The first time you meet Icebox, arguably the protagonist of the 1994 classic Little Giants, is at pee-wee football tryouts. “Gentlemen, suck it up!” the coach shouts at the group of disheveled 10-year-olds, until one finally lays out the ball-carrier with a satisfying thud. “Oh baby, now we’re talking,” he says with a grin, running over to the group. “Nice pop, Icebox.”
“Thanks, Uncle Kev,” she replies, her long brown hair tumbling down as she pulls off her helmet. It’s intended to be a shock. “Can you BELIEVE a GIRL is playing FOOTBALL?!” the director practically screams at the viewer. But that shorthand — the reveal that beneath the comfortable anonymity of the helmet lies a girl — and its close relative, the ponytail sticking out from beneath the helmet, have become ubiquitous to the point of cliché throughout both popular culture and coverage of girls and women playing sports society still doesn’t expect girls and women to play.
Yet for some reason, the helmet hair phenomenon still works despite the fact the movie is almost 30 years old. It’s enough of a twist to get your attention, in the same way that girls and women playing football still garner coverage based on nothing more than their decision to suit up — though they’re just the newest of more than a century’s worth of “girl gridders.” The seemingly immutable expectation that girls don’t play football, won’t play football and aren’t interested in football, though, has been repeatedly contradicted on the silver screen just as it is in reality. In fact, some of football’s most iconic films have featured girls and women who subvert that exact expectation, even as they reinforce a whole slew of other sexist stereotypes.
The central conflict of Little Giants — ostensibly a film about the (spoiler alert) triumph of dweeby male underdogs — is sexism. (It’s currently streaming for free on IMDBTV.) Becky “Icebox” O’Shea is introduced as one of the better football players her age, more than hanging with the boys at tryouts and putting one in a headlock when he gives her guff. Yet, of course, it’s not enough to make the team, a reality that is presented to the viewer as immediately, unequivocally unfair. “What about Becky?” her father Danny asks the coach, Kevin, who is his brother and a retired football star. “She’s better than half of those boys.”
“Danny, I hate to break it to you but Icebox is a girl,” Kevin replies. “Maybe if you started treating her like a girl, she’d start acting like one.” His response clarifies that he is the central villain; soon after, his own wife calls him “pigheaded and chauvinistic” for not letting Becky on the team. Becky, disappointed but unfazed, bands together with the other rejects to form a new team (after single-handedly running off their bullies), and the Little Giants are born.
One of the more compelling aspects of the movie is that the few characters who are skeptical about Becky’s ability — mainly Kevin and a late recruit named Spike — are unsympathetic. All the other kids and adults readily accept her passion and talent for the game. Her gender is never mentioned as a potential hindrance, and when she opts out of playing, the rest of the team is not just sad but afraid to compete without her. “Without Becky, we’re cream of wheat!” laments the kicker.
The same can’t be said of 2000’s Remember The Titans, the Disneyfied version of a true story where football is presented as a foolproof way to solve racism — and the directors make a halfhearted attempt to shoehorn sexism and homophobia cures in, too (intersectionality … question mark?). In Titans (currently streaming on Disney+), Sheryl Yoast, the nine-and-a-half-year-old daughter of the assistant coach Bill Yoast, is a football fiend to the point of practically being a savant. Like Becky, she’s depicted as the only child of a single father, a similarity that was far from coincidental: the real Sheryl had three sisters, lived with her mother, and didn’t care about football at all.
The heavily-fictionalized Sheryl (played by a young Hayden Panettiere) taps into a few different clichés. She’s extremely precocious, and precocious children are one convenient way to diffuse tense scenes (of which there are plenty in Titans). Her constant presence (explained by the passion for football and the single-parent family) makes Yoast more sympathetic, when he might otherwise seem uncomfortably similar to all the other racists in town. Mostly, her presence reiterates the idea that girls who like football must be explained. Without the feminizing influence of a mother, these films argue, it’s only logical girls will deviate from heteronormative expectation and dive into sports, which are still ultimately gendered male.
“Why don’t you get this little girl some pretty dolls or something?” the otherwise undeniably great Coach Boone asks Yoast at one point, as Sheryl scowls. “I tried — she loves football,” Yoast replies. By the middle of the movie Sheryl and Boone are grinding tape together.
That brief moment of acceptance is about as good as it gets for Sheryl, despite the fact she’s the one who, at the movie’s most pivotal moment, compels her father to finally collaborate with Boone to win the state title. “Mama, are all white girls that crazy?” Boone’s own daughter asks at one point — a memorable line that unfortunately once again reinforces Sheryl’s difference, which is repeatedly shrugged off until it is ultimately ignored. Her interest in the game, convincingly depicted throughout the film, is nothing more than a means to an end.
