A League of Their Own, is often considered to be a feminist film favorite. With all the men off fighting overseas in World War II, the All American Girls Professional Baseball League is created in 1943 to stop baseball from being shut down during the duration of the war. Although it is considered to be a feminist film, which I will defend, I am going to argue that the film has many aspects that actually go against feminism, mainly through the use of female stereotypes present throughout the film, as well as highlighting other theories prevalent in the film.
Attaining the feminine ideal is one of the main focuses throughout A League of Their Own. Kit is constantly being compared to her older sister, Dottie, who represents ‘the ideal.’ She is the prettier, older sister, who is better at baseball. After a game, Kit complains about things men in the crowd say to her, such as: “Good thing your sister bailed you out, Kit;” “Kit, why don’t you get your sister to teach you how to hit?” and “Kit, why can’t you be beautiful like that sister of yours Dottie?” The last one isn’t actually true, but it is how Kit perceives herself to be inferior to her seemingly perfect older sister.
When Ernie Capadino, the baseball scout comes to convince Dottie to try out for the girls professional baseball team, he tells her “Your country needs you. You cannot only play ball but you’re kind of a dolly, that’s what we’re looking for.” Dottie responds that she is a married woman, and her husband is overseas. Capadino says, “Oh relax! I’m talking lookie, no touchie. Just that we want girls that are easy on the eyes.” Kit interjects that she’s more than ready to go and willing to leave right then. He tells her, “I don’t want you! I want her! The one who hit the ball,” and turning to Dottie, says, “I want you. You I saw. You I like.” Here again, Kit is always in the shadow of her older, idealized sister. Although Kit is a great ballplayer too, her sister is still better, but it’s her beauty that makes her a truly hot commodity. Capadino constantly references to Dottie’s looks, even more so than her athletic ability. He finally agrees that if Kit can get Dottie to come, then she can come too.
Dottie tells Kit that she doesn’t want to go because she is happily married and waiting for her husband to return. Kit asks, don’t you want to go “just so you can say you once did something? Something special? Please Dottie. I gotta get out of here. I’m nothing here.” This goes back to the idea of the woman being ‘the other,’ and being content just staying at home being a good housewife and nurturer. Kit wants more than this, because she knows she doesn’t fit into the same feminine ideal as Dottie.
On the way to Chicago, they stop to scout another girl named Marla. She is an amazing hitter that can bat both right and left handed. Her father tells Capadino, “Coach in the American Lesion team said if she was a boy he’d have took her to the state tournament. And I said, if she was a boy, I’d be in New York talking to the Yankees, instead of living in this place. “ Once Capadino gets a close up view of Marla, he sees she is a very unattractive, overweight girl. He makes an obvious grimace, disgusted with the way she looks, and walks away saying “Uh, we’ll let you know.” Dottie asks him what’s the matter. He tells her, “I can’t use her.” Dottie can’t understand why not since she is such an amazing hitter. Capadino makes a reference to her looks and Kit respons, “You mean you ain’t picking her cuz she ain’t pretty?” “ Well look who just caught up,” he tells her. Dottie and Kit refuse to go, since Marla is being so blatantly overlooked just because of her appearance. Marla’s father pleads with Capadino, “I know my girl ain’t so pretty as these girls. But that’s my fault. I raised her like I would a boy. I didn’t know any better. She loves to play. Don’t make my little girl suffer because I messed up raising her. Please.” Capadino reluctantly lets her go. Marla is afraid to leave her father because she is the one that takes care of him, and because she won’t know anybody. Her father expresses the same feelings Kit had to Dottie earlier, saying, “Nothing’s ever gonna happen here. You gotta go where things happen.” From a structuralist point of view, using Saussure’s idea of semiotics, “a science that studies the life of signs within society” (Saussure), the women’s looks are the signifier, and the signified is the concept of the way the ideal woman should look, even while playing baseball. This coincides with the idea of arbitrariness, which means that there is no natural reason why a particular sign should be attached to a particular concept, just as a woman ballplayer does not have any natural reason to be pretty.
