A League of Their Own: The Impossibility of the Female Sports Hero

“Every girl in this league is going to be a lady.”
(Ira Lowenstein [David Strathairn] commenting on the female athletes in A League of their Own [USA 1992])

This line from the 1992 film A League of Their Own, which depicts the inaugural season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in 1940s USA, points to one of the more thorny problems in professional sports – that of the female athlete. It illustrates the tension thrown up by the very idea of this figure, who may be athletic, talented, and physically powerful, but, above all else, has to be a lady. But why would a female athlete be considered a problem, and how would her being a lady solve it? Put simply, the attributes of the successful athlete, for example, strength of mind and body, competitiveness, a certain degree of selfishness, and so on, stand in stark contrast to traditional conceptions of an ‘ideal’ womanliness that often revolve around such issues as beauty, care-giving as mothers and homemakers, and selflessness. At a broader level, the role of women within the project of the nation has often been that of the guardian of morality and upholder of values, and as symbols of virtue and modesty through their primary role as mother. Unsurprisingly, the female athlete becomes a problematic figure not only in the world of sports, but even more so within the discourse of the nation.

Similarly problematic, and sometimes converging with the figure of the female athlete, is another unwelcomed figure in the sports world: the homosexual athlete. While the lesbian athlete allegedly endangers the dominant ideals of womanhood and femininity by deviating too far from them, repudiating the idea of women’s essential weakness and inferiority to men, the gay male athlete jeopardizes the stability of ideal manhood and masculinity by being too similar, and therefore rejecting the notion of homosexual men as weak and degenerate. Both the depiction of women outside the normative roles of housewives and mothers, or of gay men outside of the stereotypes of weak and effeminate ‘queens’, threatens to destabilise a national identity dependent upon the ideals of strong, active masculinity and frail, passive femininity. Indeed, it is precisely in this direct contradiction of their assigned role as ‘Other,’ and the display of physical and mental strength embodied by the athlete protagonist, that we find barely concealed fissures in the national fabric.

The overwhelming majority of mainstream sports films are about men and characterized by displays of hegemonic masculinity. The distinguishing characteristic of the baseball players in A League of Their Own is their gender, which produces anxiety not only for the makers of the new women’s professional baseball league in the film, but for the film makers and the audience as well. [1] The term ‘sports’ usually comes in one of two forms: as ‘sports’ or as ‘women’s sports’. This distinction marks women’s sports as Other, as requiring a qualifier, and homosexual athletes are similarly othered by being marked as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian athletes’. Female, gay or lesbian athletes are thus linguistically placed in opposition to athletes who do not need a qualifier, i.e. heterosexual, male, and usually white athletes.

Sports films with female or homosexual athletes present a challenge to the representation of a stable national identity by virtue of their being Other to the dominant perception of men and women in modern society. I argue that when the main characters are female or homosexual, or what I will call ‘hero Others’, they threaten the organization of social roles in relation to dominant masculinity.

Nation, Gender, Sexuality and Sports
In order to untangle the mesh of gender, sexuality, and nation as represented in sports films, it is necessary to briefly examine how these discourses interact with each other. Various scholars have examined the connections between gender, sexuality, and the nation. Historian Jyotri Puri, for example, contends that “gender and sexuality are central, not incidental, to the origins, meaning, and implications of nationalism.”[2] In his influential study Nationalism and Sexuality, George L. Mosse shows how the development of a concept of ‘ideal manliness’ – and the importance of respectability in the maintenance of such an ideal manliness – functioned at the time of the rise of the modern nation state as a stabilizing force for the nation. At the same time, women, ‘gypsies’ and homosexuals came to be positioned as destabilizing ‘others’. Mosse asserts that the rise of the nation state found a natural ally in the establishment of bourgeois or middle-class respectability, which produced a variety of norms that still govern society today.[3]

With the advent of modernity, and the ensuing political, cultural and economic changes, the middle-classes sought to distance themselves from the lower classes, as well as the aristocracy, in order to maintain control during a time of upheaval. As Mosse observes, the fight for control found its expression in norms that governed the normal and abnormal, distinguished insiders from outsiders, and absorbed challenges to masculinity during the shift from an agrarian to an industrialized society. The ‘ideal manliness’ that resulted from this process was characterised by virility, “freedom from sexual passion”, restraint and self-control. (13) Together, ideal manliness and respectability became ideological forces that ensured the stability of the nation itself: “[n]ationalism and respectability assigned everyone his place in life, man and woman, normal and abnormal, native and foreigner; any confusion between these categories threatened chaos and loss of control.” (16) While Mosse’s argument is concerned with quite different historical contexts, in particular the rise of Nazism, I argue that it can be usefully applied to the problem engendered by female protagonists within the genre of the sports film, for it is precisely these anxieties over the individuals’ place in life and society that sports films with female athletes bring to the fore.

