When men participate, it’s an event. When women participate, it’s a show. In video games, male characters wear full suits of armor; female characters wear metal bikinis. In comic books and superhero movies, men wear tactical suits and are featured in fight scenes; women wear outfits designed to show off their breasts and are featured posing in impossible yoga positions. In sports, boys play the game; girls play the game too but they have to do it while wearing a skirt and looking pretty. It doesn’t seem to matter what the actual activity is—there seems to always be a double standard when it comes to men’s and women’s activities.
In “A League of Their Own” (1992), those double standards are everywhere. Women were not even allowed to come and try out unless Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) decided they looked attractive enough. Once they had been deemed attractive enough to play baseball and they made it through the tryouts, they were then shown their new uniform—a dress—and told that in order to play in the league, they would have to attend charm school. The list of double standards is ever growing, and the women haven’t even played their first game.
The double standards regarding appearance are the big thing we see before the season gets underway, but once the women are actually playing baseball, that’s when even more signs of sexist double standards start popping up at every turn, creating unforeseen obstacles for the women who just wanted to play baseball.
As the first season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) progresses, the Rockford Peaches face challenges from all angles. They spend a number of games playing without a coach while the man who is supposed to be coaching them sits in the corner, drunk and grumbling about “I don’t have ballplayers, I’ve got girls.” One player, Evelyn, gets told by her husband that he will not take care of his own son while she is playing baseball, and so she has no choice but to bring the child along with the team. When they’re on the field playing, they’re getting mocked from the sidelines by men hiking their pants up to mimic the dresses. And early on in the season, they’re told that the owners do not want to continue on with the league past one year because the men will be home soon and having both a men’s and a women’s professional baseball league is just not in the country’s interest. All they’re trying to do is play professional baseball in the same way that the men do, and all they’re met with is hurdles and ridicule.
The film takes place in 1943, but here it is in 2019 and we are still facing the same issues when it comes to females in sports. Growing up, I spent most of my time playing some sport or other, and early on I started to notice the ways that my girls’ teams were treated differently than the boys’ teams. The boys went by “Mascot Name,” and the girls went by “Lady Mascot Name.” Even if the mascot wasn’t something that could be a gender, they still had to find a way to make it absolutely sure that everyone knew it was girls playing. In middle school, all the competing schools came together and decided that the weekly Tuesday night games ran too late into the evening and interfered with the children getting a proper night sleep in the middle of the week. The boys’ games during the winter season were moved to Friday night with the added bonus of being an exciting start to the weekend for the whole family. The girls’ games during the fall season were moved to immediately after school on Tuesday so that they wouldn’t be out so late on a school night. Of course, they were now so early that any parents working a traditional 9 to 5 job could no longer attend and support their children.
High school was no different. The boys’ teams got pep rallies and morning announcements and features in the local newspapers. We girls got repeatedly asked, “When does your season start?” despite being already halfway through it. If we wanted to do any weight training or cardio exercise, we had to make sure that it wasn’t when the boys’ team was in there. If there happened to be a pep rally the same day as we had a game, then that game was mentioned as an afterthought. Our high school was built before female students played sports, and so it was built with a baseball field on campus for the boys to play on. The girls’ softball team, on the other hand, had to drive to a field halfway across town for practice and games, a field where most of the school didn’t even know where it was and if they didn’t have a car, they weren’t going anyway.
The hurdles and double standards are not just showing up in films and my own personal experiences. Just as we saw in the “A League of Their Own,” it is not uncommon for sports announcers to refer to female athletes’ marital status as opposed to talking about their skills or accomplishments in the game. Along with their marital status, their physical appearance is also talked about much more frequently than any athletic ability. The most popular and most recognized female athletes are almost always the ones that are more conventionally attractive while the most talented athletes often get overlooked.
You might say that while the way female athletes are talked about and viewed is not ideal, it’s certainly not enough of an issue to get so worked up about. If these attitudes didn’t have real-world consequences, you may be right, but the consequences are there. The average salary for a professional male athlete is in the millions while professional female athletes might struggle to even make six figures. NBA players can earn millions just from sponsorship deals, while many WNBA players have to spend the off-season playing in other countries as a second job to make ends meet. The MLB is a multibillion-dollar industry to this day, while the AAGPBL only lasted eleven years before it was shut down.
The gender double standards in professional sports have real and lasting effects. From the 1940s to the present day, by not taking female athletes seriously, these women are getting written off, ridiculed, ignored, cast aside, and have to work twice as hard for less than half the reward.
Amy Renee Wasney is a passionate writer and feminist living in the south suburbs of Chicago and an annual participant in National Novel Writing Month. Her favorite films include “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), “The Princess Bride” (1987), and “Big Fish” (2003), and her personal heroes are Fred Rogers and Hermione Granger. She tries to live up to their example each and every day.