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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

Final Paper

Katherine Quah

Women in athletics have often been stereotyped and categorized into specific roles, and the images that are presented of women often reflect the cultural ideals that have been perpetuated throughout the course of women's participation in sports. While the images have changed over the years—and there is a growing acceptance of women athletes as well as a progression of thought on this issue—there still remains the need for some to justify the presence of women in sports. Throughout our discussions in class, as well as the issues presented in the various films we watched, many different images of women and the evaluation of those images were presented.
Many of our discussions focused on the issue of gender identity. Often those who are uncomfortable with the presence of women in athletics are uncomfortable with the supposed rejection of femininity. While it is entirely possible for femininity to encompass athleticism, society has not always been as supportive of that viewpoint as it is today. In earlier days, women were seen as in some way trying to behave like men, or displaying masculine characteristics, rather than as celebrating the natural capabilities of their body. Femininity and athleticism were viewed as incompatible, and one could not be considered feminine if she were athletic.
A particular example of this is the athlete Babe Didrikson, who excelled at every sport she participated in, but had to face rumors that she was in fact a male. A marriage and longer hair helped make her seem more feminine in the public eye. Many female athletes who were successful in what they did were often questioned on their femininity. Excuses were made to justify reasons as to why women should not be allowed to participate in sports, many circling back to the biological differences between men and women. Sports were viewed as too strenuous for women, and even proposed to be damaging to a woman's childbearing capability. Women were discouraged from playing, and those who did choose to participate were faced with many obstacles that still exist today.
Women in sports have often been ignored, their achievements seen as less important or not significant. The most shocking statistic cited in one of the documentaries that we watched was that while women's participation in sports has increased so much over the years, their coverage by the media has not. The striking difference between men and women's sports can be seen in Love and Basketball. While Quincy played to sold-out crowds, was adored by fans and covered on the news, Monica was relegated to play in smaller stadiums with barely any fans. Her achievements were downplayed and she even had to leave the country in order to pursue her dream of playing professional basketball. By not appreciating the athletic talent of women, the cultural ideal that values men's athleticism over that of women's is displayed in the film, as well as in reality.
Even in the advent of the WNBA, there are still huge discrepancies between society's viewing of men and women's sports. While advances in the perception of women's athletics have been made, women still continue to be stereotyped if they do not fit into the cultural idea of what a woman is. Often talented women athletes face questions about their sexuality, and in several of the films we watched, the films went out of their way to demonstrate the heterosexuality of the women. Blue Crush, in particular was a film in which the character of the boyfriend added essentially nothing to an already bare plot, but was used to juxtapose the athleticism of the female lead.
Sexuality in particular has continued to be a major issue in women's athletics. If they are not questioned as to their sexual orientation, female athletes are seen as playing into the cultural ideal of women as sexual objects if the choose to pose provocatively for magazines. It is a double-edged sword in a way—if you are seen as too masculine, then you are seen as being gay; if you choose to pose for magazines, then you are seen as feeding into the sexual exploitation of women. Either way, questions are asked and justifications made for women that you do not see being asked or made for their male counterparts.
The images that are presented of women in athletics have changed over the years, and a growing acceptance and embracement of women's role in sports has been somewhat attained. It is now no longer impossible to celebrate being both a woman and an athlete. However, there still exists a huge difference in the perception of men and women's sports and athletes, and while things have progressed substantially over the years, there still is a lot of work to be done before women's athletics are taken as validly and importantly as men's. As society changes, so will the cultural idea of women, as well as the images that are presented of them.

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