‘Bend It Like Beckham’ and distorting conceptions of my sexuality

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Okay, it’s confession time.

Long before I started unpacking my internalized misogyny and out of control ego, I was just another girl who clung to wearing weird clothes and an interest in sports in the name of being “not like other girls” . Since then, I have understood how beautiful and complex being a woman is, and how I can be perfectly myself. and similar to many other women – a really lovely thing. But before I could accept such a concept, I needed to discover the missing piece of myself that was telling me ardently that I was different and could never fit in with the girls around me. This, I realized, was my unrecognized Queerness.

When people ask me now that I’m bisexual and if that’s something I’ve always known about myself, I laugh because the answer is no, but I totally should have. My journey to recognition required a series of pivotal moments, spurred on by passing touches, lingering feelings in my stomach, and encountering crucial media at the right time. For me, it was “Bend It Like Beckham”.

It is Nope secret that the film is a Queer allegory, but not a Queer story. It explicitly depicts Jessminder (Parminder Nagra, “The Blacklist”), or Jess – a tomboy who is forbidden to play football (or soccer) because it’s not appropriate for a girl, according to his parents – and implicitly represents her secret desire to be herself in much the same way many experience Queerness. All the while, she’s encouraged to follow her passion uninhibited by her narrative foil, teammate, and other half of an incredibly homoerotic friendship, Jules (Keira Knightley, “Anna Karenina”). Ultimately, it was the undeniable chemistry between Jess and Jules, from their shared passion for football to their easy banter and mutual disdain for boys, that made me realize that my painful desire for a relationship as theirs may not have been based on friendship – I’ve had many close and valued friendships with women before – but was instead fueled by something more romantic.

There is a lot of analysis there that gets to the heart of just how great Jules and Jess’ sapphic relationship really was, including the abundance of lingering stares and their Queer-coded aesthetic (their hatred for bras isn’t exactly subtle ). From beginning to end, it is obvious that the film is intertwined with Queer coded items. There’s the character of Tony (Ameet Chana, “Unhallowed Ground”) coming out as explicitly gay, as well as direct references to Queerness, like when Jules says, “Being a lesbian isn’t that bad.” In a moment of legendary out-of-control behavior, Knightley even remarked during a interview that Jules and Jess should have ended up together and that she wants a lesbian sequel.

So you can imagine Young Me’s disappointment when the film decides to shoot with a tepid romance between Jess and her football coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, “The Tudors”) instead. (To this day…ew.) To the film’s credit, it puts genuine effort into building a developed relationship in which both characters are vulnerable with each other; Joe talks about his relationship with his father and Jess describes his relationship with his parents and his insecurities. Yet even on my first watch, I felt their relationship was one of mutual emotional support, yes, but not romantic chemistry. I felt betrayed by the force run to the airport scene at the end, because Jess had never shown any serious interest in boys before, and even if the movie doesn’t portray Jess and Jules in a romantic relationship, why would a relationship with a man be the cathartic moment of story ?

Despite my feelings of betrayal, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film Queerbaits in the traditional sense of the term. Queerbaiting is a term used to describe media that intentionally alludes to LGBTQIA+ representation to appeal to queer audiences, but never does so in a substantive way to avoid alienating heteronormative consumers. “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha (“Bride & Prejudice”) had originally written Joe as an older coach, never intending him to be a love interest for Jess, but then changed the script on the recommendation of the production company she was working with. It doesn’t help the film’s Queerbaiting business, but it does make me consider the director’s sincere intent. Chadha describes the film’s driving premise in the same interview, saying, “And I’ve never played football, but I understood the metaphor of it and for me it was a film about people breaking the rules, but in fact you are bending the rules. So what I’ve done all my life is bend the rules, and there were expectations of how I should behave as a girl, as an Indian, and then as a woman.

And that was it for me.

“Bend It Like Beckham” made me realize my Queerness for a multitude of reasons, from how I felt watching Knightley in a tracksuit to how my heart raced watching the admiring glances Jules sent Jess in her watching play. But the real straw that broke the camel’s proverbial gay camel’s back was seeing these elements tied together in a narrative that offered that all the rules of society I felt bound to, the very factors that made me so vehement to declare that I was not like other girls, could be subverted. It’s silly, but I didn’t know! I thought I was trapped in a life of repressing those feelings and never addressing them, but then I looked at Jess, who has found a balance between her identity and the expectations of her strict parents and has always found a way to be herself. In his case, that meant playing football without fear. But come on! We all know it’s way more important than football. Chadha certainly knew that when she wrote the film. Within the ambiguity of the film’s metaphor, queer people and anyone who feels repressed by social norms can find comfort and courage to be themselves. Whether the movie Queerbaited or not is still up for debate, but I’ll always appreciate how ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ dared me to put my feelings into words.

I am queer.

Senior Art Editor Sarah Rahman can be reached at [email protected].

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