During the time of the tryouts, a female radio announcer gives this speech: “Careers and higher education are leading to the masculanization of women with enormously dangerous consequences to the home, the children, and our country. When our boys come home from war, what kind of girls will they be coming home to? And now for the most disgusting example of this sexual confusion-Mr. Walter Harvey, of Harvey Bars, is representing us with women’s baseball. Right here in Chicago, young girls plucked from their families, are gathered at Harvey Field to see which one of them can be the most masculine. “ This proves Susan Bordo’s point that “Through the organization and regulation of time, space, and movement of our daily lives, our bodies are trained, shaped, and impressed with the stamp of prevailing historical forms of selfhood, desire, masculinity, and femininity” (Bordo). This goes along with Butler’s idea that women are categorized according to their facets of identity, such as sexuality, and the distinction between sex and gender. She bring out that sex is biological, while gender is culturally constructed. She goes on to say that “sexed bodies cannot signify without gender, and the apparent existence of sex prior to discourse and cultural imposition is merely an effect of the functioning gender. That is, both sex and gender are constructed” (Butler). .” Although the announcer made reference to the girls being masculine, Butler would argue “that gender is performative: no identity exists behind the acts that supposedly ‘express’ gender, and these acts constitute-rather than express-the illusion of the stable gender identity. Furthermore, if the appearance of ‘being’ a gender is thus an effect of culturally influenced acts, then there is no solid, universal gender: constituted through the practice of performance, the gender ‘woman’ remains contingent and open to interpretation and ‘resignification’” (Butler). This is what Butler refers to as ‘Gender Trouble,’ for people to trouble the categories of gender through performance. This announcer also acts as if these women are no longer female, which coincides with Beauvoir’s thought that if “one wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should, what place they should occupy in this world, what their place should be” continuing, “It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.” Just being a functioning female is not enough to define a woman. “The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form…just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique was defined, so there is an absolute human type, the masculine,” says Beauvoir (Beauvoir). This is what she linked back to Aristotle, who said “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities; we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness’ (Aristotle).
The only reason why the women are recruited to play professional baseball to begin with is because the men are away fighting in the war, not because the women have truly reached equality with men in sports. The true reasoning behind this professional girls league is to generate revenue. As Aristotle pointed out, “Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him: And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex,’ by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex-absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute-she is the Other” (Aristotle). The man being the ‘One’ and the woman being the ‘Other’ is a form of the master/slave relationship.
The girls that made the teams are shown what uniforms they will be wearing: short, sexy dresses. There are various outcries from the girls, such as: “You can’t slide in that!” “Hey, that’s a dress!” “It’s half a dress!” “Excuse me, that’s not a baseball uniform,” “Yeah, what do you think we are, ballplayers, or ballerinas?” “What’s she wearing underneath? I can’t wear that, my husband will kill me.” Ira Lowenstein, the man in charge of the girls’ league informs them that, “If you can’t play ball in this, you can’t play ball with us. Right now, there are 38 girls getting train tickets home who will play in a bathing suit if I ask them.” He also goes on to let them know that they will attend regular classes at charm and beauty school, because “Every girl in this league is going to be a lady.” Even while playing professional sports, it’s extremely important for the girls to maintain an acceptable feminine ideal to benefit society. At charm and beauty school they are taught how to be graceful, proper, dainty, sip tea, and have good posture. Their instructor tells them to set with “Legs always together. A lady reveals nothing.” It’s interesting how they want the girls to remain lady-like and ‘reveal nothing,’ yet they give them skimpy uniforms to play baseball in. They are also judged on their appearance, and their hair, eyebrows, etc., are fixed up so they look as good as possible. The fact that so much emphasis is put on how attractive the women look goes along with what Bordo is referring to when she says that “the body is a metaphor for culture” (Bordo). The female body is a symbolic form that culture has inscribed on, influencing the way the women should look, and that they are not worthy if they do not look a certain way. The women having to attend beauty school and get make over’s is an example of how “Through the exacting and normalizing disciplines of diet, makeup, and dress—central organizing principles of time and space in the day of many women—we are rendered less socially oriented and more centripetally focused on self-modification” (Bordo). Historically, “the discipline and normalization of the female body should be recognized as an extremely durable and flexible form of social control…such a preoccupation with appearance may be a form of backlash against changing gender configurations and power relations” (Bordo). According to Bordo, trying to uphold these standards of what is the ideal female body is what leads to disorders such as hysteria, agoraphobia, and anorexia. Women also feel the need to attain the feminine ideal in order to get a man and be happy. This is present in the film when Marla marries Nelson, all she can keep saying is “I’m so happy!” over and over again. This follows the misconception that women need a man in order to be happy, and with Marla, the only time you ever see her happy is after they make her up and put her in a dress in order to be more feminine, and she is pursued by a man for the first time.
