Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham has shown to delighted audiences around the world. Released during the soccer World Cup (and just before it in Britain in case the Brits did poorly), the film capitalised on interest in the game with its good-humoured look at a young 18 year old’s passion for playing soccer. Where the film would seem to break new ground is that the 18 year old is not only a girl, but also of Indian Sikh background. In allowing Jess (Jasminder) to follow her sporting dreams to professionalism rather than the path her parents initially expect of her (university then marriage), the film stretches the boundaries of race, gender, and generation, allowing audiences the opportunity to identify with an atypical protagonist. The film won almost universal goodwill from critics and audiences alike, however Jess’ success seems to be predicated on the assumption that the audience will only accept a British Indian girl’s love of soccer if any taint of lesbianism is expelled from the film.
Girls’ team sport has not much of a public following, yet Beckham topped the British charts for weeks, was voted viewers’ favourite in the Sydney Film Festival, and screened for months in Australian cinemas and elsewhere around the world. While Beckham’s name may have helped draw the crowds, a summary of the subject matter might be expected to have turned them away, rather than dragged them in. When Chandra was attempting to raise finance for the film, the response was invariably, “Soccer? Girl Soccer? Indian girl soccer? – no way!” (Urban) While it is true that positioning an audience to side with a protagonist can result in the most unexpected identifications, women’s sport often attracts either uneasiness or indifference rather than delight and acceptance. By having one set of fears allayed, an audience can often be induced to identify with a cause they might otherwise feel ambivalent about. If Jess is shown to conventionally love a man, then her love of soccer is rendered so much more acceptable.
While the reception of women’s sport in the West has come a long way from the alarm which greeted its inception in the late nineteenth century, it still poses something of a conundrum in the public sphere. The first women’s professional soccer match, played in London in 1895, was treated with scorn by the press. In the early 1920s in Britain, men’s clubs stalled the development of women’s soccer (which consisted of about 150 clubs) when they refused to let women use their pitches. Currently women’s soccer is on the rise, especially in the US, but the press in particular often find it, and other non-traditional female games, difficult to report without resorting to tactics designed to allay readers’ (and possibly reporters’) fears. These fears revolve around the contradictions between the public role of sport and dominant cultural constructions of femininity. Such contradictions have been summarised as being between “femininity or ‘musculinity’” (Hargreaves 145).
Ultimately, traditional femininity is seen to be in opposition to athleticism and the sportswoman is often involved in a complex negotiation between the two conflicting requirements. When the sportswoman’s appearance, behaviour, and especially her relationships uphold traditional femininity, her athleticism is not seen as problematic. On the other hand, when she fails to sufficiently ‘feminise’ herself, or even if she plays a sport considered ‘masculine’, her credentials as a woman may be called into question. The most devastating allegation to be levelled at the sportswoman is still that sport has made her butch. To be butch is to have failed to adequately perform femininity, and is generally also taken to indicate lesbianism. Even women who do little to conform to traditional measures of femininity may be redeemed in the press and in commentary by reference to their husbands, boyfriends and children. Lesbians present a different problem for sports writers and commentators; while many sportswomen are in fact lesbian, the public is generally shielded from this. Despite the fact that gay issues are being represented more and more in popular culture, in sport it is still a taboo for both men and women. In Bend It Like Beckham, the whole plot of the film depends on negotiating that taboo in as convincing a way as possible.
In order to make possible a narrative of a girl’s self-fulfilment through soccer for mainstream audiences, it is necessary for the film to make the lesbian in soccer invisible at the same time. The filmmaker goes to great lengths to do this. The most obvious device is the romance plot, staple of popular film in almost any genre. Joe is the love interest of both girls in the heterosexual plot as, conversely, he is the plot device which separates them, in a potential lesbian plot. As the coach of the girls’ team, he does not detract in any way from either girl’s goal of playing professional sport. In order to satisfy parental characters and audience alike, he is necessary as the affirmation of Jess’ (and Jules’) heterosexuality.
But the film goes further than simply making the central female characters straight. In order to expunge the image of the lesbian sportswoman, every scene depicting the team in conversation or relaxing features a performance of heterosexuality. This is done either through their locker room conversations about who is shagging whom and who fancies whom, or by their dress and demeanour at the club in Germany. There is such an underlying anxiety about lesbianism in the film that not a single representation of it is allowed to occur, despite how unrealistic this might be in women’s sport. It is not that Chadha is not prepared to deal with the issue; her last film, What’s Cooking, positively featured a lesbian couple among other couplings and family groups. However, obviously, the spectre of the lesbian is so great in women’s sport that it is necessary to omit it entirely in order to represent women’s participation in sport as a positive thing. This is done, above all, by affirming the girls’ femininity, and most of all their heterosexuality.
Although Jules’ mother Paula is the butt of much of the film’s humour – the extraordinary variations in her cleavage provide a running sight gag throughout the film – she is also the voice of the audience’s fears about the direction of the girls’ relationship: “There’s a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one of them without a fella”. Despite the audience being let in on the truth about the girls’ apparent heterosexuality much earlier than Paula is, they are similarly set up to anticipate that these soccer-mad girls, with their posters of either Beckham or butch sportswomen on their walls, will gradually fall in love with each other over the course of the film. But as Jules tells her mother: “Just because I wear trackies and play sport, doesn’t make me a lesbian”. Paula’s response – “I’ve got nothing against it. I was cheering for Martina Navratilova as much as the next person” – hides the fact that she does have something against lesbianism. Finally her joy at the revelation that the girls are both keen on Joe rather than each other is mirrored in the audience’s laughter at her, laughter which to some extent could be interpreted as reflecting their own relief.
While Paula is almost as self-conscious about Jess’ Indian heritage as she is about lesbianism, the film is more comfortable about racial diversity than it is about lesbianism. It’s not even gayness as such that is troubling. Jess’ friend Tony tells her of his attraction to men – “no, Jess, I really like Beckham” – and this is portrayed affectionately, despite the viewer’s knowledge that life for him may involve more difficult negotiations than Jess will have to make. The real focus of the film is on choices for women and establishing sport as a valid one of these. Jess’ soccer final is given equal footing with Pinky’s wedding, and the cuts between both occasions construct them as similarly fulfilling events for both sisters. The film is not concerned with undermining Pinky’s choices of marriage and motherhood either, although both Jess’ and Jules’ mothers are represented as conservative and limiting forces in their lives, much more so than their fathers.
Bend It Like Beckham cannot, in the end, be ‘bent’ because it is so busy exorcising the spectre of the lesbian in sport. Establishing an Indian sporting female subjectivity comes at the cost of rejecting any potential lesbian subjectivity, let alone lesbian love. If Jess is to love sport, then she must love her man as well. In order to present a palatable narrative of female fulfilment in sport, Jess and Jules have to be pretty and feminine as well as athletic, and most of all, they have to be straight.