Most gay or bi women I know have watched a great deal of very bad TV. That’s not because there isn’t anything out there for us – gone are the days when pretty much the only option was The L Word. But good, non-tokenistic, non-queerbaiting on-screen representation of lesbians is still relatively uncommon, making the recent TV version of A League of Their Own a rare and special thing.
Co-created by Abbi Jacobson of Broad City, who also stars, what has been called the “lesbian baseball show” on social media has broadly the same premise as the 1993 film, which is based on the real-life sportswomen who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the second world war. But this version focuses on the voices that were largely left out of the original: the Black women who were barred from playing in the league, and the queer players who secretly went to illegal gay bars together.
I have come to be sceptical of historical queer dramas – think Carol/Ammonite/Patsy and Delia’s storyline in Call the Midwife – because of their tendency to focus heavily on the trope of forbidden love, glamourising the pain of being gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
It is no bad thing to reflect on how far we have come, of course, and to remember that queer people have always existed. But this approach can easily slip into, for want of a better phrase, “trauma porn”. To me, these dramas seem to serve a straight audience of self-proclaimed “allies”, who can wince at how hard things were for LGBT+ people before patting themselves on the back because things have improved.
So when something comes along like A League of Their Own, a show that is euphorically, unapologetically gay, that reflects on the past but speaks to the present, I get excited. And I am not the only one: the Amazon Prime Video series has been out for less than a month and social media users are already declaring it one of the greatest queer shows of all time.
There are two kinds of shows that contain queer characters, what I’ll call type A: explicitly queer shows watched almost exclusively by queer people (The L Word, Queer As Folk, Lip Service); and type B: mainstream shows with LGBT+ storylines (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Orange Is the New Black, Sex Education). Type A shows seem to be dying out, a byproduct of queer people (or at least gay people) becoming more widely accepted. Type B shows, while symbolic of positive change, risk being tokenistic, depicting, for example, a “gay best friend” character within an otherwise straight cast.
A League of Their Own falls into a new, third category: like type A shows, it has an ensemble of queer characters, rather than just one or two, but like type B shows, it is marketed at a general audience. There are, by my count, at least nine named queer characters in A League of Their Own. This means that, as well as some of the best queer love stories I have seen on screen (I defy anyone who watches this show not to fall at least a little in love with D’Arcy Carden, as bizarre as that may seem to those who know her as Janet from The Good Place), there is also an abundance of queer friendship in the show.
Jacobson and her co-creator Will Graham understand what the creators of the shows Pose and It’s a Sin also understood: that LGBT+ people do not live – have never lived – in isolation. We have always sought each other out and formed communities, and good on-screen representation of queer people shows that.
A League of Their Own and It’s a Sin – both shows which, by no coincidence, have a significant number of queer people in their casts and creative teams – represent a tidal change in queer TV, especially in terms of their place in the landscape of historical dramas. Both shows, like many before them, address the difficulties of being gay at the times they are set in, but their characters also find so much joy in their queerness. This is epitomised by one of the final lines in It’s a Sin: “That’s what people forget – that it was so much fun.” What’s more, these shows move the present-day conversation forward: the inclusion of a Black trans character in A League of Their Own feels groundbreaking at a time when trans identities are under attack, while It’s a Sin raised national awareness of HIV to the point that during 2021’s National HIV Testing Week, which coincided with the show’s release, the Terrence Higgins Trust recorded a record-breaking 8,207 test orders (the record before this was 2,709).
I hope these shows set the bar higher for future queer period dramas – and queer dramas in general – and I hope TV and film producers continue to trust that shows about communities of queer people will appeal to wide audiences. But, for now, I’m happy to bask in the enjoyment of watching A League of their Own, a show that is both very, very gay – and very, very good.