What with all the talk this week about early feminist heroes, I thought I’d chime in with my own story. My early experience with feminism wasn’t through a person; rather, it was the movie A League of Their Own. I was still young, playing softball when it came out, and after hearing everyone talk about how it was based on the true story of women’s baseball during World War II, I began eagerly anticipating the movie’s release. On a less-feminist note, I also loved Tom Hanks. Like any good mom of an adolescent daughter, my mom took me to go see it. (Caution, spoilers ahoy)
The film, directed by Penny Marshall (her masterpiece, really), was everything I had hoped it would be. It was funny. It had plenty of Tom Hanks being hilarious. And it featured girls playing sports! What I didn’t expect, and perhaps didn’t fully understand at the time, was that it addressed the sexism and hypocrisy inherent in the women’s baseball phenomenon. Granted, it didn’t confront these issues with too heavy a hand, since it wanted to keep things light, and to appeal to a mainstream audience.
But so many scenes and moments in that film illuminated for me the simple message that women were being treated differently, and it wasn’t fair. They wore skirts, which led to some horrible bruising during slides. They got makeovers, which of course had nothing to do with their ability to play. They went to charm school (“Gracefully and grandly!”). They were ordered to use their sex appeal to increase attendance. They had to deal with coaches, managers, and owners that looked down on the whole idea of girls playing America’s pastime. For a tween like me, it was empowering and frustrating at the same time. (Get used to it, kid, amirite?)
The conflict (really the only conflict of the film besides the Dottie-Kit rivalry) was whether or not this experimental league was going to survive past its first season. A scene toward the end of the movie was particularly stark and heartbreaking; I remember it jumping out at me the first time and it still cuts me to the quick to re-watch it today. I can’t really do justice to the exchange between the owner (Walter) and the manager (Ira) so I’ll just post it here:
Ira Lowenstein: This is what it’s going to be like in the factories, too, I suppose, isn’t it? “The men are back, Rosie, turn in your rivets.” We told them it was their patriotic duty to get out of the kitchen and go to work; and now, when the men come back, we’ll send them back to the kitchen.
Walter Harvey: What should we do – send the boys returning from war back to the kitchen?
While the movie ends on a high note, flashing forward to modern times and the opening of the women’s exhibit in the baseball hall of fame, the audience knows that women’s baseball didn’t last forever. The women did get sent back to the kitchen, and it took a lot of work for them to get themselves back out.
And then there was Jimmy Dugan. Long before Million Dollar Baby showed us the reluctant, cranky coach who “doesn’t teach girls,” we had Jimmy Dugan. His character, despite delivering most of the funniest lines in the film, has probably one of the saddest stories. A former baseball great, he hurt his knee during an alcohol-fueled mishap that ended his career forever. But his gradual warming up to the women on his team doesn’t feel condescending; it happens gradually, and you can see the women (particularly Dottie) earning his respect. The watershed moment for Jimmy is his turning down the offer to coach AAA men’s baseball: “I already have a job.”
What’s so great about A League of Their Own is not just its honesty; it’s also just an incredibly well-done movie. If it didn’t rip your heart out of your chest at least three times, then you must be made of stone. Not just when Betty Spaghetti gets the bad news, but the final confrontation between the sisters, Mae’s speech about not wanting to go back to dancing, or finding out that Evelyn and Jimmy are both dead at the flash-forward ending. I watch the movie again as an adult, and I don’t just appreciate the realization that it ignited the first little spark of feminist thinking in my young mind. I also just love it. Because it’s a great movie.
Helen: Has anybody seen my new red hat?
Dottie: Oh piss on your hat.
Helen: “¦That was uncalled for.
Jimmy Dugan: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.
Little Boy: [reading] Avoid the clap, Jimmy Dugan.
Jimmy Dugan: Hey, that’s good advice, kid!
Mae: Evelyn. Evelyn! I’m sorry but I have to kill your son.