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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

Image of Women Over Time Differences or Similarities?

Jaclyn Piltch

It's hard for women to break into the world of sport, a perpetually male-dominated field. We have looked at the trials of women as they attempt to break through stereotypes and other, more concrete barriers against their participation in athletics. Through it all, the image of the athletic woman has been at the forefront of the discussion. And it is through the lens of this image over time, evidenced by the movies discussed in this class, that the most obvious struggles of women can best be witnessed.

The images of women and sport over time periods both historic and contemporary present differentiated perspectives of those women. But under these surface differences lies the distinct truth that all barriers to women in sport exist because of sex and sexuality. Historically, information was put out to the public that athletic activity would cause health problems for women. In a more contemporary light, advertisements and articles about female athletes usually present the women as sex objects, as if a woman's physical prowess can only be expressed when she poses nude. Female athletes are often challenged with questions of their sexuality, as if being athletic is a masculine trait. There have even been acts of violence in order to prevent women from entering the male structure. Take the Boston Marathon, where the director attempted to physically assault the first female contestant, while she was running the race. The films that we watched all express different versions of a woman's path to athletic success. A comparative study of images in the movies can help us determine the differences in societal acceptance of women in the past and the present, as well as the underlying similarities, the barriers that still remain for women to overcome.

National Velvet, set in the 1930s, presents a traditional set of values for Velvet Brown and her sisters. Cultural ideals of women then were to be pretty and to think about boys, as is evidenced by Velvet's eldest sister, played by Angela Lansbury. Velvet is a good daughter, as she reflects this image publicly, though she not-so-secretly dreams about horses instead of boys. The true blind values of appearance in this time period are evidenced when Velvet cuts her hair in order to compete. Not one person suspects that she is a girl, despite her obvious frailty, because she no longer has beautiful locks of hair.

Then, in A League of Their Own, feminine values are again emphasized. Female baseball players are required to wear short skirts in order to attract more viewers to games. The league even puts out a movie of the players sliding into home base and then pouring a cup of tea. All the female players are expected to leave their teams and the league when the war is over and then men return. Dotty follows through with this, leaving the game when her husband returns, turning in her uniform and bat for an apron and a tea cozy. Cat, her little sister, sticks with the game that she adores until the very end, but never achieves as popular a status as her more beautiful older sister.

The cultural ideals of beauty expressed in these traditional images are still evident today. Women still have to be pretty and exude feminine sex appeal in order to be appreciated as athletes. Athleticism and competition are still approved of as male attributes, and women who are successful in sportsmanship are often referred to as being more masculine.

In Blue Crush, the lead role of Annemarie has much more coverage as a sex object than the main characters had in either National Velvet or League of Their Own. This is a sign of the times, as sexual images are less of a taboo contemporarily. Annemarie is not barred from surfing because she is a woman. Rather, she has to conquer her own demons and fears, and then the path is clear for her to success and to the first female cover of Surf magazine. But Annemarie's victory is not really one for all female surfers. Her image is placed on the cover of a magazine because she is a cute surfer, not because she is the best surfer. There were many women who came before her who were much more deserving of that honor.

Thus, one of the last barriers for women in sport can be a question of femininity, and what the definition of femininity is. Sports should be appreciated as a vital aspect of being female. Women should be evaluated on the same athletic qualities that men are. Competition is just as healthy an outlet for women as it is for men. These are more contemporary reflections on the definition of women, and though it is easier for women to succeed, they are still struggling to cross all barriers.

Love and Basketball is hopefully more true to life a story than the others. Her mother does not like the athletic lifestyle that Monica leads, doting on her elder, more 'feminine,' daughter instead. And Q does not notice Monica as a person in whom he should be interested romantically until she cleans herself up and wears a dress to a school dance. His life as a basketball player is much easier than Monica's, as a male star, but it is Monica who ends up playing for the professional women's team at the conclusion of the movie. She succeeds in her sport, despite being a tomboy, she wins her mother's approval, and she wins happiness. If only this fairytale image could exist for every female athlete struggling for recognition based on her skill alone.

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