See Jane Salon: Kris Rey on representation of pregnancy on film and her own journey as a mother

Recently I attended a member event of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, as part of their “See Jane Salon” series, which enables GDIGM CEO Madeline Di Nonno to share the organization’s latest findings on representation on screens both big and small. The Chicago event was sponsored by Full Spectrum Features and the Julian Grace Foundation, . These findings and statistics are found through the Geena Davis Institute research as well as their groundbreaking technology with GD-IQ, their work with Google and their new digital tool, “Spellcheck for Bias,” which will be used through their partnership with Disney. Following the presentation, Di Nonno led a panel discussion with some key people in Chicago who are making a difference for diversity and inclusion in film. One of the panel members was Kris Rey, filmmaker and director of various short films, which includes “Baby Mary” (2014), and her first feature, “Unexpected” (2015). Her next feature, “I Used to Go Here,” premieres in 2020, featuring Gillian Jacobs, Jermaine Clement, and Kate Micucci.

Kris Rey

During the panel discussion, Kris Rey shared powerful memories about her experience of directing “Unexpected”, and what she couldn’t find onscreen in preparation for the film. With the permission from the Geena Davis Institute and Kris Rey, I’d like to share some of her words below:

KRIS REY: “Baby Mary” is a short film from 2014. I used to teach in Chicago Public Schools. I taught at one of the high schools for a few years, and I made a short film about a little girl in that community who sees a baby on her way home from school that’s not properly taken care of. She decides that she could do a better job, and so this eight-year-old little girl takes this baby from her front yard, and brings her home to take care of for the day. Her mother comes home from work and then she’s like, ‘What the hell is this baby doing here?’ That was a film I made in 2014, and it was very dear to my heart.

“Unexpected” (2015) with Cobie Smulders

My feature film “Unexpected,” which came out in 2015, was a film that had a lot of autobiographical elements. A high school teacher gets pregnant evidently at the same time as one of her high school students. They form a relationship and become friends. While I was making the film, or when I was ready to go into production, we had a lot of scenes, obviously, that dealt with pregnancy. She finds out that she is pregnant in the first ten minutes of the movie, and by the end, she delivers the baby. The film goes through a full nine months of pregnancy, and I wanted to watch how people shot delivery scenes, because we have a scene where the baby is born, and when she goes into labor. I wanted to watch movies that were about pregnancy for inspiration.

Birth scene in “Knocked Up” (2007) with Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen

What I found was that there were no movies about pregnancy from a female perspective. There was one at the time that I watched–well there’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Juno”–but there was one in “Knocked up” from Seth Rogen’s perspective, one in “Nine Months” from Hugh Grant’s perspective, and one in “Father of the Bride: Part II” from Steve Martin’s perspective. There were all of these movies about pregnancy which often men are apart of, but mainly women are apart of, that are somehow not from their perspective. It really blew my mind. So mine was definitely from the female perspective, and still one of the only films out there in which that is the case. 

MADELINE DI NONNONO: Can you talk about how audiences responded to your work and what has been the impact? You said reaching an audience was very important to you. 

REY: It’s the only thing that matters to me. It’s nice to make a living, and I really hope that I can continue doing that, but when you’re an artist, making work, the focus is for people to see it. 

“Unexpected” (2015) with Cobie Smulders and Anders Holm

The audience response to “Unexpected” has always been great. That movie had a lot to do with race and class, and also had a lot to do with gender and gender dynamics in a marriage. It’s about a woman who is dealing with this pregnancy and sort of making this choice as to whether or not she wants to stay home with this baby, or she wants to go back to work, and the guilt that you feel on either side of that. It can certainly be described as a first world problem, but it’s also a very real decision women have to make. I had a feeling that would resonate with women who were around my age, and who had babies, who had to face that kind of decision. But what surprised me was how many people, from teenage girls who were already thinking about such things to women who were in their elder years, would come up to me after the screening and say, ‘Thank you so much for making a movie about this, I’ve never seen anything about this.” That was so meaningful to me.

Anders Holm, Kris Rey, and Cobie Smulders

And I will say, while I was making this movie about pregnancy and about being a mother, I had to leave my young son at the time in the care of his father while I was in production for the film. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and we brought our son Jude with us. We had a babysitter come to the premiere, so I could go up and present the film without holding my four-year-old’s hand. The movie is for adults, so while I presented the movie and we went into the green room, he was four-and-a-half at the time, and he said, “Can I watch the movie?” I responded, “Well, it’s really for grown-ups, but we can watch the beginning.” So he came with me into the theatre on my lap, and it was this huge theatre–the Eccles theatre in Park City. If you’ve ever been in the theatre, it’s huge. It was such an exciting moment for me, for my first film at Sundance to screen in there. When you are directing a film, the only thing you can be doing is directing the film. And I felt so guilty to be away from my son. I would come home after a twelve-hour day and he would be asleep, and I’d wake up early and leave before he was awake. We were sitting in the theatre and when the credits came up, he said “That’s your name, mama.” It just made it feel worth it.     

