Prime Video’s ‘A League of Their Own’ and How to Unwrite a White Savior Narrative

Alison Lanier | TV | August 26, 2022

The original film adaptation of league for themselves (1992) acknowledged the race in exactly one non-speaking sequence: A handful of black men gather on the sidelines during a practice session while the white women play ball. The baseball strays, prompting one of the black women on the sidelines to throw it back – with such force that one of our leading white characters, whose skill and courage on the field are the driving force behind the film, shakes her wrist. The women exchange respectful nods. And the film is again all white.

Not surprisingly, the new Amazon Prime series A league of its own tackles the race so head-on as it brings to the fore all the uncomfortable and unspoken issues of discrimination that the original left in the subtext. It’s set on the same basic premise as the original: a young housewife with her wartime husband, Carson Shaw (Abbi Jacobson), is recruited to be the catcher for an all-women baseball team funded by a candy bar tycoon Make They’re in the MLB money doldrums because so many of their players are overseas. Led by a once-great white baller, this ragtag group of unlikely champions embarks on a journey of camaraderie and self-discovery. There’s the feminine, lipstick-wearing Greta (D’Arcy Carden) and the brash, forceful Jo (Melanie Field), who reinvent the lovable roles of Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, respectively, from the film. There are the aggressively buttery Lupe (Roberta Colindrez) and Jess (Kelly McCormack), as well as the gum-and-pep Maybelle (Molly Ephraim), the shy young Cuban Esti (Priscilla Delgado) and the terrified Shirley (Kate Berlant). ). The team is struggling to come together, fighting sexism and internal friction to earn its place in sports history.

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But alongside the expected cast of white or sufficiently white characters, the series includes a plot centered around a black player, Max (Chanté Adams), who never got a chance to play on the team. Her best friend Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and she get factory jobs after Max is turned away from auditions, and Max embarks on her own journey to become a ballplayer, discovering her queerness and the community of queer people around her in the process.

I was initially quite ambivalent when the new series was supposed to address race and sexuality. Maybe Hidden Numbers and Green Book still stuck in my teeth, but I had a sinking feeling that we were about to get a fairytale version of the story in which the All-American League was an integrated mishmash of cultures and colors holding hands and Kumbaya sang. But that’s not at all what the show gave us.

The white protagonists – including those discriminated against because of their sexuality – are not free from betraying the fact of their own unconscious prejudice and privilege. And they will be asked about it.

The white characters, who clearly think they’re good people, consistently fail to stand up for the people of color who face discrimination around them. Carson says nothing when Max is thrown off the field during rehearsal. When Max later throws this betrayal in her face again, Carson has no answer – almost as if she doesn’t remember her role/inaction at all, as if she chose to have Max’s exclusion as nothing to do with her to see. Similarly, Carson gets into an argument with Lupe during a game, and conveniently Carson gets the benefit of the doubt while Lupe is scolded as a troublemaker. Why do you think that, Hermano? Lupe asks another white teammate.

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In these moments, much remains unsaid. Carson, always trying to get the upper hand and keep everyone together, still – unconsciously – accepts the benefits of her privilege. It doesn’t make her a villain or an unlikable character, but neither does she feel reassured that oh, it’s okay because she didn’t intend it. Carson himself is very afraid of being discriminated against as “inverse sexuality”; 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 of the possibility that her dignified facade can’t protect her privacy.

There are many different worlds operating at the same time A league of its own, and they clash sharply at every point where the white savior trope might rear its ugly head. Carson is not magically immune to bigotry, nor is she a fighter for the other downtrodden people around her. She does not speak for them or depict oppressed people passively waiting to be saved. Carson can’t even risk her own reputation to defend Jo after she was outed by a gar bar raid and police beatings. Even Clance, a sunshine character, emphatically tells Max that it’s “not your fault” that her trans uncle is a “freak,” unaware that her best friend wrestles 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 kind) in which the discriminated just wait for a more privileged voice to speak for them. That doesn’t happen in this story. In the end everyone speaks for themselves.

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A league of its own is an excellent exercise in coming to terms with flawed but lovable characters, a realism about privilege and discrimination no doubt supported by the superb and mostly non-white writers behind the show. It’s also revealing how historical storytelling doesn’t have to wave a magic wand over the protagonists’ perceptions of differences to make them heroes. That’s not to say that the quiet, unbridled sexism of shows pleases mad Men or game of Thrones is an ideal (the grittier realistic errors, the better, etc.); rather, there are clear lines of suspicion and uneasiness, and an empathetic depiction of harm and resilience. It’s a candid portrayal of privilege, fear and pain that allows for both the ugly and the uplifting.

…And here, just from the giggles and twitches, I’m scared:

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