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Women, Sport, and Film - 2004
Student Papers
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Apologies and Compromises: Images of Women in Sports

Jessie Payson

There is, of course, a huge difference between the ways women are typically supposed to act and what is expected from a typical athlete. Whereas women are expected to comply to their gender role prescribing passivity and compliance, athletes are connoted with an aggressive, competitive nature. Furthermore, society trains women to be ashamed of their bodies and supplies an unrealistic ideal body type and encourages restricting feminine clothing, whereas athletes must have a keen understanding and appreciation of their bodies. In this way, athletes are implicitly coded as male. Though women and men can both be great athletes, of course, gender roles limit the social image and expectations for individuals based on their sex. It is culturally impossible for a woman to be considered both fully athletic and fully feminine or, in the words of a Bend It Like Beckham character "There's a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella!" This is particularly problematic for films portraying women in sports. Mainstream cinema tends to glamorize women and portray them in ways that comply with their gender role. To at the same time depict them as athletic presents conflicts with their filmic image. As a result, films which feature a female athlete tend to compromise her athletic image and apologize for her gender-nonconformity and participation in sports in a variety of ways.

In all of the narrative films we watched for class that featured women in sports Bend It Like Beckham, Girlfight, and Love and Basketball there was a very clear heterosexual love interest interwoven for every female athlete. Though I am not purporting that straight women cannot be athletes or that they are compromising their athletic interest through their heterosexuality, the presence of that orientation is a very strong assurance of femininity in cultural imagery. If a woman can still be subject to and controlled by the "male gaze" (that Laura Mulvey and so many other art historians have written about), she is not a threat to the status quo and male power. According to this "theory of the gaze," the male protagonist in a film is generally used as for the presumably male viewer to project his own desire of control over the female image. Through the onscreen male's gaze, the woman's image may be appropriated and the viewer may have the illusion of control over the woman. In these films, then, the woman, though she is seemingly in control of her own body and image through her character in the film, is still ideologically subjected to male control.

Interestingly, none of the films touched on the issue of homosexuality significantly. This is a conspicuous absence and one that needs to be considered. In fact, according to movie trivia, homosexual interest between the two main characters was specifically written out of Bend It Like Beckham ( Additionally, Love and Basketball was fraught with heterosexual interest and featured what many in our class would agree was gratuitous sex scenes. All of this is to emphasize the women's adherence to traditional values.

Significantly, the only established athletic authorities depicted in the film were men. The star athlete in Love and Basketball, despite it being a film about a girl's drive to succeed, was a male pro-basketball player (Quincy's father). Indeed, the female role-models in Monica's life outside of sports were all exemplary of feminine passivity and also staunchly opposed to Monica's involvement in sports. Notice the title of Bend It Like Beckham, and the posters decorating Jessie's room. Jessie's ideals are all represented by men and masculinity, and like Monica, the women in her life represent the traditionalism she loathes. When Diana, of Girlfight, enters the gym, she also enters a male-centered environment. Even though all of these women were portrayed as successful in sports, they were still clearly tokens, and essentially out of place in a man's world.

Not only were all the male sports authority male; the male coaches who represented the women's teams or women were also somehow disabled. The coach in Bend It Like Beckham had suffered a knee injury and could not play anymore, which is why he coached a girls' team instead. Diana's trainer was a washed-up ex-boxer who initially did not believe in Diana's worth as a boxer. The images of both of these men is significant to the film's meaning. Neither of these men are at their peak, and clearly stand at a disadvantage to other, more ideal, athletic men they are surrounded by. They are, in effect, de-masculinized. This, perhaps, is their excuse for coaching women, and is has powerful meaning in terms of the theme of women in sports.

None of these devices were present in the film we watched featuring male athletes, Remember the Titans. Indeed, apologies are not necessary in a film that portrays men in sports they are already being quite masculine and in accordance with their gender role simply by being an athlete. Women in sports, on the other hand, are immediately questionable due to their activities. They have to prove their inherent femininity, exactly because they are entering a male-defined field.

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