Roundtable: First Place! Women in Sports Movies

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bring it on

Image credit: Universal Pictures

Earlier this year, a presidential candidate (and now president-elect) attempted to explain away certain sexist remarks as “locker room talk.” As our own Kathleen Kampeas-Rittenhouse noted, this kind of euphemism is nothing but a way to mask a “gender-segregated rape endorsement.” On top of this already-deplorable truth, what this comment also endorsed is the idea that locker rooms are solely male spaces, that locker rooms—that sacred space in the sports world where athletes can strip down and bare not just muscles but also their souls—aren’t also used by women playing in everything from local rec leagues to the WNBA. Said president’s comments, then, quietly reinforced the widely-held assumption that sports just aren’t for women. It’s an idea that means that when female athletes do step on the pitch, dive into the pool or take to the court it’s a moment of interloping or merely an exception to this gender-constructed rule. With these questions in mind, we gathered a roundtable that includes Stacey May Fowles, Britni de la Cretaz and Karen K. Ho to discuss how women in sport have been represented in film. – the cléo editors

Britni de la Cretaz: In terms of sports and representation, the one that I think speaks to me the most is that when I think there aren’t a lot of examples of women and girls participating in traditionally male-dominated sports on screen, I think there’s a dearth of examples of women in “female” sports, like cheerleading and gymnastics. I was a gymnast as a child and then grew up cheering competitively, to the point that I entertained scholarships to cheer in college—and the work I was doing was no joke. Bring It On (2000) was amazing for me in that way, because I saw myself represented on the screen in a way I hadn’t before. I knew some of the people involved in the background stunts, and so it felt like it legitimized what I did in a way, and acknowledged how damn hard it is (while also being a great movie that totally holds up after all these years).

Stacey May Fowles: I think the thing that is really striking about movies that feature women in sports is that the women are always “not like other girls.” I was thinking about how both Whip It! (2009) and She’s The Man (2006) open with this kind of anti-stereotypical femininity note, which the main character is in opposition to for the rest of the film. I totally love both of those movies, but I hate how our heroine is defined by the fact that she hates traditionally “feminine” things.

BC: Totally, Stacey, but as a young athlete with a ton of internalized misogyny, that trope actually spoke a lot to me and my experiences. As an adult, I see it way differently, of course.

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Image credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

SMF: Absolutely. Those are aspects of the movies I only noticed later in life. Interestingly, I think my love for Bring It On actually increased when I realized it wasn’t relying on that idea to make its point or get its laughs. Yes, Eliza Dushku’s character existed as a sort of (safe) “anti-traditional femininity” character, but her friendship with Kirsten Dunst kind of overrides the notion that one way of being a woman is “good” and another is “bad.”

Karen Ho: On a practical level, too, I know when it comes to Whip It!, [roller derby] leagues around the world saw a huge jump in interest and enrolment. That’s the power of on-screen representation. And within those leagues there’s often enough room for lots of different kinds of women to thrive and exist. But then there’s the whole “I’m going to be as crass as the dudes” aspect through the pun-laden, often explicit alter egos and player names. The movie was pretty accurate about that.

But it really feels like these women in sports are pitted against a more derided form of womanhood that is painted as shallow, or flighty, or frivolous.

BC: I think a lot of these movies deal in that tension between traditional and non-traditional femininity. I think that female athletes are often stereotyped as “butch” or “unfeminine,” but that’s not obviously true for everyone that participates in a sport. We’ve already touched on Bring It On and Whip It! and how that plays out, but I also think of A League of Their Own (1992). That film has diverse representations of gender, all of which are shown to have worth and skill on the field, whether it’s the contrast between Rosie O’Donnell’s character and Madonna’s Mae, between Kit and Dottie, or even Marla, who is an outsider off the field due to her “masculinity” but finds acceptance both as an athlete and as a friend and teammate on the field. It speaks to how in “real life” a lot of women who may not feel like they fit into traditional gender roles can find their place through sports.

a league of their own

Image credit: Colombia Pictures

KH: True, but I feel like a lot of these movies insist on having some sort of romantic side-plot to the pursuit of athletic achievement, which is how a lot of the female main characters signify their femininity and worth. It’s a little depressing, but something I thought of when I remembered the movie Chalet Girl (2011), about a female snowboarder that literally gets the son of a rich couple that owns a resort in the Alps. (Played by…Ed Westwick and Felicity Jones!)

