This year marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. President Nixon signed the act at a time when collegiate female sports teams were outnumbered by male teams two-to-one, and less than $100,000 nationally went to scholarships for girl athletes. The sweeping act does not specifically mention “sports” or “athletics,” but it does say that “no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” And thus, Title IX put federal power behind the idea that women deserve athletic opportunities equal to men.
Female athletes sprinted through the doors opened to them. While 295,000 girls played high school sports in 1972, 2.6 million do so today. In college sports, there were 30,000 female athletes; a generation later, there are more than 180,000. Soccer, basketball, softball, and volleyball hold strong as the most popular sports. The participation of girls in varsity sports has increased an astounding 1,000 percent.
Yet there is still a lag: Women comprise 41.7 percent of all college athletes today, though they are 55.8 percent of all students (as of a 2008 report).1 According to a study covering 2007-08, high school girls had 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play than their male counterparts. And while most Americans think equal athletic opportunities for boys and girls are a great idea, few know that Title IX makes it a legal right. Individual schools are typically tasked with investigating themselves, so there is little chance that pervasive Title IX violations will be revealed, let alone punished.2
Nonetheless, Title IX made it possible for girls to think of athletics as a viable part of their future, “not just something I did in high school,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. “When I think of the changing ideas of what women are physically capable of doing, it reminds me of the opportunities they did and didn’t have.”
What’s taking longer to develop is audiences: fans eager to support sports played by women in schools, in pro leagues, in the Olympics — or in the movies. On one hand, last year’s Women’s World Cup drew enormous international audiences and was ESPN’s most-viewed soccer match ever, and the second most-viewed daytime telecast in cable history. The final match between the U.S. and Japan broke a new Twitter record for a trending topic with 7,196 tweets per second worldwide.
On the other hand, Hollywood reveals the still-limited understanding of women’s sports. Films about female athletes are often explicitly about being a competitive girl in a traditionally masculine world. Compared to male sports movies, they feature individual sports more often than team sports — think Blue Crush, Ice Castles, The Cutting Edge, Soul Surfer, Girlfight — even though team sports are by far the most popular among female athletes. Love interests are more prominent plot points in sports movies about women, and women are hardly featured in a proportional number of sports movies overall.
Among the persistent tropes in sports movies about women is the guy whose coaching of female athletes signifies how very low he’s fallen. He’s a drunken ex-athlete himself (A League of Their Own), or a bitter former competitor whose success was cut short (National Velvet); he seethes with resentment because he missed his chance to coach men (Personal Best), or he “doesn’t train girls” and looks for any possible way out (Million Dollar Baby). Going by the typical storyline, the coaches will soon enough have a revelation: “Hey, this woman’s game is interesting and worth my time!” But the sheer ubiquity of the trope indicates that this is a lesson we have to learn again and again.
Women’s sports of today? They are at once prominent and on shaky ground. It’s a back-and-forth mirrored at the movies. And it’s a story worth watching. Here, then, is a tour of sports films from the pre-Title IX era through today. Together, they reveal what has — and hasn’t — changed about our real-life expectations of female athletes.
Thin Ice (1937)
Director: Sidney Lanfield
Starring: Sonja Henie, Tyrone Power
It’s sort of the opposite of Roman Holiday, with a musical comedy twist. A ski instructor at a luxury hotel in the Alps falls for one of the guests, who turns out to be a prince trying to escape royal pressures. This film gave Sonja Henie — who won figure skating gold medals for Norway in the previous three Olympics — a chance to show off her skill on the ice. Skating is one of the few sports that have long been open to women; indeed, it is primarily identified with them. But it was a man named Jackson Haines who is credited with developing the sport in the mid-19th century. When the first European and world championships were held just before the turn of the century, only men competed. In 1902, Madge Syers entered and finished second — cueing the International Skating Union to promptly ban women from competing against men. ISU then set up a separate competition for “ladies” in 1906. Today, women’s figure skating is one of the most popular spectator sports in the world. The 1993 National Sports Study II counted it as the second most popular sport among American fans, just behind NFL football.
National Velvet (1944)
Director: Clarence Brown
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney
Preteen Elizabeth Taylor plays a tomboy with the improbable name of Velvet Brown. She wins a horse that has a chance to compete for the Grand National steeplechase. But she has to charm a curmudgeonly ex-jockey (trope alert!) working as a hired hand for his help with training. Her ambitions get bittersweet encouragement from her mother: “I, too, believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly once in his life. I was 20 when they said a woman couldn’t swim the Channel. You’re 12; you think a horse of yours can win the Grand National. Your dream has come early; but remember, Velvet, it will have to last you all the rest of your life.” Velvet ends up taking the place of her jockey, and she and her horse take the title.
