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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
"Sport is not an expression of some biological human need," writes Michael Messner, "it is a social institution. Like other institutions, such as the economy, politics, and the family, the structure and values of sport emerge and change historically, largely as a result of struggles for power between groups of people" (8). Indeed, changing the structure of any the institution is a struggle that is not by any means easily won. The institution of sport presents a unique set of boundaries to overcome with regard to gender equality in male-dominated sports. Both men and women take big risks when they forge new ground by competing in a sport that is traditionally dominated by the opposite sex. This paper will discuss the costs and benefits of women competing in predominately male-dominated sports by examining Karyn Kusama's Girlfight and Pumping Iron II: The Women.
In Karyn Kusama's Girlfight (2000), Diana Guzman is a tough young woman, struggling to get by in a low-income area of the Brooklyn. After continued disciplinary problems in school, Diana channels her aggression into training to become a boxer. She fights to assert herself both inside and outside of the boxing ring: inside the ring, she proves that she is a strong and athletically talented young (woman) boxer; outside of the ring, she fights to define and prove herself in a broken home.
After proving her strength when she defended her brother Tiny in a sparring match at the gym, Diana asks Hector to train her to become a boxer. Hector replies, "You can train, but you can't compete...you just can't. Girls don't have the same power as boys." Hector's response, and the response of most of the men in her life is indicative of the function and effect of power in the institution of sport. Michael Messner argues:
"The structure and values of sport are largely shaped by, and in the interests of, those who hold power...power is not simply a top-down, one-way process in which dominant groups assert and enforce their rules, values, and beliefs over dominated groups. Rather, power is a process in which dominated groups may partially accept, but also attempt to redefine, negotiate, or even reject, the ruling group's rules, values, and meanings" (12).
Diana proves to Hector, and her competitors, that her strength and athleticism are not only comparable to her male counterparts, but often far exceeds them. Her insistence, diligence, and determination in training (as well as her talent) are Diana's ways of redefining, negotiating, and rejecting the dominant (male) the notion that she cannot box competitively because she is female.
While Diana's actions allow her to prove herself in the ring, it has serious personal repercussions outside the ring. Through the end of the film, Diana's father does not understand or approve of her boxing. To see Diana excel in a sport that he clearly intended to be a bonding experience between him and his son, is to see his son fail as a boxer, and himself fail as a father. "Hegemonic masculinity, the form dominant today," writes Messner, "is defined in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to feminities. The gender order is thus a social system that is constantly being created, contested, and changed, both in the relationship and power struggles between men and women, and the relationship and power struggles between men" (18). Diana's boxing affects her own personal relationship to her father, his relationship to his son, as well as his own masculine status. The headway she makes in a male dominated sport is only a small part of the process needed to change who holds the power in the sport of boxing. Diana makes great sacrifices in personal and familial relationships in order to break this ground, but the fact is that it is not enough to pave a completely smooth way for the female boxers that are to come.
In George Butler's Pumping Iron II: The Women, female bodybuilders face a struggle similar to Diana's. In this staged documentary, both the women and the judges struggle to accept women's role in a traditionally male-dominated sport. The film centers around the conflict of what it means to be a female bodybuilder: should female bodybuilders be judged by the same criteria as their male counterparts? At what point does muscle mass "defeminize" a woman?
In her article, "Visible Difference and Flex Appeal: The Body, Sex, Sexuality, and Race in the Pumping Iron Films," Christine Holmlund argues that the film is not about a bodybuilding competition, but rather about defining "body" in relation to "woman" (40). In the film, we see that Bev Francis's body is too muscular to be that of a woman, while Rachel McLeish's physique is too is too lean and feminine. Holmlund quotes Ben Weide, the chairman of the IFBB, saying, "'What we're looking for is something that's right down the middle. A woman who has a certain amount of aesthetic femininity, but yet has that muscle tone to show that she is an athlete" (41). This definition is problematic precisely because it puts such an emphasis on "woman" and "body." To judge women bodybuilders "right down the middle," while judging male bodybuilders solely based on their muscle mass, is unfair. If female athletes are not as competitive as their male counterparts, it is only because the kind of judging that takes place in Pumping Iron denies women athletes the agency needed to excel.
As Messner argued, sport is an institution with rules and values that are reflected on and off the court. The notion that women in and out of sport are incapable of being judged and understood outside of their gender has strong implications for the roles of women in society. In Girlfight, Diana challenges the notion that women cannot compete as well as men in a male-dominated sport. Her personal strife is a challenge not only to the conventions of boxing, but also to the values that stem from the institution of sport: that women are weak, have little will power, and low endurance. While her challenge is successful in that she becomes a great boxer, it comes at a great cost to an already damaged life and family situation.
In Pumping Iron II, disappointment is only one of the costs that losing contestants pay as a result of sexist judging. The benefits, however, are that by participating in the competition, the contestants force there to be dialogue about a fair way to judge female bodybuilders. Therefore, while female athletes most definitely face hardships when they compete in male-dominated sports, our society eventually reaps the benefits (no matter how small). Integrating female athletes into male-dominated sports is not an easy process, but the only way to achieve progress is for female athletes to make sacrifices that can help correct the institution of sport and the values that stem from it.
Messner, Michael. Power or Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
Holmlund, Christine Anne. Visible Difference and Flex Appeal: The Body, Sex, Sexuality, and Race in the Pumping Iron Films. University of Tennesse: Knoxville. Comea Kpirma; 28, (Summer): pp. 38-51.
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