Women, Sports, and the Short Films that Bridge the Learning Gap in Understanding their Dynamic Involvement and Evolution in Society

by Missy Skurzewski-Servant

An exploration of women’s involvement in the sports world can assist learners in better understanding how sports and society affect each other. One specific aspect of this impact involves the integration of women into sports and, more specifically, how women’s involvement in athletics has helped to shape the sports world over the last several decades. The University of Wisconsin Colleges offers students the opportunity to investigate this further in a “Women and Sport” course that is cross-listed between the Health, Exercise Science, and Athletics Department and the Women’s Studies Department. In this course students explore various topics surrounding women and their involvement in sports including female athlete pioneers, Title IX, the female athlete in relation to society’s standards of femininity and masculinity, institutionalized gender biases and inequities in sport, sexuality in sport, the impact of being a competitive athlete on the physiological and biological processes specific to the female anatomy, and body image of the female athlete. In this course I have used short films to enhance student learning and compliment lectures, discussions, and various readings surrounding these topic areas. The series Nine for IX Shorts, created by ESPN Films and espnW, can be used for this purpose.1 These short films inform students about women who have had an impact on sports and women’s involvement in sports. The protagonists’ unique life stories and journeys through the traditionally masculine world of sports can also assist in fostering discussion around the various topics previously mentioned.

Women athlete pioneers (e.g., Roberta Gibb, Diane Crump, Maria Pepe, Billy Jean King, Mia Hamm) broke down the barriers regarding inclusion in sports not only in the early 1960s but also in the present day. For example, Rowdy Ronda Rousey chronicles Rousey’s rise in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting as the first female Bantamweight Champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). She made her way into the UFC at a time when it was not widely accepted for women to be actively involved in the sport of MMA fighting. Rousey also experienced institutionalized gender biases and inequities in sport through the claim by the UFC President Dana White that women would never fight in the UFC. It was after meeting with Rousey that he allowed a women’s division to be formed and received much criticism for his decision, demonstrating that men and women can both create and break down barriers to the advancement of women. A discussion regarding images of female athletes also stems from this film as Rousey encouraged those within MMA to view her as a fighter focusing on improving her skills rather than centering sole attention on the characteristics of her body.

Coach C. Vivian Stringer’s life as a mother, wife, and women’s college basketball coach is explored in the film Coach. As another female pioneer in athletics, she was the first to coach teams that made it to the Final Four round in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament from three different collegiate institutions. In Coach Stringer also discusses how she and her husband did not always fulfill traditional gender roles of femininity and masculinity. When she was consumed with her work as a coach, he was more involved in raising their children. However, she does view her experience in these traditional roles as an asset in coaching, as, for example, when she guided the Rutgers women’s basketball team through their encounter with racial and gender stereotypes after Don Imus referred to them as “nappy headed hoes.”

The short film Brittney Griner: Lifesize is one that can be used to discuss many different topics connecting feminism and athletics including institutionalized gender biases and inequities in sport, society’s standards of femininity and masculinity, sexuality in sport, and representations of the female athlete. The film chronicles Griner’s journey to China to play basketball during the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) off-season. As expressed in the film, professional women’s basketball players in the United States earn approximately $49,000, which is not only drastically lower than their male counterparts but also considerably less than the approximate $600,000 they are offered to play in China. Consequently, many women go to China during the off-season to maintain their skills and earn money. This is accompanied by challenges involving time away from their family, difficulties acclimating to a different culture and style of playing the sport, pressure from being the star player, and—for Griner—her ultimate fear of being alone. The film also emphasizes how, reflecting traditional United States standards of female roles, women in China are expected to work within the home. While women’s basketball is very popular in China, women spending time in the public sphere to play sports is viewed as contradictory to this role. In addition to embodying this nontraditional role, Griner also openly presents herself as a fast-food-eating, skateboard-riding, homosexual female athlete. This can encourage students to explore stereotypes about female athletes, specifically in relation to sexual orientation.

These films are short enough (between ten and twenty minutes) to be shown during class, where students and instructor view the films and discuss in small groups and/or one large group together. Or, because these short films are accessible online without cost, students can easily view them outside of class. As mentioned previously, these Nine for IX shorts can enhance students’ exploration of athlete wide range of issues addressing gender, race, class, sexuality, embodiment, cultural representations, and health. In Appendix A I outline primary and secondary topics for each film to aid instructors in planning when to include a film in their class.

In order to help students further conceptualize topics connecting women and sports, I have also included a diagram (Appendix B) to visually represent (a) the foundation of sport as primarily based in masculinity, (b) historical events and movements (e.g., the passing of Title IX, the women’s movement), and (c) present-day state of women in sport. I encourage students to refer to this diagram throughout the course to help make connections among what is viewed in films and the topics discussed in class surrounding women’s involvement in sport. In addition to the diagram, I offer some reflection questions I use (Appendix C) to aid students’ thinking while they watch the films. This can foster better group discussion, as well as provide direction to students when translating their thoughts into a formal written paper.

Appendix A


Love & Payne

Rowdy Ronda Rousey

Think Normal

Brittney Griner: Lifesize

Uncharted Waters

Play a Round with Me

Appendix B

diagram relating women in sports to the roots, trunk, and branches of a tree

Appendix C

HES 218/WOM 218 – Women & Sport
Response/Reflection Paper - EXAMPLE
“[Film Title]”

Due:  ##-##-##

Use examples from the film and information learned from class discussion and the readings to support your answers to the following questions.

  1. Describe some examples of the traditional views of masculinity and femininity as demonstrated in the film and how they relate to current views on masculinity and femininity.
  2. What connections are evident between this team and/or the athlete(s) and the events of the women’s movement (e.g., Title IX, 19th Amendment, Equal Rights Amendment, etc.)?
  3. After viewing this film, how have your views on feminism and women in sport changed or remained the same?  How about your viewpoint on “equality”?
  4. Why do you think the producer of the film decided to title it “[Film Title]”?  What does that title mean to you in relation to what you have seen in the film and what we have discussed this semester?

1 You can read synopses of the films and link to full versions of each through ESPN's website.

Missy Skurzewski-Servant earned a BA in exercise science from Ripon College, a MS in kinesiology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a PhD in leadership studies from Marian University. Currently the Dean of General Education and Business at Mid-State Technical College, she previously spent nine years as an administrator (Athletic Director 2006-2013; Associate Dean 2013-2015) and instructor (adjunct 2006-2008; assistant professor 2008-2014; associate professor 2014-2015) at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan within the Health, Exercise Science, and Athletics Department of the UW Colleges. She has also taught health and physical education courses for the UW-Sheboygan/UW-Oshkosh Collaborative Bachelor’s Degree in Education.