A League of Their Own

(Penny Marshall, USA, 1992)


An occasional box-office success like Thelma and Louise (1991) should not blind us to the sad truth: roles for women in mainstream cinema remain marginal, and often rather awful. Hollywood, especially, is still nervous about creating stories around tough, contradictory, confronting women. And social justice issues pertaining to women are generally dramatised in a tentative, evasive way.

A League of Their Own is keen to downplay its potentially powerful feminist message. It picks up a familiar real-life story: the radical change in women's destinies while their men were away fighting World War II. Films including Goldie Hawn's Swing Shift (1984) have dealt with women entering the workforce in this period; this one is about women in sport, specifically American baseball.

Dottie (Geena Davis) and her plucky kid sister Kit (Lori Petty) lead a quiet farming life until they are whisked into the first All American Girls Professional Baseball League. They join a colourful ensemble of talented sportswomen including 'all the way' Mae (Madonna), and troublesome men like their drunken has-been coach Jimmy (Tom Hanks).

It must have indeed been a remarkable, tumultuous time for these women, away from their homes and families, perpetually hopping from bus to hotel to baseball field, recreating their identities in the public eye. Director Penny Marshall (Awakenings, 1990) and her writers give us no insight into this fascinating situation. The entire film is hung on obvious, formulaic, feel-good hooks: Dottie and Kit as sibling rivals, Jimmy as the bum who straightens himself out.

Most extraordinarily for a film directed by a woman, there is a dismal reliance on lowbrow jokes about the supposed ugliness, obesity and masculine behaviour of several team members – eventually paired with men who are no less stereotypically grotesque. The film's humour is relentlessly of this order; Hanks has a hard time creating laughs from all the tobacco-spitting, testicle-scratching and urinating he has to do.

A League of Their Own is frustratingly evasive even on the most basic historical facts. The film conjures women's baseball as an adventure possible only during wartime; and yet it lasted until 1954. What was the post-war history of the women's league, and what eventually snuffed it out? Marshall fudges these issues with a soppy present-day epilogue set in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And she relegates footage of the real women who inspired the story to the end credits – when most of the audience have already left.

© Adrian Martin September 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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