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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Sports such as body building/ weightlifting, and boxing have traditionally been
known as predominately male sports, in which women would be out of place competing
in. Either because of their body type, physical conditioning, or the social conflicts they have to face. In 1986, the “New Agenda for Women and Sport” identified six beliefs
about women in sport that are completely untrue.
1. Sport masculinizes women.
2. Sports are medically risky for women.
3. The female body is inadequate for sports performance.
4. Women are not interested in sports.
5. Women are not psychologically tough enough for sports.
6. Present financial resources are adequate for women’s sports. (Oglesby, pg. 9-10)
Just by the amount of women who actually engage in sport we can see that none of these beliefs really have much basis in today’s society. The belief that women’s uteruses would become injured or fall out if they engaged in strenuous activity is ridiculous, we participate in sports, and we still have our uteruses. These kinds of beliefs kept women from enjoying sports for many years.
The cultural barrier can be overcome more easily for some people. Race has always played a role in sport, but it was felt that African-American women were believed to be more suitable for a non-traditional sport than a white women would be. The American public didn’t have as much of a problem allowing African-American women participate in these sports, they had been historically know for being extremely strong and capable individuals. In African-American communities, women worked just as hard as the men did, so the men didn’t have a problem with their wives and daughters pursuing a future in sport. Their female athletes were supported to the fullest by the YWCA’s, high schools, and community centers to the fullest extent and given the same treatment the men were. For example, in basketball many black women’s teams played by men’s rules.
Participating in a sport that is non-traditional to your sex can have social barriers as well. The female athlete’s sexuality is often questioned when she partakes in an activity outside the normal female ‘traditional’ genre of acceptable sports. Female athletes were asked to wear make-up and feminine attire when on and off the court or field. When appearing in public, it was recommended that they were accompanied by their husbands and families, or dressed in an overtly feminine manner, to dispel the belief that all female athletes were lesbians.
In the film Pumping Iron II, female athletes take part in a non-traditional sport for women, bodybuilding. The ultimate example of a female bodybuilder has not yet been established in today’s society. As we see in this film, the form of a bodybuilder comes in many varying shapes, sizes, and colors. If supermodels could be bodybuilders, Rachel McLish would be one of them. She was thought to be more popular, prettier, and sexier than the other competitors. She was also the reigning Miss Olympia. Carla Dunlap and Bev Francis are shown to be more intelligent and likable, and in my opinion in better shape for the Miss Olympia competition. Carla was also very attractive and possessed well-defined muscles, whereas Bev’s body took on a less feminine shape. Judges of the contest were told, “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’s an athlete.”(Holmlund)
This set the stage for the entire film portrayal of this event. By working with the cameras in a specific way, the director was able to force the viewer to zone in on specific aspects of each of the major competitors. In the beginning of the film, powerlifter Bev Francis is shown sitting next to statues of muscular goddesses, where as the other women in the competition are filmed with statues of Venus, with an emphasis of femininity. This is poignantly displayed in a later scene that takes place in a hot tub outside Caesar’s Palace, or in the shower scene where the camera shoots slices of the women’s bodies, creating more of a soft-core pornographic sequence which screams sexuality. Notice that both Bev and Carla weren’t in either of these scenes.
The main issue that was brought up by Carla in a pre-competition meeting was what exactly the judges were looking for. As mentioned previously, they were looking for someone who was, ‘right down the middle’ of a supermodel and an athlete. This turned the tune of the Miss Olympia competition into a beauty pageant. In order to get the judges to pay attention, the women had to wear make-up, fancy, yet acceptable bikinis, and perform for them. Carla was graceful, being a synchronized swimmer already, so she had no problem with this aspect of the competition. Bev on the other hand did not act in what the judges would call a feminine manner at all. She didn’t feel comfortable with the way her femininity measured up to the other women, and she even poked fun at how ridiculous they looked posing before the competition. She also wasn’t able to dance and when she did so, she looked out of place. This led people to assume that, since has unfeminine body language and heavy facial features, she must be a lesbian, even though she was dating her trainer at the time. (Holmlund)
Benefits of breaking the gender barrier of non-traditional sports for women can be achieved by anyone who works at it hard enough. Women are taking a stand for themselves in many areas outside of sport. They challenge gender ideals by using their sexual appeal to make money, promoting an increased advocacy for birth control and declining birth rates, as well as the medical affirmation of female eroticism, led to women emerging as strong and powerful individuals. (Cahn)
When I was in first grade, I decided to begin to take karate lessons. I was, at that time, the only girl in the class and school for that matter. This caused me to feel like I really didn’t belong there, I first thought the battle was too stacked against me. But, I learned very quickly to keep my head up, and press on with my goals. This didn’t become evident to my fellow classmates until they were faced with the real me, finally standing up for myself. Before our first sparring class, I locked myself in my locker room crying and wouldn’t come out. I had heard my peers and friends talking about how they were going to ‘kick my butt because I was a girl.’ My instructor taught me at that time, something that would influence my life forever. “You are just as good as they are Trish, and even better because you want it more.” He told me to go out there and do what I was trained to do. Needless to say, I won every match I had that afternoon. From then on the guys took me seriously, all the time.
You see, no one ever said that breaking the gender barrier was easy, but it’s not impossible. All it takes is determination, strength, and a love for the game. Just months after I began training at the school, their female admission rates increased. An older student later told me that she joined because she saw that I could do it, and realized there was no reason why she couldn’t also. It only takes one brave person to make history.
Cahn, S. “The Emergence of Homophobia in Women’s Physical Education”. In Birrell,S.
& Cole, C. (Eds. 1994) Women, Sport and Culture. Human Kinetics Publishers.
Holmlund, C.A. “Visible Difference and Flex Appeal: The Body, Sex, Sexuality, and Race
in the Pumping Iron Films” In Birrell, S. & Cole, C. (Eds. 1994). Women, Sport,
and Culture. Human Kinetics Publishers.
Oglesby, CA. & Shelton, C.M. “Exercise and Sport Studies”. IN Krammarae, C. & Spender, D.
(Eds. 1992). The Knowledge Explosion: Generations of Feminist Scholarship. Athene
Series, Teachers College Press.
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