Female athletes have long been a contentious site for the negotiation of gender boundaries. They inhabit a space in-between the clear lines historically drawn between the sexes based on the assumption of an essential difference between masculinity and femininity. Examining early generations of female athletes and the debates that surrounded them, historian Jennifer Hargreaves notes the reactions against women who appeared to be acting outside of their prescribed gender:

The small numbers of women who took part in aggressive, muscular, traditional male sports had their sexuality denied, were labelled ‘mannish’ or ‘freakish’, presented as androgynous or, more usually, as ‘super-feminine’. There was always a feminizing code – as Tuttle (1988:10) puts it – ‘to neutralize the effect of the transgressive act’.[4]

That such a feminizing code was not extinct by the 1940s can be seen clearly in A League of Their Own, where the main characters have to conform to certain ideals of femininity in order to be allowed to play in the AAGPBL. Such a code represents one of the cultural strategies of controlling women’s engagement in sports, in order to uphold the gender difference that equates men and masculinity with power. I am arguing that sports films featuring female athletes or ‘hero Others’ narrate and visualize the challenge to male hegemony.

Similar issues to those raised by the transgressive sporting bodies of female athletes can be found in discussions of the ‘steely’ women of 1980s action cinema. Film scholar Yvonne Tasker has coined the term “musculinity” to define the shape of action bodies that was once exclusively associated with masculinity, but from the 1980s began to be transferable to female action stars. She argues that in producing such ‘built’ bodies, i.e. bodies trained to muscular perfection, the very idea of a naturalized muscular masculinity is called into question, as the muscular body is shown to be manufactured.[5] Furthermore, the muscled bodies of action heroines, who claim agency and are therefore able to “command the narrative” [6] , dissolve any attempts at a neat gender dichotomy and thus threaten social stability in similar ways to the sporting bodies of female athletes. Discussing the ‘impossible bodies’ of the male and female body builders in the Pumping Iron documentaries, Christine Holmlund further underlines the different significance of muscularity for men and women, arguing:

Images of muscular women […] are disconcerting, even threatening. They disrupt the equation of men with strength and women with weakness that underpins gender roles and power relations, and that has by now come to seem familiar and comforting […] to both women and men.[7]

Sports films featuring female athletes thus present a fundamental challenge to traditional gender roles, and in examining A League of their Own, I focus on this seeming impossibility of a successful, positive, strong female hero Other. How, in other words, do mainstream films deal with the tension that emerges between the stabilizing ‘manly ideal’ and the ‘other’ encroaching on his territory?

A League of Their Own: Restoring the Natural Order

We are the members of the All-American League.
We come from cities near and far.
We’ve got Canadians, Irishmen and Swedes,
We’re all for one, we’re one for all
We’re All-Americans!
(Chorus of the official AAGPBL song [8] )

The term ‘All-American’ usually refers to outstanding college or high school athletes, who are voted the best of their year in their sport, and therefore become part of the All-American team. However, All-American is also used to describe the wholesome image of the archetypal American, envisioned as clean-cut, respectable and middle-class. Considering that the AAGPBL was a professional league, the importance of the term ‘All-American,’ both in the sense of an exceptional athlete, but also a respectable American in the form of the girl-next-door, cannot be underestimated. It binds the league to an American tradition of honouring sportsmanship, and reinforces the belief in meritocracy so crucial to the idea of the American Dream.

Baseball itself has often been described as the quintessential American game – the national pastime. Although baseball has been losing favour with American audiences in recent times, it is still an essential part of American mythology. [9] As Tom Robson argues:

[c]oming out of the Civil War, as the United States transitioned from an agrarian nation to an industrial one, baseball served as a unifying element in national identity. Those uncertain about what this shift in national cultural priorities portended found comfort and stability in this game that seemed to embody most of the basic values of the nation. [10]

This deep-seated connection of baseball with American national identity is what makes the threat of an active, unruly femininity in the form of the female ballplayer so unsettling. How, then, can a baseball film, with this inherent basis in conservative ideology, bridge the gap from traditional women’s roles to the decidedly un-conservative female professional athlete?

This threat to the stability of national identity and gender roles is palpable in A League of Their Own, and the film employs three key strategies to resolve this threat. Firstly, the use of a flashback structure ascertains from the beginning that the league is long defunct and therefore was only a momentary challenge to the status quo. Secondly, the film presents its own model of ideal femininity in the main character, Dottie (Geena Davis), who first becomes a hero Other as a star ballplayer, but eventually eschews her professional baseball career in favour of returning to the farm with her husband in order to “start a family.” And lastly, the film offers in Kit (Lori Petty), Dottie’s little sister, a momentarily successful hero Other, but ultimately negates her potential as a signifier for a changed understanding of femininity. Instead, the film visually demonstrates the disrupting potential of female agency, thus giving credence to the perceived danger and legitimising its swift defusion. Together with Kit’s potential as a hero Other and the collective agency taken by the team within the game of baseball, however, the film does showcase a limited form of agency offered by the League, which does not interfere with upholding of traditional gender boundaries.

