Boxers are tough. They are visceral creatures who are quick to physical action and known for few words (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali) and disconnected from their emotions. The antithesis of this type of person is the calm, well learned, and eagerly helpful librarian. Those who find themselves in this profession are soft spoken professionals who appreciate a good razor for their beard. Wait…were you thinking of a female librarian and possibly a male boxer? Sarah Walton was likely hoping you would make this mistake when she wrote the screenplay for the film The Dating Ring. This film flips the gender roles that we have come to expect. Exploring the dynamic of a relationship between a female boxer and a male librarian, Sarah wanted to challenge both herself and the audience to see these characters as unique and not just another gender assumption. The Dating Ring won worldwide acclaim and was an Official Selection for the Lumiere Film Festival, Italy (2015). Romantic Italians loved the idea which Walton presented that every female/male relationship should be considered at face value; a lesson we’d all be better off learning. Sarah has a pedigree which includes many romantic comedies but The Dating Ring presents its action with a goal of making the viewer ponder just as much as being entertained. The ultimate question asked by this film is, “What is strength?”
When Sarah went through a bad break-up and experienced a betrayal, she did what all artists do…she created. She saw her own dating experience as combative and took the pugilist metaphor to a literal place in her screenplay. To make a clean break from her normal romantic comedy method, she wrote the initial draft without dialogue to challenge herself. This approach gave her a radically different tone for the film and exhibited a fresh approach for Walton. The gender role switch of the two main characters might sound odd on paper but works amazingly well on screen, no doubt due to the incredible performances of Emily Goddard (Shayne) and Nick Farnell (Benji). Shayne is a thirty-three-year-old female boxer, bred by her retired boxing champion mother to be a fighter but it was never Shayne’s passion. She has a maternal mother inside her dying to get out, but her tough exterior and mannerisms belie her true desire for intimacy. Benji is a gentle and compassionate man in his mid 30’s, raised by his strong single mother and two older sisters who taught him the importance of strength and compassion after they escaped from his con artist father. His Achilles heel is being lied to because he watched his mother cry herself to sleep night after night as a result of his father’s lies. He wants true love, not a ruse. Walton states, “In society, the pressure for males and females to focus predominantly on their masculine or feminine traits can be psychologically unhealthy for us as individuals, our self-expression, and the way we interact with one another. Gender role reversal in film challenges this division and promotes equality for the sexes. Within a melodramatic film it’s difficult to stray from the traditional expression and repression of female characters in stereotypical feminine behavior, in which non-diegetic music plays a role. A way of solving that problem is gender role reversal. Steering away from the historical portrayal of masculine and feminine in film will allow us to challenge stereotypes and potentially ease the pressure for men and women to feel limited by their genders in society.”
Donna Hensler (Supervising Producer on The Dating Ring) Recognized the magic in Sarah’s script immediately. She recalls, “As soon as I picked up the script for The Dating Ring I was captured by the voice of the lead character Shayne; a female boxer struggling with the trials and tribulations of love. Sarah’s writing, though commercial and mainstream, is extremely honest and original. She thinks outside the box and isn’t afraid to take a risk. Sarah is a passionate story teller and her stories reflect her unique view of the world and positive view of humanity which is perfectly suited to the romantic comedy genre.”
The core of The Dating Ring is designed around fighting. The reveal of the plot is that what you think you are fighting for may not be what you really should be fighting for. With 10 years out of the dating game, Shayne gets back in the ring. She’s training for a big fight and she’s losing her game, so focus is imperative. Her boxing coach mother lets her in on the family secret to winning championships…sex the night before the fight, because it will help her loosen up and focus on the game. Shane meets a male librarian named Benji to whom she is surprisingly attracted. The fact that he’s a male librarian and has a child (she thinks children are the devil) intimidates her, causing her insecurities to flair. She struggles to break the ice with him and finds herself acting out and screaming obscenities like a Tourette’s syndrome victim. Before she knows it she has a fist full of lies to cover up and she’s in too deep. Her fighting increasingly suffers culminating in a choice between the sport she’s loved her whole life and the man of her dreams. When they kiss for the first time Shayne reveals her true self. Benji, hurt that she lied, breaks into tears. She does what any woman in her position would do…she runs off to the boxing ring for the big game. Shayne finds herself in the ring and set up for the wining punch but she can’t do it anymore. Her love for Benji has changed her and she feels compassion for the first time in a long time. She throws in her boxing gloves right then and there with the realization that gentleness is strength.
Just as profound as the role reversal for this story is the idea presented that we cannot judge ourselves by the way that others see us. For Shayne, it is her judgmental and pushy mother who envisions an idea of what her daughter’s life should be. Discovering your sense of self is a thread that runs through much of Walton’s writing. Consider this piece that she penned about other well-known romantic comedy characters of present times; Sarah wrote, “Bridget Jones perfected the art of imperfection. We love watching her and characters like Carrie Bradshaw, Nina Proudman, or Ted Mosby take chances, put themselves out there and fall down (often literally) because when they make mistakes it makes us feel better about our failures. It reassures us that it’s okay to be flawed. Mistakes and failures are merely learning curves and opportunities for growth. Bridget and her fellow imperfectionists show us how making mistakes can lead to happiness because they always succeed in the end. But what if happiness isn’t at the end of the film or T.V. series. What if happiness is right now? Not when we get that dream job, lose weight, finish a degree, earn more money, find a partner, have a baby or move house… but right now. If success is happiness and we can only achieve true happiness through mistakes and failures, then surely we should be welcoming and celebrating failure rather than trying to avoid it? I know I’ve made a million mistakes and I’ll make a million more. And I wouldn’t change a single one because they are part of what has gotten me here… And here is pretty great.”
There is a deluge of romantic comedies to choose from if you want to be entertained and feel good. If you want all of the former as well as to be challenged to consider who we are as individuals rather than easily categorized tropes, watch a film that was written by Sarah Walton.