receives after her victory at the Grand National. It might be expected that, in that day in age, Velvet would have received a good deal of censure for her rather presumptuous entrance into the race. Rather than meeting with disapproval and disgust, Velvet is seen as a hero and offered movie roles and much more. The celebrity Velvet gains because of her achievement shows a level of comfort with women athletes as well as admiration.

Love and Basketball provided a more personal look at the kinds of decisions female athletes are forced to make. The main plot of the movie revolves around relationship between Monica and her boyfriend Quincy. Both Monica and Quincy have exceptional basketball skills and both dream of playing. However, after Quincy witnesses the breakdown of his parents' marriage, he becomes more emotionally needy, and Monica is put in a position of deciding between her relationship and her career. While the audience feels upset that Monica is forced to make the decision, we also feel a measure of satisfaction that she decides to continue her career. However, after several years playing professional basketball in Spain, Monica decides to give up her beloved sport because she feels homesick and realizes that she doesn't find the same joy that she once did. Upon returning home, she and Quincy, after a brief interlude, begin their relationship again and this time, Monica manages to find a balance between Love and Basketball.

Possibly a truer portrait of women athletes than many other movies, Love and Basketball show the inner struggle that any women faces in the modern world. While women have many more opportunities today than 20 even 10 years ago, these opportunities have come with a heavy emotional cost. Today women are being forced to choose between their desire to pursue a career or to have a family. Many women, like Monica, who devoted themselves to their career often feel as though they've missed something. Love and Basketball reveals this struggle by contrasting Monica with her homemaker mother. Monica can't understand why her mother gave up her own dreams of a catering business in order to raise a family, and Monica's mother can't understand her daughters "tomboy" ways. The movie gives us two alternative images of women; by making Monica the hero it portrays her choices as the more desirable.

Our final movie, A League of Our Own, portrays the historically real Women's Baseball League that formed during the Second World War. Focusing on two sisters, Kit and Dottie, the movie discusses the lives of the players and the obstacles they overcame in order to play in the league. As Rosie O'Donnell character says, "They always made me feel like I was odd because I could play..." The movie gives us a historical perspective on how the players were treated and how their images were very carefully molded. From the beauty treatments to classes in posture and dinning, the women expected to be ladies first and foremost. The film reels were carefully made to focus not only on their athletic ability, but also on their femininity. As a historical fiction, the portrayal of the women in the Rockford Peaches, and the images that the media put forward, were very accurate. Women's baseball, at that day in age was a diversion and not seen as a serious sport. As a result, the images put forward of the athletes were generally light hearted, exposes focusing as much on the novelty of women playing baseball as the athletes themselves.

Female athletics have come along way since the beginning of the century. Today, women athletes are taken seriously as competitors, and many of their sports are followed just as voraciously as their male counterparts. The WMBA, created under a decade ago, has a large following of its own. Indeed, the U.S. women's soccer team has received more coverage than the men's team. But, women's athletics still has a long way to go. Despite the increasing popularity of sports among women, there is still less media coverage of women's sports. Often, as with the Women's Baseball League, the coverage focuses on the novelty of women playing that sport rather than their relative athletic prowess. But times are changing. As society becomes increasingly more comfortable with women athletes, the more coverage their sports will receive.

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