A League of Their Own is about the premier season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which came into being to fill the gap left by Major League Baseball’s (MLB) disbanding due to World War II. Young women were scouted from farm leagues and urban softball leagues all over the country to play baseball for a living for the first time in the sport’s history. The AAGPBL was relatively short-lived, in part because with the return of soldiers after the end of the war and the following re-instatement of MLB, the popularity of the women’s league plummeted. Nevertheless, the 12 years of the AAGPBL left their mark in sports history, as the League provided women athletes with the opportunity to pursue their sport professionally and earn a wage that was well above that of factory workers.

The historical League was founded by Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball franchise, who saw an opportunity to both capitalise on the rise of women’s softball, and keep Wrigley Field occupied by providing wholesome, patriotic entertainment for the masses, tapping into America’s favourite pastime. In an attempt to distinguish his league from softball’s somewhat tarnished reputation as a game for rough, mannish, working-class women, he instituted a detailed code of conduct, ensuring that his players maintained a feminine, ‘girl-next-door charm.’[11] The importance of adhering to traditional notions of femininity is highlighted by the first two rules of conduct:

  1. ALWAYS appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball. This regulation continues through the playoffs for all, even though your team is not participating. AT NO TIME MAY A PLAYER APPEAR IN THE STANDS IN HER UNIFORM, OR WEAR SLACKS OR SHORTS IN PUBLIC.
  2. Boyish bobs are not permissible and in general your hair should be well groomed at all times with longer hair preferable to short hair cuts. Lipstick should always be on. (Original emphasis) [12]

Further to the strict rules of conduct, the league management included a beauty and charm school during spring training as well as a ‘charm school guide’ that outlined beauty routines, clothing guidelines and a section on etiquette.[13] That a player could be fired for a boyish haircut demonstrates how serious the league management was about adhering to the prescribed femininity. [14] Despite these constraints on the players – or perhaps because of them – the League enjoyed success and popularity for some time, but its eventual decline is often attributed to a combination of mismanagement, competing entertainment options such as television, and the ever more conservative post-war social atmosphere of ushering women back to home and hearth. [15]

The film tells the story of star player Dottie and her little sister Kit as they join the Rockford Peaches and the AAGPBL in its inaugural season, and adjust to life on the road under the supervision of a team chaperone. Amidst growing sibling rivalry, which ends with Kit being traded to the Racine Belles, the Rockford Peaches advance to the championship series. They end up playing against the Belles, pitting the sisters directly against each other. In the climactic championship game, Kit scores the winning run and for once outshines her big sister. Dottie, meanwhile, leaves the Rockford Peaches at the end of the season to return to life on the farm with her recently returned war veteran husband, leaving behind a promising baseball career. While the main story is set in the 1940s, it is framed by a contemporary back-story on the occasion of the induction of the AAGPBL into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the team reunion this occasion facilitates. Starting the film in this way forges a contemporary connection with the film’s 1990s viewing audiences, as a reluctant Dottie is urged by her daughter to attend the reunion. When she arrives at Coopertown’s Doubleday Field, the vision of women playing baseball takes her back to the beginnings of the league. At the end of the film, the story returns to the events at the induction, including Dottie’s reunion with her former teammates and sister, and the opening of an exhibition about the League.

The first strategy the film follows to rein in the threat of the destabilizing hero Other is to clarify from the beginning that the challenge of the hero Others depicted was only a momentary abnormality that was quickly corrected. It does so by its flashback structure, which reassures the audience that the league belongs to the past, and has long been defunct. As the flashback ends and the audience is returned to Dottie at the Hall of Fame, there is resolute reassurance that the gender status quo has been restored, for when Dottie meets the other players for the first time in more than forty years, their conservation is all about their marital status:

Dottie: Mae? All-the-way-Mae?

Mae: Gee, no one’s called me that since…

Doris: Last night?

Mae: Oh, come on! I’m a married woman now.

Dottie: Oh, Ellen Sue – you haven’t changed one bit!

Ellen Sue: Dottie, I married a plastic surgeon.

In this brief scene the heteronormative gender equilibrium is firmly re-established, as seemingly all players have landed in the safe haven of marriage after their turn as professional athletes. One single player, Helen (Anne Ramsay), who became a medical doctor later in life, is the only concession to the league’s potential to open up women’s life trajectories. This one player seems an allowable abnormality, a single deviation from the norm of the otherwise successful reintegration of the players as wives and mothers. Dottie’s sister Kit, who continues to play baseball instead of returning home at the end of the first season, is also briefly positioned as a counterpart to Dottie. Yet rather than validating Kit’s choice to remain independent and continue to play baseball as offering a permanently different life trajectory – such as that of Helen – the film shows this independence to be short lived. When the apparently estranged Dottie and Kit finally meet again at the reunion, it becomes clear that Kit has also become a wife and mother, just like Dottie. The flashback structure thus allows the film to highlight the re-establishment of hegemonic social and gender structures.

