Women's wrestling is in the news. In summer 2004, it became an official Olympic sport. But for young women interested in pursuing wrestling, challenges still abound. GIRL WRESTLER follows a year in the life of Tara Neal, a Texas teenager who rocks the establishment by insisting that girls and boys should be able to wrestle on the same mat.
GIRL WRESTLER was filmed during a crucial period in Tara's wrestling career: the last year that she was allowed to wrestle boys under Texas state guidelines. In the United States, only Texas and Hawaii prohibit girls from wrestling boys in high school. Once she entered high school, Tara’s opportunities to compete would disappear. Because so few girls choose to wrestle, and she wouldn't be allowed to wrestle boys, she would have no one to wrestle with at school. “If they make me stop wrestling boys,” she says, “then I’m not going to get any competition because there aren’t enough girls from Texas that are my age and weight.”
From allegations of referee bias against girl wrestlers to coaches who proclaim their hatred of Title IX—the federal statute that grants women's athletics proportionality in public schools—GIRL WRESTLER personalizes the clash of gender and sport and, in particular, the policy debates over Title IX. Tara navigates the same environment of hostility that produced the 2002 lawsuit filed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association against the Department of Education to repeal Title IX.
Over the course of the season, Tara faces off-the-mat challenges that will affect her wrestling career, from her body to her family. While boys who wrestle develop eating disorders on a much larger scale than non-wrestling boys, the pressure and consequences of dietary restrictions for girls who wrestle are perhaps even more significant, as their bodies are rapidly maturing and under such cultural scrutiny. During the course of the film, Tara experiments with fasting and running in the heat in order to lose weight, but eventually makes the healthy decision to accept her natural weight and compete in the corresponding weight class. The documentary also chronicles her relationship with her divorced parents, as Tara struggles with her father's expectations and her increasing desire to become less dependent on her parents.
Tara's story becomes a personal prism through which to view such broader cultural issues as the socially accepted views of masculinity and femininity, athleticism and eating disorders, teenage identity, gender discrimination in organized athletics, and the meaning and value of sports in American culture. Ultimately, GIRL WRESTLER reveals the many challenges and pressures faced by young girls today as they seek to carve out a place in a culture full of conflicting messages about what it means to be a girl.
Filming on GIRL WRESTLER concluded in July 2001. After joining her high school wrestling team and still not being allowed to practice with or wrestle against boys, Tara decided to leave the team. In 2004, Tara and her boyfriend Andrew had a baby daughter. Tara will finish high school in fall 2004, at an alternative school in Austin. She is also taking college level courses at the local community college.
Learn more about the impact of Title IX >>
Read more about cutting weight in wrestling >>
Find out more about women in wrestling >>