Review of a Film from a Feminist Perspective
Blog #4 by Becky Tirabassi
Both charming and humorous, Bend It Like Beckham (2002) was a box-office success, not only for the production studio, but for three of the main actors whose career’s it launched: Parminder Nagra (currently on a hit US television show—E.R.), Keira Knightley (blockbuster movie actress in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels), and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Golden Globe winning movie actor). More importantly, it presented the “hot topics,” familiar to feminists—racism, sexism, religion, and discrimination—as common struggles of men and women of all ages, religions and races.
The creative storyline included a role reversal of sorts, as two young women who loved (and exceeded at) the sport of football were both misunderstood by their parents. Jess, the Indian daughter of a Sikh father, who himself had been kicked off an athletic team as a young man for wearing a turban, found himself both sympathetic and empathetic of his daughter’s desire to play a sport in which she was being forbidden to play for reasons outside of her control. The other young woman, Jules, was constantly pressured (and questioned) by her mother for being too athletic and masculine, not feminine enough…and possibly lesbian.1
The continuously humorous interaction between the teammates, parents and children, friends, and siblings from both the English and Indian cultures made the movie less about promoting an agenda and more about presenting the reality of prejudice, family of origin constraints that are a part of every ethnicity and/or race, the sacredness of handed-down religious traditions, and the discrimination of women in sport.
From a feminist perspective, this film powerfully, yet subtly presented important themes, dealing with issues of gender, race, and religion. First, both Jess’s friend and father—two Indian men who respected her talents and wanted her to succeed—were willing to make sacrifices for her to step out from under the cultural barriers of her religion. Second, Jules’ family conceded that their daughter was “born to be an athlete” and this was not something unusual for a female, but a wonderfully positive characteristic of their child. Third, a script that shows how people of different races and religions can respect and even enjoy each other’s differences is a brilliant way to change the culture.
Finally, on a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and related to many aspects of it. But the movie primarily created awareness and interest for me in (1) the British Indian Sikh religion and traditions, as well as (2) the history of Women’s football.
Just minimal research of the Sikh religion, revealed that a father’s concession to a daughter to professionally play a sport or leave in the middle of a traditional wedding of a family member would have been highly unusual—and very progressive. But because the storyline included a time in the father’s life when he was held back from his own athletic pursuits as a young man, it made the plot seem as if it could have been a real life dilemma or situation.2
The history of women who played football was an even more surprising “find.” Wikipedia reports that the Europe’s earliest women’s football matches dates back to the 12th century, and 1st and 2nd century frescoes show women playing an ancient version of the game in the Hans Dynasty (25-220 CE). Of course, as an American woman who has only seen women playing collegiate or professional soccer for only a few decades, this was an astonishing fact. In fact, in 1894, activist Nettie Honeyball, founder of the British Ladies Football Club is quoted as saying, "I founded the association late last year , with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured. I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most."3 Honeyball’s reference to sports being an avenue for garnering a greater voice for women to reach a broader audience with a dynamic message is historic.
Overall, I felt this film gave a very realistic view of the difficulties, pressures and prejudices women in sport face—and will continue to face—because of family expectations, lack of opportunity, gender and cultural barriers, as well as religious traditions. More importantly, Bend It Like Beckham not only presented a victory for two trailblazing young women who followed their dreams and rallied their family and friends to support them, but it showed others how to do it!
Resources where readers can learn more about the film: