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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

The Battle of the Sexes

Stefanie Keenan

As a college basketball player, I pride myself in the level of skill, competency, and commitment I have for the sport. Anyone or anything that questions my abilities is immediately perceived as a threat, an obstacle I have to prove I can overcome. Recently I was challenged to a game of one-on-one with a male friend of mine, both of us being fairly equal in talent and ability in the game of basketball. Unfortunately, he won, which immediately made me feel that I was an inferior player, like I failed in proving women could be just as good as men when it came to basketball. Looking back, I question whether my friend would have felt the same had he lost the game, which I then immediately dismissed. No, he wouldn't have, because he was seeing things from a male athlete perspective, and would have instead been impressed with how I, as a woman, was able to play with enough skill to win. This one instance sums up the struggle all women athletes have faced in the past and still battle with currently. Men, who have dominated the sports world for over a century, are what we as women athletes are constantly striving to beat, trying to show that we are just as competent as athletes. Therefore, every athletic battle of the sexes is perceived by women as a chance to prove that they are better, whereas, men see it as another opportunity to dominate.

Sport is about competition, rivalries that are supposed to bring out the best in athletes. Yet the most prevalent rivalry that exists in sport since the early 1900's is the battle between men and women, where women's sports have been on the losing side for years. Even with the passage of Title IX in 1972, calling for the elimination of discrimination based on sex, there has been little accomplished in the sphere of women's sports besides the stereotypical exploitation of women athletes. During the pre-Title IX era, women were discouraged from participating in sporting events based upon a few chauvinistic assumptions about he ideals of femininity, and the cultural roles of women. The two most ubiquitous themes arguing against women becoming involved in typical athletic events include the "medical profession's notions of the inherent weaknesses mandated by females' anatomy and physiology", and the idea that the prevailing female occupations only should include marriage, motherhood, and service since they are examples of "proper female behavior". (Costa & Guthrie, pg. 84) In contrast, during this same time period, sports were seen as an arena to test a man's brawn, spirit, self-confidence, quickness, and courage, in the absence of war and battlefields. Even after Title IX was passed, the aggressiveness of sports still echoes these earlier views that athletics are a man's rite of passage, leaving women to accept their feminine, stay-at-home roles, or be criticized for being too masculine by becoming part of this male-dominated world. (Costa & Guthrie, pg. 84)

Today the portrayal of women athletes still revolves around the ideal of femininity first and athleticism after, and this construct is perpetuated by the media, i.e. television, newspaper, magazines, etc. According to current statistics, women constitute 40% of the athletic population, yet are underrepresented in the media, receiving only 3-5% of sports coverage. This under-representation reveals the cultural anxiety there still exits with the presence of strong women, especially in the sports arena where the male ego is at stake. The male athletes that receive the most media coverage are those that excel in their individual sports and are considered sexy because of what they do in sports. On the other hand, women athletes that receive the majority of media coverage are those that appeal to the pre-existing ideal of women being heterosexual, feminine, and sexy, and therefore would look good in a bathing suit on the cover of any sports magazine, regardless of their athletic specialty. Sports are about empowerment of the individual, and due to the fragile male psyche, the only way to keep this empowering identity of women at bay is to capitalize on sexualizing them in the media, thereby diminishing their power as athletic role models. ("Playing Unfair: Images of the Female Athlete")

Women have been working to get around this need for society to sexualize them in order to legitimize their athletic prowess, and this is where the desire to prove oneself as an athlete stems. Women are consistently trying to validate themselves by comparing their abilities to those of their male counterparts, Title IX only facilitating this push to be better than the men. Even in the movies, like in "Love and Basketball", there is represented the strong female athlete, Monica, who battles between being perceived as an excellent basketball player or as a woman. In all truth, even though Title IX makes available to women the opportunities that are given to men, they are still made to choose between being a strong, empowered athlete, risking being rejected as a "normal female", or by succumbing to the stereotypical and manipulating portrayal through the use of scantily clad images of themselves. The movie "Blue Crush" enhances this dilemma by making the main character, Ann Marie, deal with the choice of being seen as Matt's new girl, or by becoming her one and only desire: the first female surfer on the cover of SURFER magazine.

This constant pursuit to prove ourselves as competent athletes comes with the territory of playing in the realm of female athletics. Yet, is this advancing women's sports as those that fought to pass Title IX in the early and mid-1900's had hoped? In my opinion, until we as women stop comparing ourselves to male athletes, we are hindering our advancement in sport. I look forward to the day when the battle of the sexes no longer exists because women can be competent and able athletes without being juxtaposed to the men.

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