The second and main strategy for warding off the threat of the female athlete to the stability of American national identity can be found in Dottie’s storyline. Despite the team’s diverse composition – from a former Miss Georgia to a barmaid – the narrative concentrates on Dottie, and, to a lesser degree, her sister Kit, and through this screen dominance Dottie emerges as the role model for appropriate American womanhood. Dottie’s life choices are, however, exemplary of conservative regressiveness, overshadowing her teammates’ and her sister’s somewhat more progressive choices. While some scholars have argued that the film can be seen as being part of a feminist quest to unearth women’s history, Dottie’s very conservative femininity does not challenge or stretch the boundaries of existing gender roles. [16] Quite in contrast, it seems to strengthen them.

The parameters of in/appropriate behaviour and social comportment for women are set early on in the film. With soldiers either in the field or returning from war deeply traumatised and women mobilised to join the workforce during their absence, there was considerable anxiety in 1940s USA over whether women would be willing to give up their newfound financial and social independence to return to the family home. [17] One scene in particular speaks directly to these concerns of women ‘taking over.’ In this high-octane baseball sequence of Dottie, Kit and the other players at the tryouts, the baseball action is intercut and overlaid with a voice-over of a “social commentary” radio broadcast read by an elderly, concerned lady. In a way that subtly acknowledges the position of the contemporary viewer, this scene simultaneously mocks such conservative concerns as well as giving them a voice:

And now, from Chicago, The Mutual presents another social commentary by Miss Maida Gillespie:

Careers and higher education are leading to the masculinisation of women with enormously dangerous consequences to the home, the children and our country. When our boys come home from war, what kind of girls will they be coming home to? And now the most disgusting example of this sexual confusion. Mr. Walter Harvey of Harvey Bars is presenting us with women’s baseball. Right here in Chicago young girls, plucked from their families, are gathered at Harvey Field to see which one of them can be the most masculine. Mr. Harvey, like your candy bars, you are completely nuts.

Here humour papers over the seriousness and hard-fought nature of the maintenance of gender roles, because while the players are not consciously trying to be ‘masculine’, they do play baseball like athletes – at a time when athletes were usually male. In contrast to a later baseball montage, which I discuss below, the sheer athleticism of the women is the main focus of this scene. Dressed in (men’s) baseball uniforms or baggy farm clothing, the women hit, throw and slide with skill and determination. While the female bodies are much more concealed in this scene by sports-appropriate attire than in later scenes, their athleticism, strength and power is revealed by the action shown on-screen. With its ever-increasing speed and use of close-ups showcasing this athletic prowess, this montage not only puts the women’s athleticism at the center, but also creates an impression of threatening chaos similar to a dance scene later in the film. That dance scene, as I argue below, serves as a warning about women’s freedom, and indeed both of these scenes show the potential for the undermining of the hegemonic social order by women without men, that is, women who claim agency over their lives. The training montage, starting with the social commentary voice-over and ending in a fast-paced jazz tune, points to the ambivalent position maintained by the film as it tackles the issue of women as masculinised athletes; on the one hand making a caricature of the “old biddy” [18] on the radio through her overly enunciated speech and comical facial expressions, yet on the other hand validating the content of her speech by visual means.

Dottie’s relationship with coach Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) further illustrates these anxieties about women and men in post-WWII US society. While Jimmy is not a traumatized war veteran, his own loss of masculinity is shown by his inability to join the armed forces because of a knee injury. His deeply felt guilt and shame manifests itself in his drunkenness and disinterest in the team. Disenchanted with their coach, the team quickly learns to ignore him and Dottie fills the gap, much like the famous “Rosie the Riveter” encouraged women to fill the gaps left by the servicemen in the factories. Dottie assumes responsibility for the team, managing their training and the tactics during the matches, thus demonstrating her capabilities in what was officially a man’s job. [19] She personifies the threat of ‘women taking over’, and shows Jimmy as redundant. Yet Dottie’s claiming of such power, which poses a threat to hegemonic masculinity, is soon resolved in a key scene, in which Jimmy at first demonstrates his active disinterest by reading the paper and ignoring Dottie’s coaching. After a while, however, he begins to watch the game, hinting at an impending shift in power and agency in the team.

Figure 1: Dottie coaches the team from the dug out

Figure 2: Jimmy and Dottie giving contradictory signs to the batter

Figure 3: Jimmy has reclaimed the coaching position from Dottie

As Dottie gives the sign for a squeeze bunt to the Peaches’ best hitter Marla (Megan Cavanagh) – a play that would potentially sacrifice Marla in order for the player on third base to reach home and score – Jimmy looks up and challenges Dottie’s call. Although Dottie is suggesting a perfectly sound strategy, Jimmy intervenes and gives an opposing sign to Marla, telling her to swing at the ball to produce a big hit. As the scene progresses, Jimmy moves from inside the dug out in the bottom left hand corner of the frame towards the middle, where Dottie is perched in typical coaching pose. As he moves ever further into Dottie’s space, they both continue furiously signing opposing strategies at the confused Marla. Finally Jimmy erupts with: “Hey, who is the goddamn manager here?” To which Dottie replies: “Then act like it, you big lush,” and retreats into the background to the approving mutterings of her teammates. This leaves Jimmy in exactly the position previously occupied by Dottie in the frame, signaling the end of her coaching days. She is now left sulking in the dug out in much the same way Jimmy was before, showing them to have effectively swapped both their places and their roles in relation to the team. Marla then scores a big hit, bringing home the runner on third base, thus implying that Jimmy’s strategy was correct.

