Plot Summary: Diana, a troubled Latina teenager from Brooklyn, decides to become a boxer, despite the scorn of both her father and men involved in the sport. When she masters the sport, she is presented with a dilemma when she must enter a bout against her boyfriend, a fellow boxer in her weight class.
Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussions of racism, suicide, domestic abuse, misgendering and fear of attacks/murder by men.
Girlfight is a sports drama film that deserves to be a classic. Released at the turn of the millennium alongside other independent films about young people mastering sports not traditionally considered appropriate for their gender (such as Billy Elliot and Bend It Like Beckham), Girlfight is an electrifying look at a girl of colour who learns to value herself and demand respect through mastering a sport. (The content under the cut contains spoilers.)
At the outset of the film, eighteen-year-old Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez, in her debut role) feels like she is at a dead end in life. Her classes do not interest her in the slightest, and she is close to being expelled from school for fighting. She lives under the thumb of her father Sandro (Paul Calderon), whom Diana quietly despises because his abuse drove her mother to suicide. Her brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) dreams of being an artist, but Sandro is unsupportive and sends him to boxing lessons instead. As far as Sandro is concerned, men must know how to defend themselves, whereas women must simply kowtow to the men in their lives. Sandro openly tells Diana that he considers her a failure as a daughter: “You embarrass me. Sometimes I don’t even think you’re mine.” The only people who seem to treat Diana with any warmth or kindness are Tiny and bubbly Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra), Diana’s only female friend. However, they cannot drown out the chorus of voices telling Diana that she is unfeminine, unruly, unwanted and going nowhere in life.
Taking these factors together, it is easy to see why Diana has a great deal of anger. Yet, despite all this, she has a keenly felt sense of honour and justice, which is frustrated by the unfair and abusive situation she has been placed into. Responding to critics’ descriptions of Diana as “surly,” “bad-tempered” and “trouble-prone,” Tolchin points out:
These descriptors … obscure vital information: in the film’s opening fight sequence, Diana is extracting a measure of justice for Marisol for the duplicitous and hurtful actions of a girl named Veronica (involving Marisol’s male love interest). Kusama’s heroine is most emphatically not a rebel without a cause; in fact, she displays honor, loyalty, courage, and selflessness, since the fight jeopardizes her ability to remain in school (2007, 190).
- Girlfight opens in a high school hallway with a flamenco beat playing over the footage of students walking by. Against a wall of red lockers is Diana, dressed in army fatigues, with eyes downcast in a way that makes the audience anticipate the force of her gaze. Finally, she lifts her eyes – only her eyes – to stare directly into the camera. She is magnificent.
- Other fantastic thing about Diana is her biting wit. Picking Tiny up from boxing, his trainer Hector Soto (Jaime Tirelli) asks her, “You Sandro’s kid too? How come I never heard about you?” Diana replies, “I don’t know. I’m his pride and joy.”
- Later, Diana goes to Hector to ask if he can train her as a boxer. The men at the gym patronisingly assume she must want to get fit (asking her “Why not aerobics?” in an absolutely cringeworthy moment).
- Training at the gym, Diana is given a storage closet to change in, since there is no women’s locker room. She starts to feel attracted to Adrian Sturges (Santiago Douglas), a nineteen-year-old boxer. One moment I particularly like is where, in her first sparring match, Diana accidentally apologises to her opponent for hitting him. From the sidelines, Hector calls, “Come on! Don’t be sorry, don’t ever be sorry!” (a line I want on a needlepoint in my future house).
- We see Diana give a genuine smile for the first time when Hector takes her to watch a boxing match – a lovely moment.
- After the boxing match, Diana and Adrian go out to eat. She orders a cheeseburger, he orders soup and a salad. He accompanies Diana home on the train, where her increasing closeness to him is shown as she points out to Adrian the place where her mother was born, “thirty-seven years ago.” Sitting on some steps near a basketball court, they discuss Adrian’s dissatisfaction with his relationship. This culminates in him kissing Diana. “You taste sweet,” he remarks. Wrong-footed, she tries to self-deprecate: “Funny. I always thought of myself as salty.” “You’re wrong. You’re sweet,” Adrian tells her. While I’m not usually a big fan of scenes in which a male character tells a female one what she is in the context of romance, I like this one: this is the first time someone has treated Diana as someone who might like to hear nice, sappy things about herself, and it’s someone who knows her as a boxer first.
