The male gaze prevails in sports – on and off the silver screen

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Susan J. Bandy
Dept. of Human Sciences, Ohio State University


Viridiana Lieberman Sports Heroines on Film: A Critical Study of Cinematic Women Athletes, Coaches and Owners 277 pages, hft. Jefferson, NC: McFarland ISBN 978-0-7864-7661-9

Viridiana Lieberman
Sports Heroines on Film: A Critical Study of Cinematic Women Athletes, Coaches and Owners
277 pages, hft.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland
ISBN 978-0-7864-7661-9

Viridiana Lieberman begins Sports Heroines on Film: A Critical Study of Cinematic Women Athletes, Coaches and Owners by noting that the cinematic presence of female athletes is minimal and further maintains that there are reoccurring problems with the plot when female athletes are depicted. In these films, love always trumps the big game at the end of the film, female athletes sacrifice more than their male counterparts, and it is important that the female athlete be attractive. Her principal contention is that cinema is an influential medium in transmitting ideologies. She wants the reader to be aware of the impact of sports films and their educational role in gender representation. In the case of sports films, hegemonic masculinity prevails and is celebrated as female athletes, according to Lieberman, must “emulate or submit to and reveal our societal roots in sports ideology.” The stated purpose of the book is to fill the gap in theory concerning sports and contribute to a much-needed branch of sports textual analysis and feminist film theory.

The introductory chapter includes a short historical overview of women’s participation in sport and a brief discussion of the concept of the “male gaze” using psychoanalytic feminist theory. According to this gaze, women are represented as objects or spectacles and presented by males for the male observer. Female athletes in film are, therefore, subordinated to male characters, appearing as wife, daughter, or girlfriend. To assuage fears about homosexuality, she is bound by compulsory heterosexuality often depicted in a heterosexual relationship. Lieberman uses these concepts as the framework of analysis in which she provides a close textual analysis of thirty films beginning with National Velvet (1944) and ending with Secretariat (2010). Following the introduction, the seven chapters in which these films are discussed are structured around the role of the female in sports films.

In Chapter 1, Lieberman discusses the female athlete in individual sports. She begins with an analysis of National Velvet and Pat and Mike and concludes with the more recent Million Dollar Baby and Girlfight. In discussing “the façade of female empowerment,” she argues that in each of these films the athletes are defined by others, they must embody a social definition of female, and off the field occurrences lead to their demise. Further, their athletic ambitions are secondary to fulfilling their subordinate role in a patriarchal society and certainly in sport. Girlfight, unlike the other films included in this chapter, exposes and challenges our assumptions about gender, and Lieberman claims that Diana Guzman represents an authentic, competitive athlete.

A League of Her Own and Whip It, a more recent film about roller derby, are used to explore the representation of women as members of a female team in Chapter 2. A relatively lengthy and interesting analysis of A League of Her Own allows Lieberman to illustrate her point of view. She argues that female teams could create a safe space where women can work together and learn how to compete. Instead, in these films, out of a group of diverse characters, one woman emerges as the “ultimate” woman, the feminine ideal showing what women are supposed to be; she is the exception. In so doing, the majority of these athletes maintain their subordinate status in a patriarchal society and in sport; they symbolize incompleteness and lack.

wimbledonWhen young female athletes join all-male teams, they risk further solidifying the idea that sport is a place for boys, an initiation into manhood. Often in these films, which are discussed in Chapter 3, she is the most talented and skilled player on the team, however, her presence indicates a misfit team and she is its symbol, according to Lieberman. Further, in considering The Bad News Bears, Little Giants, D-2 The Mighty Ducks and Longshots, Lieberman maintains that the image of the female athlete is controlled in several ways: there is an equally skilled male athlete to lessen or counter her impact, she has a love interest, or her success is credited a male hero. The further conclusion is that there are no female mentors in these films.

