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Women, Sport, and Film - Spring 2005 StudentPapers On Serendip
I'd like to look at three movies: 'A League of Their Own,' 'Pumping Iron II,' and 'Personal Best.' I'm going to narrow my subject for this paper, and only look at one important theme in these movies: gender identity. I'd like to considered how this theme relates to the social norms and human behavior presented in these movies. Each movie approaches gender identity differently; in one, it's ever-present, yet never named for what it is; in another, it's the defining factor behind what makes a woman a woman; and in the third it's approached in a subtle and almost underhanded way, never called by name or recognized. Since movies allegedly reflect societal views, and since sports are often considered microcosms of the human struggle, it's interesting to see what these two things, when combined into one, will say about female gender identity and sexuality.
Gender identity is an underlying presence in 'A League of Their Own,' and it helps to define the woman athletes and their roles in this movie. I think it's sufficient to look at gender identity as it's presented through our two protagonists, the sisters Dottie and Kit. Dottie and Kit present two opposing pictures of womanhood, and each characters is sexed, but in a different way. Dottie is (if I may be so bold in presenting this idea) the "ideal" woman: she's tall, beautiful, married, compassionate, a fair player, and a good athlete. And while Dottie may be taking on an unusual role for the forties, it should be pointed out that she plays baseball in a "feminine" manner, and so this absolves her for playing such a strange role. She's supportive of her own team, she puts her mind to something and follows through, she's never a bad sport, and she does everything gracefully. (I think it's important to point out that the only time she acts in a manner that could be construed as vindictive – in the end of the game she tells the pitcher how to strike out Kit – this is the time she fails and the ball is knocked from her hands). I think it's possible to say that the gender identity of Dottie comes across as a positive, healthy, "perfect" thing. She loves her husband, plays her sport, makes the right choices – and she does all of these things while being the "perfect" woman.
Kit is presented in opposition to Dottie, but the movie's very careful to keep her womanly gender identity in a similar positive arena. I was impressed that Kit was painted as aggressive and this aggressiveness didn't bring her character to ruin. The aggressive, unusual woman wasn't knocked down to reinstate social norms. The movie excused her unusual behavior by presenting her as occasionally bratty, punishing her for this, and then helping her to grow into her own. At the same time, the movie was careful to define her gender identity as a "typical" woman; I think especially of the scene in the bar in which Kit is dolled up and dancing with different men. She may be an unusual woman, but the movie is careful to show just how much of a woman she is. This may imply that the movie is scared to expand on the definition of a woman.
'Pumping Iron II' deals with gender identity in a different way, and ties this theme closely to body building. Body building is a voyeuristic sport and society often insists that part of a woman's gender identity is to be a sexual being, so these two themes (voyeurism and sexual identity) are closely tied in this movie. The viewer can't say that these body builders aren't sexual beings, but the movie explored exactly how a woman should be a sexual being if she wants to succeed at body building. In this film, Rachel personified the "perfect" woman model that Dottie played in 'A League of Their Own;' she was "feminine" in the way society wants, she was graceful, but, interestingly enough, she wasn't the protagonist. Rachel flaunted her sexuality, but that's not what makes her a negative person in the movie; it's her attitude toward the other competitors and her own body that made her the antagonist.
Here we come across something really neat that the directors of 'Pumping Iron II' did: Bev, who is not the "ideal" woman by societal standards, is definitely portrayed as a sexual being. She is strong, she's aggressive, and when she loses, the film allows her trainers to speak for their views and question how society (or, in this case, the body building community) view a woman's sexuality. Carla is chosen to represent the ideal body building woman: she is attractive, strong, graceful, and sophisticated. But even as the movie lauds her and is careful to show that she's a good person and should be respected for her talents, the movie's always careful to show that Bev was robbed by her loss. She may be a different type of woman, the movie says, but she's just as admirable, even if the body building community won't admit this. In this way, 'Pumping Iron II' expands the definition of gender identity and sexuality.
Finally, 'Personal Best' looks at gender identity in a very different way from the other two movies. This movie is probably most notable for its lesbian relationship, yet the word "homosexuality" is never used. While it's possible to say that the movie was making an admirable point, trying to move beyond labels and explore how human sexuality can be without definitions and fluid, I think it's much more likely that the creators of the movie were intimidated by defining their characters as lesbians. The main reason I'd defend this standpoint is that the movie pulled the old "punishing the queer" trick: the character of the "real" lesbian, Tory, was ignored as Chris pursued her male love interest, and Tory almost didn't finish the race in the end. If not for her friend's help (her friend who found strength in her boyfriend waiting at the sides), Tory would have failed to win the final race.
This movie is unique in the way that it presents athletes as creatures with sexuality. Running is sexualized in this movie. In one particular scene, women perform the high jump one after another, and the audience watched about thirty crotch shots in a row. At first this scene seems semi-obscene, and it made the audience uncomfortable. But I found that after this shot was repeated so many times it stopped being unnerving, and I accepted the scene as simply another view of the human body. In this way, the movie melded the sexual and the athletic, showing that an athlete can be both.
Because it's so difficult to fully explore gender identity, I think it's easy to see why each movie approached it in such different ways. I don't think any of these three movies were able to absolutely perfectly encompass all that gender identity is, although I do think that 'Pumping Iron II' was the most successful. In this movie alone, the women were all allowed to be sexual creatures and praised for their different characteristics, even if the body building community failed to recognize this. This movie alone best showed how fluid and vast the definitions of gender identity can be.
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