The scene is played for laughs, reducing Dottie’s resentment to girlish sulking rather than justified anger at literally being put back into her place, after having carried out these duties quite successfully. As the ‘signing battle’ for authority begins, the scene is suddenly accompanied by an upbeat, jazzy score that underlines its humorous side. This segues seamlessly into a more sombre tone as Dottie steps down, and finishes in a rousing finale suggesting the winning of the match. The sound directs the emotional response of the audience in a much more subtle and affective way than the relatively sparse dialogue. Together with the visuals, the scene is a powerful representation of the reclaiming of masculine power.

This scene foreshadows the rest of Dottie’s storyline. Close to the end of the season – the Peaches have just made it to the World Series – Dottie’s husband Bob (Bill Pullman) returns injured from the war to take Dottie home. Jimmy tries to convince her to stay, but in the end, Dottie does what is expected of her as a woman in post-war U.S. society: she returns to her place in the home and kitchen rather than insisting on the freedom and independence granted to her during the brief period of the war. It is significant that she returns willingly, as she thus presents the ideal solution to the radio announcer’s question “What kind of girls will they be coming home to?” In A League of their Own the answer to this question is: the kind of girls that subject their own desires and needs to the greater good, and thus willingly accept a safely contained, normative heterosexual life.

Disrupting this central narrative tendency that preferences Dottie’s model of ideal womanhood, however, are the story arc of Dottie’s sister Kit, who emerges as a potential hero Other, and several scenes in which the women assume collective agency. The film depicts these moments of agency – including that of Kit as she steps out from under her big sister’s shadow – only to subsequently contain them, in what constitutes a third and final strategy to rein in the threat of the hero Other.

Kit is initially the driving force behind the sisters’ entry into the League. Desperate to leave the family farm, she convinces Dottie, who sensibly rejects the idea of earning money by playing baseball, to travel to the try-outs. While Dottie loves the game, Kit sees it as her chance to lead a different life – it is a means to an end: to live and experience a life different from what is usually expected of a farm girl. Not as beautiful or talented as Dottie, things for Kit are more difficult, but her strength and determination ultimately lead to her success in the League. By taking agency to first get into the League and then become successful within it, Kit showcases the potential of the hero Other in the League as portrayed by the film. For example, after winning the Championship, Kit opts to stay in the city with a few of her teammates during the off-season, rather than returning home to the family farm with Dottie and her husband. Instead, she plans on getting an interim job and then returning to the League for the second season. As such, Kit offers a different view of the League, one in which the League could indeed provide opportunities for women pursuing life trajectories beyond hegemonic expectations. Through the aforementioned reunion scene, however, the film also demonstrates that these differing life trajectories were only short-lived disruptions to the dominant social order. When Kit finally arrives at the exhibition in the Hall of Fame, she is surrounded by an entourage of her extended family, including children and grand-children, thus proving beyond doubt that she eventually re-entered a more conventional life.

The first scene to showcase the collective agency of the team, meanwhile, depicts the women conspiring to sneak out of their residence to go to a roadhouse for some dancing and fun. The scene is visually marked as different from the rest of the film in that it is characterized by fast-paced editing mixed with handheld and moving camera. As a result, it becomes quite literally a whirlwind of women and men swing dancing, flirting, drinking, and kissing seemingly random partners. While “All-the-Way-Mae” (Madonna) dances with two partners, suggesting indecisiveness at best and promiscuity at worst, her best friend Doris (Rosie O’Donnell) flips her male dance partner instead of being flipped. At the end of the dance, Mae lands in Doris’ arms instead of those of either of the two men she has been dancing with, leaving further room for speculation by raising the spectre of lesbianism that has long been associated with female athletes in general, but with softball and baseball players in the U.S. in particular. [20]

This scene shows a wildness and freedom otherwise absent in the film, and thus demonstrates the consequences of ‘setting women loose’ and freeing them of their gendered responsibilities as wives, mothers, and care givers (they leave the sick chaperone in the care of men), as moral compasses and upholders of values (they engage in wild dancing, careless drinking and flirting with both sexes), and as home makers (they leave the home behind). What is visualised in this scene is precisely the kind of moral and social threat to society that needs to be contained throughout the entire film. In this instance, the danger is quickly defused by Dottie’s arrival, who represents the still-functioning moral compass of the team.

