Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

American Studies

First Advisor

Rabinovitz, Lauren

Second Advisor

Birrell, Susan

First Committee Member

Creekmur, Corey

Second Committee Member

Marra, Kim

Third Committee Member

Vogan, Travis


Focusing on classic Hollywood, I contend that overly narrow concepts of both “sport” and “sport(s) film” have contributed to the scholarly neglect of key texts and characters from this period. Just as a wider analysis of the history of women’s athletic participation has expanded definitions of “sport,” scholars need to consider examples that complicate conventional understandings of sport films. This dissertation focuses on the female athletic performances during the studio era that -- precisely because they deviate from traditional conceptions of sport -- open up space for a range of meanings and identities around issues of gender and sexuality. I look specifically at Olympic skater Sonja Henie’s nine skating musicals with 20th Century-Fox, Esther Williams’s sixteen MGM swimming vehicles, and the 1944 filmic adaptation of Enid Bagnold’s novel National Velvet starring Elizabeth Taylor.

This project is in conversation with longstanding debates, particularly in film studies, about the fraught visibility granted to women’s bodies on screen, issues of embodiment and disembodiment, and questions about identification and alienation of real and imagined spectators. The physicality of these studio era protagonists raises issues about the materiality of bodies and embodied subjectivity, even when a corporeal realism that focuses closely on bodily exertion, and the potential consequences of intense physical activity including pain and injury, is denied. This project, then, identifies the specific threats -- as stars and characters – that these women’s active bodies posed and describes how the studios defused and obscured their corporeal and ideological transgressive potential. And yet, in acknowledging and analyzing how and why these studio era female stars are “not there as themselves,” and in foregrounding the consistent disavowal of female strength and athleticism, I suggest that there are critical moments where that power is dramatically and corporeally present, and aesthetically critical.


Classic Hollywood, Female Athleticism, Spectacle, Sport Films


xii, 226 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 211-226).


Copyright 2016 Kara Elizabeth Fagan