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Is playing like a girl really THAT bad?

  • Mar 11, 2012
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The big difference between cliches that work and cliches that don't can sometimes be boiled down to simple context. Often, it's a lazy writer trick. If a screenwriter has an immediate need to connect with the audience, he'll try to place the values of a main character he's creating in line with what he believes are the values of the people seeing the movie. This isn't something we ordinarily think about, but when a writer does it for a period piece, it sticks out. In effect, we have people like King Leonidas from the movie 300 giving his men lectures about the values of freedom and democracy while the historical city of Sparta was run on a caste system whose slaves were routinely killed ritualistically. The writers basically resort to turning their medieval or Victorian-era characters into 21st-century Americans.

It takes great writing to work a character into historical context while still making them forward-thinkers. In that respect, A League of Their Own is a remarkable achievement. A League of Their Own is the story of a women's professional baseball league set up during World War II. Many of the characters in A League of Their Own are women who wonder about their roles in the country and in life itself, and when someone started up a professional baseball league for them, they jumped at the opportunity looking to break free of their roles. Their euphoria, though, is dampened slightly when they're informed that they can't walk around and act like the big, tough, manly ballplayers. They are expected to be dolls, babes, ladies, and so they're explicitly instructed to act like it. They're put into etiquette classes and are forbidden to drink, smoke, or chew tobacco. They're also a bit wary of the short dresses the league commissioner is forcing them to wear, well aware of the fact that dresses would hinder their sliding abilities. There is naturally a bit of unrest among the crowd of women, and ordinarily in a movie like this, full-blown rebellion would follow and the commissioner would repent for the error of his ways. In A League of Their Own, though, there is only some initial unrest, followed by the commissioner taking control of the situation by reminding them that there are a lot of women who didn't make it into the league, any of whom would play in a bathing suit if he asked it of them. Even though these are clearly strong women, they are forced to concede that point, and so they settle down and seethe on the inside.

A League of Their Own revolves mainly around two characters, Dottie and Kit, who are invited to play in a startup women's professional baseball league. The year is 1943, during World War II, and those who paid attention in their history classes know this is when women began to break out of their domesticated roles to join the workforce. Warm bodies were needed to go to Europe and do the dirty work, which the men were drafted for. A war tends to need manufacturing to get the war equipment made, though, and so the women were called on to take the mens' places in the factories to get the weapons and supplies made. One opportunistic onlooker quickly noted that players in Major League Baseball were also in shortage, and seeing the new working women, he decided that perhaps he could get some women to play baseball for a price, too. Dottie and Kit are among the women who are scouted in softball leagues and invited to a tryout for the four-team league. They make the cut and are signed to the Rockford Peaches.

It was a shocking thing to me to see the way the characters in the movie talk to women. Writer/Director Penny Marshall was probably going for accuracy, and she probably has some experience with this kind of prejudice herself, succeeding in a line of work traditionally dominated by men. I understood that social attitudes were a lot different back then, but to have such language and ideas placed right on the screen in front of my face was a little bit jarring for a person who grew up around women who would have killed me for referring to them as dolls or dames. In one scene, one of the members of the women's team is in a car talking with a kid in his early teens. This kid suggests they go into the backseast so she can "make a man out of him." He's unfazed by her suggestion of smacking him, replying by asking why they couldn't do both. To get an idea of just how different things are in the era, Marshall includes a scene in which a popular radio moralizer (a woman, no less) drones about the "masculinization" of women, causing them to destroy families by leaving their "designated roles."

The women's league has four teams, but Marshall chooses to focus on the story of just one of them, the Rockford Peaches. This helps keep the movie from being cluttered with underdeveloped characters, although Marshall does shortchange us in one other respect of development: Of the members of the Peaches, Marshall only gives pivotal roles to five or six of them, including the manager, Jimmy Dugan. Dottie, Kit, and the characters Marla, Mae, and Doris get most of Marshall's attention. There are other characters; Evelyn, a soft-spoken right fielder and Shirley, an illiterate left-fielder and Ellen Sue, a former Miss Georgia, have small pieces. But A League of Their Own belongs mostly to sisters Dottie and Kit, who share a sibling rivalry which comes to a tipping point because Kit sickens of the way Dottie keeps overshadowing her. Evelyn is there more to be the character whom Dottie and Kit help out of her shell, and Mae and Doris - rarely onscreen without each other - provide a sort of running commentary.

