The Bad News Bears (1976) was one of my favorite films growing up; now that I’m older, my love for it hasn’t waned. Sure, it’s not politically correct, it’s undeniably dated, and the film is made up almost solely of anti-heroes, but it’s these imperfections which make it so relatable to anyone who ever felt like a misfit or underestimated (and I did). The Bad News Bears is an underdog story about a group of athletically challenged little leaguers who didn’t make the grade and end up on a team together. Their reluctant coach is alcoholic ex-ball player Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), who initially would rather nurse a Heineken than teach a bunch of outcast kids how to play ball.
While the other teams are made up of white, fit, cookie cutter pre-teen ball players in their spanking new uniforms, the Bears are anything but. Among the “outcasts” are children who are overweight, bespectacled, black, Jewish, Mexican, and a cigarette smoking, motorcycle riding punk for good measure. They are underestimated from the beginning, not just for their lack of athletic ability, but for who they are.
The team does poorly in their first few games and coach Buttermaker, who has finally gotten a taste for the competition, realizes he needs some help. He calls in his secret weapon.
We first see her selling maps to Hollywood star’s homes by the side of the road in a white and flowered peasant top, ankle length wrap skirt, sunglasses, and an assortment of chunky rings. This is an outfit I have coveted since I first saw it because she looks ridiculously and undeniably cool. The “She” is 11 year old Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O’Neal), daughter of Buttermaker’s ex-girlfriend, who is not only entrepreneurial, but no BS. She brushes off Buttermaker’s request that she come play for his team and teach them a thing or two, telling him, “I ain’t interested in playing baseball for you anymore….I’ve got business to take care of.” Amanda, we learn, is not only a firecracker, she is also a fantastic ball player, whose curve ball is the stuff of legends, but, is uninterested in playing Buttermaker’s game. It turns out, they have history. They were once close when Buttermaker dated her mom a couple years ago (it was Buttermaker who taught Amanda her famous curve call), but after that relationship ended, Buttermaker faded from Amanda’s life. She is not willing to let him back in so easily and tells him plainly to beat it.
He leaves, but returns after another disappointing Bears performance to once again plead his case. Amanda is wearing another amazing outfit that I now realize probably subconsciously inspired my overall high school “look”: a tube top, flowing skirt, and wide sun hat. This time he resorts to bribery and some baiting. She initially turns down his offer of modeling and ballet lessons, but changes her mind when he slyly remarks, “you wouldn’t have helped the team much. I mean, you were great when you were 9, but girls reach their peak athletically at that age.” Like any self-respecting pre-teen feminist, this is a comment Amanda will not accept. She probably would have done it for free at this point, but cleverly ropes Buttermaker into not only the modeling and 12 ballet lessons, but imported French jeans and a $20 bonus for showing off her curve ball.
As a girl who watched this film many times on TV as a kid, Amanda Whurlitzer was an instant role model. Like her, as a child and teen I was athletic and loved showing up the boys when I could. I grew up enjoying baseball and never quite understood why girls were encouraged to play softball instead when I could easily hit a baseball and run just as fast, if not faster, than the boys. I also grew up hearing the infuriating age old refrain, “you’re okay...for a girl.”
The sight of Amanda in her tube top, flicking her hair out of her eyes with a shake of her head, and lobbing a curve ball into Buttermaker’s waiting glove so fast it makes a cracking sound, is one that burned itself into my brain. I was first to argue when a boy sounded off about boys being better at sports. I played baseball instead of softball because I preferred it. I sprinted faster than most in my grade, including the boys, and was picked as the anchor for our coed baton relay team in high school. I didn’t think it then, but I’m sure on some level exposure to female role models like Amanda had something to do with this defiant confidence.
Amanda had proved herself to me. Now she had to prove herself to her male peers. “How can you teach a 9 year old girl to throw a curve ball?” one of the players asks, incredulous, when Buttermaker talks her up. Despite their own status as rejects, the Bears’ first reaction to tanned, athletic looking Amanda striding on to the field in her bell bottoms and baseball glove is instant skepticism, simply and solely because she’s a girl.
I guess it’s really not that surprising. As history and any of us who have grown up or identify as female can confirm, the only thing perceived as worse than being a non-white, non-Christian, non-English speaking minority is being a girl. The United States still hasn’t had a female president. That speaks volumes; not about the candidates themselves, but about the people voting for them.
Amanda isn’t going in for any misogynistic garbage. “Grab a bat, punk!” she spits out at the first naysayer then throws a pitch so atomic that it knocks him into the dirt. Her team is sold. If only politics (and life) worked that way!
It’s not only that she’s sassy and cool. Amanda has an advantage over the boys: her undeniable talent. She was brought in to save them, whether they like it or not. It’s only after Amanda joins the team that the Bears win their first game. She manages to be better than them without losing an ounce of herself or her femininity. After playing some ball, a later scene shows Amanda dancing in her well earned ballet class. No one can tell her that she can’t do both stereotypical “guy sports” and “girl sports”…and if they did, she probably wouldn’t listen. She can wear a tube top if she damn well pleases AND knock you on your butt with her curve ball. Amanda Whurlitzer is, perhaps, one of the most feminist characters in film history, while offending no one and inspiring many.
This post is part of the Always a Bridesmaid Challenge and Blogathon 2019 for July 22: Your Favorite Character Who is Mocked or Underestimated Due to Gender. #BridesmaidBlogathon2019