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Women, Sport, and Film - 2004
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The Evolution of the Image of Women in Sports

Kate Tucker

Kate Tucker
Women, Sport and Film
Spring 2004

1. 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.

All of the films that we watched provided different perspectives on how the image of women is situated in our culture. From the first movie, Dare to Compete, which highlighted the development of women's participation in sports, to Love and Basketball, which fully accepts women's participation in sports, we examined a range of views and opinions on the proper role of women in sports.

Dare to Compete presented images of women in sports over many years, highlighting the evolution of female athletes. At first female athletes still had to be dainty. They were women first, and athletes second. Women were believed to be too fragile for most sports and were told that they would have problems reproducing if they were too physically active. The women you see in sports early on were very feminine, both while participating in sports and in their personal lives. The women who were not as feminine suffered from criticism and felt great pressure to change their appearances to fit in with cultural norms.

As the century progressed, the physicality of women in sports became more acceptable. Women who were not as feminine still had to deal with prejudice, and were sometimes labeled "homosexual" as a derogatory statement. Although there are still stereotypes that many women feel bound to, we see at the end of the film that images of women as athletes, rather than athletes as women are now acceptable. The Nike commercials are a good example of this. These commercials extol the physical prowess of women. Dare to Compete demonstrates that the images of women in sports have changed drastically throughout the twentieth century.

The women in Bend it Like Beckham had to deal with cultural stereotypes against women in sport. Jess' mother had strictly confined ideas of how a woman should look. She did not approve of Jess playing soccer, but if she did it was important for her to keep her legs covered. The issue that comes up repeatedly in this movie is the popular notion that women will not be perceived as women if they are 'sporty'. Jess' mother is afraid that men will not be interested in her because of her athleticism and Jules' mother blames her daughter's lack of a boyfriend on her participation in the soccer team. Although the two mothers represent different cultures, both of their cultures state that female athletes are not feminine or desirable. They are certainly not normal. I think one of the important distinctions in this film is that, while there are certainly many who uphold that belief, there are many others who see and appreciate female athletes. Even Jess' father come to appreciate her athleticism by the end of the film.

An important moment in the film occurs when Jules' mother mistakenly believes that Jules is a lesbian. Although this is humorous in the film, it shows that the image of female athletes is still equated with the image of homosexuals. I think this once again is rooted in the misguided belief that no one in mainstream society would find a female athlete desirable.

In Girlfight, the protagonist, Diana, seems to be determined to fight against cultural norms. She embraces her image as a boxer and female athlete as a way to rebel against society. The main conflict in Girlfight is that Diana is participating in a sport that is almost entirely dominated by males. Women may be able to participate in sports, but Diana must struggle to become accepted in the more violent, more male, sport of boxing. This demonstrates that, at some level, women are still not accepted as truly the athletic equals of men. Still women must be confined to sports that are nicer and less violent. Women are seen as competitive, but not as fighters. Diana breaks this stereotype by insisting that she be treated equally. In the end, she fights her boyfriend and win. In the ring, she must be considered an equal. Girlfight is unique in that it presents competitions between the two sexes. Unlike the other films we watched, boxing is categorized by weight, not sex. Interestingly, this seems to achieve true equality in ways that segregating athletes by sex does not.

Love and Basketball is the only film we viewed that accepts the image of women as athletes without question. Although the protagonist, Monica, does face some discrimination by her high school classmates, this does not deter her. She follows her dreams and is accepted into a fully functioning collegiate basketball team. The film does not focus on her struggles as a female athlete, but rather her struggles in life. It is very enjoyable to see a woman being athletic in this film and still being portrayed as attractive to the opposite sex. Those who do not accept her athleticism are depicted as being old fashioned, rather than the majority opinion.

These films represent a good view of how the image of women in sports has changed in recent years and presents a good examination of the obstacles that female athletes still face. Although it is currently acceptable for a woman to be athletic, there are some sports where female participation is still not accepted, as we saw in Girlfight. While mainstream society may accept female athletes, they still struggle in some cultures, as we saw in Bend It Like Beckham. This film also showed the stereotyping of women's sexual preferences that female women must endure. Another problem that women can face is a lack of venue for their athletic ability. Monica was forced to go overseas in Love and Basketball so that she could play professionally. Fortunately, she did eventually find a way to play in the US. What all these films demonstrate is that the image of women in sports is continually evolving. From the start of Dare to Compete when female athletes were almost unheard of to the present day, there has been change at every step of the way. Hopefully, by the time this century has ended, women will be able to assume their own personal identities, rather than being labeled as a certain 'type' simply because they are athletic. I think the progress we've seen so far is a great indicator that this may someday be possible.

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