Personal Best
Women in love

by Linda Williams

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 1, 11-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

Robert Towne's PERSONAL BEST is a film about two women pentathletes who meet at the 1976 Olympic trials, become friends and lovers, then separate and meet again at the 1980 Olympic trials as competitors. Basically a sports movie, it differs from the genre's male pattern of individualist competition in its representation of female athletes, who not only perform their personal best but also support one another in doing so.

The film has been much praised for its realistic representation of athletic female bodies at the moment of concentrated performance, for picturing the wild beauty of young women with the mystic gusto usually reserved for "young men" (Michael Sragow, Rollling Stone); for "presenting fresh images on screen … a special treat" (Gene Siskell, Chicago Tribune), and for daring

"with great delicacy and insight, to show a loving sexual relationship between two young women, not as a statement about homosexuality, but as a paradigm of authentic human intimacy" (Jack Kroll, Newsweek).[1]

Just about everyone found something to like in the film. Straight women like the "positive" portrayal of (literally) strong female protagonists committed to excellence in their field. Men like the sports subject and the fact that it provides the occasion for the relatively unclothed spectacle of female bodies in competitive contexts that excuse the usual voyeuristic pleasure of the way men look at them. Many (though certainly not all) lesbians like the guilt-free portrayal of a lesbian relationship. Runners of both sexes like the celebration of running itself.

Like most Hollywood films, PERSONAL BEST broadly appeals to a wide variety of contemporary social attitudes and tastes. Although the film presents itself as "daring" in its depiction of a sexual relationship between two women, it is not daring enough to delve very far into the emotional details of that relationship or to suggest that such a relationship could endure. As a result there are many lacunae and motivational puzzlements in the basic narrative. Not the least of these occurs at a point two-thirds of the way through the film when a line of dialogue indicates, much to the audience's surprise, that what has seemed to be a relatively short-term affair has been going on for three years. What may at first appear to be the ineptness of a first-time director is, in fact, a confusion arising from the strain of juggling so many diverging social attitudes into a package that would titillate, but not offend, most viewers. In what follows I would like to examine the qualities for which the film has been most praised — its iconography of physically active, powerful women and its lesbian love theme — in order to discover the ways in which they are contradicted or undercut by predominantly patriarchal attitudes and points of view.


Many of the discussions of PERSONAL BEST have centered on the photography of the track and field sequences. What is somewhat surprising in this discussion is that very often, among the film's relatively few negative reviews, male critics have attacked what they consider to he a voyeuristic presentation of female bodies.[2] Female critics, however, have tended to defend the film against these very charges. Robert Hatch, for example, writes in The Nation:

"During track and field events, the cameras focus obsessively on the women's crotches — most outrageously during a slow-notion passage when six or eight of them practice the high jump by turning back-somersaults over the bar. This is cheesecake; it demeans women, and the lubricious chuckles in the audience suggest that it does so successfully."[3]

Veronika Geng, however, writing for the New York Review of Books, defends these very same shots:

"The idea that (cinematographer Michael Chapman) and Towne are using the camera voyeuristically; and that women must be protected from them by several manly, heroic film critics, is preposterous. Visually, PERSONAL BEST is designed around the autonomous movements of the women. When they are still, the camera never prowls their bodies. When they move, they make their own trajectories through the frame. If the camera moves with them, it goes from the general to the specific — from the sources of athletic power, the legs and pelvis, to a particular face. (Pornography looks at a specific woman and then debases her into generalized body parts; with Towne, looking at the body parts makes him fall in love with the whole woman.) In the high jump, the hinge of the movement is the crotch (and too bad if you can't stand seeing it), but each character pushes her entire body into the frame, and the payoff is the unique reaction on her face. Every photographic choice — the distance of the camera, a change from slow motion to normal speed — is attuned to the women's feelings and picks out the individuality in physical movement."[4]

What Hatch sees as the cheesecake of the unindividuated and fragmented body, Geng sees as the autonomous expression of individuality through niovepient. Who is right? Or do men and women simply respond differently to the same images?

This issue is a complicated one and I do not pretend to have all the answers. It would be tempting to reply that where men see cheesecake women see autonomous beings. We could thus relegate the entire issue to the "eye of the beholder" who sees what he/she is sexually programmed to see. But if we look closely at Geng's defense of Towne, we will see that she is not at all describing what her eye beholds but creating a rather elaborate defense of the male director's point of view — as both creator and consumer of these images. The defense is telling. For I strongly suspect that such images invite women to consume them from a temporarily assumed male point of view. If women could not learn to at least partially assume the male viewpoint in consuming such images, they would experience constant visual displeasure in the bombardment of female body parts provided by the media. Geng reveals the extent to which women have become complicit in the objectification of female bodies.

