“A League of Their Own” is one of those movies I have loved ever since the first time I saw it, back when I was all of thirteen years old. A lot of baseball movies came out during my early years – “Major League,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “The Natural,” “The Sandlot” – but “A League of Their Own” was the only baseball movie that would have passed the Bechdel Test. (Okay, so Susan Sarandon was a huge part of “Bull Durham” and she was fantastic in it, but let’s also not forget that Annie Savoy’s whole point in the movie was to make men into better baseball players by banging them silly and making them wear garters.)
When I was younger, my love of the movie was kind of simple. I liked watching ladies play baseball. I liked the way they dressed when they went to the swing club. I thought Madonna was a goddess incarnate. I thought Rosie O’Donnell was the funniest woman ever, and Tom Hanks one of the funniest men. I thought that if it was possible for Geena Davis* to be so tall and still be gorgeous, there had to be hope for me.
And of course, who could EVER forget one of the greatest lines in the history of film – no, in the history of the spoken word?
I still quote this line all the time, for everything, whether it’s applicable or not.
(ETA that I have watched this clip no fewer than three times since starting work on this post. And not once have I not laughed my ass off.)
My appreciation for the movie has deepened as I’ve grown older and developed a wider understanding of the world in which we live. Women had been constrained to very specific roles in society, and science, medicine, psychology, religion and politics had all colluded to keep them there. But when World War II radically shifted the demographics of the United States, suddenly women were seen as capable of doing the hard, physical work that had once been the sole provenance of men. Rosie wasn’t just riveting; she was also playing shortstop.
Yet as the movie makes clear, it was a partial equality** that reeked of condescension. The ball players were expected to wear skirts, even though it put them at risk for serious injury. (Echoes of the Lingerie Football League abound!) Their coach treats them like a joke and spends half the time either passed out drunk or pissing all over everything. The league scout nearly passes over a talented player because she’s not beautiful. The players get nicknames that emphasize their domesticity and femininity. They are sent to charm school. The league is named the “All-American Girls Baseball League.” Promotions are run in which the players give out kisses to the audiences.
And the ladies do it all because that’s just how badly they want to play.
That tension between love of sport and the demands of femininity plays a big part in “A League of Their Own,” and later in other “women in sports” movies like “Love and Basketball,” “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Girlfight.” The specifics of each movie do vary, as each has a different cultural context, but the overarching theme remains the same: that a woman who tries to pursue her athletic passions will be seen as failing to perform femininity correctly.
That’s something that continues to resound in the lives of female athletes, even now in the 21st century. I’d like to think we’ve gotten beyond such reductive thinking about gender, and in many ways we have. A lot of progress has been made in just the past decade, let alone in the lifetime that has passed since World War II, but at the same time, we still have quite a ways to go.
But even if you take out the overtly feminist politics of the movie, what has really made “A League of Their Own” a classic is the fact that it is, at its core, about the love of sport. It is about loving it so much that you spend all your free time training for it, that you’ll make the kind of sacrifices non-athletes cannot fathom, that you’ll deal with any number of indignities and inconveniences just for the chance to play.
It’s this aspect of the movie that has given me another one of my favorite lines. I use this line often, when I find myself struggling in a race or feeling like I want to quit during a particularly difficult training session, and I ask myself why I insist on making myself doing such challenging things. Whenever I start to feel like it’s all just too hard, I remember this line:
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
That’s something I think any athlete, regardless of gender, can appreciate.
Women, Action and Media! is marking the 20th anniversary of the release of the movie with a special screening that will be preceded by a discussion with baseball historian Sue Macy and All American Girls Professional Baseball League player Eileen Gascon. If you live in New York City, you should totally check this out. And if, like me, you don’t, you can follow the Twitter hashtag #dirtintheskirt on the night of the event.
*I have to say, I love that Geena Davis was involved in this movie, and knowing what I know now about her, it’s not much of a surprise that she was. Over the years I’ve come to really admire her as an activist. She has done a lot of work in support of Title IX with the Women’s Sports Foundation, which is one of my favorite non-profit organizations, plus she is becoming pretty well-known for her work on equal representation for women in the media. Plus, the woman was Thelma, for god’s sake. For that alone she gets ALL THE FEMINISM POINTS.
**And it was not an equality extended to black women. The AAGPBL was segregated by race, which left a lot of talented black women unable to join white women on the field. The film mentions this in passing, when a primly dressed black woman whips a baseball to Dottie Hinson with such force that her gloved hand is left stinging.