Why was ‘Thelma & Louise’ such an impactful film? Jennifer Townsend’s documentary explores why

When Jennifer Townsend first saw “Thelma & Louise” (1991) when it came out in theaters, she was blown away. “It made a huge dent in my life,” she said. “In fact, the very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.”

Townsend wondered if this film had made such an impact on other viewers too. “I was wondering if other people had reacted as strongly as I had. I just wanted in a way to share my experience.” The internet and social media barely existed yet, so she created a questionnaire and mailed it out to newspapers and magazines across the country. She got 150 responses total, through surveys and phone calls.

But because it took so long for editors to put the blurb in their publications and for snail mail to come in, she put the project on pause. “It haunted me forever. I couldn’t dream of dying in peace without doing something.”

Thankfully, twenty-five years later, Townsend did do something with those surveys. At the age of 78, she directed and produced the documentary “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” (2017), her first feature film. “I’m self-taught, [through] learning from the internet, going to some organizations and talking with people, and absorbing as much as I could, wherever I could.”

I recently spoke with Townsend over the phone about how she created this fascinating documentary and how things have changed for women in film since “Thelma & Louise” came out in 1991.

Townsend’s documentary “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” will be available on Amazon and VOD on June 28. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

THE IMPACT OF “THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: What were you doing around that time when “Thelma & Louise” (1991) came out?

TOWNSEND: I had moved to Seattle shortly before then, and I had been selling commercial real estate as a commercial real estate broker. I was selling apartment buildings. Right about that time with “Thelma & Louise,” it struck me. It made a huge dent in my life. I do remember at that time I was slacking in my business because it changed me, and interest rates had gone up at that time, and it was harder to put deals together because they were canceling out for investors, so I had a little slack period in there and then I just threw myself into this “Thelma & Louise” project.

MARTIN: When you first saw “Thelma & Louise,” what was it that resonated with you?

TOWNSEND: It was such a psychological thing. I wasn’t analyzing it at all. I wasn’t trying to figure it out. I was just like in a daze. I really was in a bubble. The world was going on outside of this bubble … it was like I was transported to a different dimension for several days at least. It was a real phenomenon in my life. And the research developed from that. It was like wow, what is going on. It was like something happened. But I didn’t sit down and try tussle it out or take away from it, it just was like I was present with it, or just going along with it. In fact, the very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.

The very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.

MARTIN: Oh wow!

TOWNSEND: It was just an impulse, like I crossed the threshold or something like that. Like now I’m somebody else than I was from yesterday. And I just wanted a new last name, and I picked it out of the sky.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness. So I’m curious what made you want to change your last name. Did you want to start fresh as a person? Or were you just trying to detach yourself from the name you had before? It’s a big decision, so I’m just curious where that came from.

TOWNSEND: I had thought about changing my last name many times because it was a name I took when I was married. And then I had four children and they had that last name. When they were in school I didn’t want to change it. By that time, they were all out of school and out of university then, so there was no reason to hang on to that name. Off and on I’d think about changing it, but I just didn’t know what I should change it to. For some psychological reason, that particular morning, I just had to do it. I just woke up, and I just did it.

MARTIN: I love it. And so it was the movie that drove you to do that?

TOWNSEND: Yes, absolutely.

MAKING “CATCHING SIGHT OF THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: What drove you to create “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” (2017)? Was it because it was the 25th anniversary of “Thelma & Louise”?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, that was on my mind. I was waiting until I wasn’t working any longer. I was retired,  I had traveled, I had done various things. And then I felt now is the time for me in my life, and then I could spend time on this.

So then I flew down all of those materials, still thinking that I would write something. But then I thought it would be much better [creating a documentary] than me paraphrasing people and taking out little bits and pieces here and there. If I could find some of these people and have them talk and share directly to the audience, you could feel them and hear them and appreciate them so much more than if I just rewrote something.

So once I had that idea, I had to pursue it, even though I knew absolutely nothing, zero about making a film at that time. It’s just been an uphill climb ever since; even today I am still learning the different aspects, and now of course I’ve gotten into the distribution. That’s a whole different ball game. You wear so many different hats. It’s been an incredible learning experience. And I just had my 80th birthday this year.

MARTIN: That’s amazing. How did you choose the people you’d interview for the film? And how did you go about getting the editor and two of the actors from “Thelma and Louise” to take part in the documentary?

TOWNSEND: Well first I went through the materials and I pulled out some of the letters that really said something, that really made statements. Because it was easy to answer the questionnaire with two or three words, or one single sentence here and one single sentence there, but that didn’t give me a sense of that person. But the ones that I did feel that really had time to sit and talk about their feelings, those are the ones I thought I’d like to show in the film. And then finding them of course was—

MARTIN: —a bit of a challenge.