When the girls are at their first game, they have to endure the relentless comments from the crowd: “This should be something;” “Hey glamour puss, can you throw the ball?” and “Girls can’t play ball! I might break a nail.” Even women in the crowd join in on this. When Dottie hits a home run to win the game, the game announcer gives the man, their coach, the credit, even though he is drunk passed out in the dugout, saying “Jimmy Dugan, the master strategist, had her swinging away. Boy, he sure knows his baseball.” Even when a woman is a great baseball player on her own, it has to be attributed to a man.
When Lowenstein points out to Coach Dugan that he has some pretty good pall players, his response is, “Ballplayers?! I haven’t got ballplayers! I’ve got girls! Girls are what you sleep with after the game, not what you coach during the game”
When the news is covering the girls’ baseball league, it focuses on the typical female aspects to make it more acceptable to the community since most people don’t agree with women being outside of the home, let alone playing professional sports. The commercial announcer described some of the girls on the team: “Alice ‘Skeeter’ Gasper says, “Legging out a triple is no reason to let your nose get shiny” as it shows her powdering her nose on the field. It continues: “Helen Haley has not only been a member of several championship amateur teams, she’s also an accomplished coffee maker,” as it shows her serving coffee to all the businessmen on the field. “With her husband in the Pacific, Betty Horn enjoys cooking spaghetti and knitting; Ellen Sue Gotlander is a former Miss Georgia. Yoww; Then there’s ‘Pretty’ Dottie Hinson; And there’s her kid sister Kit, who’s as single as they come.” Then the camera pans out showing the whole field with a figure far away so that you cannot see her, and introduces Marla Hooch, “She’s a hitter.” The announcer does not have much good to say about the two women who do not fit into the feminine ideal. Although the girls are ballplayers, they have to embody the ‘angel’ in the house and ‘aesthetic ideal’ that most female characters have to embody as Gilbert and Gubar mention in The Madwoman in the Attic. Going along with what influences Bordo says advertisements have on women and Saussure’s thought of ideal concepts signified, sights of women doing ‘natural things’ equals the concept of the ideal woman within society, and appeals to a society that doesn’t feel women should be outside the home, let alone playing baseball. This also coincides with Althusser’s theory of ideology, and how “social practices determine the characteristics of the individual and give them an idea of the range of properties that they can have and limits each individual” (Althusser). The ideal roles of these women are determined by social practice, and the values, desires, and preferences of women by society are inculcated by ideological practice.