- There is a very funny scene which shows Diana at school, absolutely blitzing the Presidential Physical Fitness Test thanks to her boxing training. Her PE teacher praises her, the first time we’ve seen her encouraged for anything at school. Veronica makes a snide remark about Diana’s body: “Looks like those hormone treatments really do the job.” This constitutes an example of how a “girl who chooses to participate in PE or in extra curricular physical activity (particularly a traditionally ‘masculine’ sport) will risk alienation from many of the people around her … [as well as] from her collective identity of ‘teenage girl’ as portrayed by the popular discourses that pervade her everyday life” (Cockburn 1999, 15).
- After an argument with her father, Diana goes to sleep at Adrian’s. They make out on his bed, but he tells her he doesn’t want to have sex with her because he has a match coming up. I remember being entranced with this scene as a young teenager, arguably because it features the same dynamic that girls loved about Twilight: a girl character assertively seeking sexual fulfillment, and the boy being the one to put the brakes on (see Rana 2014). In any case, it is refreshing to see a Latina girl portrayed as “a sexual person” who is ultimately “defined by her almost mystical calling to a sport, not her sexuality” (Tolchin 2007, 188).
- (This point comes with a severe trigger warning for abuse and suicide.) Diana finally confronts her father in their kitchen, easily overpowering him and hissing into his face, “I could snap your neck right now. I could kill you right now. Mom begged. Did you stop, when she said please? You belong to me now. How does it feel, to see so much of yourself so close, huh?” Tiny begs her to stop, and she does, slumping against the kitchen cabinets and breathing, “All these years, you just looked right through me.” (End trigger warning)
- This line, which I also want on a needlepoint for my future home: “You’ve gotta learn how to manage your power, ‘cause you’ve got more of it than people realise.”
- The film’s third-act conflicts arises when Diana and Adrian are called to fight each other publicly. Adrian doesn’t want to do it because he claims it’s dishonourable, as a man, to hit the woman he loves. With her marvelous gift for seeing through others’ bullshit, Diana calls him out: “You’re afraid I might win!”
- When Diana wins her bout against Adrian in a unanimous decision, the reactions from Adrian and Hector are poles apart. After Diana is pronounced the winner, Adrian asks, “Satisfied?” and leaves. Before Diana has had time to process this, an overjoyed Hector proclaims what Sandro never could: “In all my life, I’ve never been so proud!” In light of these reactions, I find it totally understandable that Diana cries in the locker room after winning.
- Diana and Adrian talk after their bout. He assumes that he has lost her respect. Diana corrects him, “Adrian, you boxed with me like I was any other guy. You threw down and you showed me respect. Don’t you see what that means?” “That life with you is war,” he replies. Diana concedes, “Maybe. Maybe life’s just war, period.”
A few months before my twelfth birthday, my family moved from my childhood home into a warehouse near the harbour, where we lived until I was sixteen. On one side was a busy highway, on the other was the railway line. Across the street was a junkyard where people lit fires in iron drums on cold nights. The warehouse was big enough that my siblings and I could ride bikes and scooters indoors on rainy days. The thick walls and doors made my mother feel terrifically secure. My older sister and I, by contrast, were often spooked by how huge and dark it could feel in there, how difficult it was to tell where other people were in relation to you. The lights sometimes didn’t work, and when they did, large portions of the house were still shrouded in darkness. When we were left home to babysit our younger siblings, my sister and I would often scare ourselves silly imagining that we weren’t alone in the house. Sometimes, we thought it was ghosts (usually during ill-advised séances in the living room). Most often, we were frightened of intruders. We constantly imagined that men were breaking into the house to hurt us, and living in a particularly large and creepy house in an uninviting neighbourhood didn’t calm this particular fear.
At the age of twelve, I wrote about my feelings in a piece I titled Twelve is Too Young to Die:
I’m scared. I’m so scared. I’m home alone and I can hear noises downstairs.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. I remember when me and my older sister were littler (about eleven and nine, I’m twelve now and she’s fourteen) and we were home alone (which wasn’t often) she’d nearly always get it into her head that there was someone in the house. We would lock ourselves into the bathroom and stay there. I’d always be incredibly miffed with her because I’d be wanting to eat chocolate ice cream and watch tv and yet, there we were, locked into the bathroom.
