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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Bruises, Blood and Biceps: Is It All Worth It?

Sarah Cushwa

Our society tends to define masculinity and femininity according to rigid gender norms that are learned at young ages. These norms are apparent in language, perceptions, behaviors and pastimes. Since sport is considered a great American pastime, it is a popular realm for the separation of the sexes and the creation of socially defined proper roles for women and men. Sports like bodybuilding and boxing have come to be viewed as masculine because they involve conventionally masculine traits such as strength and aggression. In contrast, sports such as gymnastics and ice-skating have come to be viewed as feminine because they involve conventionally feminine traits such as charm and grace. Thru documenting the lives of female athletes competing in non-traditional sports for their sex, the movies Girlfight and Pumping Iron II reveal certain social and cultural costs and benefits of gender norm defiance. Girlfight portrays the sport of boxing as the savior for a confused, misunderstood and quite angry teenager who is spiraling down a path of self-destruction. Diana Guzman, the protagonist of the movie, finds discipline, self-respect, balance and love in the most unexpected of places- the boxing ring. By competing, and eventually succeeding in a sport that is not generally a welcome endeavor for females, Diana is able to transcend the bitter world outside the boxing ring and feel senses of acceptance, empowerment, pride, confidence, self-fulfillment and accomplishment. Her unconventional success is a form of communication. She shows young women and men everywhere that it is okay to hit or throw, "like a girl", and that beauty can come in many different forms. The same is true for Rachel McLish, Carla Dunlap, Lori Bowen and Bev Francis, the bodybuilders in Pumping Iron II. Their small victories in the gym and on the stage become larger victories in the fight for gender equality. Their biceps bulge out of their bikinis and cry, "We can do it too!" Diana, Rachel, Carla, Lori and Bev serve as strong and powerful feminist role models who believe in themselves and their bodies, defy patriarchy and create rights of passages. However, these females' roads to success are not paved with gold. Diana runs into many macho traditionalists who believe that equality is "crap" and that her energies should be spent elsewhere. Her trainer initially doubts and underestimates her, telling her that, "It is not right. It's dangerous. Girls can't fight". Her relationships on the home front are threatened when her brother Tiny feels belittled by his big sister's boxing participation and her father yells at her about why she is not wearing skirts and cooking dinner for him. Her relationship with her love interest Adrian is also endangered because he handles her with caution and expects her to remain passive and back out of fighting him when the time comes to do so. With little support for her pursuit, Diana is often left feeling quite isolated, rejected and doubtful of her athletic ability. In her article, "Visible Difference and Flex Appeal: The Body, Sex, Sexuality and Race in the Pumping Iron Films" Christine Hulmond writes that, "images of muscular women are disconcerning, even threatening. They disrupt the equation of men with strength and women with weakness that underpins gender roles and power relations, and that has by now come to seem familiar and comforting". She goes on to say that, "When women are investigated, men are tested". Hulmond's point is one possible explanation for why those who are supposed to love Diana do not embrace her newfound pastime, but rather seem to confront her with hostility. It also points out an important social cost for females in nontraditional sports –doubt, resentment and fear from their male counterparts. These feelings often lead to belittlement and labeling. The characters in Girlfight and Pumping Iron II seem to feel the need to justify their femininity and aesthetic appeal so that they can be respected and not receive tomboy, jock or homosexual orientations. They are almost forced to adopt a compulsory heterosexuality. Diana wears no shirt or pink tank tops, braids her hair and lusts over a handsome fellow boxer. Rachel and Laurie wear eye make-up, douse their hair with hairspray, frolic naked in showers, lounge by pools in skimpy bikinis and constantly kiss their male trainers. The one character in Pumping Iron II that does not feel the need to justify her femininity, and is actually proud of the fact that she displays more masculine traits, Bev Francis is punished by the bodybuilding contest judges for this and ends up questioning her appearance and body language. In conclusion, the women in Girlfight and Pumping Iron II show their audiences that women who participate in nontraditional sports for their gender can be met with many rewards and challenges. When our society abandons the hegemonic notion that gender is salient and masculinity and femininity should be strictly dichotomized, the stories of these brave and determined female athletes will become more commonplace, and the rewards they feel as a result of their efforts will begin to outweigh the challenges that they face.
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© by Serendip 1994-2007 - Last Modified: Monday, 18-Mar-2002 15:37:00 EST