Penny Marshall, who died Monday of complication from diabetes, was one of Hollywood’s important feminist trailblazers – though she often pushed back against that label.
Setting aside the fact that she literally played a character called Liberation Lady in the forgotten 1971 TV movie The Feminist and the Fuzz or that she visits the Feminist Bookstore in Portlandia, perhaps the most feminist character she ever portrayed is also her most popular: Laverne DeFazio.
Laverne endured on television from 1975 to 1983, first on her brother Garry Marshall’s show Happy Days and then on its spinoff Laverne & Shirley. In between she appeared in the pilot for Mork & Mindy, the Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour and the short-lived cartoon Laverne & Shirley in the Army.
Laverne was not a television character who was out burning bras or beating her chest in the name of feminism. Instead, she embodied its ideals. The show was about two women who roomed together and worked as bottle-cappers on the production line of the fake Shotz Brewery.
The sitcom shared a certain DNA with The Mary Tyler Moore show, which preceded it by six years. But it had one especially significant difference. While Moore’s character Mary Richards was a single, working woman – something that was rare on television – she held the white-collar job of associate producer for a television news program, Laverne and Shirley worked in the traditionally masculine, blue-collar world of beer-making.
Laverne didn’t have many stereotypical feminine traits. Much of the show’s humor derived from the fact that she was terrible at household chores like cooking.
The show ran in what the FCC declared in 1975 to be the Family Viewing Hour, which featured strict regulations on content. So while Mary Tyler Moore’s character had sex and spoke about it – even in winking ways – that was nearly off the table for Laverne & Shirley. They were generally encouraged to avoid even uttering the word “sex.” So, as a workaround, they referred to it as “voh-de-oh-doh-doh.”
Perhaps the most feminist aspect of the show, however, was right there in the famous opening jingle: “Give us any chance, we’ll take it. Give us any rule, we’ll break it. We’re going to make our dreams come true, doing it our way.”
Marshall certainly did things her own way. Toward the end of the show’s run, she began directing herself in a few episodes. When it concluded, she launched directly into directing feature films, where she quickly made her mark.
Her first movie, the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin’ Jack Flash, earned about $30 million on an $18 million budget. But she made history with her next film, 1998’s Big starring Tom Hanks, which had the same budget and earned more than $150 million.
It made Marshall the first woman to direct a movie grossing more than $100 million.
That level of success opens doors. She followed it up by directing Robert De Niro and Robin Williams in the film version of Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings.
Her true passion, as she’s said in interviews over the years, was sports and movies about them. When it came time for her to direct her own sports movie, she chose to center it on the real-life story of the country’s first female professional baseball league.
A League of Their Own, with Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Hanks, is often celebrated as a feminist text. It was about women carving out a space for themselves in a male-centric world after being denied the same space as their male counterparts.
League was the first of several movies she made that featured women in lead roles, including The Preacher’s Wife and Riding in Cars With Boys.
But perhaps one reason Marshall wasn’t often seen as a feminist was how much she balked at the label. As the New York Times reported in 1992, “She becomes irritated when asked whether directing League was a consciously feminist act.”
“I hadn’t worked with so many women before,” she told the newspaper. “I thought it was something I should do. Cause I keep getting asked about it. But I wasn’t doing it just to do a women’s picture. ‘Women’s issue’ is a turnoff altogether. The problems as they’re presented in the movie apply to both men and women – it’s about ‘Don’t be ashamed of your talents.’ It’s a universal thing.”
Regardless of Marshall’s intentions, she was widely celebrated as a feminist icon in the hours after news of her death broke. As one user wrote, “Penny Marshall didn’t talk about feminism. She just cast real women in her movies and gave them lives.”
“A League of Their Own has been a constant feminist inspiration and provided me with a heroine for years (Marla Hooch). Thank you for giving my generation a spectrum of gender in this ensemble cast when we were tweens,” tweeted the female-led punk band Worriers.
Writer Anna Fitzpatrick tweeted, “truly though, thank you Penny Marshall for making my bro, the bro-iest of bros, into a feminist.”
“Penny Marshall broke barriers for women” in directing, tweeted one user. “Her vision, her lack of fear, her comedy, her talent, her fierce feminism & empowerment of women, will ALL be missed.”