From Title IX to TV heros

Some in Hollywood see a link between the 1972 law that leveled the playing field for women athletes and today's kickboxing actresses.

Our self-appointed tour guide pauses in the doorway of The Bronze to note that this back-alley studio-lot nightclub is where her favorite TV heroine vanquishes many vampire foes.

That would be with a few kicks to the head and torso, followed by a stab in the heart with a wooden stake? "Right," says 15-year-old Kara Robarts, whose father was once the show's location scout. "It's fun."

But what's fun for teens like Kara is something more significant for those who've watched the evolution of women's television roles in the three decades since Congress passed Title IX, leveling the playing field for girls and boys. They've seen shows like "Buffy" make it OK, even hip, for girls to kickbox boys one night and still get a date the next, transferring strength and equality in sports to the screen.

Seven years after Joss Whedon penned the first episodes of "Buffy," the TV landscape is fairly exploding with women flinging themselves at their foes, fists flying and guns blazing. ABC's "Alias," NBC's "She Spies" TNT's "Witchblade," and Fox's "Birds of Prey" are just a few.

Most of these women are bigger and buffer than vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar, and far more serious than that campy predecessor of contemporary warrior women, "Xena." And many, like Jennifer Garner of "Alias," train for and carry out their own death-defying stunts. (In episodes of "Alias," Ms. Garner kicks a highly skilled assassin into unconsciousness, escapes from an underwater death in a submerged car, and rappels off a 200-foot tower.)

To Laeta Kalogridis, writer of "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," the connection between the world of sports and TV's new soaring female sensations is obvious.

"These are the girls of Title IX," she says of TV's new fighting heroines, who have vaulted from the physical equality that the landmark legislation inspired in sports to physical liberation on the screen.

Is more physicality progress?

Granted, there may be legitimate questions about how far women have come when, like men, they use their physical power for nothing more artful than to maim and murder. And it can be argued that corseting the actresses in tight, sexy clothing does little to advance social progress.

But on TV, sex is used to sell everything. The very fact that the girls are kicking at all marks what women who've weathered the gender wars call the latest step in the long march from 1972, when Congress decreed that schools and colleges must provide equal educational opportunities, including in sports, for boys and girls.

That surprises "Buffy" writer Whedon, who says he wasn't thinking about either the law or social change when he conceived his character. "I was just thinking about what I felt I missed seeing when I was growing up, a woman who could kick ---," he says. "To me, her popularity shows that I wasn't the only one missing her."

If he doesn't pretend to read the signs of the times, he does hope he's tapped into something more than a passing trend. "If this is a real sea change," he says, "that would be wicked cool."

Some social critics say a sea change it is: If legislation hadn't forced schools to give girls space of their own, they say, we wouldn't be seeing images of physically powerful girls on TV today.

"Charlie's Angels" underscores their point. In the 1970s TV version, the leads were sexy, but rarely taxed much physically beyond picking up a telephone. The Angels in the recent feature remake are still babes. But their physical prowess is evident, too, as they leap free of an exploding helicopter and kick male captors into submission – while tied to a chair, no less.

"The physicality of the girls is a metaphor for the power and individuality that [women] have finally been able to claim," says Ms. Kalogridis, the writer.

It's a physical prowess that has evolved gradually and along parallel lines in the competitive world of sports and the make- believe world of TV, notes Donna Lopiano of the Women's Sports Foundation in East Meadow, N.Y.

Right after Title IX passed, the first sports that drew women competitors were more "ladylike" such as aerobics and dance, says Ms. Lopiano, executive director of the foundation, started by Billie Jean King.

Not long after, actress Jane Fonda blurred the lines between Hollywood and hardwood, spearheading a multimillion-dollar video-exercise business, selling women on the idea that, like men, they could "go for the burn."

In the '80s, as female athletes began to sting tennis balls (think Chris Evert), TV's first serious female police detectives, Cagney and Lacey, talked tough and fired guns. And in the '90s, as women propelled themselves to new heights in sports such as rock climbing, added weightlifting to the women's Olympiad, and bloodied noses in the boxing ring, the movies brought us "Fight Girl," the story of a female boxer.

