Women in Sports Movies

The Sports Illustrated’s “’Greatest Sports Movies’ of All Time list” ranks the best films from the genre. On the list are films such as: Field of Dreams, (1989) Rocky, (1976) and Raging Bull. (1980) However, only two films amongst the 50, feature a female athlete as the main character, National Velvet (1944) at position number 27, and A League of Their Own (1992) at position number 13. (Peacock)

The fact that such a small number of films featuring women were included on the Sports Illustrated list illuminates a significant problem. The problem being, the lack of female sports movies, one of the largest niches famously forsaken by Hollywood studios. Once thought of as an inconsequential market, due to its projected small numbers; the female sports subgenre is finally being tapped into. “The stereotype in society is that women watch soap operas while men watch sports, when in fact 60% of women report watching sports regularly while 42% of women noted that they regularly watch soap operas.” (Angus)    If there is an awaiting and hungry audience for female sports movies, then why aren’t the films being produced?

In 1944 the MGM film, National Velvet, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, had “people lined up for blocks in the dead of winter waiting to see the film, which broke box office records at the world’s largest theater.”  (Friedman 44)                 In addition, “The New York Times gave it a favorable review, and the film garnered Academy Award nominations for director Clarence Brown and cinematographer Leonard Smith, as well as for art decoration and set decoration. Anne Revere, who played Velvet’s mother, won an Oscar for best supporting actress. Even the author, Enid Bagnold, liked the film.” (Tyler)

In more recent years the film, A League of Their Own, (1992) “revitalized interest in and helped memorialize a neglected chapter of sports history: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL)…As depicted in the film, in 1943, the league’s first year, there were four teams: the Rockford Peaches, the Racine Belles, the Kenosha Comets, and the South Bend Blue Sox. When it became evident that the major leagues would not be seriously affected by the war…but after the men returned home, instead of fading into oblivion the AAGPBL prospered due to the women’s extraordinary ball playing abilities.” Similarly to the real life success, the movie flourished with audiences earning an estimated “$132,440,069” worldwide. (Box Office Mojo)

If success and the desire for female sports movies are not the issue preventing more films being made, then what is the cause?

Perhaps, the reason we do not have more sports movies with female characters, is because it is one of the last genres to be associated with femininity. Despite the fact that women’s sports rising in popularity in recent years since 1972 when “Title IX” a law passed, which “requires gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding” including sports and athletics as well as 9 other key areas. (History of Title IX)

In several of the movies that are structured around female characters, the characters do not operate with traditional feminine qualities, instead they take on masculine qualities. For example, in the movie Girlfight (2000) “written and directed by Karyn Kusama, who trained at Gleason’s in Brooklyn, the film focuses on a troubled teenager from the Red Hook area who finds her calling at a decrepit neighborhood gym…But Kusama sacrifices what could have made for an exciting climax—and far more interesting boxing—when she scraps the idea of women boxing women for an imaginary New York ‘intergender’ tournament…Titles are nice, even imaginary ones, but what matters most is Adrian’s later admission that ‘I gave you all I had.’ Once again, the lovers reunite—and with that ending, Girlfight ditches all attempts at realism for the fantasy world we have come to expect from boxing movies—especially this time, the victor is female.” (Reejhsinghani) 

In addition, the movie operates within the cliches of the genre; not even playing upon the obvious difference, that Girlfight is about a female training for a boxing match in a world surrounded by men. Instead, the coming of age story, in which Diana, portrayed by Michelle Rodriguez, is from a lower income home, and wanted nothing more than the respect of her father. The lack of celebration that she is a female boxer and is good enough to take down skilled boys her age who have been boxing longer than her, undermines the film as a whole. The gender element should accentuated, not ignored; something as important as a female character breaking into a world she has traditionally has not belonged, is something that should definitely be celebrated.

However, another movie from the same subgenre, boxing movies proves otherwise. In the film Million Dollar Baby (2004) Hillary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a female boxer, who wants to be trained by Clint Eastwood’s character, Frankie Dunn. Along the way the detail of gender is discussed and her success in the female boxing circuit is celebrated, in the large male dominated sport.

