Dirt In the Skirt: A League of Their Own

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, Teammates from a league of their own on 3rd base linespoilers 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:The girls on the team at charm school

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.

And finally, just because it’s Friday, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes from one of my very favorite movies.Jimmy and Dottie cheering in dugout

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.

Photos: imdb

12 replies on “Dirt In the Skirt: A League of Their Own”

I always liked this movie, even though it was never a real favorite. It has a great cast, a good mix of comedy and drama, and I like how the social mores of the times are subtly mixed in together as commentary on life in the 1940s.

Jimmy Dugan’s line about baseball being great because it’s hard is so true about any kind of skill that is great and admired because it’s difficult to master, and it’s a quote that I remember when I’m working on something that is difficult but when done well, comes off as effortless.

My fave scene was when there was a foul ball hit towards what was obviously the Colored section, and one sista hurls the ball hard and fast over Dottie to the pitcher. In that moment you realize that while women playing baseball was a step forward for equality, Black women weren’t even invited to play.

I’ve always loved that scene. Mostly, because they didn’t have to do it, but they did, and it was dignified. It could have been over-dramatized and uncomfortable. It could have been cut completely. But it was well done. It embodies a lot of unspoken realities of feminism, even for those living on the forefront.

It’s second only to the scene where the priest drops the bible during Madonna’s confession.

Are you in my mind? I have had this playing as my “falling asleep movie” all week. My hometown was also home to the Racine Belles (the team Kit goes to) and we have a permanent exhibit up about them at the museum. I always thought it was so cool that the teams were from cities whose names I recognized as a young kid.

Man, I blubber like a baby at the end of this movie. Every. Single. Time.

I liked it just fine when it came out, but the more I watch it the more I recognize it as a really fine piece of filmmaking. And so many women on screen! Its sad to realize how infrequently we get this in the movies.

“This is our daughter Dottie. This is our other daughter, Dottie’s sister.”

This. Film. Emotions everywhere. Another great feminist scene is when Rosie O’Donnell is talking (to Evelyn?) about her crappy boyfriend, and throws his picture out the window when she realizes she’s worth more than him.

I’m glad I’m not the only person who found the scene with Ira and Walter incredibly touching. Although I hate to say it, because it’s one of the few scenes that’s not about the women in the film, I really think it was the best scene of the movie. It just encapsulated the entire point the movie was trying to make, and the actor who played Ira was wonderful in it. The fact that the audience knows how it all turns out–that the women did get sent back home (for a few years, anyway)–makes it all the more heart-breaking.

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