In Defense of the Movie That Needs No Defending (But Which I Will Nonetheless Defend For Various Psychological/Gender-Justice-Seeking Reasons)

This is a guest post by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch. Rebecca Katherine Hirsch is an acclaimed art model, cat-lover and solo psychoanalytic discussant amongst herself and no one else. In the past she was an NFT editor, UCB comedy person, NYU graduate, Freud apologist, Minnesotan and so much more, like that one time she was THIS CLOSE to being a Babeland sex educator. She is presently hard at work on her first novel to be completed in the summer of 2085, in honor of her centenary! She is a proud member of the gender-blending, sex-positive, self-determination-respecting Barbarism collective, found here. Barbarism also makes exciting experimental videos. She is a Scorpio.

My fantasy of the best movie of all time A League of Their Own is that, by the power of its spunk, spirit and ethicality, “fundamentalist” opposition to women as reproductively and sexually autonomous (quotations meant to imply the lack of substantive separation between some so-called moderate religionists and full-out misanthropes) could easily be eradicated! Why, if only a powerful collection of humanistic feminists would finance and enforce an international showing, it seems possible that this movie—which takes its fun, fiery, heartfelt women seriously and the world that belittles them lightly—could make an instant entrenched-psychology-changing impact. Right?

I see this movie and part of me can’t stop thinking of burqas, battered women, clitoridectomies, the sliced-open stomachs of pregnant women, women starving til they die, fucking til they bleed, abstaining til their sense of their own desires evaporates and they become absolved into the sadistic fantasies of their Masters; women who’ve been taught to feel disgusting, dirty, stupid and worthless. Cunts. Part of me (my inner critic, my vindictive superego, the ghosts of my ancestors) is always resentfully berating myself and I fear that such culturally-condoned feelings of inadequacy and helplessness will always be translated into violence and isolationism instead of sports(wo)manship and community.

But another part of me thinks this movie could change all that! This movie made me feel alive. It’s been making me feel alive since 1992. Why do I love it? It shows a world (of professional female baseball players in 1943) where girls are capable, lively and funny (and fathers are loving and encouraging). In this world, the women are interested sometimes and to some degree in modes of dress, in the “feminine” performatory propriety they’ve been instructed to assume or the opinions of their husbands but they also care about baseball, friendship, cursing at injustice, crying at loss—in other words, being human: multifaceted, unexpected and real. The women are not love objects, sex objects or villains. Madonna’s Mae is a tough, vivacious former taxi dancer who exhaustedly guzzles long draughts of beer, flirts with self-possession and stands up for her best friend Doris, a big, gruff and funny Rosie O’Donnell who has moments of great tenderness and quiet strength. Gawky fireball Kit has her earnest, wide-open grins, a yen for success and passionately envious feelings for her sister, the beautiful Dottie with her wont to repression, awkward body movements and conflicting loyalty and empathy.

I get a sense of honest sexuality in the momentum and exhilaration of this movie, a feeling that is never associated with the agency of women in most mainstream movies. It’s a rushing, animated quality that isn’t artificial. The women are fun, faulted and fundamentally ethical (and the men cheering them on are cool, faulted, kind and in one part played by David Strathairn). I like that the personhood the women exhibit and inhabit is born of activity, not of coyness and cuteness, meekness and blankness but character and individuality. I find myself fascinated by the up-front presentation of their bodies and voices: the baggy clothing, curled hair, mud-streaked legs and faces, unkempt pigtails, nail polish, backwards caps; soft, rough, sing-song. Whether they’re sweaty, crying, rejoicing or shouting sports-like slogans, they’re engaging and real. I feel sexuality in the applause of the audience, the eruption of acceptance that meets the female protagonists because they first, in a supportive communal unit, accepted themselves. And that applause… that approbation, that sense of history! We are part of a great tradition and the people love us. It’s that link between power and sexuality that makes me feel so tingly and damned near orgasmic. That sense comes to me in a self-affirming chant: I matter, I’m strong. I look good. I play real good and people respect me. Do you hear them clapping? They want to see me play, they’re jumping up in the bleachers and taking my picture—and not ‘cause I’m their slip of a sex fantasy but because I’m a good athlete. They admire my skills. They admire my talent. They might want to fuck me. But they want to fuck me because I’m tough, because I’m strong/beautiful and because I represent their highest ideals for a moral civilization based on might and merit… not because I’m a weak and stupid receptacle for their semen.

