Take It Like A Girl

Film still for Take It Like A Girl

Girlfight heralds a new genre - the women's boxing movie. It's a spectacle that's a cause for celebration, declares B. Ruby Rich

When Karyn Kusama's debut film Girlfight walked away from the Sundance Film Festival with a fistful of awards and a major theatrical pick-up deal - and, soon enough, invitations to the Cannes Directors Fortnight and a slew of other festivals - it was a public acknowledgement of a trend that had been building for several years. Films about women boxers had been quietly popping up on playbills in the form of documentaries, shorts and narrative fantasies. Sundance made it official. I still remember the sight, last January, of the newly crowned Kusama and her charismatic star-is-born Michelle Rodriguez kicking back at a café table in Park City, hiding out from the press mob and downing caffeine to try to anchor their crazy ride as festival favourites. But their film wasn't the first, and won't be the last, to take this crazy new blood-lust and translate it into a new genre. The boxing movie is a mesmerising ballet of guts and gumption, a cinematic riff on the latest, most physical fusion of woman to warrior.

Ah, women's boxing. Girlfight, to be sure, is more than that. In Kusama's writer-director hands (and don't forget for a minute that she apprenticed with John Sayles, master of the well-wrought if sometimes simplified tale), it's a story that explores father-daughter relations, boy-girl romance, coming of age in the inner city and the stuff Latino/a dreams are made of. But the breath-taking sight of Rodriguez giving and taking in the ring, slugging it out with all her heart, is in no way incidental to the story. Kusama knew Rodriguez looked like a female Brando when she cast her out of an open call of 2000 women, despite the fact that she'd never boxed or acted in a film. Women's boxing may just be coming into its own, but it's clearly already well versed in the magical mysticism that's made the sport a cinematic favourite for, well, forever.

I once donned boxing gloves myself. It was a decade or so ago that I entered a boxing gym for the first and last time. The occasion was a birthday bash thrown by Sande Zeig, who has since founded the Artistic License film-distribution company and directed The Girl (1999), her first feature. The party was held at Brooklyln's Gleason's gym, not yet the popular film location it's become but already fabled for its legions of champions. Zeig's invitation promised champagne and boxing lessons; in person, she goaded us into accepting the offer. I still have the photograph on my office wall: me, a few pounds lighter and a few years younger, my hands taped and gloved, throwing bad punches at a laughing Italian trainer who just keeps murmuring, "Harder! Harder!" God, I loved it. And the anecdote isn't even irrelevant to this story, since it was Zeig who got Kusama to take up boxing, a move that led with inevitability to Girlfight.

Certain subjects seem made for the camera: car chases, gun fights, stalking and stabbing. Others always cause trouble, such as interior monologues and sex scenes. Cinema's origins coincided so handily with the birth of both train travel and psychoanalysis as to make their depiction, for a long time, overdetermined and irresistible; Strangers on a Train memorably combined the two. Boxing, similarly, is the sport of cinematic choice, one no cinematographer has ever hated, and no screenwriter, either.

Boxing has a built-in arc of triumph and tragedy. It's more than a sport - it's a narrative. Boxing throws pure muscle and agility and a merely mortal dream of transcendence up against a scheming dark side of betting and price-fixing, corrupt promoters and fair-weather hangers-on. Why screenwriters keep doing adaptations of classic literature instead, I don't know. Dialogue, maybe. "I could've been a contender" - hey, boxing has dialogue too. And unlike the dark winter of US election manoeuvrings, it has a moral centre. To take the measure of a man, enquire whether he prefers Rocky (1976) or Raging Bull (1980), superficial victory or profound defeat.

One filmography of boxing movies lists over 100 titles and still leaves out a few. Pick your brand from among the classics: John Garfield in Body and Soul, Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. For a taste of the real thing, try William Klein's documentary of the legendary 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle' fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, an archival gem, or When We Were Kings, Leon J. Gast's 1996 piecing together of the same event.

I think I know why boxing shows up over and over in the movies: it's not only cinematic but supremely individualistic and restlessly mobile. It's got the footwork of a dance performance, the camera angles and photo opportunities of a catwalk, and the goddamn grace of a religious epic. The camera puts the audience in a ringside seat, right in the midst of the sweat and punches, the advice of the trainer, the joy and sorrow of every contender, better than any pay-per-view. And, of course, boxing is always metaphoric. Even when it's the bloodthirsty, unregimented kind of competition heroised in Fight Club (1999), paean to masculinity gone toxic. Boxing is visceral and immediate, no more or less than itself, and at the same time, anything but.

