Is The Female Football Show Pretty. Strong. Good Or Bad For Women?

Photo: Matthew Burke/Courtesy of Oxygen.
On October 6, Oxygen debuted a new show, Pretty. Strong., about the Chicago Bliss football team. The reality series follows the team of female football players — both on and off the field. Rod Aissa, executive vice president of original programming and development for Oxygen Media told Variety in August that the show would focus on "the fearless, adrenaline-fueled women of the gridiron;" that these women would be "aspirational for our young, female-driven audience.” Aissa also said the women "prove there are no limits in life or sports and lay bare the heart and hustle it takes to be their true selves despite social norms.”

Ellen Rakieten, an executive producer on the show who spent 23 years working at Oprah's Harpo Studios, pitched the show to Oxygen after her teenage sons, who are athletes, alerted her to the Chicago Bliss team.

Despite these promises, I was prepared to roll my eyes, as I do with most reality shows about women. Too often this kind of programming promises an empowering moment, but inevitably paints a regressive picture of females — that we are all mean to each other and can't be taken seriously. But, three episodes in, Pretty. Strong. is surprisingly — I mean really, really surprisingly — on message.

I use the word "surprising" because there were a few red flags from the start. The women essentially play in bikinis and less than half of a jersey — a uniform that suggested maybe these women would feel objectified. The descriptions of the episodes seem to focus on frivolous things viewers can get elsewhere, like the ins and outs of casual dating rather than the triumph of hardworking athletes. And, their coach is a dude.
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But, where so much reality television about women relies on salacity, Pretty. Strong. brings into focus more important conversations. Yes, they play in minimal clothing, but the players talk about how they work hard on their bodies and want to show off what they've created. They're taking ownership of their physical selves in a way that, say, cheerleaders who must pose for an NFL team's calendar cannot. Yes, they have a male coach, but he is never seen dictating anything beyond the ins and outs of their practices and games — and, in a world where we now have women coaching men's sports, it feels like a hypocritical complaint. And yes, the show depicts their dating lives. But, it does so in a way that resonates with female viewers who may be experiencing the same problems: dating a man you thought you could trust; the difficult feelings involved when you have to ask a serious partner about your future.

Beyond that, Pretty. Strong. is one of the few shows on television showing women in an empowering light. The name of the show itself enters into the debate that women need not meet unfair beauty standards to feel powerful or important. The players, despite their immense level of fitness, discuss their problems with body image. There are moments of really special female friendship which are punctuated with the words "sisterhood" and "family." Most of the women are working full-time jobs in addition to football. One is a single mother. Another is dealing with her mother's cancer.

Here's a good example. By episode two, there's a bit of a love triangle brewing between two players, Alli and Telli, and a personal trainer, Ian. Alli and Telli don't realize that Ian's dating both of them, and the situation could so easily become fodder for an episode of The Bachelor. Instead, we focus on Telli confronting Ian about it, about how men sometimes make women think they're crazy for wanting to be in a relationship, or that the other woman is the enemy.

I asked Rakieten if this situation was going to escalate to the disappointing level we so often see in reality programming, where women are pitted against each other over a man. She couldn't spoil too much, but she did offer some promising insight. "They do what you hope they will do in the end," she told me over the phone. "It takes a minute. What happened was real. There's not a producer's hand guiding it. They came to conclusions on their own, but I was very happy with the conclusion they finally came to. It's what I hoped they would have done."

Accordign to Rakieten, the lack of a producer's guiding hand is what separates Pretty. Strong. from other reality shows. "These young women weren't having that," she said. "They were awesome, but when I say they weren't easy to produce, it's because they weren't being produced."

She explained in more detail how reality TV can often be "set up" for certain situations. "I'm not saying they're fake, but it's like 'today we're going to shoot this scene,'" she said of the genre. "These women never sought ought to be on a television show, which is a very different experience than if you're doing a television show and you go and cast people." Rakieten and her team wanted to keep the focus on real, relatable issues instead of "creating drama that doesn't exist."

And, I have to say, that mission is accomplished. Yes, these women are football players, which is cool and different and interesting. But, just like you, they're also concerned with sex, dating, and the occasional spat between friends. Sure, the Chicago Bliss women are beautiful, talented, and fitness aspirations. But, as Rakieten said, "It's comforting to see people going through the same stuff you're going through. That's a proven fact."

As for Rakieten's hopes for the show, it's quite simple. Maybe it will make some 10-year-old girl want to play football, or at least get off the couch. "And I hope it inspires girls to have conversations about life."
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