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”