Two facts about me. Firstly, I love sports films. From the training montages to the moment that threatens to jeopardise the whole season to the awful tension of will they/won’t they win it, the whole genre just screams drama louder than a crowd of bloodthirsty fans. Plus, unlike real sports, you’re guaranteed at least one shocking and exciting moment in the match. Second fact: I have very little grasp on the rules of most sports, particularly American ones. I understand the offside rule, but I have no idea what an inning is, why there are nine and how you get to the bottom of one. And what the hell does a quarterback do?
Despite this blissful ignorance, I’ll watch pretty much any sport film (except football – there’s more than enough of that going on in real life, thanks.) If most Hollywood sports films are to be believed, women serve no purpose on the pitch/field/diamond other than as pom-pom-waving, lemonade-serving cheerleaders/mothers (there’s a nice Freudian conundrum for you.) As a big fan of both sports films and women, I particularly enjoy plots that see the men plonk their sweaty thighs on the bench and let the ladies show them how it’s done.
We are the members of the all-American league
Into this testosterone-fuelled genre steps A League of Their Own, which puts women firmly in the spotlight. Loosely based on real events, the film follows the all-female baseball league set up by desperate organisers in the forties when it looked as though the game would be yet another casualty of the Second World War as all the men left to fight. Scouts round up the greatest female players from across North America and divide them into teams, including the Rockford Peaches, the main focus of the film. Made up of various colourful characters (more about our leading ladies in a bit), the team is assigned one-time legend Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) as coach, although the former star spends most of his time sleeping, scratching, spitting, making snide remarks and drowning his sorrows with whisky. As the league’s fame spreads across the country, the Peaches battle through games, sibling rivalries and tragedy in a bid to win the World Series. Whatever that is.
While the girls do find time to chat about the various sweethearts and losers in their lives, they’re often too busy talking baseball to bother with the boys.
Rather refreshingly, there are actually too many to list beyond the main players. The ever-magnificent Geena Davis plays the league’s poster girl and best player Dottie Hinson, who steps up to the plate both literally and metaphorically when it becomes clear that Dugan is less interested in the balls flying on the field than in scratching his own. Although she frequently protests that as a married woman her place is in the kitchen rather than the bunker, it becomes clear that Dottie loves the excitement and strategy of the game.
Dottie continues to overshadow her younger sister Kit, played by Lori Petty, who ‘90s kids will recognise as the whale/dolphin/sea lion trainer from Free Willy. While Dottie strives to appear flippant about baseball, pitcher Kit lacks her sister’s natural abilities but makes up for it in enthusiasm and grit.
A more compatible double act than the squabbling siblings comes in the form of Doris, played with gusto by Irish/American comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, and Mae, portrayed by Madonna. Yes, the Madonna. Well, not ‘the’ Madonna. The current Madonna, if you will. Tough girl Doris has a big mouth and the muscle and confidence to back it up, all of which presumably came in handy when she worked as a bouncer at her father’s club, where Mae was a ‘dancer’. The nature of the dancing is somewhat vague, but it probably didn’t involve a tutu and pink slippers. Look out for the stunning swing dance scene for a reminder of why we loved the Queen of Pop.
Other notable members of the team include shy Marla (Megan Cavanagh), a lovable tomboy who packs a formidable swing and, er, ‘powerful’ singing voice behind a dodgy hairdo and slightly awkward social skills. There’s also Evelyn, played by Bitty Schram. Somewhere Joss Whedon is kicking himself for missing out on that name. Time for a new Buffy season with a mysterious older sister? Evelyn struggles to keep control of her incredibly irritating son Stilwell, although with a name like it’s no wonder he’s so angsty all the time.
Unlike in so many other movies, the women in this film are not merely sex objects, mindless cheerleaders, simpering wives or doting mothers. Instead, they are just people who want to play baseball. As anyone who has known more than one woman can hopefully testify, there is not, in fact, a big mould shaped like the pointy-dress-wearing symbol they put on toilet doors that we all come out of. This film brings us women with a range of personalities: Mae is feisty and provocative, Evelyn is prone to tears, Kit is a bit bratty but very resilient, Doris is tough as nails and Dottie is cool as a cucumber. Forget those flat women you see lining the sidelines with their orange slices and consolatory remarks, just waiting to watch their honey to scoop the trophy: these ladies are realistic and full of life, and all the more relatable for it.
