I have to admit that I was not particularly looking forward to the third film in ESPN's Nine for IX series, Let Them Wear Towels. But I enjoyed it overall. I was expecting a more narrow view of the issue of female reporters in the locker room; one that addressed the stories many of us already know--those key cases such as Lisa Olson's story about sexual harassment in the locker room of the New England Patriots (which was mentioned but was just one piece). But there were more than a handful of women who discussed their experiences being the first or second female reporter to cover a team or a league and their difficulties with access.
One of the women featured is Claire Smith, who was the first African-American female sportswriter for the New York Times. The documentary noted this but issues she faced because of her race and how that affected her ability to do her job were not discussed. It was a purely gendered consideration of her history as a female reporter covering men's sports.
The historical footage was well edited into the movie. There are shots of the women doing their job in the press box (which was also off limits to many of them for a long time, the film reminds us) and in the locker room. (They re-enactments were unnecessary in my opinion.) The historical context was also fairly well covered (i.e., women's movement, women's entry into previously all-male spaces and domains).
The movie certainly presents a sense of progress. And, unfortunately, this notion is not troubled at all. The level of hostility towards female reporters, even after they received access, was presented to show the audience what women faced. But being interviewed are the women who choose to stay and deal with that hostility. How many more decided the harassment and the attention was just not worth it? Access is just a first step. At the very end of the documentary, the access versus attitude issue is discussed, using the Lisa Olson case as the lens through which to examine this.
And hostility about women's involvement in sports remains--it just looks different. Many of the reporters in the documentary have kept all the hate mail they received. People don't take time to sit down a write a letter so much anymore to tell a woman who covers or plays sports that she is a whore, a lesbian, a harlot; they do take to the internet though making comments on articles, on blogs, and on social media like Twitter.
Technology is also an issue that doesn't receive much attention amidst the progress narrative. At the very end one of the women mentions that, yes, they did get access to the locker room, but no women have access to the analyst booth as a montage of male commentators is shown. The issue of where female reporters are in the age of changing media is not covered. It was likely outside the purview of this historical film, but we need to have more discussions about what it means that so many sideline reporters today are young, traditionally pretty women.
What is progress? What is access? What is acceptance?
I wonder if these are the questions that will keep emerging during the rest of the series or if any of other films will ask them a little more explicitly.