Karyn Kusama’s (gorgeous) film Girlfight climaxes with a “gender blind” boxing match, in which the film’s central character gets into the ring and boxes her boyfriend. This has got to be one of the fascinating scenes in a sports movie.
Before I go any farther, let me just say that the New York State Boxing Commission has never authorized gender-blind boxing for men and women in the same weight class. That plot point is a bit of fantasy. Mixed boxing matches do happen, sometimes as exhibition matches and then, of course, as a sub-genre within the erotic entertainment format commonly referred to as “foxy boxing.” (Foxy boxing normally features two or more women, but is sometimes staged between men and women.)
Like many sports films, Girlfight centers on an athlete (Diana Guzman, played by Michelle Rodriguez) who works out her anger through her sport, and like many sports films about women, it also charts her entry into a man’s world, not as a sex object, but as a competitor. And, of course, like a lot of sports movies centered on women (especially women in masculinized sports) it navigates the subject of female masculinity and queerness by giving the central character a featherweight boyfriend (with the girlish name Adrian).
This counterbalances the opening scene in Girlfight, in which with Guzman beats down one girl to protect another – and a later scene which suggests that the hostility between Guzman and her female nemesis at school is underwritten by some sort of romantic history. Given the character’s queerness (her active refusal to be “girlie,” her macho attitude and protective relationship with women around her) the climactic boxing match between Guzman and her male lover is just plain fascinating.
All along, Guzman demands to be taken seriously. The lone woman training at her gym, she can’t box unless the guys box her. But in sparring matches, guys have a really hard time hitting her – getting around their sense of her weakness, but also around their anxiety about what it would mean to engage her and struggle with her strength. The film suggests as well that such an act – a man hitting a woman – calls to mind familiar scenes of domestic violence. None of the guys want to be that man. (Guzman’s mother was a victim of her father’s brutality, and her desire to box is explicitly cast in terms of her desire to top her father, and too, to ward off the haunting sense of her powerlessness as a child witness to his rage.) It’s impressive that the film makes all of this complexity visible for us, without being didactic.
Kate Sekules writes in The Boxer’s Heart that as she was learning to box, this – the hesitation to hit a woman – was as much an issue for her as it was for the men in the film. In an interview with David Templeton, she explains:
It wasn’t easy. It felt…like having to push through glue to hit her. There was this invisible impediment, almost like someone holding down my elbow. I did hit her, eventually, in that first session. I hit her a lot, but I didn’t really lay into her. I never got in a really good shot.
One of the most complex things about heterosexual dynamics (be in romance or sport) is this “glue” – the sense that there is something between men and women, manifesting itself like a protective surface but which is in fact more like a restrictive bubble. The mindset of course is not limited to how men interact with women – it shapes how women interact with women, too. When Sekules confronts her inhibitions regarding hitting women, she also confronts her inhibitions regarding her own body in relation to others. In essence, she peels that glue off herself.
Back to that boxing scene between Rodriguez’s character and the boyfriend: throughout the story, he’s struggled with her feelings towards her. She’s an atypical Latina, una malcriada, and not the sort of girl who is going to prop up one’s sense of masculinity by feigning weakness. So when you see him admire her for her skills, when they bond over the grief and glory of training, you start to see an atypical heterosexual romance in which a guy actually likes the toughness in the girl, and decides it’s worth it to sort out what that means for him.
I just can’t remember the last film I saw that had a heterosexual romance that looked like this.
That boxing match, as the culmination of both their romance and their training, is a strangely queer moment. She actually wins the fight, and they don’t break up. It’s crazy, hot, and positively utopian.
Made me wonder if perhaps on some level, those foxy boxy people aren’t onto something.