Shadow Boxers (1999)

[12 May 2003]

By Tobias Peterson


Never hit a lady. It’s a rule intended to enforce chivalrous codes of behavior in men. Like most mores, however, it’s more complicated than simply separating brutish men from delicate women. The rule rests firmly on the ideology of separate spheres, in which women be “protected” from the rugged, masculine world. As “the weaker sex,” women must be sheltered from violence and physicality, just as they are to be kept out of the workplace, politics, and all things not directly related to being a housewife.

Today, this notion is antiquated, though far from vanquished (see this year’s Master’s Tournament). Thanks in large part to feminism (however one might define it), much traditional thinking has weakened and crumbled. As in the workplace and in politics, women have made inroads into the world of athletics, overcoming sexist notions with the help of the now besieged Title IX.

Still, barriers remain for women entering the most overtly physical sports. Boxing is chief among these. Frequently assailed as too brutal, violent, and dangerous for even men to undertake, let alone women, its effects can include bloody cuts, broken bones, and concussions, and death is not an unheard of consequence. Until recently, the only women who have been accepted in the ring are the bikini-clad models who hold up signs to show which round is coming up.

Despite (and perhaps because of) this history, women are forging a new place for themselves in the sport. Shadow Boxers documents these fighters as they challenge a well-established legacy of exclusion and segregation. Specifically, the film follows the career of Lucia Rijker, a Dutch-born former kick boxer, as she moves through the ranks of her fellow female boxers, trains with men, and, in the process, rips apart stereotypes of women as docile and passive athletes, if they are even considered in the popular imagination to be athletes at all.

Rijker’s socially progressive endeavors are the film’s focus, but Shadow Boxers is neither explicitly political, nor didactic in its presentation. While the introduction showcases interviews with several unnamed women boxers and their emotional responses to both their victories and defeats in the ring, the film soon departs from this general overview of women in boxing to Rijker’s specific experiences. As a result, the film leaves its audience to draw its own conclusions about the place of women in boxing and turns instead to Rijker’s own story.

As the film progresses, she emerges as a competent spokeswoman for her fellow fighters and a good choice for the documentary’s attention. Successful, thoughtful, and attractive, Rijker appears dedicated to her training and resolved in the face of other fighters, discriminatory comments, or any other obstacles she may encounter. Despite the film’s positioning of Rijker as the model of a successful, independent woman fighter, however, we learn that it’s the last of these qualities (her looks) that gave Rijker her break in the fight game. In a ringside interview, her promoter Bob Arum reveals his feelings that women boxers, as a rule, lack talent or appeal. He remembers that when she appeared in his office wearing a “real sexy dress,” however, Arum was convinced to change his tune and promote Rijker’s fights.

Arum’s comments typify the stereotypes women boxers face, as they continue to be seen (and objectified) first as women and only secondarily and reluctantly as fighters. The film itself, though, manages to blend examples of Rijker’s and other women’s raw aggression in the ring with slow motion depictions of their grace, coordination, and, ultimately, beauty. The title of the film could refer to one of several slow motion scenes in which Rijker, in dramatic, black and white chiaroscuro, weaves in and out of light and shadow, practicing her boxing technique to the strains of an atmospheric soundtrack (composed by an artist known as Zoel).

The film similarly slows down color footage of her fights, demonstrating through Rijker the sport’s emphasis on flexibility, footwork, and hand speed over mindless pummeling. Through these images, Shadow Boxers successfully refigures boxing as less a contest of brutality and more a match of technique and style. The film at once complicates the sport for those who would decry it as merely excessive violence (though violence is certainly a major aspect) and situates Rijker’s place in boxing (and the place of women, by extension) as that of a competent, confident competitor.

In other words, Rijker looks like a natural. Even when the camera follows her to an all-male boxing retreat, to prepare for her next fight, Rijker is relaxed and focused around her training mates. Seated around a dinner table, laughing and joking with the men, it’s clear that the group is bonded by their shared experiences as boxers, rather than separated by considerations of gender.

If scenes like this surprise viewers, still more jaw-dropping is the film’s discussion of the Women’s International Boxing Federation (WIBF), which operated as early as the 1930s. Rather than a recent fad in the sport, then, the film shows that women have been in the game since the days of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, and not just as ring girls.

The beneficiaries of this legacy, today’s women boxers are now able to command significant purses and support themselves solely by fighting. Although much of the attention paid to women’s boxing goes to Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde (daughters of male boxing stars Muhammad Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier), or to fallen figure skater Tonya Harding’s recent foray into the sport, Shadow Boxers is an important reminder that the sport also boasts accomplished, though lesser known fighters like Lucia Rijker.

Women’s boxing still may be less popular than its male counterpart, and Rijker may similarly fight in the shadows of more celebrated—or notorious—women fighters. Shadow Boxers, however, brings this talent, laboring in obscurity, to light.

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