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There's No Crying In Baseball

Well, actually, there is. Evelyn Garner (Betty Schram) comes off the field having made a mistake to then receive a tirade of abuse from drunken manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) and she reacts with tears at which point Dugan (memorably) shouts the "There's No Crying in Baseball!" This is the not the last time a player of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) sheds tears. In fact director Penny Marshall allows her characters to be emotionally vulnerable in moments and mentally and physically resilient in others; she does not subscribe to the notion that tears are a sign of weakness. She lets her characters release a wide range of conflicting emotions and desires, often not at all 'pretty' but indeed as messy as the bruises they acquire on the field. For example there's the sister rivalry of main characters Dottie (Gina Davis) and Kit (Laurie Petty) involving a grave amount of jealousy on Kit's part and feelings of inadequacy leading her to both verbal and physical altercations. In other words Marshall avoids the problematic archetype of 'strong female lead' in which a female character is one dimensionally bullet proof no matter what hardship she endures. Marshall instead succeeds in creating a warm and funny film exploring the sexism women in sport have to navigate, through tender portrayals of flawed characters we come to empathise with and root for. The (s)heroes are the players and the villain is patriarchy.

Marshall came to make A League of Their Own (1992) after watching a documentary about the AAGPBL formed in 1943 by chewing gum mogul Philip K. Wrigley to keep baseball alive whilst many Major League players had been drafted to serve in World War II. She felt not enough people knew about the League and wanted it to be known that women played baseball at a professional level too attracting substantial crowds despite there not being a professional American women's baseball league today. This was Marshall's fourth film having become a successful comedic actress on television and securing her directorial debut (Jumpin' Jack Flash, 1986 starring Whoopi Goldberg) only after the original choice of director had dropped out. Marshall's second film Big (1988) was a huge box office success grossing over a $100million making her the first female director to have a film reach this level of financial success. A League of Their Own made her the first female director to have two films gross over $100million. There is no doubt Marshall's accomplishments within the film industry as a bankable director have paved the way for female directors to be entrusted with big budgets. Although it is astonishing that it was not for a further fourteen years after the success of Big that a female director had the opportunity to make a film with a budget of $100 million (Kathryn Bigelow, K-19: The Widow Maker, 2002) and only eight more female directors have made films with budgets of $100 million or more since. The prevailing gender inequality within the film industry can also be seen in sport; time and time again sportswomen face a heightened level of scrutiny that does not always pertain to their talent or achievements but rather their manner and exterior whilst also having to deal with a chronic underestimation of their sporting abilities.

Marshall highlights this double standard throughout the film. We first meet Kit and Dottie as young women working on a dairy farm when scout Ernie Capadino (excellently played by Jon Lovitz) comes to visit them. Capadino wants Dottie to try out for the league not only because she can "play ball" but because she is "kind of a Dolly." The question of whether or not a player is attractive enough for the league is repeatedly brought up. When we meet the loveable and shy Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh) she is so talented, she breaks windows with the balls she hits; her Dad has even been told by industry scouts that if she were a boy, she would be playing for the New York Yankees, but Capadino physically cringes at the sight of Hooch and decides not to take her. Kit and Dottie then step in by refusing to go to the tryouts unless Hooch is going too (just one example of the sisterhood between the players we continuously see in the film). Although the film is set in the 1940s we still see this judgement of sportswomen's attractiveness today; only four years ago when tennis player Marion Bartoli achieved her childhood dream of winning the Wimbledon women's final, BBC commentator John Inverdale remarked that she was not "a looker" comparing her to Maria Sharapova. This was a mild comment compared to the tweets by Twitter trolls. It is clear that if a female player does not attain a patriarchal standard of beauty, she will be derided for it.