SMF: The romance angle is a great point, because so often said romance happens because “she’s not like other girls.” I mean, you can pull out the positive message here that tends to be “be yourself, and you’ll still find love.” But it really feels like these women in sports are pitted against a more derided form of womanhood that is painted as shallow, or flighty, or frivolous.

BC: It’s almost as if the people who make movies think that no one will want to see a movie about a woman in a non-traditional role who also isn’t romantically involved (with a man). It perpetuates the idea that as women, our worth is attached to our desirability. So many women have internalized the message that we’re only valuable if we can attract men and that our goal in life should be to find a male partner, otherwise we are incomplete. We see this happening in these movies, maybe because it’s seen as “too threatening” to have a female character who finds fulfillment outside of the traditional relationship and with an activity that is usually thought of as in the “man’s realm.” Almost every movie has this happen: Love & Basketball (2000), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), The Cutting Edge (1992)…Don’t get me started on the relationship and stereotypes in this one: she’s the “ice queen,” kind of both literally and figuratively, while the hockey player thinks figure skating is stupid and he’s not nearly as serious as she is.

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Image credit: New Line Cinema

SMF: And of course he softens her, right? Like a Taming of the Shrew type deal?

BC: Yes! Not only does he soften her (while learning that figure skating is hard and also that he likes it), but they end up romantically involved because of course they do.

KH: I’m trying to think of a movie where this doesn’t happen, and I’m coming up blank… [Editor’s interjection: Million Dollar Baby (2004)?] True, but it’s so sad the list is so short—AND DEPRESSING.

BC: I don’t think there was a real romance in A League of Their Own, though there was romantic tension. There was Dottie’s relationship with her husband and Marla leaves the team to get married, but generally it’s romance-free which I think is interesting (though I want O’Donnell’s and Madonna’s characters to get together so badly!). The romantic plot is not entirely absent, though, and hinges on Dottie and Tom Hanks’ Jimmy having some sort of chemistry/tension. In that case, it’s almost the opposite of The Cutting Edge, where we see Dottie softening Jimmy, though in both movies you have male athletes having these ideas about women athletes/women’s sports being stupid, weak, or not worth their time.

SMF: I think it’s really interesting how women are portrayed in movies about male athletes, actually. Like “arm candy,” or “ball-busters,” or something that gets in the way. I think a lot about Clint Eastwood’s Trouble With The Curve (2012), and how his character’s daughter is a sort of desirable unicorn because she knows things about baseball. There were aspects of that movie I liked, and things about it that made me uncomfortable, but I do think it was one of the first times I’d seen a character like hers. I mean, she was the typical female workaholic who needs to be “softened,” but her knowledge and skill were showcased a great deal. (But, of course, became the reason for a Justin Timberlake romance…)

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Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

KH: I do want to mention how Bend It Like Beckham was pivotal for also portraying how hard it was to be a girl who’s the kid of immigrants, and how teammates sometimes don’t understand that (what’s the opposite of a unicorn?). I’m trying to think of other sports films that feature women of colour, and the only ones I can think of are Eve in Whip It!…And please correct me if I’m wrong, but even the love interests in most of these sports films featuring women (except maybe Love & Basketball) have white guys? I know Bend It does.

[Editor’s note: First thing that comes to my mind is Just Wright (2010), with Queen Latifah and Common, but that’s not interracial, as is the case with Love & Basketball.]

BC: Bring It On does a good job of addressing cultural appropriation and the white theft of Black culture, property, art. I didn’t notice this until I was a little bit older (likely because I’m white and I didn’t become aware of these dynamics until I was older), but for a movie that, on its surface, seems like fluff, that dynamic and commentary is a big deal. We learn that the champion Toros, the majority white team from the wealthy suburbs, is only as good as they are because they’ve been stealing their choreography from a predominantly Black team across town. This mirrors the countless examples throughout history of white people taking the culture and intellectual property and ideas from Black folks and other POC and passing them off as their own.

