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Glory is Hers: Women’s Sport on Screen

Read Monday, 27 Mar 2017

How often do we see women playing rough and tough; reaching for glory and putting their bodies on the line? In the wake of the inaugural AFLW season, Clem Bastow looks at depictions of women’s sport on screen.

Still from a scene in the film 'A League of Their Own' with Rosie O'Donnell, Madonna and Geena Davis
Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna and Geena Davis in a scene from <em>A League of Their Own</em>
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Still from the film 'The Hunger Games'
Jennifer Lawrence in <em>The Hunger Games</em>

‘If she can see it, she can be it’. The old adage about the media’s representation of women – adopted as the official, trademarked slogan of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media – might have been coined in order to inspire little girls to take up STEM lessons or strive to become President, but it feels especially true of women’s sport.

In a media landscape that has continued to marginalise sportswomen (lest we forget the collective dragging of network feet that occurred in the years leading up to the AFLW launch), the way female athletes are depicted on film has the potential to have a huge influence on wider perceptions of women’s sport. In fact, we already know it does: the success of The Hunger Games and Brave led to a massive increase in young girls taking up archery. In 2012, the year both films were released, girls’ participation in archery contests in the United States doubled.

So how come films about women in sport are still so few and far between?

Still from the film, 'Bring It On'
Clare Kramer, Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Bilderback in <em>Bring It On</em>

The ‘sports movie’ has a long and storied history that stretches back to Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 silent film, The Champion, but it’s an almost exclusively male genre, even if the stories told are universally uplifting. Some of my favourite movies are sports movies (the 1979 film Breaking Away, in particular), but the relative lack of sports movies about sportswomen is a continued bugbear.

Look at any roll-call of the greatest sports movies of all time and you’ll typically see only a few that feature women, among them Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1992). That’s partly because movies about sportswomen tend to have as much trouble making it into the multiplex as women’s sport does getting aired at prime-time (or at all).

It’s fascinating how often [women’s sports] films have to lean hard into cross-genre classifications in order to convince audiences.

Still of a scene from the film 'Stick It'
Missy Peregrym in <em>Stick It</em>

Movies about men in sport are allowed to exist solely as sports movies, and ‘serious’ sports films like Moneyball (2011) and Foxcatcher (2014) have elevated the genre. The sole example in the latter category when it comes to women’s sports movies is Million Dollar Baby (2004), which is less a boxing movie than it is an unrelenting hell ride into the dark corners of the human soul (in fact, it’s so dispiriting I’d go so far as to suggest it’s not a sports movie, in the classical sense, at all).

Looking back over the history of women’s sports on film, it’s fascinating how often those films have to lean hard into cross-genre classifications in order to convince audiences. They’re marketed as romantic comedies (with soccer), or tragedies (with boxing), or fun romps (with baseball).

When you think of Peyton Reed’s Bring It On (2000), do you remember a high-school chick flick, or one of the greatest sports films of all time? In the annals of cinema, the film should go down among the great sports film classics, but instead it’s firmly categorised as a teen movie. This despite the romance subplot being a mainstay of sports cinema (Rocky, anybody?), not to mention the fact that men’s sports movies of the same vintage were often twice as melodramatic, if not outright soapy (try Remember The Titans from 2000 or Friday Night Lights from 2004).

While there have been some terrific women’s sports movies released in this century, they’re typically marketed, like Bring It On, as teen or chick flicks. Stick It (2007), about a rebellious gymnast (and, in a very ‘new millennium’ move, extreme sports enthusiast), plays with sports movies’ established redemptive tropes. Similarly, Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut, the terrific roller derby flick Whip It, has all the hallmarks of a great sports film – the timid outsider, the training montage, the climactic big game – yet is remembered as an indie curiosity. (‘Dance movies’, especially the gritty ones that flooded the market around the turn of the century like Save the Last Dance, are stealth women’s sports movies.)

There has been such a dearth of women’s sports movies lately that the documentary space has become an alternative source for uplifting big screen narratives. The 2016 Australian documentary Destination Arnold, which tracked the tortuous journey of Indigenous bodybuilders Kylene Anderson and Natasha Lawrence as they worked towards the Arnold Classic, was just as thrilling as any fictional sports story.

Still from the documentary 'Destination Arnold'
Kylene Anderson and Natasha Lawrence in <em>Destination Arnold</em>

For an encouraging example of the representation of women athletes, it may be worth expanding the scope from ‘on film’ to ‘on screen’, and looking at sports entertainment – or, as it’s more commonly known, professional wrestling.

America’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), not known for its exceptional gender politics, has been undergoing something of a revolution over the past two years. After some truly regrettable moments in the preceding 20 years – chiefly the branding of female wrestlers as ‘Divas’, complete with sparkly butterfly championship belt! – WWE finally began to get its shit together in 2016. At last year’s WrestleMania, the competition’s annual flagship promotion, the Divas belt was retired and the Women’s Championship took its place. The ‘four horsewomen’ – Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Bayley – have introduced a new era of respect for women in wrestling.

Photograph of pro wrestlers Sasha Banks and Bayley during a fight
Pro wrestlers Sasha Banks and Bayley fight it out

As more and more talented female wrestlers have emerged from NXT (the company’s Florida-based developmental arm) and made their ‘main roster’ debuts, so too have the women’s matches evolved from ‘popcorn break’ fodder to become must-sees; even, in some cases, main events. NXT, with its relative lack of polish, has given wrestlers like Asuka, Ember Moon and Nikki Cross the space to do their thing and establish themselves as some of the most exciting figures in wrestling.

With pro wrestling now given coverage by ‘real’ sports outlets like ESPN, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the evolution of female wrestlers from sexy ‘Divas’ to legitimate competitors may have a flow-on effect for other women’s sports coverage. And it’s probably no coincidence that Netflix has commissioned an original series about women’s wrestling. G.L.O.W., an upcoming series created by Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan, will fictionalise the 1980s wrestling promotion, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

There may yet be hope for those of us hungry for women’s sports movies. The next project for Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (the directors of Little Miss Sunshine) is Battle Of The Sexes, which chronicles the now legendary 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie-Jean King (Emma Stone). Aaron Sorkin will make his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, about Molly Bloom, an elite skier who became an underground poker legend. Margot Robbie will star in and produce I, Tonya, about the American 1990s figure-skating feud between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan that rocked the world.

As women’s sporting leagues – from Australian Rules to pro wrestling – are released from television purgatory, perhaps the logic of ‘if she can see it, she can be it’ will work in reverse. A brave new era in women’s sports could lead to a resurgence of women’s sports movies.

To quote another snappy catchphrase, I’d like to see that

Going down in history @abbeycholmes 🙌 #AFLWGF 📸: Sean Garnsworthy

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