The Golden Age of Representation for Women in Sports Dramedies

Media is one of the most influential aspects of young peoples’ development of gender identity. How women are portrayed in film affects the way young women view themselves and what they can do as women. In sports films centered on women, there is often an emphasis on femininity in contrast to the traditional masculinity in sports. While the goal of many sports films starring and catered to women may be to present a feminist argument that girls are just as capable as boys of playing sports, many of the most popular sports movies of the 2000s fall into problematic patriarchal tropes of emphasized femininity and heteronormativity. 

In this essay we will discuss four sports movies from 2000-2009 that have female leads and analyze the ways in which they portray femininity in the context of female athletics: Bring It On (2000), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Stick It (2006), and Whip It (2009). We will focus on four main points of analysis in these films: competition between women, the male gaze and female sexuality, the presence or absence of a love interest, and how masculine traits in female athletes are questioned in contrast to their femininity.

Bend It Like Beckham (2002) focuses on Jess (Parminder Nagra)  as the daughter of orthodox Sikh parents. She defies their wishes by playing soccer for the local women’s team when Jules (Keira Knightley) recruits her after seeing her play in the local park. Jess excels at the sport, but struggles to keep it a secret from her family. One of the positives about the film is that it doesn’t really adhere to the male gaze by sexualizing the female characters. However, in all other points of the analysis Bend It Like Beckham reinforces traditional ideas of femininity within media. 

One specific aspect of the film is really where it fails to not adhere to promoting traditional feminine portrayals in media. This point in the plot places women in competition with each other outside of the sport they’re playing and provides an unnecessary heteronormative love interest. The writers of the movie believed it was necessary to add a love-triangle between the two main female characters (Jess and Jules) and their coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). After confirming that Jules doesn’t have feelings for their coach, Jess decides it’s okay to pursue him, and they almost kiss at a club in Germany when Jules catches them right as they’re both leaning in. Jules, being clearly jealous, then calls Jess a “bitch” and then rushes away. This dynamic between Jess and Jules adds an unnecessary conflict between the two female leads. Instead of solely focussing on these two women playing a traditionally masculine sport and the struggles they face from the beliefs and expectations of their own cultures, they are pitted against each other over a man that doesn’t really serve an important role in the film’s plot. 

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Another feature in the film that reinforces ideal feminine characteristics is one of the lead character’s femininities constantly being questioned because of their passion for soccer. Jules’ Mother (Juliet Stevenson) questions her daughters sexuality throughout the film because of her devotion to the sport and disinterest in pursuing boys. The dialogue between these two characters shows a clear priority by the filmmakers to stress the importance of heteronormativity to the plot of the film. It turns out that Jules is straight in the film and the mother’s worries were all for nothing. The film fails to enforce that everything would have been okay if Jules was lesbian. It could have been that the filmmakers were trying to show the audience that sexuality of athletes is not important, but instead the message comes off in a more lesbophobic manner. 

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Bring It On is the story of newly appointed cheer captain Torrence  (Kirsten Dunst) and her quest to take her squad, the Toros, to nationals and continue their championship streak. She recruits a gymnast named Missy (Eliza Dushku) to the squad even though Missy does not fit the traditional stereotype of a cheerleader. Unfortunately, Missy informs Torrence that the former captain, Big Red, had been stealing their cheers from an all-black inner city squad led by Isis (Gabrielle Union) called the Clovers. The movie sets up multiple instances of competition between women, with two other cheerleaders Courtney (Clare Kramer) and Whitney (Nicole Bilderback) vying for Torrence’s captainship, as well as the competition between the Toros and the Clovers. Of course there will always be natural competition between women in sports movies because sports are inherently about competition. However, it can become problematic when the trope is introduced unnecessarily or in a way that perpetuates the idea that women are naturally in competition with each other. 

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When Torrence begins to feel the pressure of being the captain, Courtney and Whitney decide to take over the captainship because they feel Torrence cannot cut it herself. The competition perpetuates the idea that women are catty and cannot work as a team together. Of course, they do eventually come together as a team to create an original routine for nationals, but it is only because of the desire to beat the Clovers. But the competition with the Clovers is less problematic than the internal competition for the captainship of the Toros because competition between rival teams is natural, and in the end Isis and Torrence admit that their rivalry made both teams better, and that they understand each other as captains.

But the movie has other problems in its portrayal of women. Cheerleading is portrayed as a sexually suggestive, incredibly feminine activity that other characters make fun of for being girly, especially the male cheerleaders. This is a common negative stereotype of cheerleading, that its participants are dumb or sexually promiscuous and the activity itself is superficial (Grindstaff and West 2006). Many of the cheers in the movie, especially the one from the opening sequence, perpetuates the stereotype that cheerleaders are slutty, with chants focusing on how sexually appealing to men the characters are and why this characteristic makes them superior to their competitors.

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The sexualization of the female cheerleaders is actually perpetuated further by one of the male cheerleaders on the squad, who explains that he enjoys cheerleading because one of the girls on the squad does not wear underwear under her spankies, and sometimes his “finger slips.” This instance of casual sexual assault is never addressed as problematic and is portrayed as completely normal and okay in the context of the film. The film even implies that the woman liked the action, which furthers the stereotype that cheerleaders are slutty.

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Of course, Bring It On (2000) is the oldest of the films we are analyzing, and therefore the farthest from the fourth wave of feminism that came about in 2012. Yet somehow the film is still remembered by millennial women as one of the defining movies of their childhood. The movie does feature a strong female lead and in the end, it is a movie about women supporting women and trying to make right with each other. In the context of its time, movies with those elements were few and far between for young women, which is why the movie holds up despite some of the more problematic elements.

