Redhead Temper: Baseball, Feminism and Comic Melodrama in A League of Their Own

When I was invited to participate in Forgotten Films‘ Baseball-themed Blogathon, I went with my gut instinct in choosing which film to write about: 1992’s A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall. As someone who is neither well-versed in the sport itself nor movies about the sport, this film still manages to entertain me every time I watch it because, well, it sort of isn’t about baseball, at least not to me, not at its core. It’s about women during World War II. It’s about sisterhood. It’s about feminism… maybe? But, even knowing as little as I do about baseball movies, I can say with some amount of confidence that this film achieves a lot of seemingly conflicting narrative goals and fulfills a lot of varying tropes, including those of a sports film, but also those of a 1940s-set melodrama and a women-driven comedy. This post will be exploratory to some degree, as my Redhead Temper posts often are, considering the feminism of the film, as problematic and inconsistent as it may be perhaps, the sentimentality and comedy of it, and the way baseball is used as a device or channel for those other generic functions.

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The film stars Geena Davis as Dottie Hinson, the soon-to-be-VIP of the Rockford Peaches– one of the teams formed in an all new, all women’s American baseball league. Tom Hanks co-stars (in top billing though) as Jimmy Dugan, the drunken baseball all-star who is asked to manage the team. In other significant supporting roles are Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, who are at their best here, I’d argue. One thing I love about the film is the sarcastic, playful, mocking tone it takes towards the socially constructed expectations of women’s appearances but at the same time, the film doesn’t really solve the problems it satirizes; if anything, baseball is the problem as well as the solution, at least within the context of the film. We hear a broadcast testament pretty early on in the film from some older women who claim that women are being masculinized, reaching the tipping point with the creation of an all-women’s baseball league. But, as we come to realize, women can’t simply be baseball players, probably partly due to that very concern: they also have to be “ladies.” Sure, the scene where they attend charm and beauty school is played for laughs, but Marla almost isn’t even taken to try out because she is unfeminine looking. Her father says he raised her like she were a boy and even claims that had she actually been a boy, he’d be talking to the Yankees right now. So it seems like there really is no solution or happy medium when it comes to athletic ideals and feminine ideals and the way they sometimes conflict or intersect. The attempts work some of the time– to combine these traditionally masculine and feminine traits– but it isn’t always so easy to do so and this certainly isn’t specific to the 1940s either; the issue of combining or negotiating or subverting gender expectations still prevails today in persistent and problematic ways. These women can only be in the league if they are athletic and beautiful– an unrealistic ideal that only some of the women naturally meet.

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Not to state the obvious but this focus on the feminine makes this film a pretty unconventional sports movie, but eventually, a lot of these more feminist questions are abandoned for the sake of baseball itself, and left mostly unanswered except for in the guise of the baseball games played in the film– all of this for better or for worse, which is open to interpretation perhaps. What I mean is, there is a sense of camaraderie that is based on sportsmanship and athleticism and baseball itself, while there also remains some basis for relationship building that is more typical or expected for the female gender. I would argue, however, that the game of baseball is made into a sort of symbol: professional sports as a microcosm of society. When the league is threatened to be shut down after only one season because the war is being won and no one will need it anymore, the question is asked whether that same thing is going to happen in the factories as well: the men are back, the women can leave the workforce and go back to the kitchen (because we couldn’t ask the men to go to kitchens, could we). Male athletes might face other melodramatic obstacles in playing or winning a game in real life and in cinema, but they never have to worry about anything quite so systemic or based on their gender.

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Throughout the film, as mentioned, women are forced to strike a very difficult balance, but in a way, I think it makes the triumphs in the film that much greater. For instance, they are asked to wear a dress-style uniform, and they all complain that they can’t play in something so frilly and skimpy (although no one mentions the fact that they shouldn’t have to; again, I’d blame it on the decade but I’m not sure how much has changed in the grand scheme of things). One player must take her son with her to all the games, and while his devil-child antics are funny, they also suggest to me that this woman has no choice between motherhood or playing baseball– she combines both, but again not easily and not fully by her own volition. Dottie eventually only plays one season because her husband returns from the war and they want children. So what does that say about our proposed heroine of the story, that she chooses the traditional female role entirely instead of, albeit difficultly, negotiating her two dreams? It is frequently mentioned that baseball is something she truly loves, but she feels like she must, or is expected to, give it up in order to start a family. I’m not saying a woman can’t or shouldn’t choose that path, but the film sets up this one season of baseball as a kind of space of innocence or even a the-one-that-got-away type situation, and I just wish she didn’t have to make the decision at all.

