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Women, Sport, and Film - 2004
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Women, Sports and Stereotypes

Sreenjaya Banerjee

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.

In almost all the movies we have seen, the women go through a series of changes as they grow older. They might or might not choose to continue with their sport (although movies are usually shy of showing women who actually choose to abandon a blossoming sports career in favour of something more 'socially acceptable'). However, when we first meet the female heroine in almost all the movies, she is a young tomboy. The figures of Jess in 'Bend It Like Beckham' or Monica in 'Love and Basketball' are remarkably similar as children. They both wear boyish clothes, shun typically girly clothing, and prefer to spend their time with boys. Of course, the movies make it amply clear that these girls only want to play sports with the boys they have no sexual interest in them. In 'Bend It Like Beckham', for example, Jess is clearly contrasted with the other Indian girls who watch the local boys playing football not because they like the game but because they want to see the boys with their shirts off. Even in 'Love and Basketball', Monica loves Quincy, but she never lets him see that until after prom night; before then, they are simply neighbours, friends and ballplayers. Even in a movie like 'Remember the Titans', which has no clear female protagonist, the little girl is shown hanging around boys all the time with her father, but she too has no interest in them except as sportsmen.

The second stage is when the female protagonist has to confront her biological femaleness. This happens with the little girl in 'Remember the Titans' when she starts spending time with Coach Boone's children, who are more conventionally "girly". At first she scorns them, but after a while a friendship grows up between them. Sheryl will never be the kind of girl who plays with dolls, but she certainly learns some 'feminine' decorum from the Boone girls. Similarly, Monica's sister dresses her up for prom night, and she is plainly uncomfortable in her dress, not knowing how to sit properly, but that is her first introduction into the world of the typical 'girl'. Indeed, by showing her deep friendship with her sister, the movie suggests that the older girl was influencing Monica in a lot of ways. Whenever she felt bad about herself, the movie suggests that she would compare herself to her sister, who was more conventional. Jess and her older sister share an almost identical relationship the older girl looks out for the younger one, and is more typically the kind of daughter that their parents might want. This stage in the development of the female protagonist is, as already been mentioned, marked by a sense of inferiority. Earlier, the female lead had never felt different from other girls, or had any sense that society expected some things from her because of her gender. With puberty comes the realisation that girls must sometimes bake pies, cook meals and go out on dates. Of course, this means that the protagonist rebels against the stereotype, at least to some extent. Jess doesn't want to learn to make chapattis and Sheryl doesn't want to play with dolls, for example.

The final stage in the development of the female protagonist in most of these movies is when she finds the ideal balance between the socially acceptable feminine stereotype and the sportsman she wants to be. None of the movies show the women repudiating these stereotypes completely, choosing to continue being the tomboys they were in their youth. Rather, all the movies emphasise that compromise is the key to happiness. In this, they all bow to today's cultural ideas about sport. While society has moved a long way from the earlier restrictions that women had on being allowed to compete, it still sees women who are completely unfeminine as 'abnormal' (to use a strong word). Sportswomen are, in effect, liminal to society, and thus as anthropologist Mary Douglas says, a source of danger. Society works by establishing differences, by marking out an 'us' and then contrasting that to a 'them'. While this is not so true of today's cosmopolitan culture, it is still definitely true of gender stereotypes. Women who don't act like 'women' are neither clearly feminine nor clearly masculine; from their ambiguity stems their potential for threat to the social. Consequently, it is not surprising that these movies stress that the female leads all compromise, not on their sport but on their general deportment. Jess learns to wear a sari, Monica settles down and has a baby, even the little girl Sheryl grows up and starts wearing formal skirt-suits (as shown in the opening sequence of 'Remember the Titans', at the funeral). It seems even more significant that this is not only the case in movies. In real life too, we find this happening. For example, in the first movie about women sportsmen, we find the dramatic transformation of the sportswoman who was a champion jumper, runner and even diver. After a certain point, she discards her boy-short hair and her shorts for longer dresses, longer hair and a husband. She even abandons sports like running and jumping for something more sedate golf, in her case. This was, to me, the most crucial point to remember when watching all these movies they are not portraying idealised situations. Rather, in showing the transformation of the tomboy into a sort of 'superwoman' who combines the best of both worlds, the movies are only reflecting real life.

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