In this essay, I will discuss how women in sport are seen using examples from three films made in United Kingdom, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The following chosen films are Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002), Chak De! India (Shimit Amin, 2007), and Wadja (Haifaa al-Mansour, 2013). I will argue the differences between women and man in sports, and how women have been perceived in sports by society in their origin countries over time using as an argument three different film.
Wadjda is the first fiction film completely filmed in Saudi Arabia, a country dominated by the very conservative culture of Islam (Stafford, 2014, p. 178). Moreover, the production was directed and written by a female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, who chose to tell the story that addresses freedom and generational conflict by following the life of an 11 year old girl whose great desire is to ride a bicycle. It is also a feminist film in its approach to the condition of women in Saudi Arabia (Brooks, 2013). The whole conflict in the film is built on a frightening oppressive reality not only in relation to Wadjda, but also to the figure of the woman in general. The objective pursued by the little fighter protagonist of the story is, as the director tells us, a metaphor for a greater struggle: ‘The bicycle is a metaphor for freedom of movement, which does not exist for women and girls in Saudi Arabia. If I want to go anywhere, I need permission from some man in the family. I can’t even drive a car on the street or take a train without permission. I wanted the acceleration, the movement of the bicycle to give life to intellectual debate and make people understand that this is just movement” (Ellis, 2013). In fact, throughout the film, Wadjda is moving through forbidden spaces. She confronts limits and conventions with the naturalness and softness that an 11-year-old can present. This is portrayed through a plan on the feet of the students of a rigid school reciting the Koran (Muslim holy book) introduces the spectator into the world of Wadjda, an 11-year-old girl who, unlike the others, does not wear black sandals with no personality, but rather some very worn-out ‘All-Star’ of which she seems to feel great pride. In fact, it is from this quality, hand in hand with a healthy stubbornness, that she reacts and is strengthened in a world dominated by male oppression. The feet are the primordial symbolic element; from the desire for liberation of the girls who paint their nails to the number of times they appear to wash them as a form of purification. To these signs is added the obvious desire for female emancipation through the protagonist’s dream of having a bicycle, a pleasure completely forbidden to girls who follow the norms of decorum. Wadjda is not indifferent to the condition of women in her country. However, as a child, Wadjda does not realize that her gestures are an affront to social conventions. Wadjda finds in director Hussa her greatest adversary when it comes to the acquisition of the bicycle. Hussa is not presented as a villain. In her, there is no Manichaeism or stereotyping, but the affirmation of an ideology designed to embarrass those she chains, to the point of reproducing it and defending it becomes a natural act. In terms of cinematography, it is possible to observe that scenes often start with a close-up to emphasise details, and the colour is often emphasize and used as a symbol of rebellion or a technique for emerging from the crowd, with a great deal of primary costumes being in monochromes of highly contrasting (Andrews, 2013).
Chak De! India (2007) directed by Shimit Amin is a film about a group of 16 women hockey players from different states, religious and class backgrounds; they look different, have extremely different temperaments, speak different languages and hold regional prejudices against each other who struggle to prove their courage to the world of sports. Hockey, a sport in which India dominated the Olympic Games until the 1960s and even today in the overall framework of medals in the sport is absolute leader. It is worth noting that all this tradition was achieved by men. Indian women’s hockey does not have medals in the Olympics. They are not well regarded and almost rejected by the Indian people, but they are coached by Kabir Khan, a former hockey captain who has been removed from the national team. Chad De! India faces and overcomes problems such as gender discrimination, lack of moral support, denial of opportunities. The greatest obstacle is no doubt the attitude of men towards women athletes. Women who play sports, as well as sportsmen, are discouraged at every step. Throughout the film, Komal Chautala needs to confront his parents to get authorization to play hockey and be part of the national women’s hockey team. As well as the team captain, Vidya Sharma has to endure the opposition at different levels (Elley, 2007). All men believe that investing money and having hope in the female hockey team is a totally credible waste, and on top of that, there is no one interested in training a female hockey team, not even the trust of Mr. Tripathi, director of the Indian Hockey Association, he believes that the only role of women is to clean and cook, and to stay at home and look after their children. As Worrell argued in “Sexual Awakenings and The Malignant Fictions of Masculinity” sexists are proud to represent themselves an identity as men under patriarchal masulinity (Worrell, 2011, p.158).
On the other hand, the film, though not radically feminist shows these women as individuals with talent and grit trying to make it big in sports, and promotes a sense of sisterhood amongst women, that cuts across various sub-identities of region, class, language and religion. Their temperaments, attitude and idiosyncrasies make for lovable characters for the audience, that itself is a mix of conservative and selectively progressive groups. Their first loss in the tournament is due to lack of harmony between the players, while their team is always a site of interpersonal conflict. When the entire team plays by the book according to their clearly defined roles, they win. It is in their reconciliation and integration, which their upward mobility lies. Of course, one can argue that this is the reality of team sports. But while exploring ideas of projecting an identity of the country in a globalised world, we need to see even these plot-points as holding deeper meaning. The female players, sacrificing their regional identities for their national identities in the globalised world, represent a burden of pre-determined, industrialised labour, required to be done by them in the larger machinery of the global entity that India is in the process of becoming (Ransom, 2014).