TOWNSEND: That’s right, very, very challenging. Occasionally I would Google and somebody would come up directly, but more often than not—I signed up for this service where you get information about people, and I’d put in the name, and there’d literally be like hundreds of names, and of course nobody’s living where they lived twenty-five years ago. And at that time, many of the people that wrote in were in college. So you go away to college, then you go somewhere else to get a job.

Tracking people down, after all of that time, it was very difficult. There were all kinds of things that came out of that. Sometimes I would find the parents of somebody, older parents, maybe they were estranged from the child, and they did not even know how to reach the child. And then maybe I found the child, and the child had helped me find the parent that had written to me. Or then maybe I would find these people, and then they don’t even want to be in front of a camera, which is totally understandable; I didn’t want to be in front of the camera either.

As far as the actors and editor, I didn’t initially plan on having anyone who was in or a part of the film [“Thelma & Louise”], in my film. My film was about the stories of those who wrote their reactions about “Thelma & Louise.” But then in my documentary association they were saying while I was working on the film with them, people would say, “Would so and so be in the film?” So then I thought, well I’ll give it a shot, maybe have a cameo here or there, or something like that. I didn’t want it to be about the film or the personages in the film, I wanted it to be about the audience. So with that constant drumming, I said OK.

I didn’t want it to be about the film or the personages in the film, I wanted it to be about the audience.

So I did send out letters to the agents of the actors in the film, and through that, the two actors [Christopher McDonald and Marco St. John] came in. And also the editor [Thom Noble], I got connected with him directly and he was very open.

THE HEALING POWER OF “THELMA & LOUISE”

It occurred to me that both in “Thelma & Louise” and in my film, there’s a theme of violence against women. That element in particular I feel is a focal point. It’s like the emotional heart of the film. The doom of the violence against women. In that sense, women many times, they react to that in a way that they fully—it was healing for them.

TOWNSEND: It occurred to me that both in “Thelma & Louise” and in my film, there’s a theme of violence against women. That element in particular I feel is a focal point. It’s like the emotional heart of the film. The doom of the violence against women. In that sense, women many times, they react to that in a way that they fully—it was healing for them.

Some of the survey responses about the film “Thelma & Louise”

To see that, to see how these women talked about these experiences. They came away feeling like they were not alone. It was so awesome. We know intellectually, we all know that we are not alone, but it isn’t until you see somebody sharing their truth right in front of your face. You feel like they are on a different, more heartfelt level.

CHANGE IN THE INDUSTRY SINCE “THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: Twenty-five years after “Thelma & Louise” came out, what are your thoughts about how things have changed for women in the industry?

TOWNSEND: I feel like we’re in a very exciting time right now. There’s so many women out there in the industry, that have a presence, and we are getting the acknowledgement that we deserve in terms of fresh and immediate attention. That doesn’t mean of course that we’re anywhere near where we need to be.

When there are so many women out there that are available and that are brilliant and they can be in front of the camera or behind the camera, the question is using that, taking advantage of that. Giving them opportunities, but there are still not enough opportunities. Not by a long shot. But I think we’re in a place that, this problem that we’ve been having with as women in the industry, forever, it’s starting to change. If we keep the momentum going, we will see changes.

‘A League of Their Own’ Issue Cover Artist: Gabrielle Riscanevo

Gabrielle Riscanevo

Our cover artist for Cinema Femme’s fourth issue, “A League of Their Own” edition, is Gabrielle Riscanevo. I first came across artist Gabrielle Riscanevo‘s work when she posted in the Facebook Group Freelancing Females.

I was drawn to her work because it reminded me of the Art Nouveau style that was popular in the late 1800s—of which painters Gustav Klimt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alphonse Maria Mucha were known for—but with a modern twist. I thought Gabrielle would be perfect for our “A League of Their Own” cover because her work is warm, feminist, and moving. I asked Gabrielle more about her inspiration and process; you can read our interview below.

1. Where do you get your inspiration? Who are your influences?

A lot of my inspiration comes from beauty I find in nature. I incorporate a lot of plants and flowers into my designs. My full-time job is as a print designer for a sleepwear and intimates brand, and a lot of our prints are floral heavy. Since I was a little kid, I’ve always loved plants and flowers and I was always outside picking flowers. Two artists I love and find so much inspiration from are Sofia Bonati and Janice Sung. They’re both young women who are incredibly talented and create the most beautiful work.

2. Describe your artistic style. What films do you identify with most in style?

I think a lot of what makes my artistic style are the prints I use. I love combining prints and portraits, graphic and detailed, different mediums, and contrasting colors. I love so many different styles and I love combining them.

I’ve always loved Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” (2006). I love contrast in my own work, and I see so much contrast in that film. The film itself is beautiful and I’ve created pieces and patterns from being inspired by the way Versailles is depicted in the movie.