Despite Velvet Brown being dubbed a “national treasure” by audiences in the film, and even though smaller size is a virtue for jockeys, it wasn’t until a 1975 U.K. anti-discrimination law passed that female jockeys were able to enter the real-life Grand National race. As recently as 2009, Canadian jockey Chantal Sutherland had an owner take her off the saddle because he “didn’t want a girl” riding his horses. After 137 years, Rosie Napravnik became the sixth woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby last spring.3
Pat and Mike (1952)
Director: George Cukor
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy
Pat Pemberton is an extraordinary pro golf and tennis player, but she gets flustered whenever her fiancé shows up. He’s a pushy fellow who wants her to hurry up and marry him. So Pat hires Mike Conovan to manage her ahead of a major golf championship. He’s a small-time sports promoter with underground connections, and he believes in Pat’s future as a champion athlete. Katharine Hepburn exhibited real athletic skill in this film, while an assortment of sports stars made cameos, including Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Alice Marble, Gussie Moran, and Beverly Hanson. Pat and Mike continues the thread of pre-Title IX films that show girls competing in sports associated with the upper class. The graciousness associated with sports of privilege gave females a sort of buffer zone for athletic participation: Wealthy women had an “in” to a world that was otherwise considered anti-feminine. As with Thin Ice, Pat and Mike gives credibility to its story of a female athlete by showing “real” athletes with off-screen careers, and lead actresses who weren’t faking their physical abilities.
Bad News Bears (1976)
Director: Michael Ritchie
Starring: Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal
A hard-luck former minor leaguer is tasked with coaching a group of unwieldy Little League players. Morris Buttermaker is lazy and half-drunk, but after the Bears don’t even record an out in their first game before their opponents score 26 runs, he recruits Amanda Whurlitzer. She’s a standout pitcher, a mouthy preteen whose scorching throws lead the troubled team to the championship game.
The only reason that this team of ethnically diverse misfits with a girl pitcher exists is because of a lawsuit that challenged the Southern California league for excluding players. The Bears are created so the league has a place to dump the kids who can’t play, and thereby settles the legal point. The story’s satiric overtones are apparent. Two years before the movie’s release, and two years after Title IX, the National Organization for Women filed a lawsuit on behalf of a young ballplayer from Hoboken named Maria Pepe who played three games before being kicked out of the club. The court decision compelled Little League to eliminate its prohibition on girls playing baseball. “The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie,” the judge wrote in her ruling. “There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”
So Little League opened to the other half in 1974. But that same year, it launched its softball counterpart for girls. Softball saw more than 30,000 girls sign up the first year; today, more than 360,000 play. There is also now a softball division for boys. Many girls stuck with baseball, however: A female pitcher the same age as Amanda Whurlitzer threw a perfect game in 2009.
Personal Best (1982)
Director: Robert Towne
Starring: Mariel Hemingway, Patrice Donnelly
Once more, an Olympian turns actress. Patrice Donnelly plays Tory Skinner, an elite pentathlete who is the love interest and mentor of Mariel Hemingway’s Chris Cahill. Chris is a college student and hurdler who meets Tory after failing to qualify for the 1976 Olympics. The film realistically details their intense training together over the next four years ahead of the (doomed) Olympics in Moscow. Their coach is a bitter but talented man who puts Chris in the same event as Tory, forcing them to struggle with being direct competitors while also being in a relationship. Meanwhile, the coach’s emotional manipulation of Chris, weighted against the wavering balance of the vulnerability and ambition in both Chris and Tory, make Personal Best an unusually psychologically focused sports film.
The first Olympic track and field events for females were five competitions introduced in the Amsterdam Games of 1928, in response to women who clamored for it. Babe Didrickson — who would later show up in Pat and Mike — was the first American medalist, taking two golds and a silver at the 1932 Olympics. Wilma Rudolph, who couldn’t walk for most of her childhood, won three gold medals in Rome in 1960, the first televised Olympics. Athletes like Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner popularized women’s races in the late 20th century. There have traditionally been far fewer track and field events for women than for men in both Olympic and school sports, though they are much closer to parity in 2012. Meanwhile, the prominence of the sport normalized the image of women’s muscular, athletic bodies.4 The first female athlete on Sports Illustrated‘s cover was Joyner-Kersee in 1987. The heptathlete is pictured charging forward with her javelin on the brink of being thrown: a far cry from the sunbathing cover girls that have been featured on the magazine’s swimsuit edition since 1964.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Director: Penny Marshall
Starring: Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks
It took me 20 years before I got the Virginia Woolf reference in the title. Released ahead of the 50th anniversary of pro baseball played by women, A League of Their Own doubles back from a star catcher who reluctantly attends the induction of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, and her experience as a big hitter in the league’s first season. She and her pitching sister are among the players who try out at Wrigley Field and get assigned to the league’s four original teams: the Rockford Peaches, the Racine Belles, the South Bend Blue Sox, and the Kenosha Comets. Expansion teams later included the Kalamazoo Lassies, the Fort Wayne Daisies, the Minneapolis Millerettes, the Chicago Colleens, the Peoria Redwings, the Springfield Sallies, and the Milwaukee Chicks.
