Derby Crazy Love. Directed by Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott. Toronto: Red Queen Productions, 2013. 64 minutes.
It Takes a Team! Making Sports Safe for LGBT Athletes and Coaches. Directed by Dan Nocera. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2004. 15 minutes.
Ladies of the Gridiron. Directed by Briana Young. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2010. 35 minutes.
Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports. Directed by Jeremy Earp. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010. 62 minutes.
Sport, with the body at its core, presents us with a valuable space to explore tensions and issues around gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. All four films under review do just that, as they use sport as a lens through which to engage cultural negotiations of power. Whether implied or stated explicitly, the films underscore sport as an important cultural form far from mere amusement. Instead sport matters and deserves our critical attention in helping us better understand the world in which we live. Importantly, one of the threads that weaves the four films together is that sport, like any number of cultural institutions and spaces, can be both a site of repression and agency. These films aid us, and our students, in teasing out this paradox.
It Takes a Team!’s promotional materials describe it as directed toward athletes, coaches, parents, and athletic directors.1 While those audiences are clearly its focus, the short documentary offers a number of starting points for more in-depth discussions in the classroom with populations beyond those listed above. Athletic spaces have and continue to be, in large part, intensely homophobic. The film begins with this point as high school and college athletes provide testimonials about the homophobia they have faced on courts and fields. Gay and lesbian players detail their experiences and decisions to come out or remain in the closet. Rather than characterizing all athletic spaces as homophobic and leaving it at that, It Takes a Team! explores different scenarios, from a high school football player who comes out and is welcomed by teammates to a female basketball player whose peers ostracize her for disclosing her identity. These nuanced responses are instructive as they assist students, especially those who identify as straight, in understanding the powerful implications of being an ally of or an adversary to a LGBTQ teammate. Also helpful to students are the ways in which the film conveys the different contexts and assumptions that swirl within men’s versus women’s sports in relation to LGBTQ issues. In addition, what is underscored through the voices of student-athletes in the film is that LGBTQ identity intersects with other subjectivities, including ethnicity and gender. A handful of student-athletes speak eloquently to this point and in doing so erase persistent myths of a monolithic LGBTQ culture. It Takes a Team! reminds us of the homophobia that remains in athletics, but it also underscores the enormous potential in making sport an open and inclusive space for all.
In many ways Ladies of the Gridiron and Derby Crazy Love have much in common. At a very basic level both films examine how female athletes in football and roller derby, respectively, understand and give meaning to their experiences in these incredibly physically demanding activities. The athletes in these films are center stage, and as a result, each documentary reinforces female voice and agency. The consequence of this perspective is a rarely seen characterization of female athleticism on a couple of levels: the intensely passionate engagement the athletes have with the activities they participate in and the powerful bonds of sisterhood that sports can create between and among women.
Ladies of the Gridiron follows the California Quake, a Los Angeles-based team in the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL). The group, in its incredible diversity along lines of age, ethnicity, and sexual identity, translates into varying cultural understandings of female physicality. This point underscores not only the different ways the athletes came to the sport but how they make meaning from their experiences on the field. There are any number of points of departure for instruction in our classrooms with this film as our guide. For example, how do we make sense of the female athletes’ entrance into the male preserve of football? In what ways do these women trouble constructions of masculinity and femininity? Recommended is Bobbi Knapp’s ethnography of women in professional football as a solid supplemental reading for undergraduates.2 One aspect of Ladies of the Gridiron to broach in the classroom that is not addressed in the film is how homophobia informs conceptualizations of women playing football. This discussion is especially important given the film’s lengthy engagement with the Lingerie League, an institutional rival of the IWFL. The Lingerie League’s aim to “sex up” to “get people in the stands” (players dress in lingerie with a bit of football gear as cover) sits in stark contrast to the unapologetic ways in which IWFL athletes come into and take up space in football. This contrast and the ramifications of “sexing up” in women’s sport creates fertile ground to prompt deeper discussions about women’s bodies as objects versus subjects, as well as the workings of heteronormativity in sport.
The roller derby athletes of Derby Crazy Love, like Ladies of the Gridiron, approach their sport with intensity and passion, providing us with another example of high-level female athleticism in a physically demanding activity. The film, which follows Montreal’s premiere team New Skids on the Block, forces us to rethink the gender binary that seems so entrenched in sport. Indeed, the athletes’ embodied performances on the roller derby track give us an expansive definition of womanhood. The New Skids on the Block athletes challenge gender conventions at every turn, thus making the film a provocative one in unsettling normative assumptions about athletic womanhood. A very solid compliment to this film is the work of Adele Pavlidis and Simone Fullagar who bring an intersectional analysis to the embodied realities of female roller derby players.3 In addition to upsetting traditional boundaries of femininity in athletic spaces, the New Skids on the Block players are purposefully political. For example, they wrestle with the tensions of attracting more interest in roller derby without losing the edgy counterculture core that defined them and their sport from the start. Unwilling to make these concessions, the derby women show the challenges of representing themselves and their sport in ways that reflect their expectations about athletic womanhood rather than those of outsiders.
Not Just a Game, the fourth and final film in this review, is an excellent introduction to a deeper, more critical understanding of sport for students. With a much broader focus than the previous three films, Not Just a Game is useful, in part, because it takes an array of complex ideological issues and unpacks them in clear and compelling ways. The film is presented in segments, beginning with a discussion about sport and the construction of hegemonic masculinity. Dave Zirin narrates the film’s lead-off part, emphasizing the role sport plays, showing not only how it reinforces a narrow conceptualization of manhood but also how that process is informed by the militarization of sports culture. The documentary’s frame of analysis then moves to gender and femininity in discussing women’s place in sport. Tensions surrounding female athleticism, given dominant gender norms, have long circulated in sport, thereby limiting women’s involvement in games and activities deemed “too masculine.” Homophobia’s connection to these tightly drawn gender boundaries is explored quite keenly in the film and in ways that will certainly prompt productive discussions in our classrooms. As the film moves to issues of race and ethnicity the point it most clearly exposes is the notion of sport as an important site of resistance to dominant assumptions about culture, the body, and identity. Indeed, there may be no greater current illustration of this section of the video than the recent “black lives matter” protests by athletes across the United States. Social inequalities are sustained, reinforced, and unsettled in sport and Not Just a Game provides powerful examples of that process.
Sport is each film’s anchor and as such courses in sport and culture (sport sociology, sport history, women and sport, sport film) are perhaps the most obvious spaces in which to offer up the documentaries for our students. However, it is both unfortunate and misguided to leave the films’ potential influence within those few academic locations. Educators interested in helping students hone critical thinking skills and better understand cultural negotiations of power are served by more closely examining the institution of sport. Without question, the four films under review are rich sites to aid us in exploring these dynamic arrangements.
1 Pat Griffin, Jeff Perrotti, Laurie Priest, and Mike Muska, It Takes a Team! Making Sports Safe for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Athletes and Coaches (New York: Women’s Sports Foundation, 2002).
2 Bobbi A. Knapp, “Becoming a Football Player: Identity Formation on a Women's Tackle Football Team,” Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal 20, no. 2 (2011): 35-50.
3 Adele Pavlidis and Simone Fullagar, “Narrating the Multiplicity of ‘Derby Grrrl’: Exploring Intersectionality and the Dynamics of Affect in Roller Derby,” Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal 35, no. 5 (2013): 422-37.