Running Circles in the Patriarchy: Tracktown offers nothing new to the conversation about women and sport
(Disclaimer: Contains spoilers)
A couple of weeks ago, aka taper week before the Eugene marathon, I was unsurprisingly jittery in both body and mind. So one of the things I did was buy tickets for two movies that were going to be screening on weeknights (I know, right?!) the week after the race. It's been many months since I did anything on a weeknight but stay home with my sweet-potato-and-bean-based dinners and and endless flow of Orphan Black/Youtube videos, and I needed to ensure that I would do something fun and different during recovery week that my anxiety levels didn't let me do before the race. Of course both of these movies were about running, but that was also good because they satisfied my desire to keep "running" without actually running, and also to see some run buds, a large group of whom came to the first movie, a documentary about the Boston Marathon. (It was us and like two other guys in a giant theater; it was kind of the best).
Two nights later I saw the second movie with another good friend: Tracktown, a movie by and starring Alexi Pappas, a Greek-American Olympic athlete/all-around track star. It's set in the very town in which I had just run a marathon, i.e. Eugene, OR, and I can't deny my real-life crush on Pappas, so I was really excited about seeing her tear up the screen with her badass running talent and cute hairstyle.
I held onto the meager threads of this movie for as long as I could.
It looked beautiful; everything was framed nicely, with saturated color and dull light at appropriate times and some magical slow-mo running in an early scene, when Plumb Marigold (yep, that was Pappas's character's name) competes in a semi-final race in the Olympic trials. During this race, Plumb injures herself in some non-specific way that forces her to take a day off of running for the first time ever, or so it's implied, but is not bad enough that she wouldn't be able to compete in the finals in 3 days. Suspension of disbelief aside, for any audience member who is a runner this actually seems like a setup for a compelling story. I don't think it would be a stretch to say that every last one of us has an injury story, and for most of us who really love the sport and rely on it as a big part of our mental health, that story (or stories) usually involves a lot of heartache, anxiety, pain, fear; it's usually a story of immense inner struggle, and most of us are forced to learn a lot about ourselves and how we can cope with things. Objectively, it's a little ridiculous to suffer so much over something that in the global dumpster fire of corrupt governments, poverty, and rapid environmental degradation is not actually a problem. But we're also all just tiny humans with our own worlds inside of us and the things that feel important in those worlds don't always translate to that kind of big picture.
Anyway. Plumb, whose age is ostensibly 21 (though she seems 12), has been a runner all of her life. Her father, who she still lives with, is a genial former competitive athlete who supports/maybe pushes her running career; her mother (Rachel Dratch!) had some kind of unspecified "breakdown" when Plumb was a child and moved in with her parents, Plumb's grandparents. Plumb is an outward amplification of every inner neurotic that runners possess, especially women runners. She obsessively counts the number of raisins in her race-day oatmeal (which she eats after downing a raw egg; gross); she feverishly colors in a coloring book to deal with anxiety; her entire person is swallowed in the routine of running, napping in her altitude tent, eating, sleeping. It's extreme, but I'm sure I'm not the only one for whom it feels dangerously close to home, and I'm not even close to being a professional. So despite the fact that Plumb has sacrificed her growth as a human in the name of her growth as a runner, and this has left her very childlike, she's an endearing character and even better poised to explore what it could mean for someone with their identity wrapped up entirely in one thing to do something different, even if just for a day.
The beginning of the film also touches on some important and very often ignored aspects of competitive running, especially for women. Plumb's doctor brings up the fact that she hasn't menstruated in 2 years. Plumb is completely unconcerned with this; the doctor tells her that this is concerning because though she is an athlete, she's also a woman. Plumb responds, "What does that have to do with anything?" Honestly, I can relate to that sentiment, especially as a person with zero desire to bear children. Amenorrhea is extremely common in female runners, but is barely ever talked about, so this scene piqued my interest, but it is never brought up again. Later, after the movie has devolved into a disappointing spiral of unfulfilled potential, Plumb describes her body as "looking like a boy's" and "gross" for having small breasts and all the abs. Body image: another elephant in the room for a majority of women runners. But other than that scene, the topic is on mute again.
