A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: A Nostalgic Comedy That Still Knows How To Play The Field
25 years later, director Penny Marshall's A League Of Their Own remains that rare thing: a sports movie with female characters to look up to.
I was ten years old when A League Of Their Own was released, but probably didn’t watch it until a year later, on VHS. Or at least, I think so. The problem is with films that you watch when you’re a kid is that you know you saw them, but you’re not exactly sure when or how, or even how you felt about them. Over my teen years I watched A League Of Their Own a number of times- it even became a side note in my dissertation on the representation of women in WWII films. But now, a whole twenty-five years on from its release and I find myself faced with a film I feel is important to me but don’t quite know why, and haven’t even watched in years.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, A League Of Their Own is a fictionalised account of the founding of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was set up in the US during WWII. While the men were over in Europe, women were brought in to fill their roles in the workplace, and eventually on the sporting field. Based on fictional characters, the film stars Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Tom Hanks- and yes, Madonna. The film was Penny Marshall’s follow-up to Awakenings and was quite successful. Not least because A League Of Their Own was ahead of its time.
The whole concept of women playing sport, and being badass at it, was something of a new phenomenon. But more than this the film reached back into time and showed how a generation of women we view as housewives were in many ways further along in subverting gender norms than we were. A film this rare and special is worth returning to, to discuss how important it was and should be in the representation of women on screen. And for me it’s time to wonder, what is it about this film that has stuck to me like glue for all these years?
“I Haven’t Got Ballplayers, I’ve Got Girls”
A League Of Their Own’s major selling point is that it’s a little known but sensational part of recent history. I love a baseball movie, and I’m a sucker for a WWII film. But this film isn’t really about baseball or the war, it’s about women living in a particular time and how they were viewed when they tried to move outside of the boxes they had been assigned. It goes without saying that WWII offered many opportunities for women to move outside of their defined roles, and this movement had a dramatic impact on how we live and work today. A League Of Their Own is a tribute to these women, but while it’s inspirational it’s also fun.
The film uses a pair of competing sisters as its main focus. Older sister Dottie (Geena Davis) is tall and beautiful, she’s a fantastic baseball player but is content to stay at home and wait for her husband Bob (Bill Pullman), who is fighting in Europe. The only reason she goes to join the league is for her kid sister, Kit (Lori Petty). Kit is wild and passionate, she’s the quintessential tomboy. She wants to escape from her small town, and the league is her way out.
Dottie’s grown-up concern for her kid sister and Kit’s more adventurous personality are the instigated factors of and some could say the undoing of the film’s central narrative. Governing over them is Tom Hanks as their manager Jimmy; an alcoholic, washed-up baseball player, he is the girls’ most immediate barrier in their efforts to be taken seriously. Around these central narratives are a number of supporting scenarios performed by a variety of different ‘types’ of women. Mae (played by Madonna) is a taxi driver, Doris (Rosie O’Donnell) is a bouncer at her father’s nightclub, Marla (Megan Cavanagh) is ‘the ugly one’, Shirley (Ann Cusack) is uneducated, and Ellen Sue (Freddie Simpson) is a former Miss Georgia.
The girls are different but all possess one uniting factor: they have been hemmed in by their determined roles. They are prized for their looks, or dismissed because of them. They are wives, or mothers. Whatever they are they have been slotted into roles created for them by the male dominated society. But when they play baseball and when they play together, they hit hard outside these roles.
This is what makes this film unique; the girls fight and they bitch, they throw balls at sexist hecklers, and they rebel when they’re told how to dress and how to act. Though ultimately they’re no fools and they know that to keep their newly found roles they have to play up to and manipulate the male field they’re playing on. That’s what makes this film, it shows real girls (or real women, if you prefer) being smart and being tough.
“There’s No Crying In Baseball”
Baseball films are an enjoyable genre, because by nature they are about great successes and great losses. A League Of Their Own is a brilliant baseball movie. It’s got the highs and lows, it’s got the drama. However, while it’s an excellent sports movie, its strength as a narrative rests on the variety of its characters and their arcs. It is to the credit of the film’s screenwriting partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel that these women are interesting and entertaining as they are.
