Part crowd-pleasing sports story, part social critique, this new documentary is a love letter to the game and spirit of American football.

Football holds a complicated and contentious place in American culture. For years it has been known as physically dangerous, with the devastating consequence of repeated blows to the head becoming more and more evident every day. But despite this, football remains omnipresent, generating billions of dollars every year. The Super Bowl, the unquestionable pinnacle of the sport, is year after year the most watched event on television, standing on one of the last vestiges of American monoculture. Some people love football, holding it central to their identity, while other despise it as an example of the ills of society.

One aspect of football’s controversy is its reputation as an overwhelmingly masculine sport. It is played almost exclusively by men, and certainly only by men at a level that generates substantial money. But a new documentary making its debut at SXSW this year makes the argument that this is more a construct of culture than interest or talent. The Herricanes, a new documentary from director Olivia Kuan, tells the forgotten story of the Houston Herricanes, an all-women, full tackle football team that was founded in the late 1970s.

The Herricanes were not the first women’s tackle football team, nor could they honestly be described as the best. Kuan’s entry into the world is more personal: Her mother played for the team, which existed from 1976–1979. The team was “professional,” but players weren’t paid and the league they played for struggled to stay afloat year to year, with different teams folding and opening as interest was piqued by players and an audience struggled to form. The Herricanes is less about a team that led the way and more a window into a movement that still exists today, though very much in the shadow of their male counterparts. (Not accidentally.)

The core story of The Herricanes splits in two distinct directions. One path is the story of the specific team, a collection of women from all walks of life who came together to play American football for their home town. The arc of their story follows a fairly standard Hollywood structure: initially a misfit batch of untrained fans, barely able to score, they slowly were able to coalesce as a team and eventually even challenge their dreaded rivals, the dominant Oklahoma City Dolls. This story is mostly told through recreations and archival footage of the real Herricanes running practices, as actual game footage is sadly few and far between. The arc of this story resonates as well as any plotted sports drama, and is given special weight due to Kuan’s personal connection.

The other half of the story is perhaps more engaging. The story of all-female football didn’t die in the ‘70s, though it took nearly 20 years for leagues to find even shaky ground. But the social dynamics of what has kept women out of big money competitive football is explored in depth in the documentary. Central to Kuan’s argument is the role of Title IX, the landmark legislation that required all academic programs to equitably include both genders. Yet while some sports have seen a rise in funding and access for female athletes, football remains an almost exclusively male sport at the academic level, due in part to assumed gender self-isolation. Thus a self-repeating cycle establishes itself: There is no football for girls due to their lack of interest, mostly because the opportunities don’t present themselves.

But Herricanes is ultimately about more than football in a vacuum, because as the film itself argues, football doesn’t exist in a social vacuum—it is a component of social hierarchies that support and uplift men by design, not as a byproduct. Topics ranging from racial discrimination to bias based on sexual identity are all explored, including how the Herricanes’s experience provided a unifying theory about how a love of football is provided as an outlet for male aggression and competitiveness, but women are denied a similar outlet. As Kuan’s own mother explains, she was once told that having football on your resumé made you a more desirable employee as it taught teamwork and emotional fortitude. When she did include it in a resumé, however, an interviewer assumed she was a man.

The film balances this split in interest fairly even-handedly with the story of the Herricanes’s gradual rise within their sport and the overall structures that impact women’s interest in football today. The film doesn’t seem especially interested in the larger ethical concerns around football in totality, for better or worse. Rather, it simply loves the game, and the unity and family that love creates. Perhaps the film sidesteps the potential cost of that love, but it has so many things already on its mind that it simply might imbalance the whole thing. Like it or not, football is a central part of American culture, and as long as it is, The Herricanes compellingly argues that women should have a seat at the table.

Previous post SXSW 2023: Travel Back to the Satanic Seventies in LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL