Taking Up Space: cinematic adventures in male-dominated sports

Emma Seligman's Bottoms promises a queer female fight club – how does it perform in the canon of films about women carving out space for themselves in hyper-masculine worlds?


Nora Murphy

The first thing my coach did when I stepped into the boxing ring was readjust my position. The second thing he did was tell me that if he ever had to move me about, I didn’t need to worry – he’d had a boyfriend for six years. Maybe it was wrong of me to be surprised by his admission; not only the vulnerability it took to disclose his sexuality within moments of meeting me but also his willingness to do it in a traditionally hypermasculine space. Either way, from that first encounter, I knew that this was a space without judgement – a space where I was safe.

Safe spaces for women in male-dominated activities are few and far between. Take a look at the most prominent films featuring women in sports, and you’ll find that often the exercise serves as a metaphor for overcoming adversity, be it sexism in A League of Their Own and Million Dollar Baby, racism and the pressures of familial duty in Bend it Like Beckham, or even internal bias in Fighting With My Family and Bottoms. Sportswomen are not only held to higher standards than their male counterparts, constantly made to feel like they have to fight for a right to be there, but they’re also pitted against each other – sometimes through competitions, but often by themselves.

As someone who loves boxing and has recommended Shiva Baby to everybody they know, Emma Seligman’s Bottoms was one of my most highly anticipated films of the year. With its campy themes, queer protagonists, bold colour palette and star-studded cast, including Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri, I had high hopes for the premise: two “gay, ugly and untalented” teenagers set up a fight club so they can finally pluck up the courage to talk to the pretty cheerleaders they have crushes on. What followed was a raucous, high school ensemble comedy reminiscent of the John Tucker Must Die era, full of campy violence but (from a boxing point of view) very little actual fighting.

In the case of sports films with women at the centre, often the stories that focus on the love of the game and the gratification that comes with overcoming obstacles feel more rewarding than those that focus on romantic narratives. In Fighting With My Family, it takes wrestler Paige almost losing her dream to make her realise how much she wants it. In Million Dollar Baby, boxing is “the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you”. These women aren’t there for the promise of sexual gratification or even for the glory that comes at the end of a match, but because they can’t imagine themselves doing anything else, and they’re willing to risk it all for one more round in the ring.

Bend it Like Beckham’s Jess (Parminder Nagra) risks her relationship with her family who make no secret of their disapproval for football and would rather see her settled down with a husband than playing the sport she loves. Fighting With My Family’s Paige, played by the exceptional Florence Pugh risks letting down parents who’ve pinned all of their hopes on her to finally be the one to bring the belt home. In A League of Their Own, Geena Davis’ indomitable Dottie Hansen risks her marriage and her comfortable life to play a game where women are seen as dispensable placeholders. Even Amanda Bynes’ Viola in She’s The Man risks being exposed as a girl, kicked off the team, and losing the one thing she cares about. Through the introduction of an elusive sports recruiter, both Dottie and Paige are given a choice: stay at home in the comfort of the life they have built for themselves, or do something extraordinary. The choice to leave is the inciting incident that kicks the plot into action and tells us that these are characters who make risky choices for the chance of a high reward.

Struggle in female sports films comes not only from the pressures of the sport but also the pressure to prove themselves in male-dominated spaces where they are underestimated at best and harassed at worst. Despite being a better footballer than her male mates, Jess is constantly berated by the men she plays football with until she finds sanctuary among the Hounslow Harriers – a team only set up after Jules begged their coach Joe for an opportunity to play. Similarly, in Million Dollar Baby, Maggie experiences abuse and harassment as the only female boxer in a male-dominated gym, with her body being the focal point of hard-hitting Shawrelle (Anthony Mackie)’s undermining comments. There’s a degree of respect around men in sports that women aren’t afforded the luxury of; women have to work twice as hard to be given half the amount of attention.

These women are fighting not only through their sport but fighting to even be considered for a seat at the table in the hope that they might be thrown some crumbs. In She’s The Man, disguising herself as a man serves as both a plot device and a safety mechanism for Amanda Bynes’ Viola. Like her Shakespearean counterpart in the film’s source material, Twelfth Night, Viola is afforded freedoms and opportunities in the guise of a man that she would not otherwise be granted. The choice to revise Shakespeare’s mistaken-identity comedy as She’s The Man for a contemporary audience only serves to demonstrate how, over four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote the original play, women in male-dominated activities are yet to achieve equality, still fighting for their place on the pitch – or in Twelfth Night’s case, on the ship.

Double standards are rife in A League of Their Own, where it takes a war to allow women out of the home and onto the pitch, and the end of the war signals the end of women’s baseball. Despite the Rockford Peaches’ fierce dedication, playing with sprained ankles, broken bones, and riding the bus all night to play a double-header the next morning, the women play only on the condition that ‘when the men come back, they’re sent back to the kitchen’. The women are there on the condition that they play well, look pretty, and serve as a distraction while the men are off at war. If they refuse to play ball in a short skirt, then there are “38 girls getting train tickets home who’ll play in a bathing suit” if the league asked.

