Sixty Characters: Femicist Film ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ Challenges Gender Roles, Patriarchal Society (2023)

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Feminism is a very prevalent and current political movement for equality in society as equal rights and opportunities are not idealised due to the popular culture that renders gender roles socially constructed and culturally specific to patriarchal domination. Society has placed certain ideals on appropriate behaviour in regards to gender roles. Bend it Like Beckham, directed by famous feminist Gurinder Chadha, explores the world of women’s football through the hardships of 2 ambitious young females determined to oppose societal normal and establish themselves in a male dominated culture. The film presents common struggles familiar to feminists through the hot topics of racism, sexism, religion and discrimination (Tirabassi, 2007). Bend It Like Beckham deals with a variety of different themes and issues through the story of Jess and her desperation to play football rather than conform to the traditional female role expected of her. The struggle between interest, culture and perception is portrayed through the conventions in the film that powerfully present important themes that establish issues of culturally assigned gender roles. The two strong female characters subvert the preconceived notions of male domination in sport, culture and religion.

Characterisation, costume and dialogue are significantly and purposely utilised in the film to convey certain messages about the patriarchal views of society and the issues of gender, race, and religion. Tradition and modern ways intermix in the activities of the two main female protagonists, Jess and Jules. The film explores the efficacy of sport as an instrument for social inclusion, especially for women in sport. The film argues for the potential of sport to foster a more inclusive society in terms of multiculturalism and gender equity by showing how a hybrid culture can be forged through the microcosm of a women’s football club, while simultaneously challenging assumptions about traditional masculinities and femininities. These conventions share interconnecting and underlying issues of gender, cultural and societal expectations that gives viewers a realistic understanding of prejudice, difficulties and pressures of women in sport and society.

The way the characters are presented in the film guides the audience to make certain judgements that reinforce the themes of the text. There are preconceived notions and connotations associated with one’s gender, culture, race, religion and appearance, seen from the characterisation of the protagonists Jess and Jules who do not fit the socially constructed idea of a woman. Jess, from a traditional Indian family with strong cultural values and Jules with features considered to be too masculine or stereotypically male such as short hair, oppose the conventional ideas that viewers may hold. The characters in the film are evidently stereotyped to appeal to the prejudices of the audience and reinforce existing ways of thinking. This is challenged throughout the film as an understanding of the different emotional and personal experiences develop to shape our feministic views.

Costume is also very important in the film in terms of balancing the traditional with the modern. Costume is symbolic and employed to denote status. Jess and her traditional Indian family have a strict dress code for women to maintain respect. There is an evident gender imbalance in Indian culture as conveyed in the scene where Jess must wear a traditional sari to cover her body and the men are in casual work clothes. The status that is denoted in Jess’s family and culture render female’s inferior to males and have prejudiced standards from their appearance to how they are expected to behave. Jess deviates from her culture and acts outside of the normal gender roles to challenge the cultural basis of gender. The juxta positioning of Jess’s mother who exemplifies the optimal Indian woman wearing conservative traditional clothing and Jess in her short soccer uniform distinguishes the difference in culture and how costume can establish a sense of class, status or bias. The restrictions and expectations placed on Jess to conform to her family’s values of modesty and Indian culture is evident in the costume which is a major highlight throughout the film to reveal the different standards that are held for men and women.

Chadha reveals the underlying thematic and moral messages through the dialogue of the characters in the film. The dialogue meditates on and reimagines what constitutes a typical contemporary female identity by way of the divergent and diverse generational, ethnic, migratory and gendered representations. Through strategic inclusion of particular dialogue, it is clear that women have a defined set of rules they must follow to be attractive to society. This is evident when Jess’s dad says to her, “it’s not nice, you must start behaving like a proper woman,” indicating that participating in a male dominated sport is not socially acceptable and there is a barrier between men and women that has been conjured by social norms.

The film indicates that the familial and cultural expectations that Jess and Jules fail to live up to is another way to represent how women are not always accepted by society. The girls are not only misunderstood and outcasted by their families, but also society as they oppose social norms and play a male dominated sport. The two protagonists come from very different families, however are both shunned in similar ways as they are not considered typically feminine women. Jess’s traditional Indian family hold beliefs and values that women should focus on their studies and devote their life to a man once they are married. Culture and tradition is a major theme in the film as Jess’s Indian family hold many views that uphold values of male domination. Chadha succeeds in revealing feministic undertones because although Jess faces the oppression of matriarchal and patriarchal issues due to her traditional parents, she overcomes the barriers. This is subtly indicated in the scene where Jess is helping in the kitchen and kicks the vegetables around instead of cooking, showing that she is more focused on a typically male sport rather than performing the seemingly female task of cooking. Jules is constantly pressured by her mother for being too athletic and feminine, and possibly lesbian. This, again, recognises the unjust stereotypes society has structured to render women powerless and stripped of their individuality. If we consider Jess’s mother alongside Jules’ mother, it is easy to see the similarities in terms of the ways they are represented. Both mother’s share a detachment from their daughters due to their close-mindedness, much like society from the impacts of societal pressures and dominant patriarchal views.

Bend it Like Beckham exposes how society, tradition and culture are outdated in their feministic views. The film gives a very realistic view of the difficulties, pressures and prejudices women in sport face because of family expectations, lack of opportunity, gender and cultural barriers, as well as religious traditions. The film prompts us to look into the history of women in sport and identify that there is a gender imbalance, particularly in sports that are considered male dominated such as soccer. It is successful in presenting a positive side of women by portraying Jess and Jules as the role model of young womanhood where they indicate the dynamics of control and regulation about what woman ought not to do, and more about what they can do.

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