This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, I decided to write about A League of Their Own, Penny Marshall’s story about the All-American Professional Girl’s Baseball League. Halfway through writing my post, however, I realized that the feel-good review I was typing about the film no longer reflected what I felt about it, and I had to revise things significantly. Yes, the film is enjoyable and even inspiring at times, but it isn’t the celebration of strong women that I’d thought it was when I originally viewed it. For one thing, it is grossly mistitled, implying that the characters have control over circumstances and infrastructure that they clearly didn’t. It is also startlingly backward in that the plot steers the audience towards emulating and empathizing with a character who is deeply out of touch with herself.
The storyline revolves around two sisters – Dottie and Kit – who spend their days working at their parents’ dairy and playing softball in World War II-era America. One day, a scout comes to town offering Dottie the opportunity to join a women’s professional baseball league in order to keep the America citizens happy while their men are off at war. Dottie is hesitant, but Kit sees the opportunity as a chance to escape small town life and leave her mark on the world. Kit convinces both her sister and the scout to take risks – the scout on Kit, and Dottie on a life beyond her expectations.
After arriving in Chicago, both Dottie and Kit breeze through try-outs and become members of the Rockford Peaches. However, becoming professional athletes does not allow either the sisters or their teammates to escape the misogyny of the time. Playing baseball invites public scrutiny, and many critics suggest that women engaged outside of the home are more masculine than their domestic brethren. To counter this notion, and make the players more palatable to the public, the male owners of the league force every player into charm and beauty school, while the promotional films about the league focus on domestic accomplishments and appearances more than athletic ability. The uniforms the teams have to wear are risqué rather than practical and, in a manner eerily similar to modern pageantry, the ball players must display their bodies before they can display their talents.
As the film progresses we see that, though these women repeatedly demonstrate their capability to lead the league without male influence, the fate of their athletic careers is entirely dependent on the whims of men. When candy guru and league founder Mr. Harvey decides that women’s baseball is no longer of interest, he nearly dismantles the league, something the players never seem to be aware of, let alone given the opportunity to protest. Because they are not informed of the situation, they also are unable to choose an advocate, and the public-relations manager Mr. Lowenstein speaks for them without their consent. It is not so much a league of their own as it is a shared illusion.
This is not to say that none of the women in the film are empowered. May embraces her sexuality and challenges authority with gusto, Evelyn expresses her emotions in such a way that it leads the Peach’s chauvinistic manager to change his communication style, Doris dumps her cruel boyfriend for men who can accept her talents, and Kit follows her dreams and ends up winning the World Series. While Dottie, too, is empowered – she’s smart, unbelievably talented, and never afraid to speak her mind – she never admits to herself how much she loves baseball and instead shapes her life around the gender role she is supposed to fulfill rather than what her vocation appears to be. Though both Jimmy and Kit attempt to force Dottie to realize her love of the game, she never seems to fully embrace how deeply she values baseball, or how fundamental her role in the success of the league was. So, in spite of the fact that the film has various leaders with various strengths, the audience is set up to identify the most with Dottie, by far the weakest character in the film
While A League of Their Own is touted as a modern classic with a lineup of some of the great Hollywood actors of our generation, the subtext still leaves something to be desired. Unless you can focus on the supporting roles in this film – May, Marla, Kit, Doris, and Evelyn, to name a few – step away from the DVD player, go outside, and focus on becoming a female athlete rather than idealizing a Hollywood interpretation of them.