I never took her seriously.
My parents are out with my little brother and sister. My older sister is in town with her friends. I’m at home, reading fanfiction and listening to the radio. I was having a blast until I heard something downstairs.
Footsteps. Voices. Knocks and bumps. I turned off the radio and listened. I stopped typing reviews or even scrolling down the page.
Very slowly I lifted myself out of my seat and went to the door. I sank down, my back against it.
[…] I’m hugging my knees. If it IS burglars… have they got guns?
[…] I tell myself to stop thinking like this. I’ve got to act like Hermione, a character in my favourite series of books and my role model. What would she do in this situation? She would square her shoulders, go downstairs, and, um, pull out her wand and curse the burglar. Except I can’t do that. I can only sit here, praying the person downstairs won’t come up here.
[…] I try to relax my shoulders by they tense up as [my sister’s dog] Bella starts barking. I close my eyes and bury them in my cupped hands. Shut UP, Bella, I think fiercely. What IS she barking at?
She falls silent with a yelp and I am afraid.
I hope like mad that if there IS a burglar downstairs that it’s a woman. I think I could fight a woman because I’m twelve and a girl […] But if it’s a man than I’ll never be able to defend myself.
I’ve got to be brave. Like Hermione and Scully from the X-Files […] all the people I admire. I bet they wouldn’t be freaking out like this if THEY were home alone.
I’m so scared. And I should be. Because twelve is too young to die.
I first watched Girlfight on TV, late one night during the year I was thirteen. I remember the darkness around me being absolutely immense – either the lights weren’t working, or I was too bloody lazy or too creeped out to get up and turn them on. Rain was drumming on the corrugated iron roof of the warehouse, making it difficult to hear anything other than the TV. Watching Diana’s story made a strange new emotion flutter to life inside me, because Girlfight was unlike anything I had seen before.
In a well-written blog post titled “No Winners Here: The Flawed Feminism of Girlfight,” boxer Anju Reejhsinghani wrote that she found the “close-ups of Diana, eyes wide and glaring, nostrils flared, her wide lips formed around a black mouthpiece in anything but a smile” to be distracting and unrealistic, considering that “rage isn’t the most helpful emotion to have in the ring, and it doesn’t always make for good fighters … fights aren’t awarded to whoever looks the meanest” (2000). Reejhsinghani also disliked the decision to “portray Diana’s world as one of gritty-edged realism,” since it gave the impression that only unhappy, unfulfilled people take up boxing.
In my eyes, both Diana’s righteous anger (which she learns to channel by gaining a sense of her own worth) and her drab surroundings captivated me. Here was a teenage girl with no magic, no superpowers, no guns, being honestly, legitimately physically imposing. Diana was beautiful and tender in one scene and pants-pissingly scary in the next – all the while in the same muscled body. You could have muscles and be intimidating, but also have a boy kiss you and tell you that you were sweet. Neither one seemed to impact on the other.
Watching Diana, “the audience grows mesmerized not by the classic parts of breasts and buttocks but by eyes, brow, jaw, and fists. The character’s mirror – long a torture device for women – becomes a tool for gauging punching technique, not physical imperfection” (Tolchin 2007, 188). At no point in the film does Diana put on a dress, style her hair and beam sassily to show that she can be normatively feminine, and therefore conventionally beautiful, and therefore worth something.
Diana had aggression, but she wasn’t one of the designated Girls with Aggression that popular culture had made me familiar with: a Mean Girl, a Queen Bee, or a token female bully in a kids’ cartoon. Diana was a girl with a heart and soul, with determination, with desires … who could fight and win. I watched Diana’s story, curled up in a corner of the home I couldn’t let my guard down in, and allowed myself to think something totally forbidden: What if people could be scared of you?
I knew the chances of this happening weren’t great. I was a gangly, unathletic nerd with thick glasses, nails gnawed to stubs from stress, huge flat feet, boobs that felt comically large for my frame and hair that I never brushed. The closest I ever came to physical confrontations were pathetic catfights with my big sister where we pulled on each other’s hair and shrieked, “I HATE YOU” while our dad rolled his eyes and held us apart.
Still, there was no harm in just thinking it, right? What if people could be scared of you? What if you could take up space and have that respected? What if you didn’t have to ever, ever be scared of someone breaking into the house and hurting you? What if you didn’t have to be scared?