Now boxing's got girls. And as of the 1999-2000 season, a growing body of films to call their own: dramatic features such as New Waterford Girl (1999); documentaries such as Shadow Boxers (1999), On the Ropes (1999) and Red Rain (1999); and scores of short films. I rang up Jenni Olson - a onetime boxer and the film expert who runs PopcornQ, the authoritative queer website for movies - for a reality check on this screen explosion. She reported with amazement her recent television sightings of women boxing - first on The Real World, then in a Tampax commercial - and verified the sport's new visibility.

What's going on here? Well, boxing, the quintessential guys' game, as indelible an index of masculinity as you could find, has finally been forced to give up its chokehold and let women into the ring. It may be the last of the sports to open up in recent times, but that just makes for an even stronger story. As far back as the Greeks, supposedly, women were boxing, if the drawings are any proof. Kate Sekules, author of The Boxer's Heart: How I Fell in Love with the Ring, did enough research to establish London as the probable modern birthplace of the sport: the earliest recorded women's bout took place there in 1722, with another on Putney Heath in 1728 and considerable newspaper coverage of matches into the 1800s. Women boxed in the 1920s in Boston and in Mexico, in boxeo and lucha libre; there were French and German and Irish women boxers, all written about and then forgotten. The first US bout took place in 1888 in Buffalo between Mrs Hattie Leslie and Miss Alice Leary. In the US in 1954 Yorkshire-born boxing pioneer Barbara Buttrick fought the first televised women's match and eventually became the first woman permitted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. Finally, along came the women's movement and Title IX, the key piece of US legislation that required that educational institutions provide girls with equal opportunities to boys. Title IX probably did more to change gender roles than the movement that spawned it.

As other sports changed, though, boxing balked, requiring lawsuits and hunger strikes to perform its gender switch. It was only in 1993 that USA Boxing finally adopted rules and regulations for women's amateur fights. It was only in 1995 that the Golden Gloves finally opened to women. In 1996 boxing producer Don King saw the future and decided to get himself a piece of the action. He put a woman boxer, Christy Martin, on the same bill as a Mike Tyson bout; her victory on television made her an instant star and women's boxing big news. (It's an enduring grievance to women boxers that King and Martin have never accepted a challenge from any of today's great women fighters, preferring to hold on to the title.) Into the breach stepped a new dynasty, drawn not from the ranks of the driven women who'd poured their hearts into boxing in the amateur rings but from a recognised lineage: Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali; Jacqui Frazier Lyde, daughter of Joe Frazier.

This history is so new that we're sitting right in the middle of women's boxing's first big buzz. No wonder films have started to roll out. Women's boxing offers the movie screen all the enticements male boxing has always provided, but with something more than the mere novelty of seeing gals take over a boys' game. Finally there's a reason other than sex for looking at women's bodies in the movies, a way for women to show off their forms free of degradation and powerlessness. Near-naked female characters in the movies who aren't hookers or strippers, exotic dancers or girls in love; some place other than the bedroom or the beach or the Vegas club where female flesh can strut its stuff. Finally the guys are out of the picture and women are left alone on screen to claim a primordial power other than that of seduction. (True, Spike Lee tried to have it both ways in Do the Right Thing's dizzying pre-credits sequence with Rosie Perez leaping around in boxing gloves to the tune of 'Fight the Power', but the new films take the women out of the bedroom entirely.)

This shift in tectonic plates is fuelling the invention of original new female characters. Take, for instance, Lou in Allan Moyle's New Waterford Girl. Lou discovers she can make friends in a new town by KO'ing the unworthy boyfriends of the popular high-school girls. As her own popularity rises, she's unremorseful. "If they're guilty, they fall," she explains, quoting the boxer-turned-mobster-daddy who trained her in the pugilistic arts. It's a great twist on the new-girl-in-town story, balancing the parallel tale of her best friend Mooney who's trying to get out of town to the big city Lou is so happy to have escaped. Full of typical Moyle witticisms and clever character inventions, it offers boxing a light touch.

The real-life heroines are more intense. Lucia Rijker in Shadow Boxers, Tyrene Manson in On the Ropes, Gina "Boom Boom" Guidi in Red Rain all throw themselves into boxing like religious zealots. Boxing is their life, their faith, their creed. In On the Ropes, when Manson, the most tragic of a tragic film's subjects, gets carted off to jail for crimes not committed, she resolves to use the pen as a training facility for a Golden Gloves comeback (and indeed manages to come back to Gleason's gym while on work release from the Rikers prison to which she was unfairly consigned). Guidi is seen tending a vegetable garden to stay grounded between bouts.