In addition, the movie was well received by women, even inspiring a few to hit the ring. “Gyms are seeing a spike in women giving boxing a try – many of them inspired by Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance in ‘Million Dollar Baby’…’What the movie has done is show women that they shouldn’t be intimidated by the sport,’ said Joe Maysonet, head trainer at the Printing House gym in the West Village, where dozens of women have enrolled since the film’s December release…‘Hilary is an inspiration to a lot of the women who have taken to the sport,’ said Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s, where Swank trained for four months to prepare for her role…‘And it’s not just that she looks great, or that she looks tough,” said Silverglade, whose legendary gym trains 175 female boxers. ‘Her dedication to the sport is something that women are looking to emulate.’ (Jonathan)

Other films, such as Stick it (2006) written and directed by Jessica Bendinger and Whip It (2009) written by Shauna Cross and directed by Drew Barrymore are structured around a predominant female ensembles and each follows how a new member is integrated into the group. Sports movies such as these, placate on the relationship focus of female characters and are set in the world of a sport. No matter what your opinion is of these films, the fact that they treat the relationships between female characters with high regard is more authentic to real life. Perhaps, this perspective details is due to the fact that both films are written and directed by women.

Furthermore, in the film Stick It, Haley Graham played by Missy Peregrym does not have a romantic interest, in fact her character’s sexual orientation is never discussed. In contrast one of the other female supporting character’s struggle throughout the film is making plans for Prom. The lack of a “romantic interest subplot” for the protagonist legitimizes her journey, as well as overshadowing the father, daughter dynamic Peregrym shares with Jeff Bridges, who plays Coach Burt Vickerman.

However, one of my favorite movies, Whip It, revolves around the community of women, sports provides. An aspect that is often not highlighted enough in even male sports movies. In team sports, the aspect of community is vital to the success of the team. In the film, the sense of belonging that Bliss Calendar played by Ellen Page finds amongst the Hurl Scouts, her derby team.

Women’s sports is finally getting the attention it deserves, and I have hope that in the coming years more movies will be made to satisfy this specific niche. If nothing else, myself as a filmmaker would love to work on such projects. For example: the bio pic of Olympic athlete, Lolo Jones, a United States track and field athlete, who also competed on the bobsled team. Her life, a very real rags to riches story, could inspire younger generations of little girls to dream, and realize their future is not limited.

In addition, my love for the sport basketball, also inspires me to write and produce a fictional story about a girls high school basketball team. A film of the same vein as their male counterparts, Coach Carter, (2005) and Glory Road. (2006) For example: a fictionalized story adapted from the documentary, The Heart of the Game. (2005) Following Darnelia Russell, a basketball star throughout her high school career in the competitive Seattle Public High School Basketball League.

How can more female sports movies be made? The short answer is to create it. Since it does not exist, and you want it to, why not make it? However, that means supporting projects from the beginning, giving them a chance at fruition. As a woman filmmaker this is a genre of film I would really enjoy writing for, producing, and watching.

Films Screened

A League of Their Own (1992)

Girlfight (2000)

Bend it Like Beckham (2002)

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

The Heart of the Game (2005)

Stick It (2006)

Whip It (2009)

Work Cited

“A League of Their Own (1992).” – Box Office Mojo. Box Office Mojo, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Angus, Kelly. “Female Sports Fans: An Untapped Sports Marketing Demographic.” Asking Smarter Questions Female Sports Fans An Untapped Sports Marketing Demographic Comments. Level Wing, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Friedman, Lenemaja. Enid Bagnold. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

“History of Title IX.” TitleIX.info. The MARGARET Fund of NWLC, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 

2015.

Jonathan Lemire Daily News, Staff Writer. “Movie’s Girl Ka-Power! ‘Baby’ Fuels Female Interest in Boxing.” New York Daily News: 3. Mar 06 2005. ProQuest. Web. 14 Apr. 2015 .

Peacock, Lee. “Sports Illustrated’s ‘Greatest Sports Movies'” Web log post. Dispatches from the LP-OP. Blogspot, 21 Aug. 2010. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Reejhsinghani, Anju. “No Winners Here: The Flawed Feminism of Girlfight.” The Brooklyn Rail. The Brooklyn Rail, 1 Dec. 2000. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Sullivan, Bob. “A League of Their Own.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 3. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 110. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Tyler, Lisa. “Food, Femininity, and Achievement: The Mother-Daughter Relationship in National Velvet.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 18.4 (1993): 154-158.

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