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Women Play the Game: Women Athletes on Film

There truly hasn’t been a great deal of sports films based on women–like every other genre it has been dominated by men. Often, it’s a man’s story on a team somewhere in a small town where they are looking forward to their “Friday Night Lights,” whether it be football, basketball, boxing or baseball. It has always been about the men, but when do women truly get “A League of Their Own”? Even in real-life situations, a woman’s Olympic team can’t seem to exist without judgment or controversy. A recent example being this year when the Norwegian handball team was fined for wearing shorts, having rejected their old bikini outfits. Women are paid far less, objectified far more and underrepresented on the screen as athletic heroes. However, I’d like to present some definitive examples that do demonstrate a rare honesty and quality that shows how women come and play the game.



In 2004, legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood released this tale of a down-on-her-luck waitress turned heavy contender boxer that fights against the odds to go farther than she could have imagined. Hilary Swank is an amateur underdog working and living below the poverty line when the owner of a boxing gym–played by Clint Eastwood–reluctantly agrees to train her. Over time, they form an almost father/daughter bond. It is a film of hope and inspiration that ultimately ends in tragedy. Despite it all, it is a genuine tale that demonstrates the power of a woman’s will to pursue the American Dream in the ring and in life.

Hilary Swank would also win an Oscar for Best Actress for her outstanding and truly inspiring performance, playing her character down to the bone with a raw intensity and earning the respect of the men that surround her. This is a film that will forever withstand the test of time as being one of the great “women in sports” films. It is one of those rare films that demonstrates a woman can take just as much pain, if not more than a man can and fight just as hard, if not harder, to find the respect and chances they deserve. 



2006 saw the release of the critically-acclaimed Iranian film, Offside, directed by Jafar Panahi. The inspiration for the film came from the director’s own daughter who attended a World Cup soccer match in Iran. Though the film itself is about women on a team, it is about women’s rights to be seen and heard in a time and place that limits their existence. Female fans are not allowed to enter the stadium due to the fact that they could face possible physical and verbal abuse due to their gender. The screening of the film itself was even banned in its own country. Most of the characters in Offside aren’t even given names. It carefully and passionately showcases how women must disguise themselves as men so that they can take part in even the simplest of what little pleasures they have in their country–where men are constantly telling them what to do, think and feel. 

The film was shot on location in Azadi Stadium during an actual game with the Iranian National team. (Interestingly, the ending of the film depended entirely on the ending of the match.) Offside is a film that pictures what it’s like to be a woman who can’t even enjoy being a fan of sports and be able to sit down in her own country comfortably and safely without the risk and danger of being punished for simply being there. It is a film about unity and equality–something that is now more crucial than ever. By the end of the film, city streets are filled with people in celebration over their country’s victory, both men and women alike. The night sky is ignited with fireworks and crowds of Iranian citizens cheering for their team. Offside in many ways is compassionate about the representation of the country of Iran as a whole, as much as it is also about equally giving the women of Iran their right to be seen, heard and above all, respected.



Loosely based on the outrageously-famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, Battle of the Sexes is an important true-life story that takes place in 1970s America, when a woman’s place was still “in the kitchen.” Bobbie Riggs is played by Steve Carell, who goes above and beyond in his outlandish gambling antics to show that even despite his middle age, he could still beat any woman he faces off against on the tennis courts. Billie Jean King is played by Emma Stone, a tennis prodigy who also is on the journey to find her true awakening, as a woman experiencing her first intimate relationship with another woman. Billie Jean King is ambitious yet remains steadfast and humble, going up not only against one man, but an entire country of men in order to raise the profile and pay of women in the game. 

During the historic match, Bobbie Riggs uses every play he has to try and psych her out mentally and to outlast her physically, proving that he is right. However, in a historic moment, Billie Jean King defeats Bobbie Riggs and changes the way women athletes are seen forever. Battle of the Sexes may be a mixture of comedy as well as drama, it is undeniably an effective and empowering film based on a pivotal moment where one woman came out on top and gave hope to all other women everywhere who watched her take the win. Despite the outcome of this real-life event, women in sports today are still constantly faced with harassment, judgment and are still incredibly underpaid. Battle of the Sexes isn’t just a film about a match, it is about identity, representation and above all, a feminist movement that demands the respect of men.

From Wilma Rudolph to Mia Hamm and Nancy Lopez to Steffi Graf, there are a plethora of talented female-identifying athletes in sports today and throughout history. I want to know their stories; it is my hope that more of their journeys are brought to light. We need to know their struggles and their victories. We need young people to see them and to build on the progress that’s been made, so future generations might struggle less.

Written By

Brian Wallinger had his first foray in theater acting in ‘A Christmas Carol’. A well-respected cinephile, Brian has seen more than five thousand films and has published reviews on many of them. He is an award-winning filmmaker, and also works as an actor, producer, director and cinematographer. Known for his art-house films such as (Bleeding Solar, Lysergic Lullaby) As a social activist, Brian is committed to causes that support liberal politics, the environment, and the LGBTQ community. In his private time, Wallinger enjoys hiking, kayaking, photography and jamming with friends.


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