This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Throughout time, sports have been thought of as feminine sports or masculine sports. Some sports that are thought of as feminine are gymnastics, swimming, tennis, riding, and ice-skating. These tend to be sports that emphasize beauty and grace. Men's sports tend to emphasize strength and power, like football, basketball, or bodybuilding. The social and cultural stereotypes that are placed on men and especially women in the sports world can be hard for an athlete to deal with. Men are expected to be masculine and strong in their sports, while females are expected not to overexert themselves and still keep their feminine appeal. Who is to say what sports are okay for men and women to participate in? Is it fair to place stereotypes on people who are just doing what they love to do? Will these stereotypes diminish over time?
In history, women have been given a hard time for coming into sports. Since at least the late 1800s there have been myths about women in sports, some of which we are still working on debunking to this day. Some include the notion that sport masculinizes women, sports are medically risky for women, the female body was not made for sports performance, women are not interested in sports, and women cannot psychologically take the pressure of sports (Oglesby & Shelton, 9). Women were seen as fragile and unable to compete on the same level as men could in sports. Women of this time who played softball, basketball, or track were considered "unladylike" and were questioned of their femininity (Spears, 13). Public recognition of individual female athletes deals more with their feminine beauty and status than to athletic skill (Banet-Weiser, 411). In turn women in non-feminine sports may feel it necessary to defend their femininity or overcompensate with extra make-up, done up hair, or pretty clothing. How fair is this? One of the women in the movie Pumping Iron II comments about the judging of women's bodybuilding, "I hope really that they stick with the feminine look.... I mean really, a woman's a woman. That's my philosophy. I think she should look like a woman. And I think that when you lose that, what's the point of being a woman?" I think that just because a woman is not "feminine" doesn't mean that she is not a woman.
In addition to proving or not proving their femininity, women in "non-feminine" sports also have to defend their sexuality. "The lesbian stereotype exerts pressure on athletes to demonstrate their femininity and heterosexuality, viewed as one in the same (Banet-Weiser, 414). Just because sports like basketball, bodybuilding, or boxing are culturally defined as masculine sports, women who are in these have to defend themselves against being "masculine" women. Pumping Iron II shows many different kinds of women participating in a body building competition. Some, like Rachel McLish, bring femininity right in you face. She is concerned with a muscular, yet feminine body (not too big), with her make- up, and pretty hair. She is clearly portrayed as heterosexual because of this femininity and her boyfriend is shown in the film. Another competitor, Bev Francis, is not portrayed as feminine at all. She is not concerned with make-up or hair and she wants to be the biggest that she can be. She is shown with her trainer, but it is left kind of unclear whether she is heterosexual or homosexual. According to Holmlund, her trainer was also her boyfriend (305). I was ashamed of myself for thinking that it was clear she was a lesbian just because of her appearance. Images of more muscular women like in Pumping Iron II or stronger women like in Girl Fight can be threatening to both men and women. The norm is for men to be more muscular and powerful and the woman to be weaker and beautiful. Some people may think that men who find big, muscular women like Bev attractive could be gay because she is masculine. On the other side women who find her attractive are considered lesbians and since she looks like a man she must also be the "butch" lesbian (Holmlund, 303). Men who are participants in non-traditional male sports can also be seen as homosexual. Men who are figure skaters or field hockey players are seen as weak and more feminine. These men also have to defend their sexuality just like the women who participate in non-traditional female sports.
There can also be benefits associated with an individual playing a non-traditional sport for their gender. They are much more noticed since they are only one of few of their gender in that sport. They can be especially noticed if they are exceptionally good at their sport. Diana in the movie Girl Fight probably has a chance to make it in boxing. She is one of the only women in boxing and she is good, she even beat a man. Boxing may be her ticket out of her lower class neighborhood. By being one of the only women in the sport she will get recognition and the fact that she is talented could give her other opportunities in life. She could also be offered a scholarship for school if she continued boxing. Other benefits besides upward mobility and scholarship are fame and the ability to be a role model for your gender. People who do non-traditional things usually become better known. A woman in boxing could become a role model for a young girl who is interested in boxing and never thought that women could participate in it. A man in figure skating could become a role model for a young boy who thought that people would think that he was gay if he skated.
Although there are cultural and social costs associated with a person entering a sport that is not traditional for his or her gender, there are also some benefits. The question that only the athlete can answer is whether the benefits out weigh the costs enough to stick with it. I have hope that stereotypes in sports will become less observed. Sports have changed so much in the last century. Women were barely allowed to play certain sports like basketball at the turn of the last century and now we have professional woman's basketball. More changes are coming, slowly but surely they are coming. Just the fact that we are now questioning the costs and benefits of being in a sport that is not necessarily for your gender/sex is a step in the right direction.
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