I’ve lately been on a crusade to watch commercially successful films that broke the usual Hollywood rules against including women to any significant degree unless the movie is about shoe shopping and boys, boys, boys. One such classic is Penny Marshall’s 1992 hit, A League of Their Own. If you’re not familiar with it, Wikipedia sums up the plot. The fact that this movie tells the story of a women’s baseball league formed during World War II – when Rosie the Riveter was filling in more than adequately for “our boys overseas” – sets it up to be a feminist classic. But it gets so much more than that right.
The movie focuses on two sisters who work on a farm and play baseball for fun locally, Dottie and Kit. Dottie (Geena Davis) is older, prettier, and the natural at baseball Kit (Lori Petty) desperately wants to be. It’s not Dottie’s fault she’s enviable, and she tries to support Kit and encourage her to find her potential. For example, she constantly tells Kit to lay off swinging at high pitches because she never hits them. But Kit “likes the high ones” and refuses to learn. Does Dottie feel sorry for her? Does she coddle Kit’s ego and tell her she’ll hit those high ones someday?
She probably would have if this had been a romance in which Kit was Dottie’s man who wanted to be something he wasn’t and refused to realize what a beautiful life he already had. And she yet could have, if the creators had believed, as Hollywood seems to, that women shouldn’t be expected to take practical steps to change their lives when there’s self-pity, ice cream and ridiculously expensive shoe shopping to wallow in, the poor silly dears.
That’s not the case here. Dottie regards Kit’s attitude as foolish and says as much. But when the league promoter comes to recruit Dottie – who has no interest in joining – and refuses to take Kit unless Dottie comes along, that is something Dottie is willing to do for her sister. And for $75 a week.
This league is hardly a feminist undertaking. The league promoter has required that all the players be traditionally beautiful (many of the actual players are featured in the final scene of the movie, and even as seniors, this is indeed a good-looking bunch of women), and this requirement is followed almost exclusively. They’re relying on sex appeal to overcome people’s disbelief that women playing baseball could be worth watching. While the promoter is still in the recruiting process, a woman from some coalition of moralistic hypocrites says on radio that baseball will turn women into men, which is against nature. In response, the promoter decrees that the players will be forced to take finishing school lessons to be as ladylike as possible, makes sure they’re carefully chaperoned so they can’t go drinking and carousing, and has the uniforms designed with short little skirts, forcing the players to slide on naked (or perhaps stockinged) legs without padding. (Ironically, the skirts help satisfy both the sex appeal angle and the moralistic snotbag angle). And the players are encouraged to do ridiculous, showy things to attract attention and look cool on magazine covers, to promote the league. (But it works – and seventy years later, we’re still conditioned to expect to have to use sex appeal to get ourselves through doors traditionally closed to women.)
The league is filled with a fantastic variety of women. As befits the movie’s theme, many of them are as tough and results-oriented as any male player. On the other hand, Bitty Schramm’s character cries when the coach yells at her and is obnoxiously indulgent with her misbehaving little boy. Madonna’s character is obsessed with drinking, dancing and sex. Rosie O’Donnell’s character realizes she’s been dating an asshole because he was the only guy who paid her any attention due to her lack of traditional gorgeousness, and decides she’d rather be alone. A less attractive (but extraordinarily talented) player finds love with a sweet guy and ends up happily married. And all the while, Dottie – this great ball player and excellent sport – just wants to go back to milking cows, and can’t wait to start having babies when her husband returns from the war. This is a great example of a film that doesn’t have much time for character development, but easily implies that every woman in it is too complex to boil down to a typical stereotype or archetype. Even Kit’s rather childish pathos is so well-explored, you can feel for her even as you want to give her a good shake. Who hasn’t longed to have someone else’s talent or beauty? How hard would it be to get over it if that person was family you couldn’t easily get away from?
As the games progress, Kit lashes out at Dottie because she can’t stand being in Dottie’s shadow. How Kit feels is not Dottie’s fault, and Dottie makes that point – strongly. But on further reflection, Dottie asks the league manager to transfer her to another team. The gesture backfires when he transfers Kit instead, not wanting to let go of the player he’s used for publicity. Dottie tries to explain to Kit what happened, but Kit refuses to listen and Dottie gives up trying to reason with her. Then Dottie’s husband returns from the war, injured but intact, and Dottie leaves the league to go home with him.
After a few days, however, her sense of sportsmanship forces her to return and finish the season. Now she’s playing against Kit’s team for the first time. When the game is down to the wire, Kit goes to bat and Dottie is the catcher. Dottie knows how badly Kit wants to win, and Dottie certainly doesn’t care whether she wins or loses since this isn’t even really where she wants to be. Does she do anything to help Kit win? No. In fact, she doesn’t even keep her mouth shut regarding Kit’s fatal flaw. She informs the pitcher Kit can’t resist swinging at the high ones, and she can’t hit them.
Women are usually portrayed as aligning their loyalties differently than men do, putting individual personal relationships ahead of “the team.” This is sometimes designed to show how petty and stupid women are (while men are so noble), but it’s often meant to show how wonderfully caring we natural nurturers are. Unfortunately, no matter the intent, the end result is the same old patronizing same: women can’t see the big picture like men. That’s why ya can’t really trust those gals to come through for you in important things like business and politics and foxholes.
Just this once, Kit hits the damn high ball, wins the game and gets hoisted on the shoulders of her victorious teammates. Dottie and Kit reconcile – Kit understanding why Dottie put the team first because, hey, women really do understand the concept of teams – and Dottie leaves with her husband once more. Even that’s not the end of the sisters’ troubles, however. When the story fast-forwards to 1992 and the admittance of the league into the Baseball Hall of Fame, we learn that Dottie and Kit haven’t been on speaking terms for some time. Of course they reconcile at the Hall of Fame, but I like that the creators didn’t think one triumphant moment for Kit would fix all the fundamental problems in this complicated sibling relationship between these two strong personalities.
As great as all this is, there is one other tiny scene that makes this movie, in my estimation, perfect. During a practice game, one of the batters hits a ball way out toward the fence where some spectators are watching at an open gate. One spectator walks in and picks up the ball to throw it back to them, with a noticeably strong arm – and then a closeup reveals she is an African-American woman. There are no such women in the league, of course – “beautiful” wouldn’t have included that physical description. With about ten seconds of footage, the movie soberly reminds us of all the “small steps” women have taken toward equality that, upon examination, only aided relatively privileged white women.
And the credits roll under a sad ballad by Madonna, “This Used to Be My Playground”, a song about something wonderful that’s over and done now – a reminder that women are not on a slow but steady trajectory toward equality with men. We are constantly winning and losing the same ground over and over, or progressing in one spot only to fall back elsewhere. We still have to look hot no matter how much talent we have, if we want to work in fields dominated by men. We still have to behave better than men to avoid scandal. And the one way in which we are perhaps equal with men is that most of our “share” is unfairly distributed to white, traditionally attractive women first, even when (like Dottie) they don’t particularly want it.