Lieberman makes an interesting claim that women participate in categorically expressive sports such as ice skating and gymnastics, whereas men participate in instrumental sports such as football in order to examine films devoted sports such as soccer, basketball, and tennis, which she argues cannot be placed in either category. One can claim that all sports are expressive, however, for her purpose of examining the themes of love and gender in sports films, such a classification can be useful. In Chapter 4, The Cutting Edge, Wimbledon, Love & Basketball, Blue Crush, Personal Best and Stick It are discussed in order to show that a heterosexual love interest helps a competitive female athlete who has lost her “feminine” qualities to regain her desire to nurture, support, and express warmth. It is further concluded that all of these films—in spite of the presence of a female athlete—continue the tradition of presenting a male character to develop the story.

An interesting categorization of films is introduced in Chapter 5, “Illegal Substitution: Replacing One (Wo)man with Another” when Lieberman analyzes female athletes disguised as males and male athletes disguised as females. She asks: Could a female finally prove her worth among male teammates on the field if she played just as well as the men but no one knew she was a girl? Among the few cross-dressing films, Ladybugs, Juwanna Mann, She’s the Man and Motocrossed are analyzed. With the exception of Motocrossed, it is interesting to note that this gender-bending is treated in a comedic way, although Lieberman maintains that such films suggest that we now are more supportive of women as athletes, a point that could be challenged.

In Chapter 6, female coaches are the subject of discussion to further clarify cinematic representation of females in sports films, and Coach, Wildcats, Eddie, and The Mighty Macs are analyzed. Recognizing that the majority of coaches are men, Lieberman suggests that with the exception of The Mighty Macs—which is based on the true story of Immaculata College’s national championship team of 1972—cinematic choices such as a heterosexual love interest or female sacrifice are used to divert the viewers’ attention from the strength and skill of the female coach.

secretariatLieberman concludes her analysis in Chapter 7 with a discussion of cinematic female owners in Major League, Any Given Sunday, Slap Shot, and Secretariat. She maintains that placing a female in the position of owner offers a distraction from the harsh truth of the profession, that athletes are investments that are bought and sold; the female owner embodies the questionable practices of sports owners. Importantly, Lieberman suggests that by placing women in roles as owners, the tradition of separating women from sports is continued; they are not the heroes fighting for the honor of victory on the field. Gender-specific roles in sport are also reinforced because all of the female owners in these films, who are not the center of the film (with the exception of Secretariat), have inherited their position from a father or a husband. Again the representation of females, as owners, in these sports films does not challenge the idea that sport is masculine territory.

The concluding chapter is brief and Lieberman presents some recurring patterns utilized in film to maintain the status quo; sport remains the bastion of masculinity and a place where males learn to be men. She notes that there are few female role models who are completely autonomous. Male characters dominate and control these films. Female athletes are continually placed in comparison to other female characters who are more traditional. Homophobia in the culture is lessened with heterosexual relationships. The skilled athlete is an anomaly, an exception, and implicitly not a “real” woman. To conclude, Lieberman suggests that intersectionality should be used to include race in the discussion of representation of female athletes in film.

The reference to intersectionality should have been considered earlier in the book even if Lieberman did not include race in her analysis. It appears as an afterthought and could have been included in the brief discussion of theory in the introduction. It is an important method of analysis currently used by feminist scholars. The part devoted to theoretical concepts and frameworks of analysis could have been expanded and further developed to include theories that would have been useful in the analysis. For example, the discussion of Laura Mulvey’s the male gaze is rather simplistic and should have included a reference to De Beauvoir’s concept of “other”— as Mulvey did in her analysis. Michael Messner’s idea of sport as “contested terrain” would have further grounded the work in theory and would have been useful in referencing the female athlete as the “other” in attempting to find her place in sport. The very brief history of women in sport also should have been more developed or should not have been included. It is not sufficient to provide historical context for these films. Perhaps other theoretical work concerning representation, which has been done in sports studies, would have also provided complexity and depth to the theoretical framework of analysis.

With these considerations aside, Lieberman has provided good textual analysis for the films she discussed while noting significant patterns of the way in which films deny female athletes autonomous self-definition. Further, the categories of films that she has created—according to the roles that females play in sports films—are unique and thoughtful and could be very useful for further analysis of female athletes in sports films. Given that there are over one hundred films in which there are female athletes, there is much analysis to be done.

Copyright © Susan Bandy 2016
Originally published in Aethlon

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