A historic sports film and pioneering moment for female filmmakers, Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own never really tried to be anything but a film about sports, and a film about girls – two separate things. But there is queer subtext and much to be wrestled with in its reappraisal at 30: Contributing Writer Lillian Crawford investigates.
“There’s no crying in baseball!” Tom Hanks’s baseball manager Jimmy Dugan shouts at Evelyn Gardner, played by Bitty Schram in A League of Their Own, released 30 years ago in 1992. But why can’t there be crying in baseball? It’s supposed to be a point about the gendering of sport, of why women prior to the introduction of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) during the Second World War had been excluded from the game. Sport is an outlet for emotion, a liberation from the confines of domestic life. It is an arena of heightened emotions.
What continues to resonate watching A League of Their Own today is this negotiation of masculinities and femininities for women entering historically male spaces. After the formation of the AAGPBL in the film, a woman makes a ‘social commentary’ on the radio about the behaviours of women in the absence of their male partners in the War abroad. She condemns “the masculinisation of women”, fearing the response of the American soldier when he returns to find his girlfriend pitching on the baseball field. Even now, discussions are had about women in sport, debating the extent to which playing football or rugby questions the nature of their womanhood. As in many ways, the Second World War recalibrated the fabric of gender which will always continue to evolve.
Significant shifts in the dynamic that exists between sexes will always provoke backlash and moral panic. When the League is formed in Penny Marshall’s film, the girls are told that there will be no smoking, no drinking, and no men permitted while they are a part of the baseball team – behaviours which were and continue to be almost expected from their male counterparts. These bans are part of a larger effort to maintain the feminine dignity of the girls, which also includes a ‘charm and beauty school’ to perfect their ladylike manners. The scene is played for comedic effect, especially as many of the girls have come from blue-collar families, but it makes for a delightful farce of the performativity of traditional gender roles.
Marshall, who died in 2018, faced these presumptions around gender when she started working in Hollywood at a time when very few women were directing prestige projects. Indeed, with 1988’s Big, also starring Tom Hanks, Marshall became the first woman to direct a movie which grossed over $100 million, surpassing that hurdle by an additional 50 million. But Marshall did not see her filmmaking, especially of a sports movie centering on women, as a deliberate form of feminism. She never felt it had to be a politically-conscious act to show women facing the same challenges and existing in the same spaces as men. A League of Their Own was not a ‘woman’s picture’, but a representation of universal experiences which transcend gender.
What isn’t discussed explicitly in A League of Their Own, and almost certainly would be if the film was made today, is how gendered presentation relates to perceptions of sexuality. The strictness of the ‘ladylike’ policies of the AAGPBL are justified as fighting the social fears of the girls being unappealing to men when they return from War. But what is not said so clearly is that they want the players to look typically heterosexual, with red lipstick and long shiny hair, rather than like lesbians. In fact, the film skirts around any real engagement with the queerness of many of the members of the league.
That’s not to say that A League of Their Own hasn’t resonated with gay women – the film has been reclaimed as a queer cult classic. But these readings largely come from the lesbian aesthetic and sensibility of film (as often read by a queer audience) rather than from any actual gay or bisexual storylines within the film. Consider Madonna as Mae Mordabito, chainsmoking on the sidelines in a cap and vampiric makeup – or the face of Lori Petty as Kit Keller caked in mud. Women with vices, women getting dirty, women existing in a world largely without men. In many ways it is a lesbian utopia.
But then why did Marshall, and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, ignore so much of the queer history of the AAGPBL? A League of Their Own was considered radical enough in its gender dynamics within the sporting world upon its release in 1992, to a degree that is hard to gauge and appreciate with its three-decade legacy firmly cemented in Hollywood. And while it was directed by Marshall, Ganz and Mandel (as writers of films including 1984’s Splash, Parenthood in 1989, and City Slickers in 1991) aren’t exactly known for their explorations of female queerness. Yet the film’s anniversary feels as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the aspects of the story they decided to cut out.
One of the girls at the 1943 Wrigley Field tryouts for the AAGPBL shown in A League of Their Own was Josephine D’Angelo, known as JoJo. She was released from her baseball contract for having “a butchy haircut”, i.e. a trimmed curly bob. Her story partly inspired the character Dottie Hinson, played by Geena Davis in the film, while her career arc was based on the life of Dorothy ‘Dottie’ Kamenshek. Both women were lesbians, with Kamenshek getting married in later life to fellow AAGPBL player and Baseball Hall of Fame member Margaret Wenzell. They are buried next to each other at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cathedral City, California, having lived together into their 80s.
Despite using not one but two gay women as the basis for Dottie’s character, in the film she ends up married to the all-American soldier Bob Hinson after her returns from fighting in the War. The change in her story is placed to disprove the social panic that playing baseball will put off men – that despite being a member of the AAGPBL, Dottie is still a desirable heterosexual lady. That ultimately sport doesn’t question a woman’s gender identity or her sexuality. That’s what passed for progress in ‘90s Hollywood.
That’s not to say that the makers of A League of Their Own deliberately straight-washed the story. Many of the women in the league were closeted, such as Maybelle Blair who came out as gay this year at the age of 95, during a panel for an Amazon Prime series based on the 1992 film of the same title. Even long-term partners like Dottie Kamenshek and Margaret Wenzell spent much of their lives using the classic gay euphemism of being ‘very good friends’ until they were able to marry late in life. It will be the job of the new series, set to premiere this summer, to reinstate these women’s sexualities back into the historical record for a new generation of viewers. Hopefully it will reinstate the queer part of the story and offer a form of representation for lesbians in sport that doesn’t treat their sexuality as something to hide but as an identity to be proud of.
A League of Their Own still remains an essential text for queer women, not least in the fact that the corps cast are gorgeous and early crushes for many queer women who have grown up since the original release (here’s looking at you, Dottie). While there were more barriers to break down, Marshall’s achievements as a woman making her way as a director in the 1980s and ‘90s when Hollywood was overwhelmed by men should not be understated and A League of Their Own sits at the peak of her career. Today you can see why she didn’t want to label the film feminist or radical – it’s just a heartwarming film about girls being girls.
Lillian Crawford (@lillcrawf) is a writer on all things film, culture and gender. She is a Contributing Writer for READ ME and her musings can be found at Little White Lies, Letterboxd and Varsity.