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Q&A: Bradley professor discusses racial, gender diversity problems in sports movie genre

When you think of your favorite sports movies, most likely the primary characters are white males.

Throughout film history, sports movies have struggled with racial and gender diversity and fair representation.

Bradley University associate professor Josh Dickhaus is director of the Charley Steiner School of Sports Communication and a co-author of “The United States of Sport: Media Framing and Influence of the Intersection of Sports and American Culture,” a textbook published last year.

One of chapters written by Dickhaus examines the cultural aspects and impacts of sports films. In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Dickhaus explains why the genre has consistently had problems with diversity and representation.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Bradley University professor Josh Dickhaus is the director of the Charley Steiner School of Sports Communication. He co-authored the book “The United States of Sport: Media Framing and Influence of the Intersection of Sports and American Culture.” One of the chapters written by Dickhaus examines diversity and representation issues in sports movies.

Sports films have always been popular and culturally significant throughout movie history. But the genre has also struggled with a significant and glaring lack of racial and gender diversity and accurate representation. Why do you believe this problem has persisted?

Josh Dickhaus: I think it’s emblematic of where film history in general has struggled, focused on largely white male protagonists, where often almost always female … characters were secondary, or in supporting roles and often minority characters were ignored almost exclusively. And so I think the sports film genre, it very much mirrored the regular film genre.

As you noted in your chapter on sports films in the book that you co-authored, many of these movies have perpetuated stereotypes of marginalized groups. When these stereotypes are packaged as entertainment, what kind of influence does that have on the audience?

Dickhaus: Well by and large, it naturally can have a very negative influence. I mean look, media has a lot of power; films have a lot of power. For instance, some of these narratives when you send out certain stereotypes, you sort … one group into one category or another. Usually, again, for female characters (and) minority characters, that has been a largely negative stereotype: a lot of sexualization of female characters, and (for) minority characters, often a perpetuation of ineptitude or (being) dramatically violent compared to their white counterparts.

One of the films that’s brought up in the book a lot is “The Blind Side,” and this is a movie that was fairly popular; it was nominated for Best Picture and earned an Oscar for Sandra Bullock. But it’s also problematic in several aspects regarding race relations, with the “white savior” concept and the minority characters being portrayed as a simpleton.

Dickhaus: Yeah, I think it’s — to best sum up ‘The Blind Side,’ which as you know (and) we talked about in the book was an award-winning film, that the person who hates the movie is Michael Oher (the eventual college football and NFL standout who is the movie’s central character). Michael Oher hates that movie. He is portrayed as a sort of a bumbling, buffoon — simpleton might be putting it nicely — who is, in essence, saved by this white family, taught by a 6- or 7-year-old boy how to play football, like he didn’t know what he was doing.

230223 The United States of Sport.jpg

Bradley University professor Josh Dickhaus co-authored the book “The United States of Sport: Media Framing and Influence of the Intersection of Sports and American Culture,” which was published last year.

Like you said, it perpetuates that white savior narrative that without them, who knows where he would have ended up. Not that they didn’t have a significant role in his life, but with any film that’s based off a true event, yes, there’s going to be some sort of a dramatic license taken. ‘The Blind Side’ is an example of a movie that took a dramatic license to a whole new level. It made him appear moronic, really ignorant of most things and that they came in and saved him from the depths of despair.

You could see why an audience watching that — particularly Mike Oher, but African American audiences who watched that film wouldn’t be particularly taken with the narrative that’s portrayed, and how much dramatic license was given to that film.

And yet it still gets critically acclaimed and (earns) accolades.

Dickhaus: It does, and I mean, don’t get me wrong. While we’re on that same topic, there’s sort of an epic scene in that movie where she comes down to the sidelines to tell the coach what plays (to) run and how to run his team. That coach portrayed in that movie is Hugh Freeze, who had a lot of success at Ole Miss and is now, I believe, the head coach at Auburn. Somebody even asked him once, ‘Did she help you call plays?’ and he goes, ‘No.’

EDITOR’S NOTE: Freeze was Oher’s high school coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tenn. He has a cameo in “The Blind Side” as a coach for the team, although the fictional head coach character is named “Coach Cotton.”

