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
There are two sides to every coin. This is something to keep in mind when examining the topic of gender in sport. Specifically, I am speaking of the costs and benefits of a male or female entering a sport in which he or she is not traditionally accepted for their gender. The two sides to this concept lay not only the individual's sacrifices as the underdog, but also in the benefits the individual encounters on his or her adventure into uncharted territory. Of course, it is a struggle for the individual to become accepted by the sport world, and also the general public. It can be an uphill battle in order for him or her to even be able to participate initially. On the other hand, upon crossing the gender boundary, the individual can earn great recognition. This brings the concept to another level; there are cultural benefits that arise from an individual entering a non-traditional sport for their sex. Three movies that we viewed in the first half of this course have served to demonstrate the individual costs and benefits involved when women become involved in sports that are not traditionally accepting of the female sex. After close analysis of "Girl Fight", "Pumping Iron II", and "Personal Best", effects that these women have on the female culture as a whole, to this day, become clear.
In the movie "Girl Fight", Diana struggles as a female boxer living in the inner city. Because of the abnormality of her involvement in this typically male dominant sport, Diana has a hard time adjusting to the scrutiny she gets from her surrounding culture. This brings up the first social cost she stumbles upon due to her choice. She must remain secretive about her new found love for the sport of boxing. She is excited to have found a coach, a gym, and an outlet for her energy, however she is silenced by the fear of being shunned by her friends and peers, and worse, her dad and brother. As she (inevitably) progressively gains skill in the sport, it becomes harder for her to hide her excitement, and so she invites her best friend and other peers to one of her boxing matches. Another individual benefit for Diana is a social one. By being the only girl involved in boxing, she has potential boyfriends and opportunity for friendships and loves surrounding her. She recognizes this as a benefit and becomes friends with Adrian, a fellow boxer at her gym. She learns skill from him, but also learns about her own femininity and uniqueness as a woman. Through her relationship with Adrian, I think, she becomes more self-assured in terms of her place in the world. She also becomes aware of her feelings and emotions, which is a positive thing for Diana as she has learned to suppress her emotions in the company of her father and brother.
By joining a sport that women are not traditionally involved in, Diana gains a new muscular physique. This could be viewed as an individual cost or a benefit; the body changes that accompany involvement in sport, specifically the new muscle tone. Diana appreciated the fact that boxing was reshaping her figure and relished in the fact that she was getting stronger. This element involved in joining a non-traditionally women's sport was a benefit in Diana's eyes. She shows this when she is confronted by her father (who eventually finds out about his daughters new hobby), she powerfully and heroically puts him in his place as she knocks him to the ground and has her say as a woman should!
However, the bulkiness that accompanies involvement in sport can turn into a cost rather than a benefit to women. This is a second drawback for women and their joining a sport. The movie "Pumping Iron II" demonstrates this cost. In this film the women were bodybuilders. They were strong, confidant, women who wanted to be competitive in the sport of bodybuilding. They found the benefits to being involved in a non-traditionally woman's sport to be mostly rewarding in a personal sense. They had pride in their bodies and relished in the thought of being role models for other women who wanted to be muscular. However, the cost of their pursuit to compete was grander than simply personal. What came about due to the movie was the question of femininity. What did it mean to be feminine? Men who were judging the contest obviously felt like a boundary between male and female was being crossed. On a cultural level, women as a gender were held in the spotlight and up for questioning surrounding the definition of their sex. The film serves to demonstrate that unfortunately, there is a line that exists between men and women and if it is challenged (as it was by the women in "Pumping Iron II"), confusion, commotion, and possible scrutiny of a gender as a whole can ensue.
In the film "Personal Best", a third drawback to women's participation in sport is brought to the forefront. This individual cost women endure when they enter the world of sport is the scrutiny of their sexual orientations. In the movie, it's not so much the sport of track and field that is shocking because of the participation of women, but it's the women who are involved that are brought to question. Some argue that women who become involved in sport, and consequently draw attention to their bodies, are only serving to perpetuate the "objectification of female bodies"(Williams 317). This would certainly be a downside to women becoming involved in non-traditional women's sports. However, what the film focus's on, and what I believe to be even more unfortunate is the stereotype of women athletes as lesbians. Ironically, Chris and Tory (the two women in the movie) are lesbian lovers. What the movie demonstrates is the fact that women involved in sport, who have obviously gained muscle, and consequently appear "mannish", are clearly a threat to the male gender. Thus, historically, women who are athletic are shunned easily by becoming a scapegoat as they are labeled to be lesbians. The film not only perpetuates the stereotype of women athletes being lesbians, but it provides a visual interpretation (and sets a standard) of what the lesbian athlete looks like. All the while, during the dialogue of the movie, the word 'lesbian' is never said. This leads the viewer to conclude that it is a non-issue, and that it is simply safe to assume that women who become involved in athletics are all lesbians. On a positive note, what "Personal Best" accomplishes in a backwards way is that it spurs on speculation about why our culture has "issues" with women in sport, and even more generally, why we question others sexual preferences.
All in all, the movies I have discussed contribute questions about women's involvement in sport, specifically sports that are not "traditional" sports for women to be participants in (ie; boxing and bodybuilding). There are individual costs and also benefits for women upon entering sports. In Diana's case, she adopts a positive attitude, gains self-esteem, and is ultimately able to stand up to her father. She also reaps the benefits of being the women boxing champion and finally being recognized and respected. She is truly a positive role model for all women. In "Pumping Iron", the women demonstrate the personal achievement that can accompany venturing into a field where you are not typically accepted in. Unfortunately, their representation as bodybuilders has consequences on a larger scale as provocation of their identities as women and as being feminine ensues. Finally, yet another cultural price that is paid when women become involved in sport is clearly shown in "Personal Best". The notion of women athletes as being lesbians is a prominent feature in today's sporting world. This stereotype is prevalent as women athletes continue to be held up to question about their sexual orientation, and in worse cases, discriminated against. Overall, I like to focus on the positive side of this two-sided coin. The women in these films (and all the women everywhere) ventured into unknown territory. They took a chance pursuing a sport that they may not be accepted in, or becoming an athlete regardless of the stereotyping. It is women like these who provide a clear cultural benefit in the world of women; they are brave, confident, role models. These are the words that are suitable to define all women athletes regardless of sexual orientation, choice of sport, or age.