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“Cancel Culture” & Making a Film About Tennis Legend Martina Navratilova


Source: The Intercept
Growing up as a gay child in South Florida in the late 1970s and into the dark 1980s era of Reagan and AIDS, my childhood hero was the tennis star Martina Navratilova. In 1975, at the age of 18, Navratilova fled Communist Czechoslovakia, leaving her entire family behind in a daring escape, to emigrate to the U.S. In the 1980s, she became one of the only openly gay celebrities in the world, an LGBT and feminist pioneer, and an outspoken political dissident.I had other childhood heroes: the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg; the Jewish ACLU lawyers who endured endless attacks to defend the First Amendment free speech rights of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois, a town with numerous Holocaust survivors; and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose iconography was seared into my brain by my fixation with “All the President’s Men,” the book and subsequent film that chronicled their journalistic investigation of Watergate.

But Navratilova occupied a singular pedestal for me. She became one of the world’s most extraordinary and famous sports stars: Sports Illustrated ranked her as 19 on its list of the 20th Century’s Greatest Athletes, the second-highest woman behind Babe Zaharias, one spot behind Bill Russell, and one ahead of Ty Cobb. She won the Wimbledon singles crown nine times (Serena Williams has won seven), with her last Grand Slam title earned one month shy of her 50th birthday, when she became the 2006 U.S. Open Mixed Doubles champion. That was her 59th Grand Slam title, the most ever in tennis history by any player.

Her rivalry with U.S. tennis star Chris Evert in the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s was one of the greatest sports rivalries of the last century, if not the single greatest. They played 80 times (with Navratilova winning 43), including 14 times in Grand Slam finals (where Navratilova won 10). Their matches — a dramatic clash in personalities, cultures, branding, and playing styles — were watched by millions of people around the world on NBC, CBS, the BBC, and other global corporate networks.

Though I obsessively watched Navratilova’s matches and lived and died with every point, her sports prowess was perhaps the least significant factor for her importance to my adolescence. Everything about Navratilova was defiant, individualistic, brave, trailblazing, and orthodoxy-busting: in retrospect, she was a classic existential hero, someone who refused to have her life constrained or identity suppressed by societal dictates.

Not only was she openly gay at a time when very few were, but she traveled the world with her then-wife Judy Nelson, sitting her prominently in her player’s box and forcing male sports network announcers to awkwardly struggle for a vocabulary to describe their relationship when the camera panned to her group of supporters (they usually settled on “Martina’s special friend” or “long-time companion”).

1 comment

  1. Anil Eklavya July 16, 2020 10:44 pm 

    This story is being re-enacted again and again with different identities and causes these days and a major part of the blame does indeed go to the ‘social media’, which is anything but social and it is questionable whether it can be called ‘media’.

    I see this as a case of ‘catch and kill’ of a good cause, because what it effectively does is more harm to the cause than having any benefits.

    It reminds me of the genius German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was not only openly gay, but he made films where it was taken for granted that the characters were all (or most of them) were gay. There was a criticism that he didn’t show any homophobia in his films, but that was misplaced because his aim was to explore other political topics such as class (Fox and His Friends) and the institution of marriage (Effie Briest and Martha, among several others) and things like the so called Economic Miracle (the BRD trilogy), as well as the fractional disputes among the leftists (Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven): from communists to anarchists. In 1970s it was audacious to make films where the characters were openly gay and films took it for granted that they were gay. No explanations were given, because there were none to give. Homophobia was dealt with by other filmmakers. He was ‘cancelled’ long ago for supposedly being misogynist (!), anti-semite (!) and even homophobic, but really for being a radical leftist who was sympathetic to the anarchists (The Third Generation and Germany in Autumn and again Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven), though skeptical about their methods or even sometimes about their commitment (as in Lola).

    So yes, ‘cancellation’ is not new. It has been around for a long long time. In the medieval period there was the so called ex-communication, which most probably was worse than that.

    What has changed is that those using ‘cancellation’ earlier were the powers that be or their priests or minions, except in communist totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union. Now they are the radical progressives, or at least they claim to be. This is a dangerous trend and must be resisted. Without resorting to counter-cancellations.

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