Becky’s bugaboo, in contrast, isn’t that people don’t take her interest in the game seriously. Instead, it’s the other side of the double-edged sword that women in sports have to confront: the idea that sports are inherently anti-feminine, that it is impossible to play them wholeheartedly without implicitly rejecting all the things (white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal) society deems valuable about being a woman.
It’s wrapped up in her nickname, Icebox: When “hunk” Junior Floyd joins the team (keep in mind they’re all supposed to be around 10, which makes it a little weird), Becky’s instantly conflicted. “I’m the Icebox, the Icebox doesn’t like boys … I don’t get crushes,” she says as she eats powdered donuts straight from the box (the film’s proof positive of her lack of self-conscious femininity). Even at that early age, it’s presented as a given that girls will understand playing sports is perceived as antagonistic to heterosexual romantic relationships.
That internal conflict ties her to one of the least sympathetic women in football cinema, Any Given Sunday’s owner/general manager Christina Pagniacci (played by Cameron Diaz). For how nuanced a picture the Oliver Stone classic (currently streaming on Netflix) paints of life in professional football, the portrayals of women throughout the film are two-dimensional to the point of being confusing. (Why on Earth does Cap’s wife hit him when he says he wants to retire? Even the most stereotypical gold digger presumably has a little heart.) But Christina gets the most screen time out of any of them, enough to depict her character as Icebox ... if all Icebox’s worst fears were realized.
Pagniacci’s behavior throughout the film doesn’t seem much worse than how billionaire sports team owners are prone to acting (that is to say, very badly). She wants to move the Miami Sharks to Los Angeles to take advantage of tax incentives (where have we heard that one before?). She argues with the head coach constantly, which is presented as excessively combative even when she’s right — as in her insistence that the team should invest in the passing game and stop running the ball so much (how is this movie 20 years old?). She pushes to keep players on the field even when they’re not healthy, and her involvement in the team is centered on growing profits (which, obviously — that’s how ownership thinks).
But it’s a lot easier to make ownership the villain when ownership is a woman. Christina was modeled after late Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, who moved the team to St. Louis and had already inspired several money-grubbing, ice-queen lady-owner characters. Pagniacci’s greed and calculation are repeatedly lamented by the other characters on gendered terms: Instead of being savvy and pragmatic she’s hard-edged and heartless, characterized as such by a bunch of people who themselves could easily be described that way.
“He wanted a son more than anything else in the world, and when you really think about it, what Christina is is just such a tragedy,” her own mother tells Coach D’Amato (Al Pacino) within earshot of Christina, who cries silently in the next room (another confusing scene). “I honestly believe that woman would eat her young,” mutters the league commissioner towards the end of the film. It’s not enough for her to merely be the bad billionaire boss, which would be easy enough to make convincing. Pagniacci has to be presented as cold and distant — intrinsically undesirable, despite the fact she’s conventionally attractive — to make her villainy irrevocable. For women, there’s no redemption from men not liking you.
That’s what Becky realizes by the midpoint of Giants. In a patently strange scene, she sits down with her sexist uncle, torn up about why Junior doesn’t seem to like like her. “He’s probably gonna want some cute girl, not some teammate,” the fully-grown man tells his 10-year-old niece. “But I don’t know about being a cute girl — I’m good at sports,” Becky replies (again, being a girl and playing sports are shown as intrinsically at odds). “You have a lot more to offer than football,” her uncle says very creepily, in another classic deflection: sports are too bad or dumb or boring for a nice girl like you. “Do you think I’m pretty?” she asks. The strings swell, and Kevin replies, “I don’t think you’re pretty … I think you’re beautiful.”
The scene is so, so odd, and deeply out of sync with the rest of the movie to that point. Kevin was an unrepentant misogynist and then, suddenly, his “guidance” (telling Becky to be a cheerleader) is shown as positive. Becky takes his advice, quits the team before the big game and only comes back late in the game with her cheerleading skirt still on. It’s visual evidence of the compromise she’s already made: it won’t be possible for her to have both of the things she wants — the attention of boys and the chance to play sports — so something’s gotta give. It would be less depressing if it weren’t so often a reality: girls drop out of sports at remarkably high rates after puberty.
Becky’s star turn and unsatisfying conclusion probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Of course a girl was the center of an underdog story: Who’s more of an underdog in sports than a girl? Little Giants ends with the Annexation of Puerto Rico, a problematically-titled, game-winning play that holds a beloved place in sports lore. The play begins with Becky charging down the field, drawing all the defenders to her — after all, she’s one of the best players on the team. Once the opposing players are concentrated around her, she opens her arms: no ball. It was all just one, long fake.