Screen

A League of Their Own: Queer Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

I confess that I’ve never really been the kind of fan who shipped characters or felt inspired to create fan art for a show, but A League of Their Own (Amazon Studios, 2022) is honestly like nothing else I’ve seen on tv and I suddenly found myself, in my late 40s, making the modern equivalent of a mix tape love letter to a fictional queer romance. By that I mean a Spotify playlist that uses songs as narrative building blocks to tell the story of the relationship between Greta (D’Arcy Carden) and Carson (Abbi Jacobson) as it unfolds during the first season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943. The show is remarkable in the nuanced way it represents queer relationships and friendships, queer history, the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, and how beautifully it tells the stories of a real range of queer people from a genuinely queer perspective. (I chose “queer” for this article to avoid excluding any of their identities, even though most of them very likely are and would have at the time identified as lesbians).

My feeling about A League of Their Own is a lot like when Carson says to Greta: “You did this to me! I was fine before,” but like Carson, I wasn’t really fine before. The show has touched me in ways I didn’t know I needed, like that moment when you see yourself reflected in someone else and it helps you love yourself just a little bit more. It reminded me what it feels like to create your chosen family, to understand who you are, to know that you’ve found your place and it’s worth fighting for the sheer joy of that even as the world tries to take it away from you. It also brought home to me once again why it’s so incredibly important for LGBTQIA2+ and BIPOC artists to be given the platform and support to tell their own stories in ways that truly reflect their experiences, because just seeing those stories on screen has the power to heal, change minds, and transform lives.

The A League of Their Own show (ALOTO) was created by Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham based off of Penny Marshall’s movie of the same name. There are plenty of satisfying references thrown in, but this version tells the stories that Marshall couldn’t tell or left out in 1992. That was the same year that Claire of the Moon (Demi-Monde Productions) came out, which I think might have brought the total number of post-Hays Code films where being in love with another woman didn’t end in disaster up to two. Half of the show follows the Rockford Peaches through their first season in the league. It mostly focuses on the stories of the queer players, including the romance between Greta and Carson, and the barriers star pitcher Lupe García (Roberta Colindrez) struggles to break through as a butch queer Latina in a culture that defines her as white without actually treating her as white. The other half takes the movie scene where a Black woman throws an incredible pitch but is turned away from the all-white try-outs and spins off from a new version of that moment to tell the story of pitcher Max Chapman (Chanté Adams) and her best friend Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo) as Max fights for the chance to play ball. The only thing Max loves as much as baseball is Clance, and their relationship is one of my favorite tv friendships of all time. They support each other as Clance works to find her voice through the comics she draws and Max struggles to find her own queer identity. The counterpoint between the two storylines spotlights all of the ways Max’s experience as a Black queer woman and Carson’s as a white queer woman align and diverge, both on and off the field.  

There may have been no crying in baseball, but it turns out there were plenty of queers in baseball. It’s hard to gauge how many of the players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL, 1943-1954) were lesbians, queer and/or trans since most of them were never able to be out about it, but Maybelle Blair, who has a brief cameo and actually came out herself during a panel for the show in June 2022 at age 95, estimated that “…out of 650, I bet you 400 was gay.” Even though the need for so many men at the front during WWII temporarily resulted in some degree of racial desegregation and opened more doors for women, there was still a huge stigma around homosexuality. Shock therapy and transorbital “ice pick” lobotomies were routinely used as “cures” for “sexual deviancy” in the 1940s and 1950s. Any AAGPBL players who cut their hair short, wore men’s pants, or did anything else that made them look like a potential lesbian was in danger of being kicked out of the league. The girls had to attend Helena Rubinstein’s charm school, where they were told what to wear and how to act like “ladies”, but in private the queer girls still found ways to get together. They blocked their doors with chairs, went out to secret gay bars, and brought each other home for the holidays as “friends”. Some of them even spent their whole lives together as “roommates” or “cousins”, like Peoria Redwings player Terry Donahue and her partner Pat Henschel who were a couple for over 65 years without anyone in their family knowing. There’s a lovely documentary about them called A Secret Love (Netflix, 2020), if you want to get all sniffy watching them get married on Terry’s 90th birthday.

Despite having no canonically queer characters, the A League of Their Own movie is still an iconic gay film with plenty of opportunities to read in queer subtext, but what I love so much about the show is that I don’t have to read myself into it. So much of the history of queerness in media is invisible ink – searching for ourselves in the subtext, reading or writing our stories between the lines where queer lives have existed for so long. With ALOTO they don’t compromise and that means I don’t have to compromise either. And I’m so sick of having to compromise. I’m tired of stories where a character or relationship is queer but the culture and details around them aren’t, so it has no depth and doesn’t really resonate. ALOTO is queer all the way down, from the casting and details of the characters to the central emotional challenges they struggle with to the little offhand comments and gestures in the background. The characters experiences are rooted in complex identities that blend sex and gender, orientation, age, neurology, race, culture, and trauma. There is even a Black trans character played by a Black trans actor (Lea Robinson) – something that should not be incredibly rare but sadly still is – and a Rosie O’Donnell cameo that allows her to finally play the dapper butch her movie character, Doris, never got the chance to be.