Instead of a story of coping with an identity entwined in the body's physical capabilities, the ways in which a passion for (let alone career in) a sport can take as much as it gives, and an exploration of the self when thrown into unexpected and uncomfortable circumstances, Tracktown becomes almost entirely about Plumb's crush on the most unappealing boy-man ever and the very problematic... let's call it "development," though that's giving it too much credit, of their "relationship" over the two days they know each other.
Sawyer (Chase Offerle) is an ambitionless 20-something living in an RV in a friend's driveway and working in a bakery that apparently is closed during the day. That's all we know about him, other than he dated a girl who works at an ice cream stand and who really hates him for some reason. I'd say it's a safe bet that she hates him because he's a Bro who likes to pressure girls into having sex with him. And somehow, Plumb is infatuated with him?
The first time Plumb and Sawyer make out, he tries to take off her clothes, and she tells him no, to which he responds with a mopey face and telling her to "just come on." She leaves, and the next day he shows up to her practice and tells her she needs to back off of running and live a little. That night, Plumb shows up at his RV and never actually consents to sex, but it happens anyway. Then she apparently realizes she doesn't want to be with this dude and that she needs to focus on her career without him; she comes back to running, potentially with a new sense of life being more than the sport, but it's unclear.
This is not how a story of self-exploration should go. It seems that the intention of the movie is to have Sawyer be the thing that saves Plumb from losing herself completely in running, the thing that gives her perspective on how to have some balance in her life. That's the WORST storyline. Instead of showing a woman who is physically very strong, who has been through a lot on and off the track, but who needs time to break down some of the walls she's built, doing something interesting with the forced opportunity to do literally anything, what we get is a deadbeat asshole who is 100% not concerned with her wellbeing and only with his own boychild desires.
But what we also get is another patriarchal narrative. The man saves the woman. The woman was too ambitious and needs the man to take her down a notch. Love and/or sex must be involved. What we get is not a story about running or a protagonist's personal growth at all, but about a damsel in distress whose knight doesn't even have to be a decent human. During that first makeout scene with Plumb and Sawyer, my friend leaned over to me and asked, "Is this supposed to be sweet?" Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes.
Outside the very problematic plot of the actual movie, many of the reviews of it exist within the same Patriarchy-with-a-capitol-P as well. Take this excerpt from Peter Debruge's review in Variety:
"Pappas isn’t shy about revealing her flat chest and freakishly gnarled feet, for example, and no self-respecting narcissist would dream of casting 'SNL' star Rachel Dratch (aka 'Debbie Downer') as her on-screen mom — a choice that accentuates the Muppet-like side of Pappas’ personality over her more Audrey Hepburn-esque qualities."
Yikes! This guy straight-up calls Pappas's body "freakish," and insults Rachel Dratch's appearance in the same sentence. Just another example of a real-life Sawyer simultaneously tearing down an Olympian and one of the world's greatest comics with his notions of how women should look.
Then there's this endorsement from Andy Webster at the New York Times, calling Sawyer "affable, understated," and showing how much he bought into the man-savior story by writing that "'Tracktown' is less about winning races and more about a greater victory, being true to yourself." Clearly, the narrative worked for this reviewer, who interpreted Sawyer taking advantage of a woman who is clearly struggling with her identity and neuroses as that woman "being true" to herself. Because without a man to lean on, what could she possibly be?
Ultimately, I expected more from Pappas, who is an otherwise deeply intelligent, introspective, and funny person, in addition to super-badass runner warrior woman. Of course, the forces that act on a film during its process from conception to release are many, and it very well may be that the way in which Tracktown ended up being more about a disturbing relationship than about that warrior woman going on a journey of self-exploration was out of her control. Regardless, I will of course continue to love Alexi Pappas, and very much not love this movie. Chloe Walker put it well in the only review I read with which I agreed: Tracktown is a race in which no one wins.