With women’s football gaining more public interest than ever, what perfect timing to launch and run the West End musical version of the 2002 footie film, Bend It Like Beckham. I googled ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ to purchase tickets to help with my January blues, the first image which appeared on the web browser was the iconic, money shot of Keira Knightley (Jules) and Parminder Nagra (Jesminda/Jess) hugging, laughing and looking fabulous in football gear. Keira is baring her super toned torso and football training, a very familiar look…hmmm, sexist? I failed to hear the critiques cry.
Like the film, the musical tells the story of a young daughter’s rebellion against her traditional Sikh background in pursuing her passion for playing football. The daughter, Jess, is pushed into chasing her dream of becoming a professional footballer (soccer star) in America by Jules, a girl who sees Jess’ talent and gets her to join her football team, and Joe, the coach of the team who Jess later goes on to develop feelings for (very typical, I know).The story explores themes that are still so very relevant in a modern society, dealing with sexism, sexuality and the expectations put upon women and according to culture norms and religion. For the purpose of this post, it is the sexism aspects of Bend It Like Beckham which I am particularly interested in as it is a term we have heard crop up recently.
Despite cultural differences, Jess and Jules both find themselves in a situation where their mothers do not approve of their dedication to playing football. The title of the film, and now musical, represents the tension between Mrs. Bhamra (Jess’ mum), Mrs. Paxton (Jules’ mum) and their daughters because of how they “bend” established cultural and gender roles. The mums often appear with food in the film, which becomes associated with their opposition to their daughters’ ‘boyish’ behaviour…because we all know what makes real women is skills in the kitchen, yes sexist again.
Jules’s family represents the average family living in Hounslow in the early twenty-first century, there is a certain image of femininity to which Jules’ mother, Paula expects her daughter to conform. Paula’s initial view is that Jules shouldn’t play football because ‘she is a girl’. Both mums are stereotypical (nonsense in my opinion) caricatures rather than fully fleshed characters with their attitude towards their daughters and football. Paula’s strangely obsessive fear that playing football has affected her daughter’s sexuality is ridiculous, sexist and sadly the stigma which is still attached to women’s football!
“There’s a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella!” (Oi Paula, I’m telling Mel C!)
Jess’ mother, Mrs. Bhamra is an excellent example of ideal Indian femininity because she is almost always shown preparing, serving, or eating food (makes my belly rumble). According to feminist philosopher Uma Narayan, cooking is especially emblematic of Indian culture, a proper Indian woman should know how to cook. Again this view is universal despite cultural differences. The preparation of these meals is a symbol of continuity of culture, as are her attempts to teach her daughters. When Jess shows no interest in learning to cook, she is acting outside of proper gender roles and jeopardising her future within the Indian community as well as bringing shame to her family. A scene that illustrates this perfectly is the argument between Jess and her mother after she discovers that Jess has joined a girls’ team. Jess is on the couch with her parents lecturing her, a scene which everyone can relate to. Mrs. Bhamra is worried about the only future she can perceive for her daughter. Mrs. Bhamra’s anxious view of women’s footballers not uncommon, “Don’t play football you can’t make a real living out of it” “It’s a mans game”
“What family will want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking football all day but can’t make round chapattis?”
Because this film is a comedy, the final results are happy: two content families, two best friends, and a new and multicultural definition of what it means to be a young British woman. BUT sadly that’s not how the world works and these sexist views are still very relevant.
There are several examples of sexism that are explored in the story but nobody seemed to mind Keira training in her very Lingerie Football League styled kit. Why is it acceptable for Keira but not for us? Or maybe it’s because we use the forbidden word LINGERIE?
I would love to hear your thoughts?
p.s watch the trailer for Bend It Like Beckham the musical below…warning this clip contains females playing football and showing their torso…not for the faint hearted