Hoop dreams

Please! You jump in some guy’s face, you talk smack and you get a pat on your ass. But, because I’m a female, I get told to calm down and act like a lady. I’m a ball player, okay?”

Monica to Quincy in Love & Basketball

This may surprise you, but I am not athletically gifted. (Well, that’s not totally accurate. I love to swim and I’m more-than-competent at yoga and Pilates. But, like Mia Thermopolis, “my hand-eye coordination is zero.”) As you can imagine, this made gym class super fun for me throughout my pre-college years. On one memorable occasion in my physical education I was hit in the face twice–TWICE!–with a volleyball. Lacking Marcia Brady’s natural beauty and popularity, nobody gave a shit about the giant welt(s) on my forehead except me. That is, I’m the only one who thought the incident was not funny.

Despite my apparent allergy to contact sports and anything that requires a “team player,” I am and always will be an advocate for women’s rights and thought-provoking art. And I can think of no better way to discuss the intersection of art, sports and feminism than Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s Love & Basketball.

I first discovered this film in its heavily-edited and watered-down state on ABC Family. At that point, I only really cared about the romance between Monica Wright and Quincy McCall because I was 10 or 11 and had not yet learned how to scoff. I saw it again–unedited this time–my second year of college and loved it even more. The amazing dialogue, the jokes I hadn’t picked up on before, and the fact that Sanaa Lathan is a phenomenal actress were way more interesting to me than the love story. But what else is new?

Monica and Quincy’s relationship could be the reason that this film continues to resonate with so many different audiences, but the movie’s subtle politics are also eerily contemporary.  Both of the main characters dream about being professional athletes, but the secondary and tertiary characters assume that only Quincy will make it. They don’t have such lofty aspirations for Monica; they just hope she will eventually grow out of her “tomboy” phase. Similarly, Quincy’s high school games are packed with fans, parents and cheerleaders, while Monica plays in front of half-filled bleachers. Quincy’s college basketball team draws ESPN’s attention and is his stepping-stone to the NBA. Monica’s only professional basketball opportunity is in Spain. And, as this post’s epigraph suggests, Quincy is allowed to have an attitude on the court. Meanwhile, Monica is benched and scolded for the same behavior. Despite their equal love for the game, the way they are allowed to play could not be more different.

Underneath the romantic surface, Prince-Bythewood’s film analyzes the gendered aspects of sports post-Title IX. William H. Chafe‘s The Paradox of Change explains that Title IX “barred sex discrimination of any kind by colleges and universities receiving federal aid.” Easier said than done.

As Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee attest in Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions, “athletics ha[ve] traditionally been male dominated. Men’s sports are more highly valued than women’s sports and are a major focus for sports entertainment. Compared to men’s professional sports, women’s are grossly underrepresented.” Title IX forever changed the legal aspect of women’s sports and gave many women the chance to practice sports firmly associated with men. However, ideological attitudes about gender still prevent this provision of the Educational Amendments Act  from truly making sports a level playing field for everyone. This dynamic is one of the more understated conflicts that unfolds in Love & Basketball.

Because of Title IX:

  • Monica and Quincy both have the opportunity to play high school and college basketball
  • There is no apparent discrepancy in the funding of their respective teams (uniforms, equipment, playing space, etc. are equal)
  • Scholarship money aids both characters as they pursue their basketball careers/educations
  • University of Southern California athletic scouts notice both characters’ talents and recruit them

In spite of Title IX:

  • The support and fandom for Quincy’s skills/men’s basketball consistently overshadow Monica’s talents/women’s basketball
  • The McCalls are aware of Quincy’s passion for the game and believe he can go pro; the Wrights advise Monica to try something else
  • Both Quincy and Monica are arrogant on the court, but Monica is the one who must change her behavior in order to be a starting player in college
  • In the movie’s pre-WNBA setting, Quincy dreams of playing in the NBA and Monica dreams of being the first girl in the NBA
  • Quincy (and every other character) cannot grasp why basketball is Monica’s first priority
  • No one questions Quincy’s sexuality because he loves the game; the same cannot be said of Monica

In the movie’s “First Quarter,” Monica claims she does not care that she is different than other girls. I don’t know if any adolescent girl is completely unconcerned about how others see her, but Monica still repeatedly refuses to let anyone’s opinion cloud her judgment or hinder her plans. It’s the same story for the ever-present sexism in sports. She might have to work harder than Quincy to earn the same amount of respect, but that is something Monica is willing to do and does throughout the entire movie. Despite the tensions between the legal and ideological arguments about a woman’s place in basketball, Monica knows she is just as good as any male player. She also knows that her talent will set her apart from other girls, from her family and even from Quincy. But she accepts that and ultimately makes it to the WNBA, vindicating all of the sacrifices she made throughout the four quarters of her simultaneous romances with Quincy and the game. After all, all’s fair in love and basketball.

(Image #1 courtesy of imdb.com; #2 courtesy of silveremulsion.com; #3 courtesy of madamenoire.com)

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