Lucia Rijker makes Shadow Boxers hum with her charismatic presence and single-minded desire to win. And here, the film form is equal to its subject. Shadow Boxers is a hopped-up film, full of images that shift and mutate from take-no-prisoner colour to grainy black and white. The camerawork is expressive and light on its feet, close up and intimate, subjective as hell. The editing (by director Katya Bankowsky, a boxer herself) owes a debt to music video, for sure, as it restlessly propels the viewer smack into the adrenaline-drenched, rugged, euphoric scene of women's boxing. Rijker is the real thing, a champion, just like the stars of the other films, but with more wattage to her smile and more moves to her name. Women boxers are hooked on boxing. Shadow Boxers shows us why, and hooks us too, and never lets up.

True, there's one little downside to women's romance with boxing, and it's obvious: violence. The women's-movement generation didn't raise its girls to be, uh, boxers. Or did it? Self-defence was an early principle of women's-liberation thinking, with self-defence classes ubiquitous in the 70s. Of course, they were intended to equip women to fight off male attackers. As it's turned out, though, impending rape isn't the only reason women are interested in putting up their dukes. Shorn of ideology, the fighting stance has migrated to the domain of pleasure. In the fitness age, boxing adds function to the otherwise aimless workout.

It's only when women boxers step into the ring to fight each other that the question of violence returns to the fore. But it's not any kind of old-fashioned debate about whether it's 'OK' to hit another woman, or whether violence is 'bad'. About that, the boxers are matter-of-fact: they're competitive and they want to win; nothing personal. In the run of books that have begun to be published, from Sekules' The Boxer's Heart to Colette Dowling's Women and Sports, the explicit concern is violence's effects. One woman gives up boxing after a head injury that scares her; others keep on going but seem far more aware than the guys of the possible consequences. In a chilling scene in Shadow Boxers Rijker explains the pictures taped above her home altar: one is a baby photograph of herself, the other an old newspaper clipping of a fighter who died in the ring. She makes it explicit: that, Rijker says, is how she doesn't want to end up. She and her trainer are working to take her to the top and out, with all her faculties intact.

Otherwise, there's no clear dividing line between fact and fiction when it comes to boxing heroines. Lucia Rijker, gracefully taking questions at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival, looked every inch the glam actress even though she's a boxer through and through. Rumour has it that she turned down a role in The Matrix because it conflicted with her boxing schedule. On the flip side, Michelle Rodriguez, an actress with only a few months of punching bags under her belt, looked every inch a boxer on the big screen and was treated that way by the crowd at Girlfight.

What does it mean for women to enter the sacred masculine zone of boxing? Now that the sport's signifiers are scrambled and its old messages altered, the new meanings are not yet clear. Gender has changed the channel on the old certainties, here as elsewhere. What's interesting is the mutation: something is happening to sexuality and gender identity, and it's fascinating to see how well or badly the new entities will fit the established mythologies of boxing - or, for that matter, of movies.

Girlfight points up inherent conflicts that are reflected more pointedly in the documentaries. Girlfight's story is centred on the character of Diana (Rodriguez), a troubled motherless teen who finds herself when she finds the gym, the training regimen and her own knock-out punches. She meets a boyfriend there, too. But will he ditch his arm-candy for a woman who's his equal? And what will happen when they're forced to fight each other in the ring? Girlfight shows us a wise and tender view of romance. It wears on its sleeve a belief in the strength and sensitivity of both genders, but the updated girl-meets-boy, girl-punches-out-boy's-lights, girl-keeps-boy storyline is not its strongest point. And part of the fault lies with the genre.

There's a tough balancing act involved in making boxing conform to screen notions of femininity and sex appeal. And it's harder still to maintain the image of the feminine in the unscripted world of boxing documentaries, where the spectre of (hush) lesbianism always threatens to shut out the guys. In Shadow Boxers Rijker is usually seen alone, but she's carefully assigned an ex-boyfriend; her press has it that she left him when the relationship interfered with her training. Manson, as On the Ropes tells us, has an ex-boyfriend who once beat her up before a big meet; with the stint in prison, to trade in another kind of stereotype, who knows? Only Red Rain's Boom Boom admits to being a lesbian. Tough and muscled, the champ has nothing to hide and no fear of exposure.

She's the exception, of course. Boxing is trying to have it both ways, training cameras on bulked-up babes while earnestly claiming there are men waiting in the wings. Sure, sometimes there are. But it's way more complicated, this relationship between a ring on the finger and a fist in the ring. The old love affair between boxers and their cutmen, between coach and coachee, was always homoerotic and viscerally palpable. Women's boxing is bound to give gender assumptions a run for their money, as the nature of sexuality, femininity and power hangs back, in the wings and in the balance. One thing is sure. Films about women who box are likely to give us some genre twists the buffed boys never did. Girlfight is just the beginning.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012