- Let Them Wear Towels dir. by Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, ESPN launched Nine for IX, a multiplatform initiative that included nine woman-centered documentaries. ESPN Films and espnW, the ESPN entities behind Nine for IX, assembled a cast of female directors to create films “About women. By women. For us all.”
Alongside the films on women who compete in sport as athletes and coaches stands Let Them Wear Towels, which documents the struggles of women sports journalists. By emphasizing one issue women face in the male-dominated industry of sports journalism— locker room access—the film tells the story of the first female reporters to step through the guarded gates of men’s professional sports.
Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg allow for the voices of twelve pioneers in the profession to tell a collective story of discrimination, as well as the progress they encountered through their careers in sports journalism. At times their voices so powerfully evoke the mistreatment they encountered that the audio could stand alone without visual accompaniment. During several points of the film, the directors skillfully tell a story by [End Page 212] beginning with one journalist and allowing for others to continue the sentence and ultimately finish the story. Historical in focus, the film closes with conflicting accounts on the current status of women in sports journalism.
In conjunction with the Nine for IX series’ intent to commemorate and celebrate Title IX, Let Them Wear Towels begins in the 1970s. The journalists position their experiences within the context of the Women’s Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. From the first minutes, the film frames the locker room as not merely a site for information gathering but a space for power struggle.
Targeting a popular audience, Let Them Wear Towels effectively identifies and debunks widespread misperceptions of the locker room as a sexual place that women journalists enter with pleasure. In unison, the journalists identify the locker room as not only “disgusting” but as a site of humiliation. The title of the film hints at the incidents in which male athletes pulled their own or their teammates’ towels in the locker room during the interview to intimidate female journalists. The issue of nudity, the journalists point out, was used merely as an excuse to exclude women from sports journalism and thereby prevent them from gaining access to crucial postgame information.
The second half of the film focuses primarily on major lawsuits that journalists and media companies filed. In 1978, Sports Illustrated writer Melissa Ludtke and Sports Illustrated parent company Time, Inc., sued Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees, and the city of New York to gain access to the Yankees locker room. Although the 1978 ruling allowed Ludtke to enter, women around the United States continued to fight battles for access. But as Michelle Himmelberg, a Sacramento Bee reporter, said, “The laws had changed, the court rulings had come in place, but you don’t change attitudes.” In the early 1990s, the Boston Herald’s Lisa Olson sued the New England Patriots following a sexual harassment incident in the locker room. In response, Olson received death threats that eventually drove her out of the country. Here, the film goes beyond documenting notable legal cases and illustrates the corporeal implications of misogynistic cultural norms on women journalists.
The film makes a compelling case that amid the chauvinistic league owners, athletes, and colleagues were also men who helped women get quotes on the ground, spearheaded the lawsuits, and advocated for women in sports journalism. While the film notes men’s support, it downplays women’s collective efforts. Even though several of the women interviewed for the film have served in leadership positions at the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM), the film neglects to mention the organization’s efforts in the advancement of women in the industry.
A disruption in the otherwise strong and straightforward narrative is the film’s inconclusive ending, which comprises snippets from journalists’ evaluation of the industry now. Although these diverging perspectives could urge...