“In McCaughey’s study of women who both teach and participate in self-defense training, she finds that the physicality of self-defense enables women to embody a different code from the norm by encouraging them to replace the notion of women’s weakness with the idea of female bodies as active and forceful.” (Tung 2004, 96; see McCaughey 1997). Applying this idea to spectatorship, Tung argues “that viewing … [a female character’s] physical strength in action (and the violence that is inherent within that) can be pleasurable and, through its fantasy, can embolden women” (2004, 96). In “Embodying an Image: Gender, Race and Sexuality in La Femme Nikita,” Tung proposes that the fantastic elements of series like La Femme Nikita (and, I would argue, by extension, series like Dark Angel, Buffy, Alias, Agent Carter and others) helps promote viewers’ acceptance of, and pleasure in, female characters fighting back against attackers (2004).
For me, the fact that Girlfight was set in the real world made it all the more special. At thirteen, I adored any TV show or movie I could find that featured women kicking ass. I loved Cameron, Drew and Lucy as the Angels, I looked up to Leela from Futurama, I idolised Max from Dark Angel. However, all these women were superheroes, or they may as well have been. At heart, the audience was supposed to accept that women kicking ass didn’t happen in real life. The fact that Girlfight took place in a world that not only was real, but felt real – where people were poor and didn’t talk about their feelings, where you actually had to train, like, really friggin’ hard if you wanted to be able to fight – gave me the tiniest, most wonderful hope that maybe, there could be women out there who weren’t scared all the time. I could be one of them, someday.
(I would like to clarify that I realise that I’m writing from the perspective of a middle-class White woman who was once a middle-class White girl. Working-class, Indigenous, Black and Latina girls and women are more likely to be seen as hot-blooded, tempestuous, sassy, masculine, oversexed, difficult or threatening, simply for advocating for themselves. These popular conceptions of women of colour do nothing to shield them from all the same dangers and fears that White girls and women experience, as well as many more which are unique to the experiences of women of colour. Despite this, White girls and women are viewed as much more innocent, fragile and in need of protection.)
Society conspires to make girls and women believe that we have no business competing with boys or men because if we do, they won’t like us. Being liked by men is the most important thing of all. For me, Girlfight’s greatest contribution to girl culture lies in its refutation of this toxic myth. While Diana does reconcile with Adrian after beating him, she competes with him in the first place because she knows, despite the chorus of voices telling her otherwise, that she deserves respect. If selling herself short is what will keep the peace in their relationship, then that is unacceptable. The story of Girlfight is not about Diana being as good as a boy, or better than a boy: it is about her demanding to be recognised for her gifts and not limited by her gender.
- No Winners Here: The Flawed Feminism of Girlfight by Anju Reejhsinghani (The Brooklyn Rail)
- Interview with Karyn Kusama by Cynthia Fuchs (Popmatters)
- Interview with Karyn Kusama by Bette Gordon (BOMB Magazine)
- Cockburn, Claudia. 1999. Girls Negotiating the ‘Femininity Deficit’ They Incur in Physical Education. Masters thesis: Faculty of Social Sciences, Research and Graduate School of Education. Southampton: University of Southampton
- Douglas, Susan J. 2010. Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done. New York: Times Books.
- McCaughey, Martha. 1997. Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense. New York: New York University Press.
- Miller, DeAnn Valorie. 2008. Queenbees and Wannabees: The Struggle for Power Through Bullying in Adolescent Girls. PhD thesis: Family and Consumer Sciences Education. Ames, Iowa, Iowa State University.
- Rana, Marion. 2014. “Of Masochistic Lions and Stupid Lambs: The Ambiguous Nature of Sexuality and Sexual Awakening in ” Screening Twilight: Critical Approaches to a Cinematic Phenomenon, edited by Wickham Clayton and Sarah Harman. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 114-127.
- Tolchin, Karen R. 2007. “Hey, Killer: The Construction of a Macho Latina, or the Perils and Enticements of Girlfight.” In From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, edited by Myra Mendible. Austin, Texas: The University of Texas Press, 183-198.
- Tung, Charlene. 2004. “Embodying an Image: Gender, Race and Sexuality in La Femme Nikita,” in Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture, edited by Sherrie A. Inness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 95-121.