There’s sensuality in the unfeigned intimacy, hugs, words of love spoken slowly, haltingly from proud, older sister Dottie to proud, bantam of a kid sister Kit. I’m not used to seeing sensuality depicted among women and friends—especially not in a manner that doesn’t involve an omniscient, lustful male. There’s softness in the scenes of a community of girls that doesn’t derive its value from “girlish” ignorance or idleness but from epiphanies and ideas, understanding, listening, living together, caring about and standing up for each other. There’s a sweetness that isn’t “innocence” but camaraderie and honesty: The allowance for Alice’s superstitions (even if the other girls don’t believe them—and don’t have to believe them) or Mae teaching Shirley how to read. The women aren’t “innocents” blindly adhering to classic patriarchal dictates (chastity, “modesty,” quietude) but people making their own rules of respectful behavior based on ethics, not mindless “morals.”

No one’s playing to the camera, no one’s playing to the boys. The boys love the verve and playfulness of the girls but there’s no adversarial flirtation. Sexuality isn’t the way they look, it’s the way they behave: FREE. At the sneak-away dance scene at the Suds Bucket—Mae dances like an energetic whirlwind, Doris shouts hysterical one-liners in a husky, confident, non-rhotic accent “You know how I met ha? My fatha owned a dancehall upstate, ya know—Vinny’s. Dance. Girls. Deluxe. She was one of the dancas; I was the bounca.” There’s big laughter, wide smiles; no coquetry, no playing the games we were taught to play to conceal our desires and guard us from men who were taught to hurt us. Equality. Liveliness. Honest expressions of being human.

The motion and verve of this movie’s atmosphere is built of a solid infrastructure of self-esteem, support and honesty. No gimmicks, no gags, no stupid stock characters, no condescending to the audience, no overburdening the audience with irrelevant information, no peacocking with polysyllables or self-righteous, holier-than-thou fakery. The movie is direct, fun and shows women as free, smart agents in a world that does its darndest to harass and humiliate them into silence. And hey! The humor holds up AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. The audio track to this movie–with no visuals at all–would be amazingly entertaining. One aural thing I enjoy is the chorus of girls’ voices in the background, the chorus of opinions and encouragement (“Come on Doris!” “Let’s go, Kit!” “That looked good to me, Ellen Sue; that looked good to me!”). So many views! So many ideas! None of them vapid or incurious. How diverse and thoughtful we women are!

In fact, the technical aspects of this movie (unlike, say, the action of an action movie detracting from the flimsy plot) really bolsters the love and fighting spirit of the film. The dialogue is poignant and quippy without being heartless or academic. The humor is sarcastic and spot-on but never at the expense of the people who are putting themselves on the line. The whole, grounded-yet-effulgent premise and spirit of the movie belies and makes a mockery of the sentiment so often expressed: “But girls–playing baseball?!”

There aren’t a lot of mothers in this world, but the fathers are peaceful, confident and humble, hopeful for their daughters. They stand up for their daughters. They don’t abandon a daughter because she “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 ‘cause I messed up raising her.” When this daughter, Marla, expresses a lack of confidence at joining the public, male-dominated world and offers to stay in her distaff domain to cook and clean, her father gently encourages her. “Don’t you worry about me. You’re gonna play baseball. Marla, nothing’s ever gonna happen here. You gotta go where things happen.”

And speaking of Marla’s heartwarming relationship with her father, her transformation from shy, sporty girl to strong, sultry, awkward, realistic, sporty women is a fun one. For in this story, growth and change are possible (and with the love and encouragement of a parent, it’s certainly easier). At the Suds Bucket, previously-stunted Marla sings to her beau in a rough, profoundly unstylized manner. Her emotions are raw and deeply felt. First she was afraid, now she has no fear! She sings not like an idealized, shadowy slip of a female but with unvarnished emotionality and desirous control; ya know, like a MAN, like a human. Her singing compels one of the saxophonists to cry and her beau to love her deeply! Imagine! A world in which gut-wrenching, unpolished emotion elicits such a positive response.