With Dottie’s entrance, the visual style and the music change from jitterbug elation to sombre blues, as Marla wails a drunken rendition of “It had to be you” to Nelson (Alan Wilder), her entranced new admirer. This dalliance, forged by a break into freedom, is later validated by their marriage, transforming Marla from an ugly-duckling, ferocious hitter into a respected and loyal wife, who, in another showcase of domesticated femininity, chooses to skip the league finals for her honeymoon. However, it is Dottie who represents the most sensible and morally righteous choice in this scene, by not going to the bar in the first place, and coming only in order to rescue her teammates from certain expulsion from the league should they be discovered. Her display of team spirit and care for her fellow players saves her from becoming a respectable bore who always obeys the rules, yet still sets her apart from the other players, who took to their evening of freedom with abandon. Women taking agency over their lives, even if it is just for an evening at a dance hall, are thus presented as a danger to society, foreshadowing social upheaval and moral degeneration.

Another scene in which the women take control follows shortly after and presents a more positive brand of agency – that is, agency within the boundaries of ‘play.’  It is sparked by Lowenstein telling the women that the league is in danger if they cannot raise attendance levels.  In order to raise awareness, he has brought along reporters and photographers from Life magazine. The women react with frustration, outrage and fear, but their fighting spirit is soon kindled. The following montage shows both the ballplayers performing athletic ‘stunts’, as well as the league’s increasing success, by way of flashy catches and daredevil slides to ever more enticed, mostly male, audiences. Instead of launching direct action against the men who wield the power over the league, the women stay within the rules of the game and instead use a mixture of titillation and athletic prowess to pander to their audience’s expectations and demands. In contrast to the training montage of the try-outs, which focused on the women’s athleticism, this montage centers on the women’s ability to entice their male audiences as women, not athletes – be this through publicity stunts such as “Catch a foul, get a kiss” schemes, or sliding feet first into bases so that the players’ short uniforms ride up and offer the audience a revealing view. Rather than appreciating the athleticism of catches and hits, here their perceived ‘femininity’ is heralded. For example, Dottie catches a foul ball while doing the splits and smiling at the camera of a nearby reporter. Coach Jimmy Dugan, who maintains that the women “aren’t ballplayers”, views these antics with disgust as they serve no other purpose than to excite the audience. The skimpy uniforms the women have to wear are similarly designed to highlight their femininity rather than their athleticism. Thus, rather than the female sporting body, it is the femininity of the female body that is celebrated.

Unlike the fast-paced training montage, the pace of this extended sequence, which at the same time showcases the League’s increasing popularity and therefore success, remains only marginally faster than the rest of the film. Quite in contrast to both the training montage and the dancehall scene, this demonstrates at a visual and aural level an appropriate use of athleticism and agency. However, it is these same strategies that save the League from bankruptcy, and in this way the women are able to claim agency within the fragile realm of women’s early professional baseball, the one realm in which they have been granted a small slice of freedom. Staying within the boundaries of this realm marks this agency as positive, as it does not threaten to unhinge moral, social and cultural conventions in the way the dance hall scene did. [21]

This essay has argued that female athlete protagonists – which I have termed ‘hero Others’ – disrupt the myth of essentialist gender identities and are therefore a threat to the stability of national identity. The film examined here showcases some of the different ways in which this threat posed by the athletic hero Other is negotiated. For the female athlete, there is a long cinematic tradition of employing a strict feminizing code to ensure her return to the traditionally acceptable gender roles of heterosexual wife and mother. While this conservative strategy is evidenced particularly strongly by A League of Their Own, it can also be found in films as diverse as the classic Katharine Hepburn movie Pat and Mike (USA 1952), in which Hepburn’s character needs to moderate her sporting ambition and success in order to conform to her partner’s wishes, through to Personal Best (USA 1982), where the return of one of the characters to heterosexuality provides the turning point to her sporting success.

In A League of their Own the threat to U.S. society of having professional women athletes is dispersed most significantly in the way that Dottie emerges as the moral heroine after having given up her spot as the best player in the league to return to a conventional, domestic life with her husband. In doing so without a fight, she represents the ideal solution to the gender anxieties of post-war U.S. society. Through its flashback structure, the film frames the league as a short-term opportunity for independence and self-determination for women, without any real changes to their subsequent life trajectories. The flashback reassures viewers that almost all of the players eventually did – as prophesied by the makers of the league – turn into beautiful, charming ‘ladies,’ who were steered into the safe haven of marriage either during (like Marla) or shortly after their active sporting career (like Kit). As the moral lynch-pin of this film, however, Dottie personifies the idealized woman who has done her patriotic duty, but ultimately rejects being a hero Other in order to obediently return to her husband. The film celebrates these actions in a way that helps to ensure a stable society of American men and women clear about their appropriate gender roles.