3. What was your process like creating the Issue 4 cover?

For “A League of Their Own,” I wanted to show a strong woman, determined to prove the men saying “no” wrong, while still incorporating prints and my style. I watched the movie a few times before I started any sketches, and just let my imagination go. When I don’t put constraints on my imagination, I find I explore all options.

4. What are you looking forward to for women in the arts?

I’m looking forward to more diversity! Inclusion of different races, trans women, women of different backgrounds. I recently saw “Captain Marvel” (2019) and it was so refreshing to watch a female protagonist further her own plot and not have to have a love interest. I want to see women in more diverse roles who don’t need anyone else to move the plot along. I see more and more female artists, film or print, and it’s so inspiring to be in a community that’s becoming more inclusive.

Two sets of rules

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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.

Sisters, doing it for themselves

Everybody loves an underdog story, and everybody loves a sports story. “A League of Their Own” (1992) is a combination of both genres. The underdog is this case is the average American woman left behind as the ravages of World War II has stripped the country of its fit and healthy young men.

While American male bodies are being destroyed by bullets and bombs fighting overseas, the country is feeling the void of masculinity in homes, factories, and sports arenas. The film starts with the portrayal of male absence by the initial images of playing children and lonesome wives followed by long lingering shots over photographs of men who do not exist in the present or the recent past. The film shows the route from relative rural isolation to public community and unity of purpose.

The Queen of Diamonds, a recently bereaved grandmother Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), bookends the film as she reluctantly revisits her memory of her younger days journeying from a member of the country baseball team, Lukash Dairy, to the star of the national Rockford Peaches team; it was something, she says, that “was never that important to me. It was just something I did.”

Fundamentally, “A League of Their Own” is a story of sisterhood in the narrowest sense. The siblings Kit Keller (Lori Petty) and Dottie join the first female professional baseball league and they struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry; additionally the sisters join a wider sisterhood of the women of the league when they get to Chicago and become members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. While Dottie professes her reluctance to leave her rural farm life for the city and baseball prospects, her younger sister Kit pleads with Dottie—the favoured star prospect—to accept the opportunity because for Kit it is a chance to break free of the strictures of the family home: “Please Dottie, I’ve gotta get outta here. I’m nothing here.” It is sisterly sacrifice that leads to the two sisters joining the inaugural intake of the first female professional baseball league; they join the national campaign to help the league succeed amidst their own personal growing rivalry.

Sacrifice is a continuing theme of the film: Dottie, apparently happily married and settled in her job and home, gives up her country life to give her sister Kit a chance to fulfill her own dream; Marla Hooch’s father, a widower from Fort Collins, Colorado, actively encourages the baseball scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) to take his skillful daughter because “nothing’s ever gonna happen here. You gotta go where things happen”; the selected baseball players agree to impractical baseball uniforms along with charm and beauty classes because “every girl in this league is going to be a lady,” according to the sales requirement of Ira Lowenstein.

Lowenstein, working for the baseball league owners, led by financier and chocolatier Walter Harvey, is tasked with filling the temporary gap in the sport and making the women’s game into a salable product. Naturally, some women in the 1940s who are the depiction of propriety—notably four portly Chicago middle-class, middle-aged women in matronly patterned dresses, with matching handbags and pearls—publicly express their disgust at the prospects of women in sports by using a language of violence to describe women outside of the home, in both education and in baseball, as “leading to the masculinisation of women with enormously dangerous consequences to the home, the children, and our country,” and “the most disgusting example of this sexual confusion” as “young girls are plucked from their families… to see which one of them can be the most masculine.” It was the general contention that women were to be kept separate from baseball and public displays as sports ignited the passions and therefore it should be avoided by the “fairer sex.” The position of the staid homemaking American woman alters by the end of the film when, at final of the Women’s World Series, the national anthem is led on the baseball field by a doppelgänger of Maida Gillespie, the woman who spoke so ferociously against the idea of sportswomen being highly publicised.

The central premise of the detractors of women in sports was that the world worked well because it was organised on simple binary oppositions of men and women, work and home, country and city, and these boundaries should not be breached. Dottie and Kit’s parents were portrayed as the ideal image of family life: a homely couple on a farm with the mother fussing around the needs of the central father figure. Their daughters both abandoned the stereotypical role of women by becoming baseball players in the city showing a contrast to the traditional roles of femininity and the modern rise of feminist personal agency outside of the home. Throughout the film, women are seen as being catapulted from the comfort of the contained family hearth into the open centre of the competitive baseball field. A place where they were encouraged to identify as people with desires, people who wanted to win.

