Films Lag in Sharing Women’s Athletic Dreams

Films Lag in Sharing Women’s Athletic Dreams

by Ariel Dougherty

Forty years ago, at the same time that Title IX was passed by the federal government, Sheila Paige and I co-founded Women Make Movies in New York City. Since then, my work has centered on producing women-identified media and making it more available. The collective success of making substantial inroads into corporate media, however, has been exceedingly minimal. Both Hollywood data and sports media coverage point to how women are now losing ground.

Back in 1972, shortly after incorporating Women Make Movies, Sheila and I worked to make a women’s sports film. We knew that the vivaciousness women were bringing to film from our community-based workshops would translate well into larger educational stories. We envisioned a documentary that explored different levels of sport by focusing on a professional team, an amateur team and a community sports activity. We interviewed the astonishing athlete Wilma Rudolph and got her on board as narrator.

Courtesy Joan Joyce

The outstanding baseball pitcher, Joan Joyce, who played for the Raybestos Brakettes in Stratford, CN, was to be a core component of our project. As a player and a coach, her sports feats are unheralded. She once did a charity event with Major League hitter Ted Williams. In an inteview last year on espnW, Joyce retells a story about a time that Williams was to name the toughest pitcher he had ever faced. His response: “You won’t believe this, but it was a girl.”

But fund-raise as we did, we were never successful in securing enough money, and Joyce is still unrecorded on film in any major way.

For girls, positive women-identified media is critical, and girls’ interactions in sports are an important learning experience. Sports activities for girls today might be vastly improved from when I was in school, but that legal mandate has not translated into other spheres of influence. A 15-minute flip of ESPN channels might show an occasional woman anchor, but the channels are riddled with a quadrant of former male jocks endlessly bantering about any number of male players’ super passes or undue fumbles. Even widely acclaimed historic sports achievements, such as last summer’s remarkable Women’s World Cup championship, are isolated moments.

Searching for Film Imagery

So, where do women and girls get to see women’s sports films? Even find out about them? Common Sense, an educational organization that advocates for a healthy use of media, has a list of sports movies for young girls. But it only has eight movies in it. This is barely enough to take a young sports enthusiast through two months of media-consuming life.

In contrast, I thought programs focusing on youth-made media might offer movies about girls and sports, but nothing popped out on a quick search through the list of “youth media” at Media Rights, either. I ventured onto a the girl movie-making site, BeyondMedia Education, where, under the heading “LGBTQ Youth Activism” is a title A Fish Almost Eaten By A Shark. It tells the story of a “17 year-old soccer playing Latina” who is confronted by her principal when she uses video as an advocacy tool to start a gay-straight alliance; the 17-minute video is not so much about sports, but how a sports player records her real life.

The Women’s Sports Foundation previously maintained a list of recommended movies for girls. In truncated form, still in an online cache, 31 dramatic features and documentaries, are included. Among the films on the list is Whale Rider (2003) about 12-year-old Pai who defies tribal culture to challenge others in her age group for the right and skills development to become tribal leader. A New Zealand-made feature, this inspiring coming-of-age tale is graceful and empowering.

Women’s sports
media on the
Internet has a
huge potential

These tales of courage and overcoming adversity are powerful film subjects. I was a 13 when Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals in track and field in Rome in 1960. A young black woman, Rudolph had battled polio to become a remarkable athlete, certainly an inspiration on the track field at my urban high school. For the first generation of Title IX women athletes, a few bio-flicks made for television provided some role models. A 1977 television movie, Wilma, starring Cicely Tyson as her mother, was made from Rudolph’s autobiography. Two years earlier, another television bio-flick, Babe (1975), championed the life of Babe Didrikson Zaharis, a 1930s Olympic field gold medalist and, later, a superb golf professional. For today’s young aspiring athletes these women’s stories are available on DVD.

Numerous lists of the “100 greatest sports movies” are available online with mostly similar fare. However, the female selections are limited. In one, I counted, at most, seven of the 100 that featured women’s sports. Seven percent is miserable in this day and age for those of us who are 52 percent of the population.

One film on several of the lists is by a woman – Leni Riefenstahl, controversial for her role as a Nazi propagandist. While her documentary of the Olympics in Berlin in 1936, Olympia (1938), is politically divisive, it remains a powerfully artistic piece of cinematic history. In an earlier work, The Blue Light (1932), about climbing mountain peaks to protect the hidden cave of crystal lights, Riefenstahl combines directing, editing, acting and stunt work, including her own mountain climbing.

