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
Women, Sport and Film
What are the social and cultural costs and benefits of an individual (male or female) entering a non-traditional sport for their gender/sex (e.g. women who enter body building, power lifting, boxing; men who enter synchronized swimming or field hockey)?
Out of all the material we covered in this course, the ones that bear most directly on this question I think are the documentary about women in sports, and the movie "Girlfight". However, I felt that both of these films focussed on the issue from women's point of view. This is not to say that it isn't important or necessary to do so, but I started thinking about how men are also greatly affected by gender stereotyping. Being in a women's college, I feel like we focus a lot on the ways in which women are forced into certain roles, but we neglect to also look at how men are forced into certain roles.
Last semester I watched the movie "Billy Elliot", about a young boy growing up in Newcastle, England, during the time of the miner's strike. I think the movie illustrates very well the costs and benefits of breaking gender stereotypes. Billy grows up in a mining family and his family consists of himself, his father, and his elder brother. He is surrounded only by male role models, and that too men who engage in manual labour. His father and his brother are both very "masculine" in the traditional sense of the word. The basic plot of the movie is that Billy wants to be a ballet dancer. His father wants him to learn boxing, but he sees a group of girls having ballet lessons at the same time and he starts taking ballet lessons on the sly. He turns out to be very talented, and his teacher wants him to apply to go to ballet school on a scholarship. The rest of the movie follows his progress and his struggle to be accepted by his family once he's been discovered. At first his father prohibits him from doing ballet, and calls him a "pouf", but Billy persists and is finally accepted by his family and community.
I found it interesting that even though Billy is pre-pubescent, the mere fact that he wants to learn ballet induces people to question his sexuality even at such an early age. At an age when children aren't supposed to be sexual beings yet, Billy is under constant pressure to decide what his sexual orientation is, both by his family in that he has to defend himself, and by a friend of his in school who fits a certain stereotype of homosexuality and is romantically interested in him. In a sense, he is forced to grow up early.
Throughout the movie, Billy is never really accepted by his classmates of either sex. The girls in his ballet class are at first amused by the fact that he wants to dance, and later on they get jealous when he excels at it, and we never see him playing with other boys his age, the only exception being the boy who has a crush on him. Everyone feels the need to categorise him somehow, and because he blurs the boundaries between gender roles, nobody really knows how to deal with him. With both sexes, he is an outcast.
His family too does not accept him until they learn that he might be able to get a scholarship to ballet school and thus escape the hardships of the mining industry. It is mainly because ballet offers him the prospect of upward mobility that his family finally comes to accept him. One would think that growing up in a socio-economically disadvantaged group would make it harder for him to gain approval, but ironically this is what helps his cause in the end. One of the major benefits of his breaking the stereotype in this case is that it opens up new opportunities for him—this is definitely a benefit given his economic background.
Another benefit of this breaking the stereotype is that it paves the way for others to do the same. This is not clearly seen in the movie, or even in real life now, but the fact of one person's having done it sets a precedent for others or at least challenges people to acknowledge that the lines can be blurred, and that it is social constructs that lead us to think otherwise.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, in ballet Billy finds his means of self-expression. I personally believe that sports (which in my mind encompasses most physical disciplines) should, above all, serve as a means of expressing oneself. Billy dances when he is happy, when he is stressed out, and when he is angry. We see his father and brother expressing their anger through physical violence, but Billy does this through dance, which in the end far more constructive. In "Girlfight", too, Diana finds the means of taking out her anger in boxing. Neither of them is allowed to express their emotions in their social settings because what they Sports offers us ways of dealing with emotions that can't be let out in real life, and for this reason I think it is extremely important for all sports to be open to all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, etc. Both Billy and Diana in a sense find themselves when they break the stereotypes and enter non-traditional sports for their genders.
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