The game of baseball becomes an intense and passionate experience for everyone involved right from the spectators, the reluctant coach, to the highly competitive leagues of women players.
Other themes central to the film are misogyny, feminism, and masculinity. The Rockford Peaches’ coach, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), is portrayed as an alcoholic former World Series calibre baseball player being given a second chance to redeem his status as a baseball legend. Dugan views the women’s baseball game with disgust and turns up drunk for the first several games when he is nothing more than a token—a gender role reversal—used to promote the status of the game. Dugan is initially portrayed as a weak persona, a position usually reserved for the females in a film. “A League of Their Own” is full of usual and unusual contrasts, many of them based around the 1940s public image of femininity related to the home and sports.

An often overlooked element in the film is the role of Black people. They are viewed in mainly service roles: as musicians or cleaners. However, there is one moment, halfway through the film, when a stray ball is picked up by a Black woman on the boundary of the baseball field, then when Dottie Hinson calls for her to throw the ball back, the Black woman throws it with ease so it soars past Hinson to a farther placed catcher. Hinson visually expresses surprise, the Black woman sadly acknowledges the regularity of her overlooked skill, and she is left to return to the sidelines where a group of other similarly isolated Black men and women stand. This short scene references the informal segregation of sports that was in place in the early 1940s. The colour bar was broken in the men’s game when Jackie Robinson was signed for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1946 baseball season. Marcenia Lyle Stone, commonly known as Toni Stone, was the first Black woman to join a professional baseball team, although she did not join a women’s team as they were still segregated; Toni Stone joined the Indianapolis Clowns and crossed a gender line into the men’s team where she played professionally, in traditional baseball uniform—not skirts.

The images of beauty, Eurocentric ideals, are one of the major factors that decide which women throughout the countrywide sweep for talent gets picked for the tryouts in Chicago. Despite Marla Hooch’s skill, the baseball scout openly rejects her when he first sees her face. This is regardless of the fact that he was amazed by her performance. What Capadino does not expect is that his position of ultimate power is instantly challenged when the bond of sisterhood is immediately portrayed as the Oregon sisters refuse to leave Colorado without Marla.

This is a drama, a sports movie, and a comedy combined. The comedic elements are usually visual or one-liners by Jimmy Dugan, Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram), or the crudeness of the baseball scout Ernie Capadino.

The visual comedy centres, in a frequent misogynistic gaze, on moments when the boundaries of decorum are breached like when the drunken Jimmy Dugan turns up on the first match day and urinates for an exceptionally long time just out of the visual line of the women in the changing room. “All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna) is central to this scene as a curious and intrigued onlooker. Madonna, and her on-screen comedy partner Rosie O’Donnell, as Doris Murphy, have several two-hander moments including watching and timing the sot who is forced on them as a coach, and other risqué encounters.

Initially the new recruits, dressed in physically unsuitable short skirt uniforms, are discouraged by the unsupportive baseball fans; however, they are admirably portrayed by the director, Penny Marshall, as women who are encouraging of each other despite their obvious team rivalry. Marshall manages to show how American women of the ’40s were often conflicted between their personal ambition and their nationally prescribed duty. Eventually the public begins to appreciate the women’s league for both their skills and their looks with newspaper headlines eventually conceding that “Girls really do play baseball.”

The women of the baseball teams grow in respect and support of each other, and mutual respect is also nurtured between coach Dugan and the women after their initial opposition toward each other. Dugan’s emotional journey is shown as the most altered because at the end of the war, when the baseball-playing men are set to return from overseas, he is offered a new position in the male league, but he refuses it to stay with the women’s league.

“A League of Their Own” is a film that is still celebrated as a great sports movie after over a quarter of a century since its release. It is a film than depicts women as the central characters on the screen and gives them varied and detailed storylines. This film highlights the fact that women playing major league baseball was a significant event in the history of sports and society in the 1940s, and ensures that this event is never forgotten or discarded.

Many female sports movies focus on the athletic goal usually as a secondary matter; director Penny Marshall highlights the women’s athleticism and also uses this film to accentuate the everyday adversities, boundaries, and glass ceilings that women outside of the home, outside of the current “norm,” will face.

The underdog in this story is Kit Keller who ends up achieving the final win, while eventually gaining a better understanding of her sister Dottie. Kit and the other female players are repeatedly told that there’s “no crying in baseball”; however, they retain their full emotional range and still succeed in the sports arena. In the regular reunions of the cast since the release of the film, art reflects life as the depictions of the sisterhood of the Rockford Peaches has lasted offscreen as well.

The women’s league teams are base stealers in the sports arena: slowly but surely they creep their way into the hearts and minds of the American public, both in the 1943 to 1954 All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and in the canon of favourite sports movies. What was supposed to be a temporary measure to entertain the American public during the horrors of war became a successful “product” with nearly a million spectators at the peak of their games. At the final of the World Women’s Series, Hinson says to her sister and team rival, “Play great,” as sisterhood trumps game rivalry.

The film concludes with a reunion of the women league players, but most significantly with the reconnection of the sisters Dottie and Kit who through time had become estranged because of baseball and team rivalry and then individual family dynamics.