This is hardly akin to the grandiosity favored by MLB team names: the Tigers, the Giants, the Pirates, the Braves. The AAGPBL was taking pains to come up with synonyms for “cute girls.” It’s a theme that bled into expectations of players. As A League of Their Own depicts, these pro athletes were required to attend charm school. Not only were player uniforms trademarked with a flaring skirt, but the league’s rules of conduct forbade short hair, public smoking, and public drinking. Players were required to wear lipstick at all times.
This seems quaint, but the post-Title IX era of competitive women’s sports hasn’t shaken that “cute girls” burden. It isn’t enough to “Expect Great,” as the WNBA slogan puts it: Players are expected to prove themselves sexy and heterosexual if they are to be on the public stage. Forget the courtside accomplishments of Serena Williams or Kim Clijsters: Last summer, the Women’s Tennis Association launched the “Strong Is Beautiful” PR campaign, which will be pushed in 80 countries over two years. While tennis has one of the strongest fan bases in women’s sports, the campaign sells the game with glammed-up imagery of shiny athletes wearing (a little bit of) fashionable clothing while playing tennis in fairy-tale landscapes of colored smoke and glittering spotlights. The TV ads set this to sexy-scenic music. It is impossible to imagine a counterpart campaign for men’s tennis: I mean, Andy Roddick backhanding in a field of glitter to convince us of the beauty of his game? That would be ridiculous.
While the women’s pro baseball league was first imagined as a novelty money-maker when World War II threatened the viability of the MLB, the AAGPBL persisted through peacetime. Its peak was the 1948 season: Ten teams brought in 910,000 paid fans. The AAGPBL folded in 1954; pro leagues for women in other team sports have had mixed success. The WNBA celebrated its 15th anniversary last year with the first championship for the Minnesota Lynx, led by former UConn star Maya Moore. The Women’s Professional Soccer league is a young five-team organization struggling to capitalize on the World Cup’s spotlight, and to manage the aftermath of a bizarre team owner’s series of bad decisions: It canceled its 2012 season. Women’s pro football has meandered through a few false starts, with the most successful venture being, alas, the Lingerie Football League. Full-contact amateur leagues flourish: The nonprofit Independent Women’s Football League hosts 41 teams across the U.S. and Canada, while the Women’s Football Alliance hosts another 62. Team names? They range from the Chicago Force to the Tacoma Trauma to the Detroit Dark Angels.
Bring It On (2000)
Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku, Gabrielle Union
Torrance is the new captain of the five-time national champion cheerleading team of affluent Rancho Carne. When she finds out that the previous captain had stolen their routines from East Compton cheerleaders, she scrambles to choreograph new work in time for the tournament. Meanwhile, the East Compton squad is finally getting a chance to compete for the title that they’ve seen repeatedly won by their rich neighbors performing their routines.
While now female-led, cheerleading originated out of all-male pep clubs at East Coast universities. It wasn’t until colleges became increasingly coed that cheerleading emerged as a sideshow opportunity for girls to rally for boys playing a sport that they weren’t allowed to play themselves.5 But in Bring It On, cheerleaders — male and female — take the athleticism and creativity of cheer seriously; they are clear on their identity as athletes, rather than supporters of athletes.
