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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005 StudentPapers On Serendip
Over the course of the quarter, we discussed how women athletes, as a relative recent phenomenon and one that lacks the exposure of male sport, have few role models. This has changed over the years, of course, as female participation in sports has grown. The little of girls of today have people like Mia Hamm and Piper Perabo to look up to, while girls growing up in the sixties did not have that kind of highly visible women athletes.
However, much of the coaching in the early stages of women's sports history was done by men, because they were the ones that had experience playing sports. In the movies we watched, I was particularly struck by the fact that virtually all of the coaches we saw were male. The power dynamics and relationships that stem from gender disparities in both the athletic world and in general affect how a male coach relates to and treats his athletes, and viceversa.
In A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks' character, Jimmy Dugan, ends up coaching a women's baseball team not only because men were away at World War II, but because he is a drunk. His status as legend, derived from his days as a ball player, is enough to warrant him a job in baseball, but his alcoholism delegates him to a position that he finds humiliating.
Dugan's disdain for women athletes is obvious from the start. He males several references to women not being real ball players, and he barely cares about coaching them; the "girls" do a lot of the coaching themselves. His attitude towards the Peaches is the one that many people had towards women in sports in the early and mid-twentieth century: women might play a sport, but they are still not real athletes.
This movie also illustrates the difficulty that male coaches might have relating to women. We see Dugan spitting and being generally unhygienic and cursing at both the girls and the umpires. Some of the women are terrified of him because they just don't feel like they can't talk to Dugan. Although this serves as an example of a bad relationship between male coaches and female athletes, it is also based on gender stereotypes, such as the Peaches not being able to handle getting yelled at and cursed to without crying (like in the famous moment where Dugan screams "There is no crying in baseball!")
However, the women prove him wrong through their amazing baseball skills. By the end of the movie, he believes in them and wants them to play their best. The prayer that he leads before their final World Series games, although awkwardly phrased in a way that is consistent with his character, shows the respect he has for his team as athletes.
In Personal Best, we are shown a different type of coach/athlete relationship. Since the movie is set in the eighties, a lot of the ideas about women in sport had changed and females were recognized at legitimate athletes. The relationship between the protagonist, Chris Cahill, and her male coach is nevertheless complicated. At first, he refuses to let her on the team; he finally relents at Tory's urging, but still refuses to coach her.
Chris works extremely hard not only for herself, but to prove him that she is worthy of his attention. When he sees what she is capable of, he gives in. However, in a later scene we see him trying to seduce her, suggesting that maybe his accepting to coach her after her trying so hard for a long time is just indicative of the coach's sexual desire for Chris.
Although homosexuality is a prominent issue in discussing women in sport, and in this movie, it is precisely the heterosexual relationship (or potential for a relationship) that exists between Chris and her coach. In the kind of society we live in, it is not unlikely that men in positions of power feel like they have control over the bodies of those women under their authority. Although this possibility is not explicitly stated in the movie, it is implied that the coach feels he has a right to sleep with Chris, after all he is done for her.
On the other hand, the complete lack of a sexual relationship between the coach and his female athletes in Rocks with Wings shows us how the sexualization of women in sports can affect even how women are coached. Since the girls are high school students, there is no expectation of them to be overtly sexual, like there is for grownup female athletes. Also, the documentary takes place in the late eighties, which means that the prejudice seen in A League of Their Own is absent. However, that does not make the team's relationship with their male coach any less complicated.
Jerry Richardson's coaching style was difficult for the Lady Chiefs to process, because he always focused on the bad and never praised them. On the other hand, his assistant coach was gentle with the girls and did not yell at them. The conflict between the coaching styles caused problems not just for the coaches themselves, but for the whole team. In time, Richardson realized that he had to make some changes to the way he approached the girls in order for them to be the best team they could be. Through this, we can see how male coaches, who have played male sports, might coach their women's/girls' team in the same way that they would a male team. While I do not think that any sort of "special treatment" for female teams is needed, Richardson's example illustrates how being mindful of gender differences can help a male coach better reach his team.
These movies show a progression of how the relationship between male coaches and female athletes has changed over the years, as prejudice is eliminated, but other elements that affect power and gender dynamics come into play, such as the sexualization of female athletes. Analyzing the role of men in women's sports might shed some light on the dynamics of women's teams and the development of female athletes.
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