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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003

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The Portrayal of Female Athletes in Popular Culture and The Media.


Maggie

Popular culture and the modern media consistently prefer to showcase only one highly specific vision of athletic women. As lauded by the media, this woman is a surreal amalgam of contradictory qualities, a construct based on the ambivalent emotions of the primarily male-dominated world of sports and sports media.
The woman athlete as advertised by the media must be young and attractive, and a dedicated competitor. (Older, or less stereotypically "attractive" female athletes tend to receive little media attention at all. And any athlete not dedicated to their sport would similarly garner no attention.) At the same time, her youthful enthusiasm must be tempered by maturity and poise, lest she be labeled a cry-baby, never mind that on the other end, talented and remarkable women are being under-advertised because companies prefer to use images of teenaged girls rather than mature women. Meanwhile, her dedication to sports must be moderated by demure and ladylike character traits, lest she be seen as cutthroat, over-aggressive, hostile, or butch. The woman athlete as preferred by modern media is effectively an attractive, highly feminized young woman with a talent for her sport.
This preference for showcasing female athletes as apparently women first, and athletes second, is clear and blatant when one considers the modern media coverage given to male and female athletes. While male athletes are almost always filmed and photographed in ways that augment their physical strengths, female athletes are most frequently filmed or photographed wearing swimsuits, in their kitchens or homes, or with their families. Male athletes are also frequently shown lounging comfortably in sports jackets or suits, advertising such merchandise as cell phones, cologne, or cars. Women athletes are most likely to be featured cooking, cleaning, or caring for their family.
In four of the films that we viewed for this seminar, these same contradictory themes were stressed. In National Velvet, the protagonist of Velvet is a sweet, brave and feisty child who practically wills her way into the greatest horse race of the world. There is no question that Velvet's grit, determination, sweetness and bravery all contribute significantly to her triumph in the film, but these traits also contributed significantly to her success as a character. She was a brave little girl, an archetypal character easy to root for.
However, the film's directors and producers also conformed to the preference of pop culture, by portraying Velvet quite clearly as a girl first, and a sportswoman second. Despite her ostensible boyishness in the film, she masquerades successfully as a male jockey by merely cutting off her long hair and wearing the jockey's uniform she is a patently feminine looking, and acting, young woman. Throughout the movie, her alabaster skin, sparkling blue eyes and cupid's bow lips are accented with makeup, and despite her incessant hours shown training with The Pie, she is rarely shown with even a smudge of dust besmirching her skin or clothes. Her high, breathy voice and impulsive, emotional character are used as thoroughly "girly" throughout the film, and in the final scene, Velvet faints dramatically after winning the race. One cannot dismiss the feeling that the director found it simply "too unwomanly" for Velvet to finish the race and enjoy her glory triumphantly, rather than swooning after her gender-bending transgression. And most tellingly, both Velvet and her mother, Mrs. Brown, are portrayed as tough, dedicated and independent athletes, who nonetheless will, or have, inevitably put away the mantle of success to raise a family. Throughout National Velvet there is an undertone of finality; this race will be her one headstrong moment of success in life. Afterwards, she will withdraw sensibly, meet a nice boy, and raise a family. So while Velvet Brown is a positive and admirable character, she clearly fits the preferred stereotype of young, attractive, and hyper-feminized woman athletes.
In examining Love and Basketball, A League of Their Own, and Blue Crush, one finds similar results. In Love and Basketball, Monica is also young, attractive, and dedicated. And while the movie presents her as more tomboyish than her mother and sister, it also stresses her more demure and ladylike traits, while presenting other female basketball players as hostile and rivalrous women who drink too much and sleep around. Also, she gives up playing basketball until she wins back her ex, the implication being that without her man, her world is meaningless. Monica is another example of media stereotyping: while she is a classy and admirable character, she nonetheless fits the highly limited mold preferred by popular culture.
The same is true in A League Of Their Own. The main character is also young and attractive, who also is only "playing" sports until her husband returns from the war, when she plans to quit baseball to raise a family. Interestingly, this movie acknowledges and demonstrates the limited reception of women athletes in the media, particularly in one scene in which the women are told they can't play baseball unless they wear short, skimpy skirts and blouses, completely incomparable to the more protective and efficient uniforms worn previously by the male baseball players. However, the movie still succumbs to the pop culture requirements, portraying a group of almost universally young, attractive and "ladylike" women who, for the most part, seem only to be playing baseball until the right man shows up.
Lastly, in Blue Crush, we see the most blatant example of this style of pop culture construct. Anne Marie, ostensibly the protagonist of the movie, is a girl who wants to become a famous and successful surfer. However, the movie undercuts even that aspiration by showing us only one brief scene of her training at surfing, while meanwhile deluging us with images of her standing around in a bikini. She fulfills the requirements of young and attractive, and throughout the movie seems much more anxious to settle down with her boyfriend than to surf, or do anything else. And even her dedication to surfing is called into question, as it becomes lost in a morass of her desire for "a girl to be on the cover of Surf magazine", her desire for the endorsement and advertising money that would accompany success, and her apparent desire to overcome her previous traumatic near-drowning experience. We are left with an image not of a woman athlete, but of an emotionally torn and unhappy young girl, looking for guidance from her boyfriend.
In all these movies, the pop culture preference for young, attractive and hyper-feminized female athletes is clear. Both the restrictive media and the narrow-minded popular culture are doing themselves, and the world at large, a great disfavor by overlooking the numerous talented and remarkable female athletes who simply choose not to pose in swimsuits.







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