The original film version of League of Their Own (1992) acknowledged race in exactly one non-speaking sequence: a handful of Black folks cluster by the sidelines during a practice while the white women play ball. The baseball goes astray, prompting one of the Black women by the sidelines to throw it back—with such force that one of our lead white characters, whose skill and moxie on the field is the driving force behind the movie, shakes out her wrist. The women exchange respectful nods. And the movie goes back to being exclusively white.
It isn’t necessarily surprising that the new Amazon Prime series A League of Their Own tackles race so head on, given that it puts at the forefront all the uncomfortable and unspoken questions of discrimination that the original left lying in the subtext. It plays on the same basic premise as the original: a young housewife with her husband off at war, Carson Shaw (Abbi Jacobson), is recruited to be the catcher for an all-women’s baseball team bankrolled by a candy-bar tycoon looking to make a buck in the lull of the MLB, given that so many of its players are overseas. The ragtag group of unlikely champs, under the guidance of a once-great white male ballplayer, sets out on a journey toward comradeship and self-discovery. There’s the high-femme, lipsticked Greta (D’Arcy Carden) and brash, powerful Jo (Melanie Field), reinventing the endearing Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell roles respectively from the film. There’s the aggressively butch Lupe (Roberta Colindrez) and Jess (Kelly McCormack), as well as the bubblegum-and-pep Maybelle (Molly Ephraim), the shy young Cuban Esti (Priscilla Delgado), and the anxiety-ridden Shirley (Kate Berlant). The team struggles to come together, fighting sexism and internal friction to achieve their place in sports history.
But besides the expected cast of white or sufficiently-white-passing characters, the series includes a plotline focused around a Black player, Max (Chanté Adams), who was never even given the chance to play on the team. Her best friend Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and she get factory jobs after Max is turned away from tryouts, and Max undertakes her own journey toward becoming a ballplayer, along the way discovering her queerness and the community of queer folks around her.
I was initially pretty ambivalent when the new series was said to be planning to speak to race and sexuality. Maybe Hidden Figures and Green Book were still stuck in my teeth, but I had a bad feeling that we were about to get a fairytale version of history wherein the All-American League was an integrated mixing pot of cultures and colors holding hands and singing kumbaya. But that isn’t at all what the show gave us.
The white protagonists—even those discriminated against for their sexuality—are not exempt from betraying the fact of their own unconscious prejudice and privilege. And they’re called out on it.
The white characters, who clearly think of themselves as good people, repeatedly fail to step up for the people of color facing discrimination around them. Carson doesn’t say a thing when Max is ejected from the field during tryouts. When Max throws that betrayal back in her face later on, Carson has no response—almost as if she does not remember her role/her inaction at all, as if she chose to see Max’s exclusion as nothing to do with her. Similarly, Carson gets into a scrap with Lupe during a game, and conveniently enough Carson is given the benefit of the doubt while Lupe gets scolded as the troublemaker. Why do you think that is, hermano? Lupe asks another white teammate.
There’s a lot going eloquently unsaid in these moments. Carson, always trying to take the high ground and hold everyone together, still—unconsciously—accepts the benefits of her privilege. It doesn’t make her a villain or unsympathetic character, but neither is she reassured that oh, it’s all right, because she didn’t mean to. Carson herself is terrified of being subject to discrimination as a “sexual invert”; much of the show follows her journey of discovering her sexuality and slowly embracing it through her tenuous relationship with Greta, who is similarly petrified by the possibility that her dignified façade won’t be able to protect her privacy.
There are many different worlds operating simultaneously in A League of Their Own, and they clash pointedly at each point where the white savior trope could rear its ugly head. Carson isn’t magically immune to bigotry, nor is she a crusading champion for the other oppressed people around her. She doesn’t speak for them or portray oppressed folks as passively waiting to be saved. Carson can’t even risk her own reputation to defend Jo after she’s outed via gar bar raid and police beating. Even Clance, a ray-of-sunshine character, emphatically tells Max it’s “not your fault” that her trans uncle is a “freak,” unaware that her best friend is wrestling with her sexual and gender identity. It’s not a condemnation of either character. It’s also the opposite of the white savior trope (of whatever flavor), in which the discriminated-against are just waiting for a more privileged voice to speak up for them. That doesn’t happen in this story. Everybody ends up speaking for themselves.
A League of Their Own is an excellent exercise at facing off with flawed but endearing characters, a realism toward privilege and discrimination no doubt helped by the excellent and largely non-white writers behind the show. It’s also instructive on how historical storytelling doesn’t have to wave a magic wand over protagonists’ perception of difference to make them into the hero. That isn’t to say that the calm, rampant sexism of shows like Mad Men or Game of Thrones is an ideal (the more gritty realistic flaws the better, etc); rather, there are clear lines of assumption and discomfort and an empathetic depiction of harm and resilience. It’s a good-faith portrayal of bubbles of privilege, fear, and pain that allows for the ugly as well as the uplifting.
…And here, just for the chuckles and the cringe, is what I was afraid of: