Watching “Personal Best” Was the Main Way to Become a Lesbian in the ’80s and ’90s

In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.


These days there are a seemingly endless number of ways to become gay: TikTok can make you gay, Twitter can make you gay, hundreds of TV shows and movies can make you gay; you can get gay by reading fan fiction, meeting a gay person in real life, or even by listening to a lyrical analysis of whatever new Taylor Swift album; playing video games can make you gay, watching other people play Dungeons & Dragons on YouTube can make you gay, and even Instagram astrology memes can make you gay. But in the ’80s and early ’90s, there was only one way to become gay and that was to watch Mariel Hemingway play real-life track star Patrice Donnelly in the 1982 film Personal Best.

Upon realizing that she’s a lesbian in “The Puppy Episode” in 1996, Ellen wails to her therapist Oprah: “Oh why did I watch Personal Best???” In a 1998 episode of Friends, when Ross fears that his new girlfriend is becoming gay by hanging out at the gym with his lesbian ex-wife Carol, he whines to Joey: “Two women stretching. You know, they take a steam, things get playful. Didn’t you see Personal Best?” A customer asks Cheryl about Personal Best in 1996’s The Watermelon Woman. Chaz Bono told Jay Leno that he first realized he was into women when he watched Personal Best as a teenager. And in 1997’s It’s in the Water, the main character realizes she’s a lesbian by — you guessed it — watching Personal Best!

Is this how lesbians have sex?

At its heart, Personal Best is a sports movie. It tells the story of Chris Cahill, a U.S. track star training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics after failing to land a spot on the U.S. Track & Field team in the 1976 trials. She finds herself training with Tory Skinner, an athlete who’s a little older than her and a lot more experienced with being a gay. They run and lift and kick and jump and fence and shoot and sweat sweat sweat and breathe very heavily together in quick cuts and long shots and montages, muscles upon muscles, and also finally give in to their feelings for each other. Then an accident breaks them up and makes them competitors. Then the Cold War dashes their Olympic dreams.

Personal Best isn’t exactly a happy movie, but it was a revolution for queer female sexuality on the big screen, and it was also part of the evolution of the way women’s bodies were presented on TV and film in the ’80s. Tomes of queer and feminist critique have been penned about director Robert Towne’s depiction of the women pentathletes that make up this film, with loads arguing that his slow-motion focus on women’s bodies — and some times just parts of their bodies — is obsessive and voyeuristic, and others arguing that it highlights the autonomous movement of strong women’s bodies in a way that had never been seen before on film. Wherever you land on that argument, it’s impossible to watch Personal Best without seeing how it influenced much of the iconography of athletic women in the ’80s, from Helen Hunt’s Quarterback Princess to Megan Follows’ Hockey Night to Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman to the original animated She-Ra. It’s also one of the only women’s sports movies that doesn’t go out of its way to hyper-straightwash its characters. Looking at you, A League of Their Own and Bend It Like Beckham!

Cara Delevingne's gay eyebrows before Cara Delevingne's eyebrows were born.

Tomes’ film doesn’t hold up to modern day scrutiny in a lot of ways, especially in his handling of the racist dynamics prevalent in all sports/the world, and there’s some cisexism that’s especially jarring in light of the current conversations we’re having about trans athletes. And while it’s been replaced by a zillion more references — Ellen’s “Puppy Episode” among them — Personal Best remains a cultural touchstone for multiple generations of queer women who would have found it easier in the 1980s and 90s to believe in the scifi fantasy of Star Wars as a real-life future over the ability to stream hundreds of lesbian movies and TV shows from a palm-sized computer in the comfort of a home they shared with a woman they legally married.


You can watch Personal Best for $1.99 on Amazon Prime.

Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.


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heatherannehogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1239 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Terrible movie — I saw it in college a few years after it came out, and had friends who came out to their parents by taking Mom and Dad to see it [that seemed to work out OK]. But, I still remember Mariel Hemingway’s eyebrows… and the long series of crotch shots of women jumping over the high bar.

  2. Yeah it was a straight male gaze on Muriel Hemingway’s muscles, thighs, critch and butterfly kick. Spoiler alert, she is bi.
    Meanwhile, I becane a dedicated athlete watching the film.
    Be sure to catch the new gay Hallmark: “The Christmas Setup” (2020). It is boy story but…gayly ever after.

  3. “And while it’s been replaced by a zillion more references — Ellen’s ‘Puppy Episode’ among them — Personal Best remains a cultural touchstone for multiple generations of queer women who would have found it easier in the 1980s and 90s to believe in the sci–fi fantasy of Star Wars as a real-life future over the ability to stream hundreds of lesbian movies and TV shows from a palm-sized computer in the comfort of a home they shared with a woman they legally married.”

    Bro, I might cry. Thanks for this.

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