Penny Marshall, who died Monday at 75, is best known for portraying Laverne DeFazio on “Laverne & Shirley.” As it happens, that role was also her most feminist — and it was indicative the type of feminism Marshall displayed in her own life.
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 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 such as cooking.
The show ran in what the Federal Communications Commission 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.”
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, 1988′s “Big” starring Tom Hanks, which had the same budget and earned more than $150 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’s book “Awakenings.”
Her true passion, as she 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 is 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:
“‘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.”