ESPN Documentaries on Women in Sports

by Carrie Specht

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A sport is supposed to be the ultimate level-playing field, at least for athletes. Right? However, when it comes to sports and the popular media (particularly advertising) sexism and sexiness definitely come into play often overshadowing an athlete’s accomplishments. This can be true regardless of gender, but it is especially so for women. Why? Because that’s the way it is in Western culture. There’s no use trying to deny it. Sex (or sex appeal) sells. The real question is, will the situation ever change and is the added pressure placed on female athletes to remain overtly feminine while remaining extremely competitive ever going to subside? Both the question and the answer is explored in a series of documentaries produced and aired on ESPN this past summer, including the compelling Branded and the  informative Venus vs. These films give sports fans a behind the scenes peak like they’ve never seen before.

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In Branded, ESPN and the filmmakers explore the double standards placed upon women to be the best players on the field while pressuring them to be the sexiest when off. Particular case studies such as Mary Lou Retton, Gabrielle Reece, Danica Patrick and others are presented as examples of how a woman’s appearance has played a key role in obtaining endorsements. Or in other words securing the big money they’ll live off of once their sports careers are long over. For example the extremely fit and multi-champion Martina Navratilova’s net worth pales in comparison to the less-titled, yet eye pleasing Maria Sharapova whose appearance has enabled her to secure commercial endorsements that greatly exceed the value of her tournament winnings. The blonde and lanky beauty was the highest paid female athlete in the world in 2006, and the only woman on the list of the 50 highest paid athletes in 2011. Although Serena Williams has far exceeded Sharapova’s professional success, the more athletic looking Williams did not join the list until 2012! The film does a good job addressing the cultural factors behind this blatant discrepancy and other factors that deal more directly with the disparity between the sexes.

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Another Williams is the focus of Venus Vs. This film places a critical eye upon the issue of equal pay for equal play within the professional tennis world.  Oddly enough, grossly disparate paychecks between men and women remained the norm well into the new millennium. The film chronicles the efforts made by female tennis players to achieve the same level of prize money to that of their male counterparts at the sport’s most notable stage; Wimbledon. Billie Jean King was the movement’s first leader, but as the years passed and Venus Williams emerged as the dominating world figure she has become, the young sports icon was approached to assume the mantle and did so to great effect. Why was Venus Williams the key catalyst in getting Wimbledon to finally award equal prize money to women players? According to King, “She was the right player at the right time to lead the charge”. And fortunately for the filmmakers, Williams has been a media figure since the age of 14, so there was plenty of compelling archival footage of her (and the many other notable key figures) to intertwine with original interviews.

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Sexism is not a new issue, nor is the idea of women athletes representing the body beautiful. However, what these two films manage to achieve to great effect is a context of understanding – from both sides of the gender aisle. This is not just a group of women expressing their dissatisfaction with an unjust system of consideration and compensation, but a well represented group of experts who provide information for the historical timeline. The filmmakers do rely heavily upon the usual collage of first hand interviews, mixed among vintage footage of the actual events. This is achieved to mixed effect as some of the interviews include an unusual amount of pre-roll, or dead air of the interviewees before they begin speaking. Some of the framing is also off putting, looking more like bad framing than an artistic choice. Given the significance of the topic I think a more traditional shooting style would have been a better choice in order to avoid alienating the older audience who may not watch long enough to get past the style and be pulled in by the subject.

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As you may suspect the films simply document the current state of affairs without suggesting any real answers. But good or bad, the arguments will leave a definite impression upon the viewer regardless of their gender. Yes, we all know, the world is not fair. So maybe we should stop promising our athletes that such a thing exists in sports. Perhaps that promise can be limited to the playing field. Maybe. But at this time fairness is not for all people at all times and not if you’re of different genders, at least not until sex becomes a non-issue. And in the real world that just doesn’t seem to be a possibility any time soon. I hope ESPN repeats Branded and Venus Vs. and the other films in the series, or makes them available on DVD. If there is ever to be any hope for equality these discussions need to be had, and often. It’s only fair.