I found Jimmy Dugan to be a more interesting character than any of the women, to be honest. Dugan was a former slugger for the Chicago Cubs who drank himself out of baseball. He's half-hoping the women's league will get him back into the game but goes about at first treating the whole thing as a joke, frequently lamenting that he has no ballplayers, only girls. Tom Hanks plays Dugan with a ton of bombast. It's a great performance in that none of Hanks's nice-guy persona is there. When he plays Dugan being drunk, it isn't the kind of regular movie drunk, a big-hearted tough guy wearing a crusty shell. Dugan is full-on blast-wasted, lurching and screaming at everything around him. He's not likable at all when inebriated, and he sleeps off his hangovers during games. It's during one of his tirades that he delivers his classic line "There's no crying in baseball!" Even when he decides to get his team to rally, he does it for the bonus money.

Women's professional sports leagues in the United States have famously had trouble finding audiences to play for, and Marshall shines brilliantly while capturing this. The league starts out playing in front of audiences which could be counted on fingers and toes. This of course causes the owners to have second thoughts abot the whole thing, and they remain unconvinced of its potential even after a publicity campaign brings more people into the games. When a photographer from Life Magazine shows up to a game, one of the league owners tries to coax the team into making a spectacular play. Dottie makes a catch while performing a split, which ends up on the cover. By the World Series, there are a lot more people at the games, but the owners still aren't sure.

Marshall takes pains to remind the audience that the people in the league are women, and it's in the area that she does the most interesting writing in the movie. When men write screenplays about women, we tend to see the butchie stereotype a lot, who is frequently in the movie as the gender-equal to the men. The women themselves too often play out like male fantasies or ideas of what being feminine is. The women in A League of Their Own find that careful balance, being tough and feminine at the same time, and written into the script with a natural flow are what I can only imagine to be real concerns of women: Pregnancies and periods, kids and mothering, and proper for the time, concern about whether their husbands will be returning from the war. Yes, these women are there to play baseball, but they're also women, and the writer's device known as the token lesbian is not in the movie at all.

I've previously lamented that all sports movies are going to have cliches, but A League of Their Own at least has interesting, original ways of playing them. First of all, Marshall doesn't dwell on them. If there's a cliche necessary, Marshall doesn't slow to ultra-saccharine slo-mo bullet time to place the dramatic emphasis on it. Apparently she hates sports movie cliches as much as I do, and so she plays them out normal speed with no fanfare or emphasis in order to get them out of the way. My single cliche objection comes after the story ends. This movie is framed within the context of a flashback; it's an older Dottie reminiscing about the league while attending the opening of the women's baseball exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Once the flashback - and thus the official story - is complete, Marshall drags the epilogue out in excess. A League of Their Own has more decent points to fade away to credits than The Return of the King, the finale of The Lord of the Rings trilogy which famously protracted about 200 endings before actually ending, or before the audience got fed up and walked out, whichever came first.

I get the sense that in A League of Their Own, Penny Marshall wanted to give a sense of her own story. There aren't a lot of full-time female directors running around in Hollywood. I can only name four off the top of my head - Marshall, the great Amy Heckerling, the fantastic Sofia Coppola, and Oscar winner Katheryn Bigelow - and I was a film student. In that sense, Marshall knows about the prejudices that go with trying to break through in what is typically considered a man's world, even in an area which is supposedly a bastion of progressive politics. Marshall knows the territory better than most, and is therefore the person who is not only capable of telling the story, but the right person to tell it as well.

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More A League of Their Own reviews
review by . May 02, 2013
With all the historical baseball films out there this is one of the best!  During WW II there was a dearth of "male" players to fill the minor league rosters.  As a result there was an interest in having something to take the place of these games.  Someone came up with the idea of selling a women's baseball league.  This film uses an all-star cast to magically show how fun that league was.  Tom Hanks is the manager of the woman's team and he learns very …
review by . December 02, 2009
A great film for the entire family!
When you stop and think about it out of the thousands upon thousands of feature films that have been made over the decades only a relative handful have been about baseball.  I think that the best baseball film ever made was "Eight Men Out" which tells the story of the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  Also high on my list of faves are "The Natural", "Field of Dreams", "Bang The Drum Slowly" and the 1992 comedy-drama "A League of Their Own".  …
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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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A League of Their Own is a 1992 comedy-drama film that tells a fictionalized account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Directed by Penny Marshall, the film stars Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, and Lori Petty. The screenplay was written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel from a story by Wilson and Kelly Candaele.

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