February 15, 2013

"This Used to be My Playground: A Memory-Meditation on A League of Their Own and the Poetics of the Ugly Girl" by Jessica Rae Bergamino

I’m not sure I can talk about this film without talking about my mother.  My mother who was always afraid that I would grow up to be the fat girl.  My mother who is still disappointed I did.  Elementary school summers would bring diets and the school year would start with a new sport or activity – ballet, acrobats, eventually softball – in an attempt to fit my body in to affordable clothes and good social graces. The things I loved were expected to fade with the possibility of a different body.

A League of Their Own
came out the summer I was entering fourth grade. That year my teacher would be Ms. Frost who, when I was too slow to find something, would lift my desk off the ground and throw my belongings on the floor. Who can make their desk neat when they have to put everything back together with the whole class watching, the teacher impatient to continue the lesson?  My story of the suburbs is this story of impatience.  “You’ve got to go where something happens,” Mr. Hooch, a character's father, tells his daughter, and, by proxy, the audience. Ugly girls, especially, have to go where something happens. Nothing will happen to us otherwise. (I’m a city girl now, and how could I not be?)

Fourth grade was also the year that I was taken out of our school’s gifted program. I didn’t find out until I wasn’t given my invitation at the beginning of the school year, though my mother had made the decision months before. Twenty years later she would explain that she had found the program elitist. At the time, I thought I had somehow become less.

We went to see a matinée – my mother, my sister, and a friend whose name I can’t remember but remember she was blonde and lived with her mother and sister in an apartment downtown – and that morning I had stepped on a nail in our driveway and it had gone straight into my foot.  It didn’t bleed nearly as much as I expected, though turned to a yellow scab and, for the next month, I laid in bed at night waiting for my mouth to clamp down on itself.

I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. In a land of duck ponds and apple cider nestled in the foothills of the Catskill mountains. All the girls in my high school were required to take self-defense in gym class where football players acted as our pretend attackers. The girls’ softball teams were divided by grade level and players were drafted for the teams by their friend’s fathers.  I was an Oreille and was given a yellow shirt in the largest size. Slow to run when I hit the ball—which was rarely—I, instead, strapped on shin guards and learned to become a catcher.

In A League of Their Own Geena Davis’ Dottie is also a reluctant baseball player. She is also a catcher. This is where our similarities end.

Dottie is tall and lovely, willowy in the way women with high cheek bones are spoken of like plants or flowers. She is reluctant because she already has the promise of a better life. Bob, her soldier-husband, will come home from the war and she will become a homemaker alongside the dairy in Oregon. No one believes that Dottie really wants this – not her sister, Kit, or the team’s manager, the fearfully drunk Jimmy Dugan – but Dottie does, and shouldn’t that be enough?  Even though the audience doesn’t believe her, we still are forced to take her at face value;  she is the beautiful girl, never challenged by the other characters, but able to engage or disengage as she pleases.

Mr. Capadino, the league’s West Coast scout, finds Dottie and Kit playing in the dairy baseball league where Dottie is the star player. Capadino goes to the dairy to invite Dottie to play, explaining that she doesn’t “only play ball, but [is] kind of a dolly – that’s what we’re looking for,” while telling Kit to  “climb back under the cow.” Outside, when Kit tries to convince him to let her try out, a cow screams while Capadino feels her pitcher’s arm. He reluctantly agrees to let her go to try outs in Chicago, but only if she can convince Dottie to come.

Kit is able to convince Dottie, of course, but only by making herself vulnerable. “Ever hear dad introduce us to people? This is our daughter, Dottie. This is our other daughter, Dottie’s sister,” she explains both to Dottie and the audience, articulating the way that the ugly girl is always kept in the beautiful girl’s shadow. While the sister’s insults attempt to equalize one another – screaming “Mule!” and “Nag!” at one another from behind the plate – the leveling is overshadowed by Kit’s insistence that “I’ve got to get out of here. I’m nothing here.”

Megan Cavanaugh’s Marla Hooch, on the other hand, is the character we are taught not to take at face value.  She is the team’s ugly girl, originally rejected from the league for not being enough of a “dolly” who becomes becomes the star hitter after Kit and Dottie refuse to get on the train without her. This, of course, after Dottie refuses to play without Kit  – a strange litany of the more attractive girl supporting the less attractive girl. A story I’ve never seen played out in real life.

Marla auditions for Capadino in an indoor auditorium in the middle of a rain storm.  The American Legion team positions themselves on the bleachers of the basketball court, ranging to catch the balls she keeps hitting out of the windows. Marla is a window breaker, shattering the field through which she could be seen (vision and the baseball diamond). That she does this through a combination of stringy hair and incredible skill (“she’s got an eye like DiMaggio,” her father tells Capadino) is an act of poetics. The world is not made for Marla; Marla makes the world.

I cry every time I watch Capadino turn Marla away from the team. Not because of his cruelty, or because of Kit and Dottie’s standing up for her, but because of the way Marla recoils to her father’s arms, apologizing. Ugly girls are taught that, somehow, this is our fault.  If we were better we would be prettier.

