In patriarchal societies, sisterhood is treated as an unannounced competition: One will always be prettier, more successful, wealthier, marry the better guy, and have the more picture-perfect family. And sisters pose an infinite source of entertainment for judgmental aunts and uncles—even parents!
In “A League of Their Own” (1992), the late Penny Marshall uses baseball, a very American, very masculine sport, to pit two sisters against each other, testing their love, loyalty, and how they sometimes stand in the way of feminine independence.
Many films have covered the sister-sister relationship, specifically the inferiority/superiority complex that emerges from one sister being more successful than the other.
Some more notable examples include:
- “Vox Lux” (2018), directed by Brady Corbet.
- “In Her Shoes” (2005), directed by Curtis Hanson, which pits the stereotypical archetype of a successful, physically unappealing woman versus her gorgeous, brainless younger sister.
- “Proof” (2005), directed by John Madden, which is about a blond protégé who shares her father’s brains and mental illness and is completely manipulated by her older, white-collar sister.
- And “America’s Sweethearts” (2001), directed by Joe Roth. The younger, nerdy sister is subservient to her gorgeous, older megastar sister, yet secretly falls in love with her estranged husband.
Most of the films about sister-sister relationships were created, directed, and written by men. Beauty was an integral factor in the feminine rivalry archnemesis, and so was career status. However, the main cause for sibling rivalry in most movies involves, sadly, a man. Two sisters would destroy each other’s lives for the sake of a trophy at the end of the movie, which usually refers to a man. Rarely did we get a glimpse into a complex relationship where love—alongside a bigger passion other than beauty and sex appeal—played a part in defining societal and gender roles, with respect to the sister-sister bond.
Marshall’s film “A League of Their Own” pays homage to how many women are given the unfair burden of choosing either domesticity or worldliness. In her portrayal of Dottie and Kit’s characters, Marshall shows a complex case of how reality works for women. The more talented Dottie is also prettier yet underestimates herself; even when she is given the chance to join a league of women who share the same capabilities, she denies it, satisfied with a life of docile compliance that her parents and husband expect.
Her sister, Kit, is the polar opposite. She is a minority in being subsidiary to her older sister. Within her sheltered community, she is usually dismissed as less beautiful and less talented. Yet her passion and motivation are bigger than those of Dottie’s and this motivation is what pulls them both forward to join the league.
Both women are taken out of their natural habitat. Thrown into the field, they both transform into different characters. The love that was seemingly eternal between them turns into several conflicts. They become rivals and Kit is transferred to another team, only for the sibling rivalry to soar.
There is no denial that Kit and Dottie love each other, but the unequal opportunities and circumstances handed to both make it difficult for Kit to overcome her inadequacies with respect to Dottie’s better chances at being an accepted, desirable woman in her society. Dottie represents the trope most of us feel inferior to: she has perfected the daughter role, the wife role, and the societal role. Kit, on the other hand, is always scrutinized for being un-Dottie-like. Despite having never been granted an equal opportunity to express and represent herself as her sister, Kit has finally found her calling through baseball.
Joining the Rockford Peaches offers Kit an equal opportunity of representation in a major systemic, if not holistically neutral, way. That’s when Dottie and Kit are treated equally; despite the grading system of beautification of women, their skills on the field are what make them distinct. This results in elevating Kit to a pedestal facing her more talented sister, where she makes up for what she lacks in talent through passion, enthusiasm, and motivation.
As sibling rivalry intensifies, Dottie and Kit find themselves on opposing sides; they drift apart since their competition takes a “healthier” turn as opposed to the crooked surface on which they were compared previously. Gone are the self-promotion and competitor derogation innuendos on which Dottie and Kit’s relationship is built, to be replaced by constructive competitive sports.
In “A League of Their Own,” women make major decisions, even wrong ones. When Jimmy is too hungover to take over his role in terms of creating a lineup, Dottie takes charge. She’s a natural-born leader, yet her submission to a life of domesticity offers her a backdoor to “willingly” abandon her ambition and authoritative persona to become a doting housewife.
This is what patriarchy does to women. Not only do women who lack the same luster of beauty, power, race, or social status suffer, but those who conform to the patriarchal grading system of being on top because of their looks or superior house management skills suffer the most.
A woman with the strength of character and talent like Dottie abandons her ability to shine on the field, stating that she won’t miss “putting on all the gear, catching a double header in 100-degree heat, pushing the bus through mud, getting slammed into every other day by a base runner.”
Dottie is manipulated by the patriarchy into believing that her life on the field is the cause of her agony, of her physical exertion and her pain, while her domestic existence would not cause her any further harm. Patriarchy promises women the lure of a safe, sheltered life within the corners of their homes, blissfully baking, enjoying sex every afternoon, looking after tired husbands, and giving their full focus to children. Only for these women to discover that they have been handed a sugarcoated lie wrapped in tears and disappointments and inadequacy with a full-time working husband.
Women have always been assigned roles based on their race, looks, social status, and place on the sexualization meter. Despite being unsexualized herself, loving wife Dottie is usually eyed by the men in “A League of Their Own” as an object of desire. In a scene, Ernie Capadino appraises Kit by moving his hand along her arm, as if weighing meat for the next meal. When she gets his approval, she is still asked to bring in her more talented, “hotter” sister.
Throughout “A League of Their Own,” I envisioned that I would come out of the experience rooting for Dottie or the sexually provocative “All the Way” Mae, probably due to my infatuation with Madonna previously in “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985). Art works in mysterious ways. I rooted for Kit, and even though I realized I really wanted the sisters to make up at the end, Marshall gave me that underdog I could not take my eyes off, one I would cheer for till the end credits.
On this rare occasion, this underdog is a woman!
Jaylan Salah is an Egyptian poet, translator, two-time national literary award winner, animal lover, feminist, film critic, and philanthropist. Jaylan’s first story collection “Thus Spoke La Loba,” published in 2016, explores sexuality, gender, and issues of identity. Her first poetry book “Workstation Blues” will be published with PoetsIN, a publishing house with the purpose of destigmatizing mental illness and supporting international artists.