[1] While this essay is, for the most part, concerned with the examination of the construction and maintenance of the dominant social order rather than with the production history of the film, it is important to note that the production of a film about women athletes with a female director at the helm is, at least to some degree, undermining of this construction in itself. The resulting film, which I argue here ultimately supports a dominant, male-centric ideology, could thus also be interpreted as demonstrating the constraints within which Marshall was likely working. For further discussion of the production context, see Stephen C. Wood and J. David Pincus, “The Directors and Producers: Interviews with Phil Alden Robinson, Ron Sheldon, Penny Marshall and Arthur Friedman,” in Reel Baseball: Essays and Interviews on the National Pastime, Hollywood, and American Culture, eds. Stephen C. Wood and J. David Pincus,(Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2003).

[2] Jyoti Puri, Encountering Nationalism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 65. See for example: Robert W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender & Society 19, no. 6 (2005), Kathryn Conrad, “Queer Treasons: Homosexuality and Irish National Identity,” Cultural Studies 15, no. 1 (2001), Jackie Hogan, Gender, Race and National Identity: Nations of Flesh and Blood (New York: Routledge, 2009), Joane Nagel, “Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and Sexuality in the Making of Nations,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21, no. 2 (1998), Stanley G. Payne, David Jan Sorkin, and John S. Tortorice, What History Tells : George L. Mosse and the Culture of Modern Europe (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), Sam Pryke, “Nationalism and Sexuality, What Are the Issues?,” Nations and Nationalism 4, no. 4 (1998), L. Pauline Rankin, “Sexualities and National Identities: Re-Imagining Queer Nationalism,” Journal of Canadian studies 35, no. 2 (2000).

[3] George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe, 1st ed. (New York: H. Fertig, 1985). Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[4] Jennifer Hargreaves, Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity (London; New York: Routledge, 2000), 2.

[5] Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema, Comedia (London; New York: Routledge, 1993).

[6] Tasker, 132.

[7] Chris Holmlund, Impossible Bodies: Femininity and Masculinity at the Movies (London; New York: Routledge, 2002), 19.

[8] The song was written by two players, Lavonne “Pepper” Paire Davis and Nalda “Bird” Phillips according to the AAGPBL website http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/pages/league/21/victory-song, accessed 14/09/11.

[9] On the decline in baseball’s popularity, see for example, Regina A.  Corso, “While Gap Narrows, Professional Football Retains Lead over Baseball as Favorite Sport,”  http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/675/Default.aspx. On the importance of baseball in the United States, see, for example, Michael L. Butterworth, Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), Robert Elias, Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender, and the National Pastime (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2001), Stefan Szymanski and Andrew S. Zimbalist, National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005). Similarly, Hollywood’s love affair with baseball has continued throughout the years, see George Grella, “The Baseball Moment in American Film,” Aethlon 14, no. 2 (1997), Stephen C. Wood and J. David Pincus, eds., Reel Baseball: Essays and Interviews on the National Pastime, Hollywood, and American Culture (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2003), Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, Rev. and updated. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), Howard Good, Diamonds in the Dark: America, Baseball, and the Movies (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997).

[10] Tom Robson, “Field of American Dreams: Individualist Ideology in the U.S. Baseball Movie,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 52 (2010): no pagination.

[11] Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport (New York; Toronto: Free Press; Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994), 149. See also www.aagpbl.org for “Code of Conduct” rules and the “Beauty Handbook.”

[12] For the “Code of Conduct” see http://www.aagpbl.org/league/conduct.cfm, accessed 25/10/2010

[13] For the charm and beauty guide, see http://www.aagpbl.org/league/charm.cfm#etiquette, accessed 25/03/2010.

[14] Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport, 186. Player Josephine D’Angelo, for example, recalls getting fired from the league for a getting her hair cut in a bob.

[15] For a more detailed history on the AAGPBL see Ibid, Barbara Gregorich, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, 1st ed. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993), Susan E. Johnson, When Women Played Hardball (Seattle: Seal Press, 1994).

[16] Lisa Taylor, “From Psychoanalytic Feminism to Popular Feminism,” in Approaches to Popular Film, eds. Joanne Hollows and Mark Jancovich (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 1995).

[17] Similar anxieties had surfaced in Europe after World War I, see, for example, Katie Sutton, The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011), Ann Heilmann and Margaret Beetham, New Woman Hybridities: Feminity, Feminism and International Consumer Culture, 1880-1930, Routledge Transatlantic Perspectives on American Literature (London; New York: Routledge, 2004), Joanne J. Meyerowitz, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), Maureen Honey, Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda During World War II (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984).

[18] The character name of the radio announcer in an early draft of the script, see Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, “A League of Their Own”  (1991).

[19] All of the teams are coached by men. For an investigation of the institutional gender imbalance of sports, and in particular, coaching, see Chapter 3 “Center of the Diamond: The Institutional Core of Sport,” in Michael A. Messner, Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

[20] See especially Chapter 6 “No Freaks, No Amazons, No Boyish Bobs: The All-American Girls professional Baseball League” and Chapter 7 “Beauty and the Butch: The ‘Mannish’ Athlete and the Lesbian Threat,” as well as Chapter 8 “‘Play it Don’t Say It’: Lesbian Identity and Community in Women’s Sport,” in Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport. Pat Griffin also critically examines the issues surrounding the lesbian athlete in Pat Griffin, “Changing the Game: Homophobia, Sexism and Lesbians in Sport,” in Gender and Sport: A Reader, eds. Sheila Scraton and Anne Flintoff (London; New York: Routledge, 2002).