“A League of Their Own” is a monument to the collaborations, relationships, and friendships of women both on-screen and behind the camera. The female writer, Kim Wilson, manages to intricately portray the familiar struggles of women, and for nearly three decades viewers of all genders and ages have recognised themselves in the characters portrayed. This film has been the vehicle by which many people have decided that it is OK to get “dirt in the skirt” on the way to achieve their personal goals.

Dr. Caroline Heldman on #MeToo and representation

Back in January during my trip in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Caroline Heldman, research director at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, associate professor of politics at Occidental College, and executive director of The Representation Project. Dr. Heldman also cofounded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter and the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus (EROC), Faculty Against Rape (FAR), and End Rape Statute of Limitations (ERSOL). She’s been a professional pollster, campaign manager, and commentator for CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, and CNBC.

Caroline Heldman is probably the most intelligent woman I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of intelligent women! Her personal story increased my admiration for her even more. After we met, I was reignited to learn more about the landscape and climate of female representation in film and media.

GROWING UP

REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?

CAROLINE HELDMAN: I grew up in a town of five hundred in Washington state in the foothills of Mount St. Helens. I was one of six, raised Pentecostal Evangelical. I was homeschooled and wasn’t allowed to see media until I left and went out on my own.

MARTIN: What brought you out of your small town?

HELDMAN: I started college pretty young, and once I graduated, I hopped on a plane and went to D.C. to work for Congress. I got out as soon as I possibly could.

MARTIN: What drew you to politics?

HELDMAN: My first political campaign was when I was seven years old. I lobbied for people in our town to turn on their lights because it was a high fog area. My parents are not political, but my father was very religious and instilled the idea of “unto the least of these”—helping those most in need. So I grew up with the sense of fixing injustice. I was a business major in undergraduate [at Washington State University], and I had a mentor/professor, Brent Steel, who encouraged me to pursue politics.

I headed to Capitol Hill to handle health care, women’s issues, and environmental issues for congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld. Then I did my graduate work at Rutgers because it had the only Women in Politics PhD program in the world.

CHANGE?

Caroline Heldman

MARTIN: Are you starting to see a change in the industry?

HELDMAN: There is greater awareness of misogyny and patriarchy with the #MeToo movement, but I don’t think as a culture we have established mechanisms of accountability. The #MeToo conversation started the national conversation back in 2013, then the Cosby survivors came forward en masse in 2015 with the women who blew the whistle on sexual harassment at Fox News. Attention peaked with the Weinstein survivors, but even today, institutions have not established effective methods to prevent sexual violence. Colleges and universities are still not doing a good job, and Hollywood is certainly not doing a good job addressing it. It really comes down to the fact that these are masculinist institutions, dominated by men, with rules that prefer and protect men in subtle ways.

MARTIN: What is your opinion about female voices in film, specifically with film criticism?

HELDMAN: I appreciate creating new spaces to hold entertainment media accountable, like CherryPicks, a new website that elevates female film critics. But I would really like to see the mainstream sites, like Rotten Tomatoes, elevate women’s voices as well.

GEENA DAVIS INSTITUTE ON GENDER IN MEDIA

MARTIN: How long have you been with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media?

HELDMAN: Four years.

MARTIN: What is the work that the institute is doing? What is it trying to do to impact media culture? How did it get started?

HELDMAN: Geena Davis started her research organization in 2006 when she was watching a film with her daughter and realized that the content was quite sexist. She was a pioneer in raising awareness of Hollywood’s gender inequity through research and advocacy.

MARTIN: I’ve been doing a lot of research, because I want to be more aware of the problem of the lack of representation of women in media. That’s why I wanted to speak with you. I think it’s important to have the cold hard facts and data to back up your awareness.

HELDMAN: Male characters outnumber female characters 2 to 1, and we find similar gender inequities in television, advertising, and mascots. We have also published some important impact studies. For example, lots of little girls left the theater and bought a bow and arrow after watching Princess Merida (“Brave”) and Katniss Everdeen (“The Hunger Games”) in 2012. We also did a study of the impact of Dana Scully’s (“The X-Files”) character and found that over 60 percent of women in STEM say she was an inspiration.

MARTIN: Have you seen “Girlhood” (2014), directed by Céline Sciamma? We will be covering that film later in the year. I feel that coming-of-age films are less represented by women.

HELDMAN: Especially for women of color. Their stories are the most underrepresented in Hollywood. As bad as representation is for women in general, it’s far worse for women of color. They’re virtually erased as leading characters. A lot of it has to do with that we have very few women behind the scenes. Only 17 percent of the people that are directing, producing, and writing are women. And that’s because the hiring practices in Hollywood look like the 1950s. It is quite extraordinary that it’s been going on this long.

REPRESENTATION IN 2018 FILMS

MARTIN: For 2018, did you have any favorite films that you thought were good for representation?

HELDMAN: “Black Panther.”

MARTIN: Oh yes.

