- Whip It
Whip It arrived on DVD on Jan. 26. What’s that? You’ve never heard of Whip It? It’s a film about women doing something other than fretting about babies or boyfriends or weddings, so it got little support from Fox Searchlight in the form of advertising or other promotion. After all, girls don’t like sports or even play sports— this is “common knowledge”—so of course no one, not even girls, would want to see a movie about girls doing sports, and there’s no point in letting potential audiences know that one is out there. Not even one starring punk darling Ellen Page, or directed by tabloid darling Drew Barrymore (her directoral debut!), or one about tough, cool girls taking no prisoners in an Austin, Texas, roller-derby league.
With the right push, Whip It could have been a huge hit. It’s fresh without deviating too much from the standard clichés of the sports genre. It’s not arty—except in its insistence in framing athletic women as its protagonists—and it’s definitely feel-good in precisely the way that mainstream audiences love. Instead, it was all but ignored—easy for moviegoers to do when they don’t know a movie exists—and it earned only a little over $13 million in the United States and Canada last fall (it has not been released overseas), which didn’t even cover its modest $15 million budget. Which only goes to prove the “common knowledge”: No one wants to see movies about girls playing sports.
Go a little deeper, and it’s clear that this practice of pretending women don’t play sports, and that no one wants to see movies about women playing sports, is a long-term thing. If you can scrape up two dozen movies from the entire history of film that feature female athletes as protagonists—even if you stretch the definition of “athlete”—you’re doing better than I’ve been able to do. Movies about male athletes are countless and constitute a major genre of cinema. Oh, and did you know that Feb. 13 is “National Women in Sports Day”? Apparently, the other 364 are “National Men in Sports Days.”
Few of these rare films can be found prior to the 1990s. There’s 1944’s National Velvet, in which Elizabeth Taylor’s young jockey dreams of steeplechase victory. Of course, she has to disguise herself as a boy in order to ride the damned horse.
And that’s almost the complete history of women playing sports on film—which is disgraceful. Every year sees numerous films, from serious-minded dramas to goofy comedies, about men playing games, either professionally or for fun. That cinematic athletic women can be summed up so briefly says that there’s huge untapped potential just waiting to be mined.