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All that being said, the film is still positive or at least self-aware in many of its representations. There are all kinds of women on the team, from Marla who eventually does find love (of course, post-makeover and with a man who is not normatively attractive either), Madonna’s character Mae who is sexually open and active, and Doris, played by Rosie O’Donnell, who is equally blunt and also finds male suitors in the stands just when she thinks she never will– she mentions that men always made her feel like a weird girl or not even a girl at all for liking and being good at baseball. I think the film is at least somewhat empowering then to say that these women did finally find a safe space to be good at the sport, even in those darn dresses they’re forced to wear while playing.

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I also love that Dottie and Kit’s sisterly relationship is the one that is focused upon, tested and strengthened throughout the narrative, as opposed to a romantic relationship. From the very beginning we see a competition between the two sisters, both athletically and otherwise, which transcends gender binaries I think, especially in terms of sports and sports movies. Also, I think the physical aggression the women frequently use with each other on the field (and, in some cases, off the field) is more masculine than feminine and I think that’s a good thing, actually. These women are ballplayers, not ballerinas (as is mentioned at one point). They should be varied in their reactions; I mean, maybe there can be crying in baseball after all.

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This is a sports movie that is highly accessible for both men and women because it successfully weaves all these different threads together. I chose to write about gender and history because, for me personally, they provide the reason we should even care about the baseball aspects in the first place; every great sports movie contains struggles, epic comebacks, and underdog characters who we have to care about, both on and off the field, rink or court. A League of Their Own has its feminist moments even if it sometimes grapples with how to actually follow through with them. The public laughs at first when the women play, but they prove themselves, even when they shouldn’t have to; I think the film proves itself too, as a baseball movie that can also function as a kind of WWII-era feminist melodramedy (an admittedly weird genre hybrid term I’m coining myself for the intents and purposes of writing about this movie). So yes, it is unfortunate that the female players must be both Gherig and Garbo wrapped into one unachievable entity: that to be in the league, they must be both masculine and feminine at the same time, when the only requirement should be their athleticism. But, the fact of the matter is, this was the 1940s and many similar expectations still exist for women in many spheres today. None of this negates the fact, though, that this is ultimately a fun, emotional, and intelligent sports movie that coherently and effectively uses elements from other genres, reaching a wider audience than perhaps the traditional sports film would.

Again, for some other really great baseball-movie related posts this week, please check out Forgotten Films and their Big League Blogathon!

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6 thoughts on “Redhead Temper: Baseball, Feminism and Comic Melodrama in A League of Their Own

  1. Pingback: Big League Blogathon – Ball 4 | Forgotten Films

  2. Interesting take on the film. I think you’re spot on to highlight how baseball empowers these women at a time of political and social change even if Geena Davis’ character ultimately chooses the “traditional” path. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing but it’s a shame she couldn’t or wouldn’t make a return to the game after her children were older.

    Baseball movies are a great way to hang other character-defining stories on; the game seems to lend itself to metaphysical interpretation (perhaps more so than any other sport).

    • I agree about baseball lending itself to metaphysical interpretation, as you put it. That’s a really interesting point and an even deeper way of considering the genre and its tropes surrounding the sport itself. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you found my take interesting and that you agreed about the potential empowerment the women found through the game, even if temporary or problematic in those ways. Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: Month in Review – April | French Toast Sunday

  4. I think you’re scrutinizing Marla too closely and you’re also defining her character’s success by whether she finds a guy or not, which I find fault with. You’re also complaining that she only could find a guy with a makeover. You object to someone cleaning themselves up to look better for the opposite sex? I mean if she had liposuction I’d see your point, but I think you’re going overboard and it sounds like whoever wrote Marla’s character just couldn’t win with you.

    This all reminds me of the press surrounding Viola Davis in The Help where she was poised to win an Oscar although people complained it was a subversive role. Viola brilliantly made the argument that her job as an actress and cinema’s job was to tell the stories and find the dignity of a wide array of (historical) characters, and there’s no reason any historical character (such as the black maids of the 1960s who worked in white homes) should be excluded. Similarly, these characters might not have been the most ideal feminist role models in history (compared to the suffragists of the 1920s, for example), but they were women in a pivotal time in history and why wouldn’t you tell their story? They acted in their interests with the constraints of their time.

    I agree that I liked Dottie and Kit’s relationship a lot. This is one of those films I watched as a little kid and one of the first I really loved when I saw it in the theater and a lot of it was Dottie and Kit. You also neglected to mention the Tom Hanks role. One could argue that these women won the respect of men through Tom Hanks eventually taking his job seriously and respecting Dottie.

    • I completely agree about Tom Hanks’ character, that’s a really good point! And I honestly didn’t mean to scrutinize Marla too much, in fact I do agree with your points about her. I think I was just trying to explore all the positives and negatives inherent in these representations because I do think they are complex and deserve to be looked at in similarly complicated ways– I was also in a gender in the media type class at school at the time so my criteria may certainly have come across as much stricter than I meant for them to be. Thanks again for your comment!

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