Twenty-six years after the release of A League of Their Own, women are still seen as subordinates in Crystelle Moselle’s 2018 feature Skate Kitchen. Featuring the real-life NYC Skate Kitchen, who chose their name after a comment on their YouTube channel suggested that they ‘get back in the kitchen’, female skaters are referred to as ‘posers’ simply for doing something they love. But it’s that adversity and the struggle to be seen as equals that spawns the collective the film takes its title from, who play fictionalised versions of themselves in the film. In the same way that Million Dollar Baby’s Maggie finds the father figure she’s been lacking in coach Frankie, there’s found family in Skate Kitchen, amplified by the authenticity of using real skaters from non-acting backgrounds. The girls in the film hang out every day, skate together, sweat together, bleed together, and it shines through the film. We feel like we’re looking in on an established friendship group, and it’s easier to root for them because we’re invested in the solidarity between them.

Similarly, in Fighting With My Family Paige must work not only to earn the respect of the other girls but to overcome her own biases towards them. Initially, Paige uses beating the other girls as her motivation to get better – she wants to beat the girls who are there to “jiggle their arse and tits” and prove herself as a “real wrestler”. But it’s only when she confronts her own internalised misogyny that Paige is able to improve as a wrestler, learn from these women, and in doing so trigger audiences to re-evaluate their own judgements about the models-turned-wrestlers she’s thrown into the ring with. Solidarity between women might exist in Bottoms, but it feels earned in Fighting With My Family because of Paige’s struggle, not only to earn the respect of the other girls but to overcome her own biases towards them.

There are moments within Bottoms which emblemise the importance of solidarity in numbers and female strength. In one scene, it’s revealed that all of the women in the self-defence group have experienced violence at the hands of men. Considering the impact of the Me Too conversation and the continued prevalence of male violence against women in the news, it’s no surprise that female filmmakers use their medium to convey the message that women don’t feel safe. Similarly, it’s no surprise that week-on-week, the female-only session at my boxing club continues to rack up members. Women want to feel like they can protect themselves because they’ve learned to believe that this world isn’t built to nurture them.

Supportive communities are the first step to building resilience – and while that can come through family, the found family that exists within these films is often more important than blood ties. In Coach Frankie, Maggie finds the support she had never received from her blood relatives. While for Kit, baseball has always been about the love of the game, for her sister Dottie it’s about the community. “I’ll tell you what I’ll miss,” says Dottie, when she leaves the team to return to the dairy following her husband’s dismissal from the war, “I’ll miss the girls”. Ultimately, Dottie wants a family, and while the team temporarily meets that need for her, her husband’s return signals the start of a new chapter in her life. One that doesn’t involve baseball.

It’s great to see a rise in mainstream cinema with Queer women at the helm – something that was severely lacking when I was a teenager – but in order to be complex, representative and validating, Queer characters need to have aspirations and goals that extend beyond just their sexuality. It’s a shame that in Bottoms, there’s a lack of passion for the fight club which incites the film’s plot. What binds characters like Paige, Maggie, Jess and Kit together is the fact that they’re willing to risk everything, including comfort, relationships, and sometimes their safety, because sport brings meaning to their lives. With the exception of Hazel, the fight club doesn’t seem to really matter to any of the characters in Bottoms; it was a by-product of serving the higher goal of wooing cheerleaders, less concerned with self-defence than it was with slapping, shoving and rolling around on the floor. Bottoms had an opportunity to inspire the next generation of female fighters, but instead, its attention is focused solely on getting the girl.

Although Bottoms didn’t offer the nuanced take on female solidarity I had come to expect from watching Shiva Baby, it prompts a conversation about the safety of young women and the importance of a network who you can be vulnerable with. Western society has come a long way in increasing the visibility of women in sport – in football England’s Lionesses made history this year in the World Cup Semi-Final and Nicola Adams’ boxing career brought her Olympic Gold in 2012 and world championship title in 2019. But there’s still a long way to go.

In a 2022 study carried out by Women in Sport, it was found that almost half of girls who engage in sports drop out during their teenage years due to a lack of confidence, worries about being judged, and concerns about their safety. Film holds a mirror to these concerns, with harassment and judgement existing across the canon of cinema featuring women in sports, but it’s not enough just to represent these women; we need to champion them, and in doing so, do right by the next generation of girls so that they don’t become just another statistic, giving up their goals because a gender bias has forced them out. There’s no reason that PJ and Josie couldn’t discover a passion for boxing or wrestling alongside their romantic endeavours – after all, women can (and frequently have to) do it all, behind the camera or on the playing field.

Published 3 Nov 2023

Tags: A League of Their Own Bend It Like Beckham Bottoms

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