[21] There are further small concessions to the potential power and agency of the women throughout the film, such as when Dottie and Kit convince the scout to take the ferocious hitter Marla to the try-outs despite her ‘ugly’ appearance. By threatening to not partake in the try-outs, they use their minimal power to put athleticism and skill, rather than beauty, at the forefront of the scouting. Over the course of the film, however, Marla becomes increasingly feminised, until she marries and leaves for her honeymoon just before the World Series.

Works Cited

Butterworth, Michael L. Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.

Cahn, Susan K. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Womens Sport. New York

Toronto: Free Press; Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994.

Connell, Robert W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender & Society 19, no. 6 (2005): 829-59.

Conrad, Kathryn. “Queer Treasons: Homosexuality and Irish National Identity.” Cultural Studies 15, no. 1 (2001): 124-37.

Corso, Regina A. “While Gap Narrows, Professional Football Retains Lead over Baseball as Favorite Sport.”  http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/675/Default.aspx.

Elias, Robert. Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender, and the National Pastime. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

Ganz, Lowell, and Babaloo Mandel. “A League of Their Own.” 1991.

Good, Howard. Diamonds in the Dark: America, Baseball, and the Movies. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Gregorich, Barbara. Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. 1st ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993.

Grella, George. “The Baseball Moment in American Film.” Aethlon 14, no. 2 (1997): 7-16.

Griffin, Pat. “Changing the Game: Homophobia, Sexism and Lesbians in Sport.” In Gender and Sport: A Reader, edited by Sheila Scraton and Anne Flintoff, 193-208. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Hargreaves, Jennifer. Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity. London; New York: Routledge, 2000.

Heilmann, Ann, and Margaret Beetham. New Woman Hybridities: Feminity, Feminism and International Consumer Culture, 1880-1930, Routledge Transatlantic Perspectives on American Literature. London; New York: Routledge, 2004.

Hogan, Jackie. Gender, Race and National Identity: Nations of Flesh and Blood. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Holmlund, Chris. Impossible Bodies: Femininity and Masculinity at the Movies. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Honey, Maureen. Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda During World War II. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Johnson, Susan E. When Women Played Hardball. Seattle: Seal Press, 1994.

Messner, Michael A. Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Meyerowitz, Joanne J. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Mosse, George L. Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe. 1st ed. New York: H. Fertig, 1985.

Nagel, Joane. “Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and Sexuality in the Making of Nations.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21, no. 2 (1998): 242-69.

Payne, Stanley G., David Jan Sorkin, and John S. Tortorice. What History Tells: George L. Mosse and the Culture of Modern Europe. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Pryke, Sam. “Nationalism and Sexuality, What Are the Issues?” Nations and Nationalism 4, no. 4 (1998): 529-46.

Puri, Jyoti. Encountering Nationalism. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Rankin, L. Pauline. “Sexualities and National Identities: Re-Imagining Queer Nationalism.” Journal of Canadian studies 35, no. 2 (2000): 176-96.

Robson, Tom. “Field of American Dreams: Individualist Ideology in the U.S. Baseball Movie.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 52 (2010).

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. Rev. and updated. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Sutton, Katie. The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany. New York: Berghahn Books, 2011.

Szymanski, Stefan, and Andrew S. Zimbalist. National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.

Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema, Comedia. London; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Taylor, Lisa. “From Psychoanalytic Feminism to Popular Feminism.” In Approaches to Popular Film, edited by Joanne Hollows and Mark Jancovich, 151-71. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Wood, Stephen C., and J. David Pincus, “The Directors and Producers: Interviews with Phil Alden Robinson, Ron Sheldon, Penny Marshall and Arthur Friedman,” in Reel Baseball: Essays and Interviews on the National Pastime, Hollywood, and American Culture, edited by Stephen C. Wood and J.David Pincus, 242-257. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2003.

Wood, Stephen C., and J. David Pincus, eds. Reel Baseball: Essays and Interviews on the National Pastime, Hollywood, and American Culture. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2003.

About the Author

Katharina Bonzel

About the Author

Katharina Bonzel

Katharina Bonzel is a teaching and research assistant in the Cinema Studies program at the University of Melbourne. Her dissertation on national identity in film, with a focus on sports films, was recently passed, and she has published a chapter in the award-winning Learning from Mickey, Donald and Walt: Essays on Disney’s Edutainment Films (A. Bowdoin Van Riper, published by McFarland; Ray and Pat Browne Award for “Best Edited Collection in Popular and American Culture” 2011) and in the journal Sporting Traditions.View all posts by Katharina Bonzel →