And so. This movie features solidity, strength and smarts. It shocked me when I saw it circa 1992 and it’s been shocking me ever since. I was taught to be timid and quiet; so flimsy I could blow away in the wind. A League of Their Own gave vent to my anger, desire, hope for comradeship–union with myself, with women, with men–but not to give myself up. People see us as slaves and sex toys. Movies like this are so valuable because they show women making jokes, women doing funny voices, women being wise and witty, women who talk back and have an acute sense of empathy. We’re not in the wings, hanging on someone’s arm, we’re in the middle under the spotlights. Utter joy in the face of dismissal. But the women in this movie never collude in their own dismissal. They never give in and say “Yeah, gee, you’re right, I am just a dumb girl. What do I know?” They defend themselves not with cooing or playing to anyone’s fantasies of the submissive dingbat doormat but with volume, spirit, confidence and intelligence.

When Mae says “My name’s Mae and that’s more than a name; that’s an attitude” she evinces sassy spunk—what could be seen as a stereotypical girlish tactic to “trap” men—but then transcends the stereotype when she adopts a casual demeanor. “This is my friend Doris, best player on the team.” Hugs and meaningful, mischievous looks ensue. Sass goes along with casualness and camaraderie. We are not bad bitches, we are not good girls. We are human. We contain multitudes.

So what now? What have I learned from The Best Movie of All Time? That I miss the early 90s I was too young to appreciate? Or perhaps this version of the 1940s in which I was too yet-unborn to be a professional baseball player? Maybe I’ve learned to expect patronization but not to accept that I am at fault. Casual abuse is to be expected from a hostilely insecure masculine world but I won’t let that defeat me. There are too many good men, and too many good women like Mae, Doris, Dottie and Kit. And like them, I’ll (try to) smile at the world that hurls abuse. I’ll (try to) be forthright, funny and maybe always a little bit sad but I won’t back down, and in the spirit of the constant chorus of A League of Their Own:

“Are they laughing at us?”
“Yeah they’re laughing at us”
“They hate us”
“Just keep smiling”
“Let’s go. We’ll show ‘em”

Author: has written 216 posts for this blog.

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24 Responses

  1. Yonmei
    Yonmei July 7, 2011 at 8:43 am |

    Wow.

    I don’t know how it works when comments are in moderation, so I don’t know if you’ll get to read this (all my comments are now going to moderation), but… suddenly I want to see this movie! It sounds like it reminds me of the pilot sections in Marge Piercy’s WWII novel, Gone To Soldiers.

    Maybe I’ve learned to expect patronization but not to accept that I am at fault. Casual abuse is to be expected from a hostilely insecure masculine world but I won’t let that defeat me.

    Yay.

  2. marz
    marz July 7, 2011 at 9:03 am |

    this is one of the best reviews of one of my favorite movies ever. it actually brought me to tears! thank you for reminding us about what a fantastic film that was and still is!

  3. Andie
    Andie July 7, 2011 at 9:06 am |

    I want to go re-watch this now, with a more critical eye than previous viewings (it’s been many years since I’ve actually seen it). I enjoyed your take on it though.

  4. Rachel
    Rachel July 7, 2011 at 10:07 am |

    THIS IS MY FAVORITE MOVIE TOO!! I own it on VHS (bought it went it first came out), and HAVE TO watch it every single time it’s on tv.

    Seriously, this movie is so underrated. It’s amazing. God. Thank you. I’m linking to this on my blog.

  5. Rebecca, Your Friendly Guest Blogger

    Guys. I don’t know who any of you are, but you are making my heart sing! Thanks, O thanks!

  6. Rachel 'Groby' Blum
    Rachel 'Groby' Blum July 7, 2011 at 11:08 am |

    Thank you for this beautifully written review. Currently sitting at my keyboard, tears running down my face. It’s been so long ago I’ve seen this wonderful movie… Have to see it again.