When Dugan gets upset because he is being upstaged by Dottie’s coaching abilities, he criticizes her saying, “Stop thinking with your tits.” The idea of a woman being in charge, and perhaps better than him, is enough motivation for him to sober up enough to wake up and coach his team. Still, even when the girls do really well and win, he still says they aren’t ballplayers because they are women. Dugan yells at Evelyn when she makes a mistake, and she has a ‘typical female’ reaction, he screams at her numerous times, “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Hardly anyone is showing up to their games, which means no profit, so Lowenstein tells the girls he’s going to need something spectacular in order to stop the league from closing them down. Dottie decides to do the splits while catching a foul ball to create a story for the magazine, and it works. The girls come up with other tactics, such as “Catch a foul, get a kiss.” The girls have to work harder and use their femininity in order to attract spectators and make the fact that they are playing professional baseball more acceptable for the community.
The community seems to have totally accepted the girls’ league and treat them as not just women, but truly great baseball players. The next scene shows the baseball way out on the sidelines of the outfield where there are a group of black women and a few black workmen watching the game from afar. Dottie runs halfway over and says “Right here,” holding out her glove. One of the black women picks up the ball and throws it way over Dottie’s head all the way to Ellen Sue, who catches it, hurting her hand through her glove because the woman had such a strong arm. The black women gives Dottie a nod, showing that even though it seems as if the community has come so far in changing their views, there is still a long way to go, especially where race is concerned. This also points out the realization that there are no black women playing in the league. Although the women in the league “get their shot equality there’s still a long way to go to reach anything like fairness” (Erickson). As the black woman throws the ball, it is a very moving moment as she seems to embody the determination represented in Langston Hughes The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain- “Why should I have to be white? I am Negro_ and beautiful!”(Hughes).
The women continue to make their games into an entertaining show in order to be more socially acceptable, and are able to sell out tickets to their games. This shows “that women can do the same things as men can, but will probably be discriminated against until they prove themselves” (R. Caroline). The women were able to break cultural expectations and stereotypes to play baseball, a game professionally played by men. Mr. Harvey tells Lowenstein that he appreciates the great job he did generating sales, to which Lowenstein replies, “But to be perfectly honest, I think the girls deserve most of the credit.” Harvey responds, “Oh they’re great. Fortunately, we won’t need them anymore.” When Lowenstein asks what he means by this, Harvey informs him that since they are winning the war, the men will be coming back soon, and they won’t need the girls next year. “I love these girls! I don’t need them, but I love them!” he says. Lowenstein is appalled, and asks Harvey if the same is going to happen in the factories: “The men are back, Rosie. Turn in your rivets. We told them it was their patriotic duty to get out of the kitchen and go to work. And now, when the men come back, we’ll send them back to the kitchen.” Harvey’s response is basically that they very well can’t send the men in to the kitchens. Lowenstein points out all that the girls go through and how hard they have worked, saying “I sold your product when there was no product. This is a product!” and asks for permission to take over the league. Harvey’s response is that “there is no room for girls’ baseball in this country once the war is over.” Lowenstein is persistent and says he will prove him wrong. This connects with the Marxist ideology of how “the ruling class is the ruling force of society”(Marx); and Marxist commodity concept of ‘use-value,’ which is determined by how useful the commodity is. The girls’ professional baseball league is only useful to him as long as the men are overseas, and when they return, the girls’ league is no longer needed because Harvey no longer needs to depend on them for profit. It is also interesting that the ‘use-value’ of the women being a successful and profitable commodity was based on their appearance.
This film is full of binary opposition that Hegel referred to, such as maser/slave, man/woman, white/black, and feminine/masculine. The main one, being man/woman follows the typical hierarchy of a society that is patriarchal and controlled by men. The idealistic female baseball players are the binary opposite of their failed big league male player coach Jimmy Dugan.
The girls become the first women ever to be inducted into the baseball hall of fame, which is dominated by men. The fact that it is also based off of a true story is what makes so many women feel empowered by the women in the movie and what they were able to overcome and accomplish. However, they were still only able to do so by adhering to the standards of what society held to be the ‘ideal’ woman. Beauvoir best sums it up, “They have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received;” “The reason for this is that women lack concrete means for organizing themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit” (Beauvoir). The women in this film did this by creating A League of Their Own.
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