ALOTO doesn’t compromise about showing both queer pain and queer joy either. They aren’t afraid to show the things that need to be shown even though they’re hard to watch and aren’t what we want to see happen for the characters we love. The violence and discrimination that queer and BIPOC people lived with is all there, but the heart of the show is joy and love. I don’t want to say too much about what happens because I feel like there’s something lost in not getting to just watch it unfold, but that joy is there in the moments that Carson and Greta steal alone together. It’s there in the community that the queer Peaches build with one another and that Max finds with her uncle’s help. It’s there in the absolutely adorable and unbreakable friendship between Max and Clance, and in the way Greta and Jo (Melanie Field) have become each other’s family. It’s there in spades in the beautiful relationships between the older butch-femme couples who have carved out spaces for themselves to live in the world together, as they are, in spite of the risks and sacrifices that come with that choice. And there is so much joy in all the times these women who love baseball just get to play the game. Ultimately their stories are not defined by what other people and society do to them or threaten them with, but by them surviving, finding their place in the world together, and pursuing what makes them happy. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike and ALOTO does it extremely well.

All of this makes the show sound really serious, but it’s also very funny. There’s an underlying comedy sketch structure to a bunch of the scenes, which makes sense, since comedy is a big part of what Abbi Jacobson, D’Arcy Carden, Gbemisola Ikumelo, and Kate Berlant (Shirley) do. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything so you’ll just have to watch the show to see what I mean, but the opening scene where Carson is running to catch the train, the triple date with Greta, Carson, and Shirley, and Clance’s rant on the Wizard of Oz are all brilliant, and the scene where Shirley kisses Carson is absolutely hilarious. Having Shirley, who I’m pretty sure is autistic, act as the amplifier of homophobia and the anxieties and prejudices of society is a really interesting choice because she takes everything literally and to its most extreme logical conclusion, which exposes how bananas it is in a way that people who are allistic often disguise just enough to maintain plausible deniability about what they’re actually saying. I really enjoyed the arc of her friendship with Carson and seeing her find her own path to happiness. And speaking of friendship, Abbi and D’Arcy are best friends in real life, which I can only think must be part of how they were able to make the relationship between Carson and Greta feel so tender and raw and magical.

All of this is to say that this show made me laugh and cry, and reminded me who I am, where I come from, and where I belong. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that A League of Their Own broke my heart open and put it back together again, and I feel stronger afterwards than I did before.

If you happen to be looking for a soundtrack to play while you re-live Greta and Carson’s romance in your head, give my playlist a try:

You can find more info on the songs and my creative process (aka what the heck I was thinking when I chose them) at critterlab.ca.

~~~

Alex MacFadyen went down a rabbit hole researching for this article and didn’t have room to include all of the history he would have liked, so here are some additional historical notes and links for folks who feel inclined to go down the rabbit hole after him:

  • There were only 3 women who played in the Negro Leagues, including the first female pitcher, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, who was actually turned away from AAGPBL tryouts. You can hear her tell the story herself in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project.
  • The Dolly Vardens were a Black women’s baseball team who played in the Philadelphia area in the mid-19th century and were listed as professionals, appearing in the papers starting in 1867, but little is known about the team because the articles about them focused more on the uniforms than the players or games.
  • There were female managers for some of the AAGPBL teams, including Mary Baker, who was an all-star catcher with the Kalamazoo Lassies and was both the only woman in the history of the league to be offered a contract to manage a team and the only one to serve as both player and manager at the same time.
  • Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were nemeses. She once commissioned Salvador Dalí to design a powder compact for her, and her second marriage was at age 68 to a Georgian prince 23 years younger than herself.
  • Jackie Ormes was the first black syndicated cartoonist in America who published one of her comic strips, Candy¸ in the Defender, as well as writing freelance articles about labor issues, women’s rights, and racial equality. Fingers crossed that this piece of history bodes well for Clance’s storyline! You can read more about her in “The Amazing Jackie Ormes” by the Gutter’s own Carol Borden.
  • From 1934 to 1968, The Motion Picture Association of America enforced the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, which was a set of film censorship guidelines designed to restrict representation and normalization of behaviors they considered immoral. Among other things, the code banned profanity, nudity, drug use, miscegenation, and “sexual perversion”, which included prohibitions against showing “impure love” as “attractive and beautiful” or in a way that would “arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.” The code still allowed for negative depictions of homosexuality as a cautionary tale.
  • One of the first works of fiction that actually used the word “lesbian” in print and did not end with the character trying to become straight or ending up miserable and alone was Diana: A Strange Autobiography (1939). The Publisher’s Note for the 1939 edition read: “This is the autobiography of a woman who tried to be normal.”

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