This week marks the third release* in ESPN’s original documentary series Nine for IX.The series celebrates the 40th anniversary of Title IX and features stories about women in sports produced and directed by women.
So my two little qualms before I get into the movies themselves. One, the fact that they began the series on the 41st anniversary of Title IX makes me a little twitchy. Was this in the works last year and it just didn’t happen? Robin Roberts is a producer of the whole series. It is possible that her health issues over the past year delayed the project. Still, I think it is perfectly fine to just say that this series is a celebration of Title IX.
Except (qualm 2) it’s not really a celebration of only Title IX, it’s a celebration of women in sports. I find it problematic when all the celebratory moments and activism in women’s sports are automatically associated with Title IX. They are not. American women began gaining momentum in the Olympics, for example, decades before Title IX was passed. Attributing the moments or lines of progress we have seen in women’s sports solely to Title IX erases a lot of the activism and activists that happened prior to and since Title IX that was not related to school-sponsored sports.
In short, the the greater visibility of and access to women’s sports is not just about Title IX, and this is evident in the documentaries in the series.
For example the first one, Venus Vs, is about Venus Williams’s rise to the top of women’s tennis and the activism she engaged in for equal pay for female tennis players at the Grand Slams, primarily Wimbledon. Though I knew about this activism, hearing about the details of the campaign, which she basically led, was one of the highlights of the film. I was worried that this would be a “colorblind” film, but the film makers actually discussed the situation Venus and Serena, and their family, found themselves in when the emerged on the professional scene as teenagers, not having played the junior circuit. Their treatment, including their neglect, by the media is one of the more subtle messages of the film. Though I realize they are a deeply private family, when their sister was killed in 2003, the lack of sympathy was remarkable. I remember watching the sisters that year and wondering why they weren’t talking more about how this violent death of an immediate family member was affecting them on the court. I mean when Steffi Graf’s father was being tried for tax evasion in Germany we heard all about it!
I was disappointed though that that film basically talked about race and then gender. In the first half it was about “Venus as Black.” In the second, the theme was “Venus as woman.” The fact that she is always a Black woman and that this affects everything she does, especially as a public figure in the tennis world, remained unexamined. A Black female Wimbledon champion is demanding that the All-England Lawn and Tennis Club pay women equally. That’s a big deal. She was not just a woman with power in the tennis world in this moment. Because we all know that AELTC is not colorblind.
I think this film would work well in the classroom.
Pat XO was the second film in the series and was basically a tribute to head coach emeritus Pat Summitt of the University of Tennessee. This is fine. But don’t expect a lot of nuance. There was nothing about the struggles of female coaches in the professions–especially ones with children. It showcased the relationships she has formed throughout her years focusing especially on the one with her son, Tyler. I found the prevailing discourse about how tough and persevering she was and how she never let anyone see what was going on her personal life a little troubling. I thought it presented a male model of sport and coaching in which women had to be that way in order to both succeed and be seen as legitimate. And that aspect was not questioned at all. Summitt did bring her son with her everywhere but her ability to do so and the work-life balance issue was never raised. I don’t think a film about Pat Summitt, at this point, could be anything but what Pat XO was. But it doesn’t go much further than a feel-good story.
Next up, Let Them Wear Towels, about female reporters in the locker rooms of professional men’s teams.
* the third full-length release. There was a short film, Coach, about C. Vivian Stringer that is available at the EPSNW website.