The final stage of pure physicality, says Lopiano, is throwing oneself through space. That women like Buffy, the sword-wielding detective in "WitchBlade," and the CIA martial-arts expert in "Alias" have taken up such acrobatics in popular entertainment, shows progress.

Powerful, but still 'pretty'

That they must still do it with lots of cleavage is a less positive sign. Lopiano says the surest way to trivialize women's strength is to oversexualize it.

She warns that the next step, women exercising their power without the restraints of high heels and tight clothes, may be the most difficult. It also is certain to intensify the kind of cultural backlash that signals references to progress in any social movement, Lopiano warns, pointing to the intense misogyny and physical abuse in certain rap and rock songs as an example.

Social change, from her experience, evokes four stages of response: anger, retribution, acceptance, and celebration. "I'd say for a lot of insecure men, we're stuck somewhere between anger and retribution right now."

Indeed, even the protection of Title IX is not a sure thing. The law has withstood eight constitutional challenges over the years and faces yet another filed this past May. "This has been a male-dominated society," says Susan Leitao, assistant director of programs for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston's Northeastern University. "The way they see it, the more women get, the more is being taken away from men."

Certainly not all men see it that way. Director James Cameron, whose name has been synonymous with high-testosterone guy films, began developing his interest in powerful, independent women with the physically buff Linda Hamilton character in 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

Women, he says, are changing in society, and movies should reflect that. He tried to mirror those changes in "Dark Angel," a TV show that ran for two years on Fox and featured a genetically engineered soldier/woman.

Balancing act

Mr. Cameron, writer of such tough-guy films as "Rambo," says he wanted his heroine, Max, to explore the kind of coming-of-age issues that long have been central in male roles. Max is driven by the desire to find and understand the man who created her.

"You have to balance that [toughness] with vulnerability so they're real," Cameron says.

The writer of "Alias," J.J. Abrams, agrees. He hopes his character, a coed who is recruited by a rogue CIA operation, resonates with emotional as well as physical power. She loses her fiancé, doesn't know her father, and, Mr. Abrams says, embarks on an emotional journey even as she turns some great physical tricks along the way.

"I've surrounded myself with women who have always just impressed me," says Abrams, who attended Sarah Lawrence College, once an all-girls school. "So, I'm drawn to that."

Back on the set of "Buffy," guide Kara Robarts pauses at Buffy's house. She says she and her friends are not looking at Buffy's cool hair or high heels for inspiration. They're looking at what she does.

"When girls watch shows like 'Buffy,' and see girls who aren't just damsels in distress and who fight for themselves, and can be their own person, they get the idea, 'Hey, we can do that too,' she says. "Not the superhuman power thing, but we have just as much right to our space as anyone else."

Young fans look up to WNBA players

The young girls mass at the railings, hoping for a touch, a glance, maybe – if the gods are smiling – even an autograph.

Dressed in Women's National Basketball Association T-shirts, they wave fan books and wait for their favorite athletes to emerge from the locker room, their pleasure testament to the power of their role models.

Inside the locker room, WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie reflects on how far women's sports has come. "Without [Title IX] this would never have been," she says.

Leslie helped found the five-year-old women's basketball franchise. She is also a supermodel signed to a Wilhelmina contract, modeling Tommy Hilfiger and Armani fashions. And, as a TV celebrity in her own right, she understands the economic pressures to sell the WNBA for TV.

But she is clear-eyed about the foundation on which she stands and the importance of speaking up for the law that gave women athletes their chance.

"I don't think we have to sell sex in order to get our sport across," she says.

Her young fans, she adds, don't know how much times have changed.

"Lisa ROCKS!" screams 10-year-old Shanice Fowler from the stands outside the locker room. The girls around her giggle.

In a moment between cheers, Shanice says more quietly, "She makes me want to play basketball all the time."

Her 14-year-old friend Davon Smith says more loudly, "I've always played basketball."

Davon is getting ready for high school; she says sports will be a big part of her goals for college.

Tonight, history is made as Leslie slams in the first dunk in WNBA history. The girls at the rail go wild. Told of the league's recent history and that girls didn't always have their own teams, Davon looks confused. "Why not?" she asks. "They should. Girls have just as much right to play as boys."

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