Successes by the Independent-Minded

Despite a limited number of commercial films, independent filmmakers have managed to tell inventive stories on film about women athletes. The Flashettes, directed by Bonnie L. Friedman and co-produced by Emily Leon, available from New Day Films is a short that I have programmed in several film series. Only 20 minutes long, this film – now 35 years old – is about a Brooklyn-based girls’ track club that builds sports prowess among young black teens, while instilling pride and positive self-identity. The film shows that individuals’ track efforts are important, but creating a team among the girls becomes central.

On an individual level, and more contemporary, is Diane Zander’s, 2004 54-minute documentary, Girl Wrestler. The film examines 13-year-old Texan Tara Neal in the last year when state guidelines will allow her to wrestle with boys. Neal grapples with policy debates over Title IX, among other pressures, delving into the meaning and value of sports in American culture.

From the Native American filmmaking community comes the documentary, Playing For the World, which tells the story of Native Women of differing tribes uniting on the court of the new sport of basketball while attending a Montana Indian boarding school in 1902. Once they win state championship, they go on to defeat all challengers at the 1905 World’s Fair in St Louis. With the same grace they display on the court, they handle issues of race and gender.

The Kartemquin Films, a film collective that previously produced the highly-acclaimed Hoop Dreams about two male high-school students in Chicago, now has a film on Title IX in the final stages of production. In the Game, directed and produced by Maria Finitzo, delves into the changes on the playing field, as well as the social, political and cultural landscapes both before and after Title IX. Through a compelling set of stories, the film shows “how participation in sports can represent power from small town life to the national stage, from the boardroom to Capitol Hill,” according to its Facebook page.

The showcasing of women’s sports media on the Internet has a huge potential. is where all things feminist in content and communities converge. An easy search of “sports” pulls up over 30 very varied clips. Fem News on has a standard two-woman news report on various controversies at the 2010 Winter Olympic from Vancouver, and the commentators give a great gender-informed rundown on the achievements of women. The S.H.E. Network, an initiative of Women’s Sports Foundation, carries video selections on Vimeo, where 88 videos are posted. Some are promotional videos from the Women’s Sports Foundation and its “GoGirlGo” chapters; others are clips from events. A search for “Webisodes, sports” reveals a number of university sports department clips. While the majority are from male locker rooms, a few interviews with women athletes emerge.

New Female-Friendly Engagement Needed

Sadly, there is no critical mass or sustained effort to support and grow this work. Critical change will only come when women start putting their own stories into film. An animation or live action film might go a very long way in supporting young women. For example, a film might tell the story of Selene, the Most Famous Bull Leaper on Earth by Zsuzsanna Budapest, with illustrations by Carol Clement. This story is about classical Minoa young women who are bull leapers, and describe a young athlete’s dream of dexterity and empowerment.

“Girls, surround yourself
in empowering media”

Geena Davis, who starred as Dottie, the catcher for the Rockford Peaches in the classic women’s sports film A League of Their Own, has an idea for girls and feminists. The movie, directed by Penny Marshall, about a 1940’s women’s professional baseball team is having a resurgence this year, the 20th anniversary of its release in 1992. In the years since it came out, Davis started a nonprofit organization, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The film star recently spoke at Seattle Town Hall for her foundation, where one junior high school girl from the audience asked what young girls can do to combat peer pressure and embrace feminism. Davis’ response: “Girls, surround yourself in empowering media.”

Powerful media stories do exist, and media women and cultural producers are striving to develop them daily. But new systems are needed to make stories of women in sports more available: Producers need financing; viewers need ways to find and access the work. Let’s hope by the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the media will be awash with representations of fiction, drama, poetry and true-life stories of women in sports — even that film I imagined about Joan Joyce of the Raybestos Brakettes. That would be truly empowering.

Ariel Dougherty is an independent filmmaker and producer. She writes about the intersections of women’s rights, feminist media and philanthropy. Her films have shown widely across the world. Her writings have appeared in congressional testimony, movie scripts and in many publications like Alternet and Women’s eNews.

Also see Olympics’ Coverage Still Shortchanges Female Athletes by Jane Schonberger in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Winning the Sports Beat: Female Writers Need Wide Angle Lens by Marie Hardin in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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