The assertion that the various fragments of the female body add up to a whole that is attuned to the subjective expression of the woman's feelings might be possible in an innocent world that had not already appropriated female bodies to the measure of male desire. But in the context of our already fallen, patriarchal, world, Eve's body is no longer innocent, no longer her own.

Nor can activity alone constitute the autonomy of the female image. Even the briefest glance at television ads and magazine covers — from Runner's World to the Playboy issue that features PERSONAL BEST star Mariel Hemingway on the cover and interviews Towne within — reveals the sleek active bodies of an increasingly androgynous feminine ideal displaying the "new cleavage" of ass to leg. From the breast fetishes of the fifties we move to the ass, crotch and muscle fetishes of the eighties. At this point in time, when commercials have already fetishized the fragmented female body to sell the most mundane commodities, analytic slow motion montages of athletic bodies in motion merely confirm the current style of fashionably fetishized female bodies constructed to the measure of male desire. Where that desire once consigned women to a passive voluptuousness, it now represents them as so many trained seals flexing their muscles to male awe and approval. Thus even Jane Fonda finds herself, in ON GOLDEN POND, obliged to perform a muscle-flexing backflip to resolve the father-daughter differences of that film, thereby proving to her father Henry  in one of the least satisfying plot resolutions ever concocted — that she is really just as good as the son he always wanted her to be.

The point, however, is not to berate Geng for an "unliberated" enjoyment of female bodies. Women viewers, traditionally deprived of active women characters with whom they can identify, are naturally inclined to celebrate any female images that break out — however slightly — of the traditional molds of passive and decorous objects. (I recently found myself applauding Lauren Bacall's graceful ability to catch the matchbox Humphrey Bogart tosses her in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, even though the vast majority of tier movements are self-consciously and narcissistically calculated to please both Bogart and the male viewer.)

The question then arises: what would a nonpatriarchal representation of the athletic female body be? There is no answer that works for all time. In 1982 a slow-motion analysis of female athletes will be read in the context of the patriarchy's commercial and sexual appropriation of those very same images. It could very well be that what we need at this point in time is to restore the integrity of the whole body in real time and space.[5] Even the WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS allows all athletes this much integrity before launching into the slow-motion replay.


PERSONAL BEST's other claim to originality is the lesbian relationship between its two female characters. Here the film makes more explicit a female love relationship that was hinted at in JULIA, the last decade's enormously popular epic of female friendship and love. In PERSONAL BEST the track and field sports context of the narrative permits an emphasis on the physical and sensual that renders the women's erotic relationship a natural by-product of their highly physical existence. This, I think, is the source of the almost overwhelming acceptance of the film's treatment of the normally taboo subject of homosexual love.

In box office terms, the combination of sports and sex was a stroke of genius. Those who would normally be shocked or at least irritated by a lesbian relationship in any other context find it quite "natural" among female athletes who, it is presumed, are simply more physical than other people. The film thus capitalizes on public awareness of, and curiosity about, lesbian athletes like Billy Jean King while evading any real presentation of lesbian identity. Thus Kroll, in the statement quoted above, can take Chris and Tory's relationship not as a "statement about homosexuality but as a paradigm of authentic human intimacy." Authenticity for Kroll seems to consist of avoiding the very issues of sexual identity that the lesbian relationship raises. My own criticism of PERSONAL BEST is not that it should have made a "statement about homosexuality," but that in studiously avoiding even mentioning the word lesbian — let alone the word love — the film's notion of "authentic human intimacy" tends to reduce this relationship to a kind of pre-verbal and pre-oedipal regression to narcissism.

The first lovemaking scene between the two athletes, Chris and Troy (Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly), occurs early in the film. It is presented as the outgrowth of a prolonged and herculean arm-wrestling contest whose ups and downs prefigure the various ups and downs of the two women's competitive careers. Only the physicality of the arm-wrestling and the proximity of the two remarkably fit and beautiful bodies prepare us for their sudden passion. In the very next scene, they celebrate their love in an ecstatic workout run along the beach. A three-year love affair follows.

