Last Thursday President Joe Biden graced Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the sacred ground upon which the nation’s founders signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, where he delivered a speech billed as a battle cry in the fight for the soul of the nation.
Speaking at this historic site, Biden sought to remind Americans of the nation’s origins and history and thus reconnect the citizenry with the foundational spirit and meaning of democracy at a moment when autocratic forces in the Republican Party and broader white supremacist right wing want to roll back any and all progress America has made toward realizing its ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy.
One speech, of course, will not abruptly revitalize the spirit of democracy in America’s soul. A broader cultural front or engagement is and will be necessary to underscore what is at stake for Americans should the current and unrelenting right-wing assault on democracy succeed at all. The nation is already experiencing the horrors of the right wing’s success in overturning Roe v. wade.
A recent cultural production that effectively joins Biden in the fight for the soul of America is the television series A League of Their Own, created by Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham and currently available on Amazon Prime. The series is a fictional dramatization of the historical and actual women’s professional baseball league that formed during World War II when many American men were, obviously, in combat overseas. We older viewers will remember seeing this historical episode come to life on the big screen in 1992 in the film by the same title, directed by Penny Marshall and featuring stars such as Madonna, Tom hanks, Geena Davis, and Rosie O’Donnell (who has a role in this series).
This series updates that film and, arguably, confronts both the undemocratic realities of American history and the nation’s possibilities more directly.
For example, while the 1992 film represented the women ballplayers’ romantic lives overwhelmingly in heterosexual terms, the television series represents characters’ sexualities and sexual identities in multifarious and gender-fluid ways. Several of the ballplayers—and other characters—are lesbian, and the series features a character who is a transgender man. Representing a fuller range of Americans’ sexualities and gender identities, the series also dramatizes the repressiveness and discrimination characterizing this historical era in which LGBTQ identities and sexualities were criminalized.
The series dramatizes characters living covertly and in fear of exposure when it comes to asserting, even revealing, their sexual identities or expressing themselves romantically or sexually. In one scene, we see gay and lesbian characters in an underground bar in Rockford, Illinois (the series focuses on the Rockford Peaches, an actual team of the era). The scene is a joyous one where the characters are represented as having a space where they can be themselves fully and, momentarily, without fear. They are from all walks of life, including members of the U.S. military. The image of American-ness, or American collective identity, is one that includes people of all gender and sexual identities.
And then this rather utopian space is raided by the police, underscoring the reality of a repressive and discriminatory reality that criminalizes entire segments of American society because of who they are, depriving them of the freedoms and equality that characterize democratic culture and society.
The scene gives us a glimpse of possibility, a momentary vision of what an inclusive democracy that accepted and embraced all Americans, instead of criminalizing some identities, might look like. And it underscores ways not just that the nation fell short in earlier historical moments, but also ways that homophobia and anti-LGBTQ legislation—such as “Don’t Say Gay” laws—are undermining the nation’s full realization of democracy in the present. The series implicitly warns us of what the society Clarence Thomas foresees in his concurring opinion in the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, would look like, a world where same-sex marriage and, indeed, LGBTQ sexual practices are outlawed—in short, an undemocratic society.
And the series also confronts and underscores the damage racial segregation and discrimination historically inflicted on American society and people of color in America, accentuating as well how racism undermines democracy and is an element of an autocratic, undemocratic society.
The African American character Maxine Chapman isn’t allowed to even try out to play in the league because she’s Black, despite it being abundantly clear she’s a superior player. Likewise, the local factory, Rockford Tool and Screw, which is manufacturing planes to support the war effort, initially won’t hire her because she’s a Black woman, while they do hire white women and Black men.
Finally, she does get a job, initially pretending to be a man, as is able to work in the factory, where labor is desperately needed to help protect the freedom and democracy for some in America and around the globe.
What see as the series represents women and people of color being given opportunities to develop their talents and skills and contribute to America, is that America is not achieving and becoming all that it can be by repressing people’s talents and identities—and it is far from achieving or living up to its democratic ideals when it does so.
The series wants to show us a possible America, a democratic America free of racism, sexism, and homophobia, while us making us aware of how theses repressive and discriminatory forces undermine democracy and cultivate an unhappy world of fear and violence.
At one point, before the Rockford Peaches play for the championship, the players sing a song at the urging of one of the players who is a Cuban immigrant. The song goes:
Hear that call
The time has come
For one and all
To play ball
We are the members
Of the All-American League
We come from cities
Near and Far
We got Canadians,
Irish, and Swedes.
We’re all for one
We’re one for all
The song itself falls short, clearly, of including all Americans in its democratic vision, but it hints at a growing inclusiveness, limited by historical reality.
The series tries to help us imagine a more expansive America, and to help us see the benefits of a world free from fear and fully democratic.
While far from perfect, A League of Their Own, like Biden’s speech, tries to push the soul of America to embrace a more perfect union.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.