  7. Tamora Pierce
    Tamora Pierce July 7, 2011 at 1:15 pm |

    Oh, be still my beating heart! What a SPLENDID way to describe one of my favorite movies, one in which I rejoice every time I watch it in seeing the female cameraderie and relationships outside the braces of manhood that prevail in depictions of that time.

    You did miss the kindness of pretty girls helping homely girls to believe in themselves and teaching the homely girls how to feel pretty. The girls dress Marla up, AND give her liquor, to produce that moment and that song. It made me so happy that she found Nelson, and Nelson found her, and they were beautiful for each other. The movie also shows women’s ambition, to keep the games going, to get out of their small towns and see more of the world, and to defy the male establishment that demands they only live their lives one way.

    I hope you don’t mind–I have an lj for teen readers, and I’m going to link to this, because you say so many things they would like to read!

  8. fannie
    fannie July 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm |

    Awesome, awesome piece Rebecca! I would second the comment that this is basically the best review of the best movie ever. Well done :-)

    I love how the movie kind of covertly mocks Maeda Gillespie’s Phyllis Schlafly-esque concern-trolling (“Careers in higher education are leading to the masculinization of women” Lulz.). In light of how fun the movie is and how much playing baseball means to the women, she comes off as a real killjoy.

  9. Alison
    Alison July 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm |

    I loved this movie when I first saw it at age 12, in the theatre when it was first released – it made me feel so *good* about being a girl. I’d struggled with that, especially since entering puberty and feeling very unattractive and thus unimportant. But seeing all these women, some of whom were certainly attractive but many of whom also just looked like average women I saw on the street every day, and seeing them being strong and having fun and kicking ass – it made me feel great. I felt like these women would be my friends if I knew them.

    I still totally love it and watch it when it’s on TV, and I still think it’s one of the best movies a young woman could see, and all of them should!

  10. Foz Meadows
    Foz Meadows July 7, 2011 at 4:20 pm |

    Growing up, this was one of my favourite movies ever. (As, coincidentally, was Cuthroat Island, in which Geena Davis – Dottie in ALotO – plays the swashbuckling lady pirate.) I haven’t seen it in years, but now that you’ve reminded me of its awesomeness, I’m definitely going to track it down. I miss nineties feminism, which was distinct from noughties feminism in that its cinematic expressions did not rest exclusively on the premise of hot girls doing masculine things in order to increase their hotness for a geekboy audience, and how also movies could have more than two female characters who actually TALKED to each other. (Hellooooo, Bechdel test!)

    So, yeah. This is definitely a kickass film.

  11. Stetson
    Stetson July 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm |

    Stopped reading after “She is a Scorpio.” BS new-agey pseudoscience has no place in a civilized society.

  12. HannaJörgel
    HannaJörgel July 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm |

    I love that you posted this. Today, after reading your post, I went to YouTube and watched a lot of clips. Then I said to myself, crap, I need to see the whole thing. How long has it been (well, I did happen to see it in the theaters and it’s really been a long time. I went to Walmart (I know evil empire). The woman there told me I’d have a good chance at Best Buy. I tried there and nothing. Went to Target because they were there. They said, yeah, well this movie is really old, but the saleswoman did point to another movie from the same year, and said we still carry this one. The one you are asking for is out of our system.

    I kept driving and then I saw Borders. I know they went bankrupt, but they still have at least one location in my vicinity.

    I went in. (like I had at all other locations) and immediately asked for help. He says, “here”

    I got to watch a fucking awesome movie tonight. And I am so grateful for you writing about this. Because I had totally forgotten how fucking awesome this movie actually is. Really, I love you.

    I did not mention already that I had recommended this movie to my rather elderly parents and they loved it. My mother who, when I was a teenager, hated Madonna, was asking me who that really bold woman was. I’m now running around Walmart, Best Buy, Target and Borders and saying WATCH THIS AWESOME MOVE. Girl at Borders, I namecheched Femiste to you, so if you come here and read this post, that is totally awesome. And if you haven’t seen it before, enjoy the ride. (Even though, I did kind of buy the last copy in your store)

  13. HannaJörgel
    HannaJörgel July 7, 2011 at 11:38 pm |

    *Movie”* oops

  14. Stetson
    Stetson July 8, 2011 at 1:40 am |

    Sorry about that last comment, was in a bad mood. This was a good article, and a great movie.