What we see of this affair is somewhat confusing. At times it is presented as an idyll of sensuality; at other times it seems tense and troubled. The two women both live and train together. Under Tory's guidance, Chris at first gains confidence and skill. But as Chris improves, Tory begins to decline. A key moment in their relationship occurs at the Pan Am Games in Colombia. When Chris becomes ill with stomach cramps, Tory spends the night nursing her, cradling her in her arms on the floor of a dressing room shower in a pose that recalls that of a madonna and child. The next day Chris is well and performs magnificently while Troy is tired and does poorly. Although Chris clings desperately to the maternal care and support that Tory gives her, it becomes increasingly obvious that she performs best under adverse conditions and needs not to depend on Tory. As Chris's skills improve, she reluctantly begins to challenge Tory in the pentathlon. Tory seems able to accept this challenge and still love Chris, but her concern for Chris's well-being tends to hurt her own performance.

The real problem, however, is not that they must compete with one another but that they must do so within the context of a personal relationship of unequals. For Tory's relationship to Chris, as the madonna and child scene in the shower clearly suggests, is that of a mother. This mothering is the real impediment to the growth and endurance of their relationship. Yet this mothering also renders the relationship safe in the eyes of the films ultimately patriarchal system of values. The film can afford to celebrate nostalgically the sensual lost Eden of a female-to-female bond precisely because it chooses to depict this bond as the non-viable pre-oedipal dependence and narcissistic identification of mother and daughter.

Chris and Tory's love affair is doomed not because they are lesbians, the film seems to say, but because of the regressive nature of their narcissistic relation. The failure to define the lesbian nature of their relationship as anything other than a regression to mother-daughter narcissism is one of the major disappointments of the film. The remarkable fact that the film goes to great lengths to avoid giving a name to the lesbian nature of Chris and Tory's relationship indicates the extent of the evasion.

The closest the film comes to defining their relationship is Tory's statement: "We may be friends, but every once in a while, we fuck each other." The definition of a three-year love affair as friendship plus occasional sex seems hopelessly inadequate. The very language of the formulation "fuck each other" assumes an oppressively phallic model for its sexual content. If ever two people had a chance not to fuck each other (with all the manipulation and abuse the term implies), it would be these two women.

In other words, we find in PERSONAL BEST what we have so often found in the action films of male bonding: a gratuitous and decorative love interest with no organic relation to the real concerns of the film. Chris and Tory's love remains an emotional and sexual interlude in a larger configuration that cannot deal with its implications. Thus, having put the two women together, the film must then find a way to drive them apart.

If Chris and Tory were driven apart by the pressures of competing in a patriarchal system of ruthless competition, then we could clearly blame this system and celebrate the women's triumph over it in the end. But what actually drives them apart is a blatantly contrived scene in which Tory accidentally moves a marker that causes Chris an injury. Because neither of the women can account for the accident, the coach can drive a wedge of suspicion between them. Although we deplore the evil suspicions of the macho coach, the melodramatic contrivance of the unlikely accident actually effects the separation. The coach is ultimately proven wrong in his suspicions and in his ruthless handling of the two women, but nothing in the film proves wrong their contrived separation. Quite the contrary. From this point on, the film shifts focus (from Chris and Tory to Chris alone) and tone (from serious melodrama to comic relief) as it recounts Chris's initiation into the joys of adult heterosexuality.

Another evasion of the lesbian theme occurs in the contradictory presentation of Tory, played by the novice actress and former hurdler Patrice Donnelly. Although Tory looks and acts a good ten years older than Chris, she appears in a role that would make her roughly Chris's contemporary. Similarly, although provided with an ex-boyfriend (mentioned briefly) and no previous experience with other women, she is visually coded — short hair, square features, tailored jackets — to look the part of the "dyke" in opposition to Mariel Hemingway's more feminine long hair, unassertive presence, and general girlishness. Tory takes the initiative in their first sexual encounter, appears jealous of Chris when she is in the company of men, and, after they separate, seems to lurk in the background of Chris's life, a frustrated lesbian.

The film thus delivers a double message: on the one hand it presents two heterosexual women who "simply" fall into an affair without examining the meaning of their relationship; on the other hand, it indirectly implies that one of them is older, more experienced and a "real" lesbian. The fact that Tory is almost completely dropped as a character after she and Chris separate suggests that Hollywood has not entirely given up the old policy of punishing the homosexuals in its stories. Instead of death or suicide, the punishment has simply been reduced to narrative banishment.

The repression of the lesbian woman-identified content of Chris and Tory's relationship is all the more remarkable given the film's ostensible moral: that women athletes can be both tough and compassionate, that the "killer instinct" that motivates male competition, and that is advocated by their coach, can be tempered with a female ethic of support and cooperation, which is not only good for the soul but can also win in the end. In other words, the film asserts on the level of its sports theme what it is afraid to assert on the level of its sexual theme.

