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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

Media and the representation of female athletes

Q: Through the readings, films, and discussions, we have looked at the image of women in sport. Discuss the images of women in sport and how they are affected by today's cultural ideal of women.

Cultural ideals are dictated by media and its biases. By strongly suggesting what people should be eating, wearing, talking about and being interested in, media mandates domains of everyday life as specifically male or female. In all the movies we have watched, the representation of femininity and masculinity has been an important part of being an athlete. However, in many cases, the extreme importance placed on the gendered delineation of an athlete is reserved only for females.

National Velvet was the oldest movie in the collection we analyzed. The story of a young girl who wants to become a competing horse rider is compelling for following the dream of a young, female athlete. However, there are subtle nuances in the movie that poke fun at that dream. Velvet's passion for horses comes across as childish and unpractical at many points in the movie. Her monologues about the "wonders of horses" though relevant to exhibiting her obsession, inevitably make her appear unfit for her dreams because of her haste and excessive emotions.

The movie predicts that even though Velvet is comfortable in her shoes right now, adulthood will present her with challenges of being a woman and she will have to change to accommodate them. Even though it is strikingly pleasant that Velvet's mother is encouraging of Velvet's dream to ride in the international competition, limiting her life to the accomplishment of just that one dream is a subtle way of dictating the behavior of female athletes. Even though women can be allowed to have one big accomplishment in their life as a source of pride, Velvet's mother concludes that fulfilling the other aspects of womanhood will be the prime objective of velvet's adulthood. Thus the movie concludes that youth can be wasted for a childish obsession, but adulthood is reserved for a woman's duties to her family and society.

A similar sentiment is expressed in many news journals, publications and even television programming today. Sports are seen as a side commitment that female athletes pursue in their free time. Even if athletes are obviously full-time, accomplished competitors, because they are female, they are always depicted in magazines as homely, heterosexual, home economics-oriented beings. It is as if media is repulsed by portraying a female athlete as only an athlete. Certainly male athletes are never expected to be cooking or gardening in their free time. Their sexual orientation is never questioned because of their interest and participation in sports, and the media reaction to them multi-tasking parenthood or marriage alongside a career is a big plus. Women on the other hand have to fight for a picture of them sweating on the field as opposed to twiddling the ball in high heels for portraits. Women's sexual preferences are constantly under attack, especially if they are rising athletes. They are also never commended for managing a full-time career and their personal relationships. It is expected that if a woman steps into sports, she has to work twice as hard to maintain her familial responsibilities.

A perfect example of this is depicted in A League of their Own. Each woman on the baseball team is pushed by some sort of financial difficulty even though most of them are talented and committed. One character manages her kid alongside her baseball traveling schedule, while another dumps a boyfriend who is critical and demeaning. The star player of the team is constantly fraught with fear for the life of her husband, and takes his return back from the war as a reason to quit the team. The dynamics of this movie present more than a glance into the workings of a socially prescribed system. It is interesting to note that war time economy allowed women to step out of the house and into the sports field. However, the limitations were still as stringent as before. Playing in skirts to be objectified as attractive women, rendered emotional because of their attachment to the game, and living with the understanding that they are but waiting for their husbands and fathers to return from war, scars the true essence of the game. Eventually, Geena Davis comes around to play in the final game, adding a melodramatic ending to this tale of obligation vs. interest. Though this is an affirmation that the gendered division of men and women in all fields of life taints the individual paths we pursue, it is interesting to note that the desire to play will carry a talented athlete through their life.

There is also always the challenge that a female athlete poses to her male counterpart, especially if they are in a relationship. In Love and Basketball, both the leading characters are aspiring basketball players. The male athlete enjoys attention all throughout his high school years and into college. The female athlete has to work hard to get her talent noticed. However, once things start looking up for the female athlete, the male athlete encounters personal problems and expects the female to give up her career and her passion (or at least put it on hold indefinitely), till his personal problems are resolved. He gets annoyed and upset when his girlfriend doesn't leave her life to dedicate all her time to him.

This representation is fairly realistic with its inclusion of the dynamics in a relationship where athletes are competing for similar things in the same sport. It is also a positive representation of female athleticism, showing the hard work, talent and time that go into achieving goals with or without the support of your family. This movie is fairly recent so it encompasses fairly familiar ideals of female participation in sports. It approves of dedication, consistence and hard work for female athletes. It also places relationships in a more normal light for both males and females, insisting that it is important to both sexes that their relationships work out.

Yet again, after evaluating the above mentioned movies and a movie like Blue crush, it is hard to decide how far female sports have come. It is definitely more acceptable in today's society for a woman to participate in sports and to be recognized for that talent. Children's programming and media overall is responsive to young girls receiving opportunities that are similar to boys their age. However, somewhere down the line, adulthood challenges this perception of equality and women are left with questions about their sexuality, limited coverage for professional sports, magazines that want to portray them at their homely best and a career that involves a lot of hard work on and off the courts.

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