  15. Isidore
    Isidore July 8, 2011 at 3:20 am |

    Awesome movie, and I really enjoyed your analysis. Another thing I love about this movie is that it can also be enjoyed as simply a great sports movie. My boyfriend likes sports movies and this is one of his favorites. In fact, I caught him staying up late last week to watch it on tv, even through he’s already seen it a jillion times. I get tired of women only being allowed to star in certain genres of movies and I KNOW that if the studios would allow female characters who are actually written to be three dimensional human beings into other types of roles, that -*gasp*- men would be able to relate to those characters too.

    Also, I cannot begin to count the number of times my boyfriend has yelled “There’s no crying in baseball!” at me while I’m crying. Cracks me up every time. :)

  16. Bridget
    Bridget July 8, 2011 at 10:22 am |

    Great review! I, too, am feeling the need to re-watch this now. Off to put it at the top of the Netflix queue…

  17. Andie
    Andie July 8, 2011 at 10:30 am |

    Isidore:
    Awesome movie, and I really enjoyed your analysis. Another thing I love about this movie is that it can also be enjoyed as simply a great sports movie. My boyfriend likes sports movies and this is one of his favorites. In fact, I caught him staying up late last week to watch it on tv, even through he’s already seen it a jillion times. I get tired of women only being allowed to star in certain genres of movies and I KNOW that if the studios would allow female characters who are actually written to be three dimensional human beings into other types of roles, that -*gasp*- men would be able to relate to those characters too.

    Also, I cannot begin to count the number of times my boyfriend has yelled “There’s no crying in baseball!” at me while I’m crying. Cracks me up every time. :)

    I want to delve into a point about sports movies here and how this movie deviates from the regular sports archetype but I’m afraid I can’t without some major spoilers. Boo-urns.

  18. Andie
    Andie July 8, 2011 at 10:31 am |

    That being said, I’m also a sucker for sports movies. I love underdogs!

  19. Georgie
    Georgie July 8, 2011 at 12:02 pm |

    Think you missed that the saxophonist isn’t crying at Marla’s ability to evoke emotion, but at her butchering of the song. Yet another great throwaway shot from Penny Marshall. Meant to be funny, which the scene is, but it also has its poignant moments. One of my favorite parts of the scene is when Madonna trips on the way out of the room. Let’s make like a bread truck and haul buns, ladies! Love it.

  20. fannie
    fannie July 8, 2011 at 12:52 pm |

    Doris also trips over a baseline when they run onto the field right after the National Anthem. Lulz.

  21. What We’ve Been Reading « Politics Power Sex

    [...] Dang, I have GOT to go watch A League of Their Own again. [...]

  22. Amz
    Amz July 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm |

    Georgie:
    Think you missed that the saxophonist isn’t crying at Marla’s ability to evoke emotion, but at her butchering of the song.

    Yes, I was just going to correct this. There’s a fair amount of Marla-mocking that happens in the movie, and not all of it’s fair (remember the black-and-white promo commercial, where they show Marla from a distance?), but most of it’s funny, so we let it slide. Cause, like you so eloquently put it, the movie is awesome taken as a whole.

  23. Iris
    Iris July 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm |

    Stetson:
    Stopped reading after “She is a Scorpio.” BS new-agey pseudoscience has no place in a civilized society.

    You do realize astrology has been traced back to the 18th century BCE in Babylonia? That the mathematics they used in calculating the orbits of the planets and the locations of the stars are the basis of our modern mathematics? That the Greeks, from whom many of our western civilization ideals have been derived, practiced astrology?

    That the Indians (Eastern), Mesoamericans, Chinese all practice some form of astrology?

    Jeez Louise.
    Sorry – off topic.

  24. In Defense of the Movie That Needs No Defending (But Which I Will Nonetheless Defend For Various Psychological/Gender-Justice-Seeking Reasons) |

    [...] In Defense of the Movie That Needs No Defending (But Which I Will Nonetheless Defend For Various Psy… Posted in Sex Toys | Tagged cat lover, rebecca [...]

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