Yet the validity of cheer as a sport is still in flux. A federal court ruled in 2010 that it can’t be counted toward a school’s Title IX standards for gender equity in sports — a case made by Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University after cutting its volleyball team in favor of hosting a cheer team, which it can field at less cost for more team members. Volleyball athletes and a coach filed the class-action lawsuit soon after Quinnipiac had been caught cooking the books on Title IX numbers. It would drop men’s players just before filing data with the U.S. Department of Education, and then immediately reinstate them. It added women’s players in time for federal reporting, and then cut them.6
The judge acknowledged the high-level athleticism of cheerleading in his decision, but indicated that it isn’t yet comparable with other varsity sports: clubs and high schools are still primary competition, athletes are recruited from the student body, there’s no playoff system, and participants are treated differently than other varsity athletes on campus. The NCAA doesn’t yet call cheer a sport, either, in part because the activity doesn’t have a governing body. In the wake of Qunnipiac’s lawsuit, two separate proposals to become a legitimate governing body are before the NCAA’s emerging sports program. Both proposals call for a name change: One suggests “acrobatics and tumbling,” the other, “stunts.” With any luck, these proposals will help cheer grow into a unique and viable sport of its own — not emerging out of Title IX deceptions and bad-faith maneuvering, but rather persistence, hard work, and spirited competition.
Love & Basketball (2000)
Director: Gina Prince-Blythewood
Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps
Two kids growing up next door to each other in 1980s Los Angeles both dream of playing in the NBA. Cycling through 13 years of friendship and romance between Monica and Quincy, the film moves through their lives as athletes in high school, college, and the professional circuit: Quincy on the L.A. Lakers, and Monica — playing just shy of the creation of the WNBA — in Barcelona on an international league. (An epilogue shows her playing for the L.A. Sparks.) The tension between the different opportunities available to them bleeds into the story: “I don’t have it easy like you, all right,” Monica says to Quincy. “There’s no red carpet laid out for me.” Love & Basketball includes the obligatory makeover scene that proves that Monica is not “just” a tomboy but traditionally feminine too. Play on.
This is not a particularly notable movie in any way except that its portrayal of a serious female athlete who is not white is rare. Black athletes are well represented among the trailblazers who opened sports to women — think Althea Gibson and Ora Washington in tennis, Wilma Rudolph in track, Cheryl Miller in basketball, and high-jumper Alice Coachman, who was the first black woman to win Olympic gold in 1948. But in films both past and present, the female athletes we see are almost entirely white.
Bend it Like Beckham (2002)
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Starring: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
There is no Title IX in Britain, but the soccer players — excuse me, footballers — in this movie that name-checks David Beckham have their sights set on playing at American universities. The battle for 18-year-old Jess is to get her traditional Sikh family in West London to accept (or not know about) how seriously she takes sports. But as her semi-pro team continues to succeed, it becomes harder to keep it a secret. Eventually, Jess’s father connects his experience of racial discrimination in cricket with his daughter’s desire to be fierce on the field. The original script had the two female leads becoming a couple, but it was rewritten so that they both fall for their male coach instead. Joe (trope alert!) is a former pro with a knee injury that killed his career. As in Love & Basketball, Jess gets a makeover scene, giving Joe a chance to go slack-jawed. Outside the romance subplot, this genial film celebrates the joy of team sports, cross-cultural participation, and the ambition of young athletes who are ready for “something more.”
As London looks to host this summer’s Olympics, it struggles to develop competitive female athletes. Forty percent of British girls drop out of all sporting activity by age 18, according to the New Scotsman. Between the ages of 16 and 24, twice as many men participate in sports. Host of one of the world’s great events in Wimbledon, Britain began offering equal prize money to male and female tennis champions in 2007.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman
This dark drama is a rarity among all sports movies: It won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and acting awards for Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. The story tells of Maggie, an underappreciated boxer from the Ozarks, who has to persuade Frankie “I don’t train girls” Dunn to help her go pro. Maggie won’t leave his gym. With the persuasive help of Frankie’s friend and former almost-champ, Scrap, he eventually makes her an offer: “If I take you on, you won’t question me, and I’ll try to forget that you’re a girl.” While she punches and dodges with every bit of life in her, he gives her a Gaelic nickname that fans embrace as she moves into high-stakes rings. The raw journey that comes afterward moves through both the grandeur and tragedy of boxing.
Million Dollar Baby may have drawn some inspiration from Girlfight, a much-celebrated independent film starring Michelle Rodriguez and directed by Karyn Kusama, a former boxer. Both stories feature tough leads battling against abusive families, trainers who don’t want to work with “girls,” and the brutality of low expectations. Big differences? Girlfight‘s boxer, Diana Guzman, is younger than Maggie — we see her fighting in the hallways of high school, and the film has coming-of-age overtones. Also, Diana gets a love story with another fighter at her Brooklyn gym — who is named, of all things, Adrian! Let’s call it Girlfight‘s nod to the tradition of Rocky, even as it makes room for an 18-year-old Latina.