The girls in this league are expected to be ladies. They wear short skirts, are expected to attend charm school, and are under the supervision of a chaperone.  When the girls are sent to charm school, the esthetician making her rounds suggests a haircut for Doris and waxing for Shirley, but suggests “a lot of night games” as the only way to avoid Marla’s unattractive features.

While the girls practice poise – sweeping across a room or walking down stairs with books on their head – Marla carries her body like it is someone else’s burden.  She is stiff and unsure.  On this team, her body is the marked body, the body of a girl who had cried, apologizing to her father for not being pretty enough to get on the team. Nonetheless, the first game of the season she is there with victory curls and bright eyes, ready to hit the ball out of the field.

Marla is the hero of the film. After the team sneaks out past curfew to go dancing at the Suds Bucket, Marla – armed with a red dress and too much to drink – meets the wire rimmed glasses wearing Nelson, and, we are led to believe, it is love at first sight. After a brief engagement – not even a season! – she gets married and takes a leave of absence with plans to return the next season.

This is important. Yes, it is important to the plot that a suddenly ugly-girl free team is able to bring sexuality to a male dominated sport and, therefore, save the league when it is threatened with financial unviability. But this is more important because Marla becomes the one character in the film to balance baseball, family, a romantic life, and the deep friendship of her team. This is a film where the beautiful girls have to make choices. Dottie has to choose between her sister, her husband, and her game. Blond Evelyn is made to bring her son with her on the road when her husband tells her that “he says he’s too busy reading the want ads and [she] should just take him with me and shut up about it.” Betty Spaghetti’s husband dies in the war. There are expectations that must be met. Sorrow that must be lived. Lives that can be made and unmade.

Rosie O’Donnell’s Doris and “All the Way” Mae – that’s more than a name! it’s an attitude! – played by a dark haired Madonna is not ugly like Marla Hooch, but ugly in the way that morally ambiguous women are written as  unattractive due to their willingness to be dirty in the way girls who engage desire are always dirty. Spiritually bereft. Honest enough with her sexuality that, when the girls are made to go to confession, the priest drops his bible twice and leaves the confessional in a sweat to watch her walk away. When the league is threatened and she cries about not wanting to go back to taxi dancing so “some slob can sweat gin all over [her]” and when she teaches Shirley to read using erotica, we are reminded that she is the sporty equivalent of The Hooker with the Heart of Gold – a trope my fourth grade self is too young to know, but somehow knows it is wrong and, I think, I already like wrong. As the morally ambiguous character, however, Mae doesn’t get to engage in world making;  her world is already written for her, as Doris notes when she tells her as she leaves for a date, “I don’t know why you put clothes on at all.”

Doris’s father owned the dance hall where Mae worked as a taxi dancer and Doris worked as the bouncer.  While, at the Suds Bucket, Mae is swung around by any boy who takes her hand, Doris swings the boys over her back, throwing her hands wide, but always leading, always taking the role of the girl who never had a boy to dance with but practiced with her friends instead.  She does have a boyfriend, though when she shows it to Kit and Betty Spaghetti, Betty asks “is it out of focus?” to which Doris responds “no, that’s how he looks.”  When Betty responds that “well, you know, looks aren’t the most important thing,” Doris retorts “that’s right, the important thing is that he’s stupid, he’s out of work, and he treats me bad” but that she stays with him because all the other boys “made me feel I was wrong, you know?  Like I was some sort of a weird girl or a strange girl, or not even a girl, just cause I could play.  I believed them too, but not anymore, ya know? I mean, look it, there’s a lot of us.  I think we’re all alright.” 

While the quote is self-explanatory, it points towards the evolution of Doris as a woman able to account for herself in the world.  She then tears up the picture, throwing it out of the bus window.   It is only after this that, when Jimmy Dugan is evicted from the field by the umpire in the iconic “there is no crying in baseball” scene, that Doris announces that she is in charge. While the screen fades out, this act points towards an important change in Doris.  Whether or not she still believes she has anything to prove, she isn’t afraid to prove it.

Throughout the film, a poster behind the game announcer depicts a smiling woman with her hair tied up beside the exclamation “I’ve found the job where I fit the best!” The bottom of the poster reads “find your wartime job.”  Which is, of course, what these women did.  During the World Series, after Dottie and Kit come head to head in the last play of the last game, the game announcer repeats “Dottie Henson dropped the ball! Dottie Henson dropped the ball!” while the ball rolls out of mitt and the Racine Belles win the series.   When Kit tries to apologize later, Dottie reminds her that this is how the game is played and that Kit “wanted it more.” The ugly girl always has to want things more – it is imperative for survival -- but, in this film, won’t be satisfied to be left wanting.  She makes the world for herself.

Dirt in the skirt, ladies.  Dirt in the skirt.

Jessica Rae Bergamino lives in Seattle and is an MFA candidate at the University of Washington.

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