Fight Like A Girl: My Review of Jill Morley’s Documentary on Female Boxers
This is something of a personal response review of Fight Like a Girl, written as a female fighter.
Jill Morley’s film “Fight Like A Girl” opens with a bare-bulb lighting figures as they spar in a ring. Their white gloves and headgear swing and bob out of the darkness as a voice-over initiates the thesis of the film: people always want to know why female fighters want to fight. Throughout the rest of the documentary, Jill Morley points her camera at her training partners, her family and herself as they all shadowbox around that question. Nobody ever seems to hit it flush, but then, maybe none of us ever can.
a trailer for Fight Like a Girl, above
Morley trains western boxing at The Wat in Lower Manhattan. Incidentally, I visited this gym a few times, many years ago when I was preparing for my first fight and was permitted to spar some of the female fighters in the Muay Thai program there, and I did met Susan of the film. The events that take place seem to pre-date my brief encounters there. The gym, which I believe since has changed locations, has largely white-collar clientele and instructs both western boxing and Muay Thai, but it’s also home to some top-level fighters (in both disciplines) both amateur and professional. Morley focuses her lens on a small group of women, including herself (no fights yet), Susan (amateur Metro Champ), and Kimberly (professional and currently on a losing streak). As matter of I think interpretative importance, Morley introduces her history of working as a stripper, something she understands to have been a process of learning “how to be a sexy woman,” and how she made a previous theatrical production about the characters she met and observed in the community of women working the clubs. In some ways it seems that she’s recreated her play about strippers in this documentary about boxers and the similarities of experience are something I wish she’d explored even more. It’s potently boile down to a powerful quip by professional boxer Kimberly (my favorite), who is also a dancer: “There’s something in me that wants to keep losing; like, I want to give lap dances to all the dirty old men.” It’s almost a joke – almost – but within it stands a kernel that germinates throughout the course of Morley’s exploration. It’s that getting in the ring to hit and be hit has within it the simultaneous ability to make you feel empowered – just how dancing can make you feel a sexual power – and also tear you apart in humiliation. And dancers, like boxers, experience both.
A lot of the film revolves around the abuse, trauma and hardships that these women have come from and currently live through. Morley was physically abused by her mother growing up and is undergoing therapy to deal with a PTSD diagnosis, something she initially introduces with the exclamation, “which I thought was bullshit,” and then later takes great pains to defend as a reason she struggles with boxing in the ring. That’s the difficult thing about your weaknesses – you get to keep the ones you defend. In the film, Morley captures a number of women who are abused in their lives outside the ring. Boyfriends, mostly, and largely the response from these women had been not to fight back. The case of one woman whose son was asleep in her lap when her boyfriend hit her in the face and she suppressed a scream or even a reaction in order to not wake her child is one of the most brilliant examples of how not fighting can require and contain incredible strength. It seems that the question of why these women want to fight is put under the lamp by how often women don’t fight back.
Reasonably enough, because the film is exploring the fight women face both inside and outside of the ring, and inside the ring it’s a sport, the trajectory of the story is toward the annual Golden Gloves tournament – the biggest amateur boxing tournament in the world. Morley and her boxing partners stride toward the tournament, which is the culmination of the film. At a pivotal point Morley leaves her trainer and re-commences her journey toward her first fight at a different gym, the world-famous Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, NY. A shift in coaching makes a huge difference in Morley’s confidence and her previous coach admits that he was using a steep uphill approach as a “shortcut” toward the imminent competition of Morley’s first fight. Morely is right around the age cut-off for the tournament. I feel for her here very strongly. In my own path, the hard-knocks I took against opponents much better than I was and training partners worlds away in skill, experience and size made me feel like everything was a Sisyphean struggle toward improvement. And I know that I needed that process in order to be where I am now as a fighter, a person. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way or even the wrong way, but at the end of the film Morley is still – from my vantage point – at the beginning, a beginning I struggled through for a long time. How does an older female fighter accelerate to “catch-up” on all the years other fighters have had training and fighting in their youth? Taking the steep hill it is very hard to even know if you are improving.
It’s a difficult film for me in that I see a lot of my own struggles in Morley’s approach, the self-effacing effort toward some intangible, almost undefined goal of “better.” It’s difficult because part of me wants the montage version, where the characters arrive at their realization after a short sequence with music and then spend the rest of the movie reaping the benefits of personal epiphany. But it’s a documentary. It’s the real-life process of working through miles with the emergency break on, the emergency break in this case being the psychological and emotional damage that these women work with and perhaps never fully move through. And that’s the story of fighting, really. However much anyone can ever leave their baggage outside the ring and become a warrior within it, no matter what you are able to escape when you slip through those ropes, it’s always you that comes into the fight. And whether your struggles are weights around your ankles or weights within your fists is a matter of mindset. In either case, the thing which makes Morley the most proud and in which I can cheer for her the most, is that she doesn’t stop.
There are so few films that care to glimpse at, let along stare at the motivations of female fighters, this film is highly recommended for any woman drawn to the fighting arts.
For those new to my site and my perspective, I’m a full time female Muay Thai fighter in Thailand just recently having fought my 100th fight.
Fight Like A Girl can be seen streaming for only $4.99, just go to www.fightlikeagirlmovie.com and click on the big lead graphic (below). Remember that when you make a purchase of any kind of independent filmmakers you are actively supporting that artist but also that genre, you are voting with your dollars showing that these kinds of projects are viable, proving that they have an audience:
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