A League Of Their Own is a fine script. Don’t get me wrong it does have a thick filling of ‘types’ (mentioned above), but if you excuse this shorthand method you’ll find great enjoyment in relating to these women and their relationships. These women don’t fit together, and Ganz and Mandel’s decision to unite them through fights, and humour and heartbreak shows a canny but blatant truth. That women don’t always get along, but we can work together. The further concerted effort of this writing pair to celebrate the girls’ hopes and aspirations for a different life really makes this a optimistic affair (well almost, more on that later).
Penny Marshall’s directing is effortless, as always, and her characters (and actors) are relaxed and natural. They are easy going, however, there is something in the tone of their expression or body language that hints at the worries underneath. Davis and Hanks are masters of this kind of acting, and it is the work they put into underpinning their characters that brings this film down to earth. Lori Petty is equally expert at this kind of suppressed worry and plays the put upon kid sister incredibly well. In fact if it were not for the performances of the main cast, and the depth they and Marshall brought to their characters this may easily have ended up as some frothy comedy.
“You’ve Got Plenty Of Time To Make Babies”
While A League Of Their Own is a real crowd pleaser of a film, there is one pessimistic part of it that I’ve never appreciated, where the character of Dottie verges on deflating the film’s premise. Dottie is the anchoring point of the whole narrative yet we never understand why she doesn’t go all in on a chance to readdress her role in this male dominated society. She has the looks, the talent, the smarts, but she’s happy to just go home and ‘make babies’. Each to their own, but you can’t help wondering whether her lack of devotion to the cause (the changing role of women during and after WWII) is to do with the fact that the male dominated society she lived within, worked for her?
Dottie is wanted, respected and appreciated by all the men in A League Of Their Own. They see her as someone that can be worked with and trusted upon, so why didn’t she do more? We ask a lot of questions of women, and ask a lot of questions of ourselves, even in this day and age, about our choices. Should we feel bad for not wanting kids? Should we stay at home while they’re growing up? What comes first, career or family? So many questions, and all the time the ‘feminist pressure’ is bearing down on us. What do we want? What should we want?
The answer is whatever we damn well please! A League Of Their Own has always made me sad over the years because I feel like Dottie was never really a part of it, and I never knew why she didn’t want in. But ultimately, as fictional as she is, it was her choice. Dottie wanted to get her sister into the baseball league, then she wanted to go home and have kids, and we should let her have that. Dottie was above the suppression the other girls felt, or maybe she could just get by with it, and if she’d wanted it different the door was wide open. Though ultimately, I’ll always be sad for her because I feel like she regretted her choices.
A League Of Their Own: Conclusion
A League Of Their Own is a part feel good, part sports, part comedy, part drama film. But more than anything it’s a film which revels in the differences between women. It is a film which recognises that girls play sports, drink and smoke, and are stupid and mean. It is a film which sees us all differently and respects us. While it can be a little sentimental it can also be true to life, and it has my respect for that.
The women who played for the All American Girls Professional Baseball League were pioneers- they were part of the change we needed in our society. I’m not going to get sad about the longing and regret the film hangs on Dottie. We all make our own choices, some of us will make better ones, some of us will never see what’s possible. A League Of Their Own is all about those choices, the doors we walk through and the ones we don’t. You might think that I’m getting a bit deep here but I’ve had twenty-five years to think about this film, so give me a break.
I was ten years old when A League Of Their Own was released, but probably didn’t watch it until a year later, on VHS. Or at least, I think so. The problem is with films that you watch when you’re a kid is that you know you saw them, but you’re not exactly sure when or how, or even how you felt about them. But I’ve always known that A League Of Their Own was important, and I now know why. It’s as simple as this: these fictional women are smart, talented and real. In a culture where women are still taught to look good, and act a way to please the male dominated society we live within, the women of A League Of Their Own were, and still are, the rebels needed and the risk-takers we should look up to.
Have you seen A League Of Their Own? How do you feel it contributes to the representation of women on screen?
A League Of Their Own is available on DVD. A 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray was also released earlier this year.
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