Bend it Like Beckham directed by Gurinder Chadha, it is a film that mix themes such as racism, integration, living between two cultures and the status of women, it is a movie about Jess, a young Indian girl, lives with her family in Hounslow, England. Avoiding social and family traditionalism, Jess loves to play football. When invited to join a team by Jules, an Englishwoman who shares the same passion, Jess discovers that she could have a future in this practice if she succeeds in going to the United States and becoming a professional player. To do so, however, she will have to deal with all the pre-trial issues in her family, who believe that soccer is a sport for men and that a woman’s greatest glory is getting married (Manners, 2002). The film unfolds its plot around two central issues: one of an ethnic nature, problematized from the Indian family living in an English metropolis, and one relative to gender conceptions, which develops through the desire of the protagonist woman to play soccer. Logically, the two questions cross each other and the traditionalism of religion induces gender issues to express themselves more vehemently. Culturally sport has been a terrain in which masculinity is expected and demanded, a ‘school’ in which one learns to value masculinity and to devalue femininity, a cultural space where very often boys and men learn to exalt themselves by devaluing these traits both in physically weaker subjects and in women. This way of emphasizing feminism reflects that the sports space, especially football, is seen or represented as the place of the masculine (Pitti, 2018). Transgressing such a barrier implies a Samson to the feminine, which should then be compensated with the maintenance if other traits of femininity, as evidenced in the park scene when Jess plays with his friends, three girls observe and begin to harass the boys who play alongside her, and when Tony calls Jess, the three girls comment and tell Jess that her boyfriend is calling her, Jess quickly replied to shut up and says she is not sassy like them, then the three girls fight back by mentioning that Jess is acting like that because she is still a virgin thinks that is better than, and then Tony replies defending Jess, stating that at least she was not with over half the city as they were. In the scene transcribed above, the circulating representation is that when a woman attends a football match, she does so not for the appreciation of the game, but for the physical beauty of the men who play it. They are then seen as mere supporters of football, who dream of having some relationship with the brave and strong player. In addition, the other woman present in the scene, Jess, the protagonist of the film, Bend it Like Beckham is treated with strangeness for having dared to insert herself into a male universe and leave her femininity aside, while not openly desiring a boyfriend like the others and still being a virgin. In another scene it is possible to watch the father and Jules playing football in the garden and then the mother appears and comments to the father, Alan, when you will understand that you have a daughter, with breasts, not a son. In this scene, the sport is considered a hindrance to the femininity and even to the heterosexuality of Jules, Jess’ teammate. The feminine is constantly controlled and compared to the masculine, because the skilful and strong women, that is, with so-called masculine characteristics, are classified as masculine. The closer they get to the masculine model, the more they distance themselves from the ideal of femininity and start to be questioned about their sexual orientation. Female bodies are thus exposed to constant vigilance and charging. There is an establishing shot at the beginning that indicates exactly where the scene is located. The shot is of the houses on the street. It then breaks down into when Mrs. Bhamra is praying to Babaji before she opens the letter, and then the camera is placed at a high angle, as if she were looking into Babaji’s eyes, which makes the family look small and babaji powerful. By the time Mr. Bhamra says to Jess what she can become, the sad oriental music picks up, giving a sense that she is subservient to her culture. The next shot is of her wash hung in the backyard, in which she kicks the ball through the wash. This scene, as you go deeper, has more significance. The colourful saris that hang on the wash line symbolizes her culture, family and domesticity. When it kicks the ball through her clothes, it is like she wants freedom, by kicking it through her culture.
In conclusion, these chosen films helps to challenge stereotypes and prejudice about gender, race and culture, but at the same time different approaches in each film. In Wadjda explores Saudi Arabia’s cultural orders perpetuating gender segregation,
Saudi Arabia’s oppressive intersection of gender and religion and advocates optimistically for change through bicycle symbolism.
With print and visual media and social media growing more popular and strong, acceptability to women sports and women in sports will gradually make its way in the course of time, of course faster than it did in past.
- Andrews, B., (2013). The Middle East. Wadja, p. 58.
- Brooks, X., (2013). Wadjda, Saudi Arabia’s first female film, is country’s Oscar entry. The Guardian.
- Elley, D., (2007). Chak DE! India. Variety, Volume 408.
- Ellis, R., (2013). Wadjda. Little white Lies.
- Manners, D., (2002). Bend it Like Beckham. Electronics Weekly, Issue 2051, p. 20.
- Pitti, I., (2018). Being women in a male preserve: an ethnography of female football ultras. Journal of Gender Studies, 28(3), pp. 318-329.
- Ransom, A. J., (2014). Bollywood goes to the stadium: Gender, National Identity, and sport film in Hindi. Journal of Film and Video, Volume 66, pp. 34-49.
- Stafford, R., (2014). The Global Film Book. 1st ed. Abingdon, Oxon : Routledge.