HELDMAN: Also, “Crazy Rich Asians” featured people of color and women in ways that we don’t typically see on the big screen. My favorite content last year, that hit nearly every point for me, was the Netflix movie “To All the Boys I Loved Before.” It stars a Korean American teenager—a coming-of-age film, but updated from the days of John Hughes because it’s more thoughtful, inclusive, and fantastic. My only critique is that none of the boys she loved before are Asian American boys. It’s rare to see Asian American men cast as romantic leads. I also love “Nappily Ever After.”

THE POWER OF RESEARCH

MARTIN: When you’re doing your research for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, what drives you in your research direction?

HELDMAN: We conduct research for clients who want to know whether their content is inclusive. We also publish the See Jane Report each year that measures the representation of women, people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, and people with disabilities in the top-viewed movies and television shows.

MARTIN: And that’s on your website?

HELDMAN: Yes, our reports are available to everyone! We also have a very unique tool called the GD-IQ. It’s the first automated tool for measuring screen time and speaking time. It’s two algorithms that can measure this automatically for characters by gender and race. We find that men appear and speak twice as often as women in the top-grossing films.

MARTIN: Who’s using this tool?

HELDMAN: The Geena Davis Institute developed this tool, in collaboration with Google and the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory (SAIL) at USC. We are the only public research organization that has the capability of automated media content analysis.

MARTIN: That is amazing. Before I started Cinema Femme magazine, I did a lot of research, specifically with women in Europe, and their studies about women in film. Having writers from Egypt and the UK, I realize this is not just a US problem, it’s a world problem, for representation in film and media.

HELDMAN: I’m glad we are in a time in history where we have access to a lot of data about media content—from the Geena Davis Institute, the Inclusion Initiative at USC, and the Center for the Study of Women in Television in Film at San Diego State University. A decade ago, things were much different. Now we know exactly how underrepresented women, people of color, LGBTQIA folks, and people with disabilities are on the big and little screens.

In the fall, The Representation Project is hosting the first annual State of Media Summit to bring all of the public media research organizations together to talk about their findings.

MARTIN: Is that something anyone can go to?

HELDMAN: Yes, it will be open to the public, the press, other researchers, and media justice advocates.

MARTIN: And where will the summit be?

HELDMAN: The State of Media Summit will take place in Los Angeles.

MARTIN: I definitely will want to attend that. I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me. What you’re doing is very important. Thank you for doing what you’re doing.

HELDMAN: Thank you for doing what you’re doing!

Sister-Sister

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Siblings can be the most enduring relationships you have in your life. They know you before significant others come along. They know life with your parents and life after your parents die. They know you before major successes and failures. It is for these reasons that the relationship between siblings is emotional and complex. I grew up with an older brother, a younger sister, and a younger brother and know all too well that while siblings know how to raise each other up, we also know how to cut each other deeply where it hurts. In “A League of Their Own” (1992), a sister-sister relationship on full display reveals the ways in which siblings support each other while engaging in competition unimportant to everyone but them.

Sisters Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and Kit Keller (Lori Petty) are two talented baseball players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Even before their arrival to the league, their relationship is categorized as Dottie being the star and Kit being the one that needs bailing out by her big sister. The first game in the movie finds Kit striking out after swinging at pitches too high for her to hit followed by Dottie batting in the game winning runs. Dottie tried to tell Kit not to swing, but Kit was adamant in proving her sister wrong. We see a similar situation in a second game a bit later. Kit never failed to complain about her dynamic with Dottie, and it is here that I grew more and more frustrated with the character of Kit. Stop blaming your sister for your problems. You’re the one standing in your own way.

I realized I identified more with the Dottie character because that’s the position I’m in with my own sister. We are less than two years apart in age and are the two middle children of four. We grew up experiencing life together closely, and since I’m the older sister, I’ve had the benefit of getting to do certain things first and setting the bar. Where did this competition stem from, though? Just as Kit posits in the film, I believe a lot of the comparisons my sister and I make to each other come from our parents and extended family. Humans enjoy grouping like things together so even though my parents compared all four of us to each other, my sister and I were compared more often because we were the girls of the family. We’re all taught during school or in sports that when you perform a certain way it means you are rewarded or given better opportunities, and we’re all used to proximity comparisons: classmates, teammates, and siblings. Yes, I want my sister to succeed, but I also want to be the star. I think this is true for Dottie and Kit. You never want to see your sibling fail at something, but you do want to be better than her, so what happens when your success means your sibling’s failure?