Whip It (2009) is based in a small town near Austin, Texas where Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is forced to partake in beauty pageants by her traditional minded mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Bliss falls in love with roller derby and is forced to keep it a secret from her family. In the article The Female Signifiant In All Women’s Amateur Roller Derby, Jennifer Carlson explains that women in actual roller derby interrogate emphasized femininity and by doing so they initiate a practice that she calls “female signifiant.” She defines this process as not necessarily crossing the line between masculinity and femininity, but instead the players make contradictions within femininity, such as giving value to large bodies and aggression. (Carlson 438)

The film in a lot of ways serves as a critique towards the ideal concept of femininity in a traditional sense. There is no unnecessary competition between the women in the story. The only main rivalry between two female characters is between Bliss and the other best player in the league (Juliette Lewis), and it’s purely about the sport of which they both participate. There isn’t a competition over a love interest or their appearance relative to one another. 

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The male gaze is present in the film, however, it comes second to the women characters’ sexuality. There is a particular scene in the film where they’re at an after party for one of the matches Bliss’ teams just played. In a short shot, two women are checking out their bruises while two boys admire them from the couch. The injuries are located in a spot where the women either have to lift up their skirt or slightly pull down their pants, but the injuries makes this scene not adhere to the male gaze. The women are willing to show their bodies and the injuries they sustained from a high-contact sport because they are proud of what they have accomplished. This adheres to Carlson’s idea of the “female signifiant” since they are satirically engaging in the sexualized body image that roots from emphasized femininity. 

Bliss does have a love interest with Oliver (Landon Pigg) that doesn’t really serve the plot in an important way. However, their relationship doesn’t place her in competition with another female character in the film. Also this aspect of the story doesn’t really promote any ideal feminine qualities that Bliss has. The love interest could have been focused on less, and instead focus more on Bliss pursuing her passion and the friendships she establishes with her teammates.

Bliss doesn’t really get questioned about feminine characteristics once it comes out that she truly loves roller derby and not the beauty pageants. Her mother is displeased that her daughter doesn’t share the same passion that she does, and one of the activities is a more ideal feminine activity. Unlike other films, her sexuality and other aspects of her femininity are not questioned by her family and friends once they all know what she’s doing. 

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In the movie Stick It (2006), Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) is a former elite gymnast turned  juvenile delinquent sentenced by the court to resume training at VGA, an elite gymnastics gym run by Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges). Of the four movies we are analyzing, Stick It is the only one that has positive depictions of all four elements. While Haley has masculine elements to her character, the way she dresses and the soundtrack that accompanies her scenes, the other characters never make negative comments about it, and while Haley occasionally comments on the girliness of other gymnasts, particularly her rival Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), it is usually in the spirit of competition and in line with her character’s snarky attitude towards the entire world of gymnastics.

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Instead of a love interest, Haley has two male friends.. Poot (John Patrick Amedori) and Frank (Kellan Lutz) play the part of Haley’s loveable best friends who support her as a gymnast. Although there is flirtation between Joanne and Poot, it is simply a side plot and actually humanizes Joanne as someone who is not just the mean girl.

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While gymnastics is a sport that focuses on women’s bodies and there are plenty of training montages that focus on Haley’s body, none of them ever sexualize her. She ties up her t-shirts into crop tops so that extra fabric does not get in her way as she flips through the air. The film shows off her body in a way that emphasizes her fitness as an elite gymnast, not to sexualize her.

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In fact, the climax of the movie comes when the four main characters, Haley, Joanne, Wei Wei (Nikki SooHoo), and Mina (Maddy Curley) compete at Nationals. After completing a perfect vault, Mina has a tenth of  a point deducted because the judges could see her bra. In protest, Haley and the other girls scratch the event by showing their bra straps, making Mina the automatic winner.

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What is amazing about this event in the movie is that it is a solid metaphor for the very real emphasis placed on women’s bodies and their appearance in contrast to what they can do with their minds and their bodies (in the case of athletes at least). The gymnasts continue their protest through the other events, with all of them except for one they decided was the best at that event intentionally scratching so the judges have no choice but to give the gold medal to the person the gymnasts have chosen, despite any deductions they may have wanted to make.

So why have these four movies remained popular over a decade later even after the fourth wave of feminism in 2012 brought attention to some of the more problematic elements in the movies? Despite the emphasis on femininity in women’s sports, the intrusion of the male gaze into a genre aimed at young women, and far too many love interests to really emphasize heteronormativity, in the 2000s, these were some of the only movies for young girls that had strong women leading them. While most movies for young people featured men as main characters, these movies feature women who tell their own stories, stand up for themselves, and most importantly, are complex, fully-developed people. Unfortunately, the genre of fun women’s sports movies seems to have fallen off since 2010, with most female-centric sports movies being biopics about real people rather than original characters. But it is clear that with the longevity of these films in popular culture, that the female-centric sports dramedy is a genre that we as a society should revive, especially those that follow in the footsteps of Stick It, which, despite being six years early, fits easily into fourth wave feminism which began in 2012.

Works Cited

Carlson, J. (2010). The Female Signifiant in All-Women’s Amateur Roller Derby. Sociology of Sport Journal, 27(4), 428–440. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=58736603&site=ehost-live

Grindstaff, L., & West, E. (2006). Cheerleading and the Gendered Politics of Sport. Social Problems, 53(4), 500-518. doi:10.1525/sp.2006.53.4.500

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