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Women, Sport, and Film - 2004
Student Papers
On Serendip

Images of Women in Sport

E. A. Hanson

Over the years the perception of women in sport has changed considerably. In this course we have viewed several films all dealing with the depiction of female athletes in an attempt to gauge society's current perception of women in sport. I will briefly summarize each film and the main themes of the films before providing a description of the female athlete which I will infer from commonalities between the films.

The first film we watched was a documentary entitled, Dare to Compete; it provided a brief history of women in film, focusing primarily on American women in sport from the late 19th century to the present. From this film we gained a notion of where women have been and how far we've come in the sports world. In fact, the growing equality, autonomy and independence of women throughout the 20th century from the suffragette movement to the adoption of Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment is linked directly with the growing prominence and acceptance of women in sports. The main themes of the film, along with the examination of women in sport, were the celebration of the female athlete and how far women have come in the sports world as well as a reminder that female athletes have not yet attained the same status as male athletes.

The second film we watched was, Bend it Like Beckham, about a British girl of Indian descent who wants to play soccer. The conflict in this film deals with the opposing views of the athletic, modern, westernized-protagonist and her supportive, but more conservative and traditional parents, who worry about their tomboyish daughter who would rather play soccer than learn how to cook a full Indian dinner. The basic theme is the value of embracing your culture as well your individual goals and that more traditional feminine roles and the role of the female athlete are not mutually exclusive.

The third film we watched was, Remember the Titans. Remember the Titans, traces the racial integration of a Virginian high school football team in the 1960's as well as the racial integration of the high school. While this film is about a male football team and women are minor characters within the film it shows how sport can unite people from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds

The fourth film we watched was, Girlfight; a film about a Latina who lives in the ghetto and becomes a boxer. The protagonist's struggle to be taken seriously as a female boxer, to find people who will train her and compete with her is one of the major themes of this film. However, this film examines not only the protagonist's role as an athlete, but her home life, love interest and inner turmoil as she learns to control and focus her aggressive personality.

The fifth and final film we watched was, Love and Basketball, a film that primarily traces the coming of age of a man and a woman, two childhood friends and basketball fanatics who both pursue professional careers in basketball while focusing primarily on the female protagonist. The main conflict in this film had less to do with the female protagonist struggling for approval from her parents and acceptance by society than any of the other films we've seen in this class. Instead, it dealt with the female protagonist's need to evaluate her priorities and decide what she wanted and how to divide and manage her time so that she could achieve more of her goals than simply to become a professional basketball player.

If these films were to be used to create a picture of society's view of the modern female athlete they would essentially present a picture of a strong, complex and well-rounded female. These women are not afraid to follow their dreams and train hard. While the picture presented is a positive one there are still certain social issues and stereotypes that appear to be attached to the female athlete. Aside from the protagonist in Love and Basketball, all of the women depicted in these films struggle with either their families, or society in general, or both, suggesting that a strong female athlete, while admired and respected in our society, is still not completely socially acceptable.

Also, none of the female athletes in this film are particularly "feminine" in terms of gender, an idea that seems to be acceptable to the filmmakers, and by extension to society, and yet supports the stereotype of the "masculine" female athlete. Yet, all of these women are heterosexual and they all have the boyfriends and crushes to prove it thus suggesting that the stereotype of all female athletes as being "butch" lesbians is quickly becoming laughable. However, if the women's sexuality is still being called into question during the film then the same must be true within the larger society. While we no longer seem to vocalize, or truly believe it, there does seem to be a remaining worry that all serious female athletes are lesbians. Thusly, all of these female characters are heterosexual. However, all of the female athletes portrayed in these movies are tomboys. They frequently resent wearing skirts or other feminine articles of clothing. Many of them don't even know how to walk in heels.

Thus, to present an image of today's female athlete as derived from the list of films we have viewed during this course the female athlete is well-rounded, trains hard, and is tomboyish despite the gender restrictions placed on her by her parents or society at large. She is also heterosexual and must learn which of her life goals are the most important to her. This description seems to fit in with the currently acceptable rules of conduct within society.

Works Cited

1. Bend it Like Beckham, prod. and dir. Gurinder Chadha, 1 hr. 52 min., Fox, 2002. DVD

2. Dare to Compete : The Struggle of Women in Sports, prod. and dir. HBO, 1 hr. 21 min. HBO, 1999. DVD

3. Girlfight, prod. and dir. Karyn Kusama. 1 hr. 50 min., Columbia TriStar, 2002. DVD

4. Love and Basketball. prod. and dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2 hr. 4 min., Warner Home Video, 2002. DVD

5. Remember the Titans. prod. and dir. Boaz Yakin. 1 hr. 53 min., Disney Studios, 2000. DVD

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