By the end of the film Chris, who began as a whiny little girl in terror first of her father then of her male coach, finds the strength to oppose her coach's order not to associate with Tory. At the climactic meet she helps Tory win a crucial event by taking out the competition too fast. The plan works, cooperation in competition prevails, and both women qualify for the Olympic team, which never went to Moscow, with the satisfaction that they have performed their "personal best." But the personal best of competitive sports has here clearly supplanted the personal best of relationship. Again, what the film offers on the level of its sports theme  — that women can be competitors with a positive difference — it takes away on the level of its sexual theme — that they can also be lovers with a positive difference.

The shift in tone is quite remarkable. Chris achieves her rite of passage under the tutelage of Denny, an ex-swimmer whose ingratiating buffoonery comes as a literal relief to the emotional intensity of the Chris/Tory relationship. Denny functions as a modified and reasonable substitute for the excessive and unreasonable patriarchal authority of Chris's father and coach. It is Denny who delivers the final moral of the film's title, "The only ass you need to whip is your own." And it is Denny whose (full frontal but briefly spied) penis becomes the final symbol of Chris's delighted reconciliation with patriarchy: a comic scene in which Denny goes to the toilet accompanied by a curious and enthusiastic Chris who stands behind him to "hold it."

In this scene what appears on the surface to be a clever role reversal – woman objectifying and fetishizing a male body part – is really a not very subtle comic expression of Chris' embrace of a newly found adult heterosexuality. Chris' maturity is then found in the next scene when she defies her coach to befriend the now weakened and child-like Tory. Although Chris's support of Tory prepares the "happy end" of both women's mutual triumph in the final meet, the moral is clear: Chris's strength and maturity derive not from Tory, who mothered her, but from Denny whose laidback fathering has finally made her a woman.

And so, what began as a promising depiction of women in love and competition becomes a series of dirty phallic jokes whose function is to dispel the seriousness and tension of the original woman-to-woman relation: "What's gotten into you?" says one of Chris's friends, and Chris, in dreamy reply, simply looks at Denny.

If the phallus has become a running joke throughout the film, first for its absence and then later (with a vengeance) for its presence, it never really becomes the butt of the joke; everything is ultimately envisioned from its point of view. Denny's function in the film makes this painfully clear. If we have had any early doubts about the voyeuristic presentation of women's bodies in the first half of the film, Denny's bugged-eyed appreciation of Chris's body must dispel them. His comic, knee-jerk reactions to Chris's athletic beauty stand for the pleasures of the male viewer who is "wowed" by the power and beauty of the newly streamlined feminine ideal. Scenes in which he bumps his head on the side of a pool as punishment for too much underwater looking, or does bench presses while blowing air up Chris's crotch are pure burlesque, and like all burlesque, these gestures render the involuntary male sexual response comically forgivable.

The women in PERSONAL BEST do not define for themselves the challenge their relationship poses to patriarchy. This allows the film to recuperate their (unnamed) sensual pleasure into its own regime of voyeurism. Ultimately, the many nude scenes and crotch-shots can be enjoyed much the way the lesbian turn-ons of traditional heterosexual pornography are enjoyed — as so much titillation before the penis makes its grand entrance. For all its lyrically natural and guiltless sensuality, for all its celebration of women athletes as possessed of both excellence and integrity, PERSONAL BEST fails to provide a genuinely feminist depiction of women in love or competition.


I would like to thank Judy Gardiner, Richard Gardiner, Meg Halsey, Kathy Minogue, Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage and Chuck Kleinhans for either contributing their own valuable ideas on this film or for helping me to clarify my own ideas.

1. These statements are gleaned from the current newspaper ad for the film.

2. Male critics who deplore the film's voyeurism include: Vincent Canby in the New York Times, Carlos Clarens in The Soho News, Robert Hatch in The Nation, and Dave Kerr in The Chicago Reader. Female critics who defend the film's presentation of the female body include: Barbara Presley Nobel in In These Times, Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, and Veronika Geng in The New York Review of Books. Of course, many male critics have also praised the film extravagantly, as demonstrated by the excerpts quoted above. But it does seem significant, that among the male critics who dislike the film, so many of them isolate the issue of voyeurism as an important element of their criticism and that, similarly, female critics feel obliged to defend the film on this very issue. I have not conducted a survey of the gay and lesbian and feminist press; opinion on the film appears to be somewhat divided in it.

3. The Nation. February 27, 1982, pp. 251-252.

4. March 18, 1982, p. 45.

5. This is, in fact, what a great many current feminist filmmakers have chosen to do. See, for example, the films of Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Yvonne Rainer, Michelle Citron, Helke Sander and Ulrike Ottinger.