The scenes where Kit batted under Dottie’s watchful eye were most telling of a sibling dynamic. We see Kit swing at the high pitches a few times during the movie so it was especially satisfying seeing Dottie try to use that against her in the World Series, tempting her with high pitches so she’d strike out. Others players could have picked up on Kit’s affinity for swinging at the high ones, but the fact that it’s Dottie who suggests those pitches cuts more deeply. She knows her sister’s habit and her stubbornness. Dottie knows Kit wants to prove people wrong and will keep trying and failing to hit the ball since she didn’t have success up to that point. What Dottie doesn’t count on is Kit’s breaking point of being compared to her big sister. She finally hits one of the high ones, causing her to become the star and win the game. The reason she hit the ball was that determination to come out from under the shadow of the older sister, a shadow that she never had to be under in the first place. I rooted against Kit winning that final game because I wanted to win. I couldn’t help it. I needed to root for Dottie to win so that I could win. It’s ingrained in me. Must be better, faster, stronger. If I’m identifying with Dottie, I needed her to win the game against Kit who represents my little sister. Sorry, sis. I didn’t want you to fail, but I wanted to win.

Does it really matter that Dottie beat Kit in a race to the farm that started off just as a silly race where one of them started walking faster than the other? No. This moment between two sisters speaks volumes to how unimportant the competition can be from the outside, but when you’re in it, it feels like nothing else matters. Ultimately, it’s not about the results but the experience of getting there. Nobody is around but the two of them during this moment so they’re only competing for each other. They are the only ones who will know the winner and the loser. These little moments add up over a lifetime. Each sibling will secretly keep score and know who’s better at what. Where would Dottie and Kit be without these trivial contests? Maybe they do have some benefit if only to push you a little more than you thought you could handle. I can’t do too many burpees in a row without slowing down, but when I see my sister knocking them out next to me, I find that I can go a little faster for longer than I expected.

When Dottie and Kit come together at the Hall of Fame in the end, it’s not about who won or who lost. As the years go on, siblings compare themselves to each other less and less. One of the reasons for this is that when you start to live apart from each other, you realize that competition isn’t important. As siblings age and start engaging in more relationships outside the family, the negatives in the relationship dissipate, and though the closeness may subside, the emotional attachment remains. You know what you’ve been through together and how you got there. From the outside, it may look insignificant, but it was the times you spent racing each other home that added up in the end.

‘A League of Their Own’: The hero is the sidekick

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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.
Illustration by Tavi Veraldi

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!

Cinema Femme Women’s History Month/Sexual Assault Awareness Month Issue — Editor’s Letter

If you’re not having a good time, find something else that gives you some joy in life.

—Penny Marshall (October 15, 1943–December 17, 2018)
Rebecca Martin, founder and editor in chief of Cinema Femme magazine

When there is a passion inside you, you can’t deny it. When there is a dream and a passion inside you that you achingly want to exist, you will do everything in your being to make it happen. When you find other people, your people, who share this passion, your life brings on a new meaning. And even more, when you’re a woman and your passion is shared with other women, this can become a driving force for your life. In “A League of Their Own” (1992), that shared passion between women is baseball. In our Issue 4, “A League of Their Own” edition, we carry on that same spirit with personal essays about the film and interviews with women in film accompanied by beautiful design and illustration.

Our issue seems very timely. One, because baseball season is starting (Go Cubs!), and two, because of the amazing work that’s

Cover art for Issue 4, “A League of Their Own” edition, by Gabrielle Riscanevo

being done by the film’s leading star Geena Davis. Davis is a trailblazer in the research of gender and media, with her institute the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and her film festival, coming up in May, the Bentonville Film Festival. I was fortunate to interview for this issue Caroline Heldman, the director of research at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (aka See Jane).

Another amazing part of this issue, beyond the film, are the stories that myself and film critic Pamela Powell were privileged to share from women in film. The theme of our March/April issue is Women’s History Month (March) and Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April). Some of the women we interviewed for the issue aligned with these themes. One interview I did was with director Pamela Green, director of documentary “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” (2018). Pamela brought Alice to life by digging up her true story with her impeccable research skills. Thanks to Green, Alice has a rightful place back in film history.

British filmmaker Anya Camilleri is passionate about telling the stories of women’s unseen history, specifically the voices of women sold through sex trafficking. Camilleri is bringing to light an alarming epidemic through a cinematic lens, and it’s beautiful and heart-wrenching. Her short “A Girl Of No Importance” (2017) premiered at Cannes and now will be leading to a feature called “Highway of Love.”

Pamela Powell interviews filmmakers with recent festival releases: One is Rebecca Stern, director of the SXSW documentary hit “Well Groomed” (2019). I cannot wait to see this doc that explores competitive creative dog grooming in America; this grooming introduces you to color combinations you haven’t seen before. I’m very excited to see this one once it’s on full release.

And finally, I had the pleasure of interviewing the 2019 Sundance Ebert Fellows, Niani Scott, Whitney Spencer, and Tiffany Walden. These women are very talented, intelligent, and inspirational. They introduced me to films that showed at Sundance that were personal to their stories. I can’t wait for you all to watch the interviews and hear their stories.

Along with this amazing issue, we will be featuring more interviews and personal essays on our website. Learn more about our online subscription options at cinemafemme.com.