So it wasn’t just that. Yes, they took a dramatic license. But yes, so much of your mainstream film and television is derived and set up for a largely white audience. So that narrative of sort of the “white savior” could appeal to them without perhaps them thinking of the flip side of the offensive side of that narrative and just what a stretch from the truth that narrative really is.

We talked about how often these are perpetuating stereotypes, but also you mention a glorification of violence in sports films that’s often the case. The most profitable sports film series in history is the Rocky movies, partly because there’s so many of them (nine) with “Creed III” coming out this year (March 3). But even these films often feature a racial divide as well as the glorification of violence.

Dickhaus: Well, absolutely. We could — the Rocky films themselves could be their own class in our Sports Communication (program) for a variety of different reasons, from the glorification of violence. Where if you look at the original Rocky movies, particularly like Rockys III and IV, the sound of the punches were actually like car wrecks hitting, a very far deviation from what the reality really is.

But yes, you ended up with a racial divide where he’s the white man’s champion, the sort of against-all-odds, overcoming the great champion Apollo Creed, overcoming Clubber Lang in “Rocky III,” and then getting to be the white savior himself in “Rocky IV.” Ivan Drago kills the great former champion Apollo Creed inside of two rounds, and who comes and rescues the day but Rocky — Rocky, the white guy can persevere where the black guy fell short.

So yeah, that has largely been a topic of conversation beyond, again, just the violent aspect, but the divide between the white man’s champion against the overall — particularly in the first three movies — the black villain, is essentially what you’re looking at.

As you mentioned, there also aren’t a lot of sports films with prominent female characters, as women are more often supporting roles and frequently their sexuality is more emphasized than their athletic ability.

Dickhaus: Well, absolutely, and again historically, that’s been an issue through all of film: there’s going to be some sort of beautiful female lead, there’s going to be some sort of a love interest. So often that’s what’s highlighted in a female actress, is how she looks, how attractive is she?

There are very, very few sports films that focus on a female protagonist. Even for example, and I mentioned it in the chapter, “A League of Their Own,” it’s a female ensemble cast, but that’s Tom Hanks’ movie. Like, Tom Hanks is sort of the lead character in that movie and they kind of all play off of Tom Hanks in that regard.

And even in that movie, Madonna is very sexualized, right? Geena Davis is sexualized to a degree. Some of the other players, where they even say, ‘Look, you’re not just a good ballplayer but you’re kind of a dolly’ and that’s what we’re looking for and they’re going to play in short skirts. Very early in that movie, the baseball scout played by Jon Lovitz tries to pass on Marla because she’s not attractive, as he says in the movie to Geena Davis and Lori Petty.

They said, ‘Why aren’t you going to take her? She’s great.’ He says, ‘Do you know Gen. Omar Bradley?’ and they go, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘Well, there’s too strong a resemblance,’ and they go, ‘You ain’t taking her ’cause she ain’t pretty?’ Even in its own way that was sort of very emblematic of what you see in film, is they’re looking for that attractive female lead who can be sexualized.

Do you think there’s been a better effort at all in recent years to make sports films that are more diverse, more representative and less stereotypical? Or are you concerned that this is just a problem that will always be inherent with the genre?

Dickhaus: I think there is more awareness to it. How much change will occur? I mean, you mentioned the Creed movies — that obviously focuses on a black male protagonist character, and in “Creed III” coming up, we’ll see the first iteration of that series that doesn’t have Sylvester Stallone in it. But the bottom line for films is to still aim them towards your mainstream audience, and (filmmakers) will pick up the elements of those films that they think apply most likely to a mainstream audience, which is often a white audience.

So I think that it’s still going to be problematic. I think that we’re making more strides for minorities than we are for women. As I sit here and try to think off the top of my head, there’s still not many sports films that are being aimed with a female protagonist lead who’s the focus. There’s “Million Dollar Baby,” but when you think about it, that was like 2004 — so you’re going back quite a ways.

And even then you still see Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman get more attention than the female lead.

Dickhaus: That is right, and who saves her in the end? Clint Eastwood does. Who agrees to train her? Who’s the one with the knowledge? It’s Clint Eastwood’s character, right? So yeah, even that in and of itself has its own problematic elements to it.

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