Cut the cat fights
This is not Bring it On with an undertone of Mean Girls. While there’s some pretty intense sibling rivalry between Kit and Dottie, the women are generally not ones for backstabbing and bitching. When a creepy talent scout (played with relish by Jon Lovitz) won’t take Marla to try outs because she’s ‘not pretty’, even the two sisters manage a display of solidarity, refusing to go with him unless she comes too. However, this is no sorority tea party either – these women are in it to win it and they are not pulling any punches. When Kit and Doris fall out on the field, there are no catty whispers and cold shoulders: the two women leap into a full-on fist fight. Mae also delights in taunting the rival teams with as much gusto as any ten foot muscle-bound NFL player.
There’s no holding back on the field, either. Wait, the pitch. No, I’m pretty sure that’s when you throw the ball… Anyhow, these ladies aren’t worried about breaking nails or a sweat: expect slides, splits, bumps, bashes, collisions and a bruise so big it should have its own credit. They’re getting down and dirty in the name of the game, and challenging the image of the delicate little girlfriend in the process.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ideas of femininity get a bit confused in the film. The league owners are concerned that America will be scandalised by the sight of women playing sport, mucking up their hair and potentially even sweating, something that was practically illegal (joking. But seriously, it was not smiled upon.) They therefore introduce the most impractical uniforms ever – mini dresses in the teams’ colours – and subject the women to makeovers and etiquette classes. While the women all protest vehemently against the dresses and treat the lessons like a joke, they also take to the field in pin-curls and lipstick. When it looks as though the league might be shut down because of lack of interest, the women resort to sex to pitch it (yep, sporting pun) to prospective spectators. There’s the promise of a kiss for anyone who catches a foul ball, Mae’s offer to let her uniform fall off at a convenient point in the game, besides Dottie’s headline-grabbing splits. Of course, they also just play a lot of baseball very well, but it’s a bit disheartening to watch our heroines catering to the leering crowds.
However, the film is not unaware of the contradiction that these cringey moments produce. Most of the time, the owners’ attempts to make the women seem extra feminine work as tongue-in-cheek observations of the way the media wants to label the players. At one point, a newsreel seeks to counter the concerns of any scandalised viewer by cheerfully reassuring them that ‘Helen Haley has not only been a member of several championship amateur teams, she’s also an accomplished coffee maker.’ The point is that these characters can be both feminine and athletic. They can have husbands they love and family commitments but they can also be brilliant ball players.
How do you solve a problem like Marla?
The one problematic character in all this is Marla. Sheltered by her father and painfully shy, we’re supposed to look at her gormless expression, terrible posture and lanky hair and pity the poor woman for being totally unattractive. Marla becomes fodder for the baying media but also the writers. While we admire her skills with a bat, the film also expects us to acknowledge her atypical appearance. It’s only when the others get her in a dress that she finds her confidence, performing a passionate, if torturous, rendition of ‘It Had to be You’ to a spellbound fellow across a crowded dance floor. She then gets married and gives up her debut season to go on her honeymoon. While no one could begrudge Marla some personal happiness, the film seems to be saying that women can certainly play baseball but they won’t be fulfilled if they don’t also find the time to don a lacey white gown and settle down with a man at some point. Even baseball-obsessed tomboy Kit has seemingly accumulated a small army of children and grandchildren by the end of the film. This is all well and good, but it might have been nice to have one of the women find satisfaction in the game itself.
The final score
If you’re fed up of sports films that put women in the supporting role, this is gold. The wide range of characters create an interesting dynamic, while the team’s progress through the league and their personal storylines speed the plot along nicely. There are some slightly mixed messages about just how far women can move from feminine values before they simply become unsightly outcasts in need of some rewiring. However, overall this film portrays women as vibrant, tough and, ultimately, human, making it a winner for me.