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Her Sporting Life

Cinematic Representations of Female Athletes Have Evolved Alongside The Rise of Popular Women's Sports

A still from Baltimore Women's Film Festival Short "Kick Like Girl."
"The Remarkable Women Of Kabaddi."

By Raven Baker | Posted 10/22/2008

What do tricked-out bikes, Canadian roller derby, prepubescent soccer players, and cops playing a 4,000-year-old Southeast Asian sport have in common? All are the subjects of documentaries screening at the Baltimore Women's Film Festival's Women in Sports shorts program. The four pieces include "Bent," which delves into the recumbent bicycle subculture of Portland, Ore.; "Down and Derby," five fast and furious minutes with Kelly "Honey Bee" McAlear of the Ottawa Roller Derby League; "Kick Like A Girl," which follows Salt Lake City's undefeated Mighty Cheetahs, a third-grade girls soccer team, during its first season competing in the boys' division; and "The Remarkable Women of Kabaddi," which highlights the institutional and cultural sexism dogging a team of Ontario female police officers training in Kabaddi, an ancient male-dominated sport that is equal parts wrestling and full-contact tag.

The rags-to-championship tales of sports movies--from beloved favorites such as The Natural and Rudy to kiddie fare such as The Bad News Bears and The Mighty Ducks--is a well-established genre. Yet, until recently, Hollywood has largely ignored sports' perennial underdogs: women athletes.

In the last eight years, women in sports movies have emerged into a legitimate subgenre, either by placing female athletes in the central roles of cheesy Hollywood romances and comedies (surfer swooner Blue Crush, cheerleader face-off Bring It On) and formulaic dramas (Million Dollar Baby), or by focusing more on the stories of female athletes, such as Bend It Like Beckham, The Gymnast, and last year's Gracie.

Of course, filmmakers are reflecting a wider trend of the increasing popularity of women's sports. The late 1990s brought unprecedented media coverage of women athletes, including tennis champs such as Serena and Venus Williams, the 1997 founding of the WNBA league, and the U.S. National Women's soccer team World Cup victories, in 1991 (the FIFA Women's World Cup's inaugural year) and 1999. But the biggest factor in changing perceptions has been two generations of girls and young women growing up under Title IX, a landmark 1972 ruling that gave women equal access to educational and athletic opportunities in all federally funded schools. Since Title IX was passed 36 years ago, female involvement in school sports has increased enormously. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, a research nonprofit founded by feminist tennis pro Billie Jean King (check out 2001 comedic biopic When Billie Beat Bobby for an empowering retelling of King's legendary 1974 match against super-chauvinist ex-champ Bobby Riggs), as of 2006, female participation in high-school sports has increased 904 percent since Title IX's inception; at the college level participation jumped by 456 percent.

Though women's sports movies were rare in decades past, such work did exist. Fulfilling every horse girl's fantasies, preteen Elizabeth Taylor stars as an unlikely steeplechase victor in 1944's National Velvet. Racket Girls was a 1951 sexpolitation flick about women wrestlers disguised as a morality tale (for the real scoop on this era of women's wrestling check out excellent 2004 documentary Lipstick and Dynamite). The '70s and '80s offered movies like 1978 ice-skating drama Cutting Edge, 1986 fish-out-of-water comedy Wildcats, starring Goldie Hawn as a men's high-school football coach, and campy roller-derby brawlers Unholy Rollers and Raquel Welch-vehicle Kansas City Bomber, both released in 1972. The 1990s offered a smattering of releases, including one of the most famous women athlete flicks, A League of Their Own featuring Madonna, Geena Davis, Rosie O'Donnell, and Lori Petty taking up the bat to save baseball when the men were drafted during World War II. Also out in the '90s were marginal girl-power flicks like Ladybugs, starring Rodney Dangerfield as a girls' soccer coach, and The Next Karate Kid.

While these movies did offer welcome glimpses of female athletes, most rehash conventional narratives, complete with cutesy feel-good endings. A notable exception is 1982's Personal Best, a naturalistic study of Olympic track hopefuls Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) and Tory Skinner (played by real-life Olympian Patrice Donnelly) as they train, compete, and fall in love. Featuring fantastic slow-motion action shots of straining leg muscles and sweat dripping on the track as well as an unsensationalized pictorial of lesbian romance, Personal Best is marred only by the cop-out of having Cahill leave Skinner for a heterosexual relationship. Still, the movie's conclusion is triumphant, with Cahill flouting her male coach's dog-eat-dog advice by sacrificing first-place glory to ensure ex-girlfriend Skinner scores a spot on the U.S. Olympic team alongside her.

Personal Best aside, if you're looking for more than just chick flicks for jocks--such as nuanced portrayals starring women of color--turn to indie films. Kicking the 21st century off was the 2000 gritty boxer drama Girlfight, which introduced Michelle Rodriguez as a smoldering teen who learns to channel her massive anger in the ring. While 2004's schlocky, defanged angst-fest Million Dollar Baby aped elements of Girlfight--both feature working-class women from troubled families--Girlfight ends with a strong heroine while Million Dollar Baby offers discouragement: On the brink of winning a big prize fight, rising star Maggie Fitzgerald is felled by a foul play and instead ends her days as a suicidal paraplegic and convenient foil for bitter (yet secretly sensitive) coach Frankie Dunn.

Also out in 2000 was Love and Basketball. Though mucked down by a heavy-handed romantic subplot, the movie gives equal screen time to a young female basketball player's frustrations in turning pro before the WNBA existed. For a real-life portrayal of teens tearing up the court, check out 2005's most excellent documentary The Heart of the Game, which follows a Seattle high-school women's team through seven seasons. At the heart of the movie is impassioned coach Bill Resler and star player Darnellia Russell, a prickly young black woman trying to adjust to her white, wealthy peers. Resler convinces then-freshman Russell to play for the varsity team, and soon enough she is widely acknowledged as a basketball savant. However, Russell's grades and, later, an unplanned pregnancy keep her off the court, prompting her to drop out of school. While there's no rah-rah Hollywood ending here, in a true spirit of solidarity over personal gain, Russell's team rallies around her when she returns, facing both public outcry and possibly sacrificing a championship title.

As both Hollywood and pro sports are dominated by stars, the winning-isn't-everything message of movies such as Personal Best, The Heart of the Game, and Baltimore Women's Film Festival short "Kick Like a Girl," is refreshing. For the Mighty Cheetahs in "Kick Like A Girl," being undefeated has grown, well, boring. The team wants to grow through challenge, even loss: Hence, entering the boys' division. What is amazing about this well-made short is not only the girls' sagacious self-awareness, but that of the rival players. Again and again the boys point out that the Cheetahs work better as a team, connecting this observation to their own losses against the girls. It is a realization echoed in The Heart of the Game, with several teenage boys opining that when it comes to basketball, girls work together while boys are in it for themselves, even detrimentally so.

Though it is dangerously simplistic to paint all female athletes as willing to subsume their egos to the collective or every male as a ruthless individualist, there are gender differences that bear on how people play sports. And just as athletics enrich, by teaching that no player is an island--after all, even those in solo sports represent hometowns, schools, and countries--so can convention-bucking movies mirror life in all its messy, freewheeling glory, both on and off the playing field.

The Women and Sports shorts series is free and screens Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. Click here for more reviews of BWFF entries. And for a comprehensive schedule for the festival, visit

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