Later in the film the players chosen for the league have to undergo "charm and beauty" classes because manager of the league says "Every girl in this league is going to be a lady." The players are made to carry books on their heads to improve posture, told how to sit, eat and 'glide' into a room. They are given makeovers (The Princess Diaries, 2001 fans will notice director Gary Marshall, brother to Penny, paid homage to A League of Their Own by recreating this scene, even using some of the same lines, when Julie Andrews transforms Anne Hathaway into her idea of a princess); eye brows are plucked, hair is curled and straightened and they are taught how to wear their make up for games. One imagines Joe DiMaggio never had to endure this. Finally the players are given short dresses to wear on the pitch, replicas of the real uniforms the original players wore at the time. Geena Davis noted after the film, many of the actors ripped skin of their legs and acquired huge bruises due to the lack of protection in their short uniforms unlike the uniforms men wore in the 1940s. Marshall calls attention to the speculation at the time that education, sports and work were 'masculating' women. Perhaps the uniforms were a way of the league's bosses signalling to audiences that their players were very much still 'ladies' and they were also sexually appealing. The policing of women's bodies in sport with uniform restrictions is still alive and well; again an example from tennis, last year Serena Williams wore what was described as a 'catsuit' at the French Open and was told by the president of the French Tennis Federation it was a "step too far" and that Williams needed to "respect the game and the place." Williams said the uniform was inspired by Black Panther and worn to help avoid blood clots which has been a persistent problem for Williams. Just as Williams defied critics by wearing a tutu at her next game, the players in this film did not take the decision to wear dresses altogether submissively, instead they made their voice heard.

Throughout the film the players avoid submission and instead transgress the rules and the gendered societal expectations placed upon them, in particular New Yorker best friends Doris (Rosie O' Donnell) and Mae (suitably played by Madonna). These two confidently speak up for themselves and the team. Mae breaks the three rules of the league; "no smoking, no drinking and no men." In fact she leads most of the other players to do the same when she takes them dancing in one of the most joyful scenes in the film as we see Hooch break away from her shy former days before the league and command a stage singing to her husband to be in the audience. Self titled "All the Way Mae" (a name for both on and off the pitch) defies the expectation to be monogamous and sexually modest but rather flirts with who she wants, wears what she wants and sleeps with who she wants without an ounce of shame. Likewise Doris defies the expectation to act like a 'lady;' she hilariously eats her way through a table of sandwiches and biscuits in etiquette class when she is meant to be learning how to hold a tea cup, she argues with any form of authority (particularly male authoritative figures) who treats her or the team unfairly and she does not care to wear make-up or dresses. In a touching scene Doris opens up to fellow player "Bettie Spaghetti" (Tracy Reiner, daughter of Marshall and When Harry Met Sally director Rob Reiner) telling her she has always felt "like I was some sort of weird girl or strange girl or not even a girl just 'cause I could play." Luckily for Doris she found her tribe in the Rockford Peaches and defends them as if they were her sisters.

The heterogeneous personalities in this group of misfits, the compassion they have for one another and the chemistry this allows between the players is one of the best aspects of the film. However, it must be emphasised if it is not already blindingly obvious; the team is not as diverse as it could be. The teams in the AAGPBL are all white women. This is something Marshall recognises and highlights in the film when we see a group of African-American women watching a game at the side lines; a baseball thrown by Davis rolls to the side of pitch and one of the on looking women throws it back to Davis. It is a throw with precision and strength; she would easily have made the league. Marshall here is alluding to all the talent we do not get to see on the field due to segregation. The film is set in 1943 and it was not until 1947 that an African American (Jackie Robinson) played for a Major League team but of course Marshall and the writers (Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) could have been more bold in the choice of characters, after all the film is a fictional account of the AAGPBL.

A League of Their Own is both feminist and funny (a notion often perceived as oxymoronic) in its portrayal of sexism within sport and the defiant women within it. There have not been nearly enough films about sport with a mostly female cast and there are so many hidden stories still to be told. A League of Their Own is a film with a compelling and ever-entertaining ensemble cast that can be watched again and again - making the players of AAGPBL unforgettable. The real players of the AAGPBL made baseball history - and fittingly Marshall made film history too with this film.

Words by Amy Watts

You can catch A League of Their Own at Genesis Cinema at 6.30pm on Thursday 17th January. Tickets here:

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