KH: I think that’s one of the reasons why its cultural relevance extends so far beyond cheerleading, because that’s something that still happens today all the time, in so many other fields. It’s so rare to see the creators of that culture be acknowledged for what happened and compensated for it in a movie. Also the choreography, soundtrack and writing are all top-notch. Cheerleading is intense!

BC: Personal side note: In high school, in order to be on the competitive team, we had to cheer at football games. We hated it. Four football players ended up losing a bet and had to join the competitive cheerleading team at the end of their football season. Within the first week, all four of them said that cheerleading was harder than football. And three of the four returned the next year to compete with us again.

KH: I think until men do it, they always underestimate how hard cheerleading is. It’s dance and gymnastics and strength, but are also seen as being secondary to the men on the field. Going back to Just Wright, it was really nice for that movie to actively confront the pressure women in sports face, which is to be both athletic and still “sexy”.

just wright

Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

SMF: I haven’t seen it, but is that the movie where Queen Latifah says she isn’t a “salad eating chick”? (Looping back to the “not like other girls,” point.)

KH: I just remember the scene where Queen Latifah and her friend are about to go to a basketball game. She’s wearing a jersey and her friend is wearing a tight, body-wrapping dress.

BC: What, you don’t wear bodycon dresses to games? This also brings up things like the gratuitous shots in Blue Crush (2002) of the women’s bikini bodies. I feel like it was an attempt to lure men to the movie, because obviously men wouldn’t be interested in a movie about women athletes unless there was also eye candy for them.

SMF: Which is pretty much a direct reflection of what female athletes face in real life, right? This idea that to garner any audience, for people to want to watch women compete, for the media to cover women’s sports, female athletes have to appeal to the heterosexual male gaze.

BC: Yes, the WNBA teaches their athletes how to wear makeup. If we look at League, they had to play baseball in skirts, and that was a real thing that the All-American Girls Professional Ball League had to deal with. That detail came from real life. They had to play in skirts despite the detriment to their health and well-being (sliding in a skirt—OUCH). And oftentimes, these movies have that scene where we find out that the gritty female athlete “cleans up nicely,” and the dude in the film always does a double take and suddenly sees her as a romantic interest, where she may not have been before.

KH: Or in Stick It (2006)—to bring it full circle with more cheerleading—the final controversy is about, *spoiler*, bra straps being revealed rather than who had the most technical abilities or artistic performance! To your point Stacey, I think of weightlifter Sarah Robles, who talks about not appealing to the male gaze and how she’s suffered a lack of sponsorships as a result. She told Buzzfeed: “You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.” And also Canadian hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, who many thought was only that “muscle-dense” because of doping.

BC: So true, Karen. I recently interviewed Sydney McLaughlin, an Olympic track and field athlete, and when we talked about pressures that women athletes face, she said she considered looking good during competition to be part of her job as a professional athlete. Because the goal (on top of winning) is to get sponsorships. For her, hair, makeup, nails, were as much part of prepping for a race as tying her shoes.

KH: This is the “lesson” that needs to change in films about female athletes. They have to stop reinforcing the idea that women are only valuable based on their appearance to the male gaze or on how much of a romantic interest they are. And that being knowledgeable about sports makes them “unicorns.” And it’s also clear more of these films need to be about women of colour.

BC: I want to see a movie where a woman excels at a sport, and that’s what’s great about the movie. Where her important and fulfilling relationships are with her teammates or friends, and the romantic subplot is secondary (and if we have to have one, maybe the love interest is another woman). I want to see less gratuitous body scanning and more appreciating the body for what it can do. But, honestly, I feel like we’re a really long way from a movie like this existing.

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, recovered alcoholic, feminist momma, and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.

Stacey May Fowles is an award-winning novelist and journalist, and co-editor of the forthcoming Best Canadian Sports Writing (ECW Press.) Her essay collection, Baseball Life Advice, will be released with McClelland & Stewart in spring 2017. 

Karen K. Ho is a writer and business reporter currently studying at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on the Lorana Sullivan Scholarship. Her favourite sports are snowboarding, surfing and rock climbing.

A journal of film and feminism.

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A journal of film and feminism.