The NCAA discontinued its boxing championship in 1960 after a University of Wisconsin boxer collapsed with a brain hemorrhage and died a week later. The National Collegiate Boxing Association, part of USA Boxing, started sanctioning boxing in schools in 1976. More than 25 schools currently participate. Men dominate the teams, but women participate as well. For the first time this summer, women’s boxing is an Olympic event: Three weight classes will compete. An international boxing association spent months deciding whether or not to compel women to wear skirts when they enter the ring at the London Olympics, rather like the baseball uniforms from 60 years ago that A League of Their Own laughed at. While it had advocated for boxers to wear skirts in previous competitions, the association eventually decided that London’s fighters could wear shorts or skirts this summer. Of any length.
Whip It! (2009)
Director: Drew Barrymore
Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig
The rulebook for the competitive sport of roller derby is less than a decade old, and already it has its own genre movie. Bliss is a small-town Texas teen who secretly joins a roller derby team in Austin called the Hurl Scouts. While Bliss is learning to use her aggression in a full-contact sport on wheels, her mother is pushing her into the beauty pageant circuit. As in Bend It Like Beckham, it’s the dad that’s first persuaded to support his daughter’s ambitions: He is a passionate Longhorns fan, and sees parallels between the joy of football and the joy of roller derby.
Today’s roller derby is a legitimate sport crafted out of the scripted WWE-style spectacle from the 20th century. While a touch of theater serves as a nod to the past, today’s skaters play with the full scope of serious sports: tryouts, drafting, officiating, penalties, ticket sales, statistics, and a governing organization. What’s more, roller derby proves that fans will show up for women’s sports. Regular-season bouts across the nation typically sell out arenas that seat thousands. The Derby News Network exponentially amplifies the audience. Competitive derby caught on fast enough for Toronto to host the first Roller Derby World Cup in December, with 13 nations from four continents competing. More than 450 leagues play flat-track derby around the world. Junior leagues are increasingly prevalent, which is deepening the skill level on the track. It’s a matter of time before these leagues get associated with schools and colleges.
Roller derby stands out as a sport that women created and dominate. Men play derby, too, but they started skating after the women’s sport developed, and in proportions that usually go the other way in athletics.
This, then, points to the possible future for female athletes. Title IX continues to be crucial in ensuring that women have the chance to play sports traditionally dominated by men: The Women’s Sports Foundation still gets a lot of calls from parents who want to open up more sports for their daughters. But the game of catch-up equity doesn’t have to be permanent. Roller derby proves that women can create and cultivate new sports, taking a starting position on competitive athletics rather than waiting to get off the bench.
In the meantime, sports movies do more than mirror the changing opportunities for female athletes: They quietly cultivate them.
Katie Hnida has experienced the best and worst of the post-Title IX era. She’s the first woman to play, and score, in NCAA Division I football. But ferocious harassment and rape by a teammate forced her to transfer from the University of Colorado to the University of New Mexico, where she played three seasons as a placekicker. While the recent disgrace at Penn State and Syracuse has put a spotlight on epidemic sexual abuse in top-tier college sports, Hnida has been speaking out about it for years.
It’s a story she tells in her book, Still Kicking, which opens with a quote from A League of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Hnida calls A League of Their Own “absolutely one of my all-time favorite movies. It captures the true essence of sport: not just the wins and the losses, but the human spirit. … [Tom Hanks, as coach Jimmy Dugan] talks about how he can tell how much [Dottie, Geena Davis’s character] loves the sport, that it makes her come alive, that it makes her shine. I relate heavily to that I love to play. I simply love kicking and the sport of football. Lacing up my cleats, stepping out onto that field, makes me feel more alive, more like myself than anything in the world. I knew what Tom Hanks was talking about.”
Hnida said she appreciates that this movie keeps its focus as a sports story, rather than turning into a “‘girly movie” — it’s easier for her to share her love of the film with her brothers and her father. She calls Million Dollar Baby another favorite because it is “one of the first movies I have ever seen where they show a woman training her tail off.” The character of Maggie is, simply, an athlete. But in both the movies and in real life, most of us still aren’t used to the sight of her. The cinematic singularity of Maggie training her guts out is telling. Major television networks spend precious little airtime on women’s sports — 1.6 percent, to be exact, down from 6.3 percent in 2004. In both television and print media, women’s sports make up, at most, 8 percent of total sports coverage, according to Time magazine. This directly contributes to a national mood in which, 40 years after Title IX, women who play sports are not athletes so much as “female athletes.” They are the modifier, not the noun. There’s still an air of novelty about women’s sports.
Anna Clark is a writer from Detroit. She edits the literary blog Isak. Follow her on Twitter at @annaleighclark.