Opinion: The Sports Film is the Man’s Chick Flick
Do you remember the moment in Rocky IV when Rocky finally slams Ivan Drago to the floor with a pulverising left hook, with the power that Stallone would normally reserve for someone who has managed a ménage à quatre with all of his wives? That moment is where you, the viewer – fist clenched, underarms sweaty, posterior precariously positioned at the tip of your seat, during any sports movie* – are supposed to leap from your Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to your Shanghai Noon. Take that you chemical engineering Scandanavian! Hell yeah, we love this shit! That’s exactly the moment the director, writer, and producer all wanted you to simultaneously wet yourself, punch a hole in the ceiling and mouth ‘MURRRICA, FUCK YEAH!’ through your grinding teeth. Ultimate payoff achievement unlocked! The music from The Karate Kid starts playing somewhere, possibly just in your head. You don’t know from where and you don’t give a damn either, because what’s happening right now is too damn awesome for you to cope with minor details.
You’ve barely landed back on terra firma and Rocky is bubbling over with tears and blood, single-handedly ending the Cold War with a speech emotive enough to break the hearts of a thousand Goths, imploring that if he can change, and we can change, everybody can change. Your exasperated, internally-volatile self is now curled up in the floor, bawling like a baby with no mother and screaming with a pain know only to Abu Ghraib inmates. ‘I can change! I KNOW I can, Rocky!’. Your girlfriend then walks into the room and asks what’s going on. Miraculously, you seem to have teleported back to your seated position, one leg calmly crossed over on your lap and one arm rested along the length of the sofa. ‘Just watching a movie, pumpkin.’
In truth, none of that ever actually happens outside of your brain, but it’s how we men think we are meant to feel inside when watching a sports film. Something in our little minds transports us back to being five years old again, watching Gabriel Batistuta putting the ball in the back of the net for Fiorentina, or watching Andre Agassi pummelling all comers previous to him being balder than a bald eagle with alopecia, or when the Giants got the field goal that gave them Super Bowl XXV, or when Ayrton Senna won his third Formula 1 Championship. There is a romantic connection that grips us Y-chromosome users from youth and never, ever lets us go. If you want to see a grown man cry, talk to him about Senna. If you want to ask him about his relationship with his father or brother, he can probably use Warrior or Goal! or Friday Night Lights as a reference point. It’s worth pointing out that mothers/sisters are almost never mentioned in sports films, let alone featured characters, because there’s too simply much testosterone on screen to have a non-sexualised female clogging up the script.
It started with Cool Runnings/Mighty Ducks/Air Bud/Escape To Victory, and before you knew it, it was in your bones. Hollywood had sucked you in and made you an obedient slave to the sports film. But as you got older, you didn’t need the films to be fun any more. You started watching sports dramas with a token love story tacked on in a feigned attempt at appearing mature. Oh yes, the love story always features an impossible girl who is entirely subservient to her fella, but is ready to ride his sweaty, blooded and broken bones to hell and back by the end of the movie. As gross as this sounds, it’s an inevitability from a story that never changes:
- Man is/was/could be particularly good at something or other.
- Man meets/falls in love/is in a steady relationship with MSDG (Manic Sporty Dream Girl).
- Man gets exposed to ultimate rival, usually someone foreign or of imposing physical stature.
- Man trains, performs, gains modicum of success and recognition.
- Man lets modicum of success and recognition go to his head and commits armed robbery, with strippers, on an orphanage, using an occupied hearse as a getaway vehicle/something else equally character-destroying happens.
- MSDG temporarily abandons man, as does coach, father, best friend, media and/or school.
- Obligatory flashback scene to give movie the illusion of depth.
- Man does something completely unrelated to what he’s meant to do, and finds out his true meaning in life.
- Man fights ultimate rival and redeems self by defeating/killing him. At this point, all men watching are obliged to whoop and bounce around in their seats like free radicals at escape velocity.
- Man gets MSDG, coach, best friend, media, school, love of the world back for being good at sports, despite being a complete bellend.
- Man gains respect of ultimate rival. Unless he died.
Sports films believe this is the fantasy all men want. They figure men want to prove wrong all who doubted them (which is usually the entire population of the world). Men want redemption through glory – a glory that can only be earned through sporting greatness. Men want the perfect girlfriend who is incredibly supportive, and passive-aggressive to anyone who doesn’t think the sun shines out of the protagonist’s every orifice. Sports films were porn before porn began.
The ever-repeating generalisation of women and romcoms is merely the counterpart of a silent men-and-sports films cliché that lies across the chasm of the gender divide. That moment from earlier where a man is meant to reach indescribable levels of elation is supposed to be the male equivalent of the ‘chick flick moment’, where women are meant to explode with happiness and send sales of Kleenex with balsam through the roof. Mark Wahlberg knocking out that guy who does stunts in every film ever in The Fighter is the same as Anne Hathaway telling that creep from The Mentalist “I’m not your baby” in The Devil Wears Prada. Meg Ryan telling Tom Hanks “I wanted it to be you” in You Got Mail is Al Pacino’s ‘inches’ speech in Any Given Sunday. You may enjoy these moments on some level, be it artistic or animalistic, but you can’t help feeling a little dirty after watching them. Yet we still go back to the cinema and watch film after film that re-vomits up the same old story, reboxed and rebranded for a new season, because on a very basic, human level we love it. Why? Why do we love the vomit? Why do we love the ease with which we can throw money at these tales that connect to us in a manner that needs no words, no explanation?
The Olympics were defined by the faces and bodies of the athletes and for just a second a day, by looking at the emotion pouring out from each person and the body language they exhibited, we feel we can read minds. One look at the faces of Katie Taylor or Mo Farah or Stephen Kiprotich or Rebecca Soni or Michael Phelps or Jessica Ennis or Felix Sanchez when they won gold, and you immediately knew the entire story. You knew their lives and their suffering to the finest detail. Likewise to the many, many more who lost out, at times you felt their pain more closely than your own skin. The story never changes, because we love hearing it. We love seeing it over and over again. The reason sports films connect to men so much is because they allow us access to a whole range of feelings that we’ve simply been denied access to through tradition or bravado, or whatever bad reason compels us to act like an unfeeling gargoyle our entire lives. The story never changes, because we don’t want it to.
*Not Seabiscuit though, because horses are girly.