Show how cultural identity and representation help us to analyze and understand the film Bend It Like Beckham
Prianka Leona Mani
Student Number: 170272867
Modern Languages with Business (Spanish and French)
SML1022 Introduction to Cultural Studies
I am going to use this essay to show how the notions of cultural identity and representation can help us understand the prejudices towards race and gender in the 2002 film, Bend It Like Beckham. The film is about two girls passionate about football, however, one of them, Jess Bhamra, comes from a very traditional Indian family and the other, Jules Paxton, comes from a modern-day family from London.
Firstly, the main way in which cultural identity is shown in this film is through the way in which Indian traditions and culture are portrayed and the effects it has on Indian girls wanting to conform to a society that is more forgiving. Throughout the film, Jess makes reference to the fact that there are so many rules for Indian girls but the boys can do what they want, ‘It’s not fair the boys never have to come home and help’. Jess’s mother is consistent with wanting her to conform to the role of the dutiful Indian daughter in preparation for when she is married and has to do everything for her husband, including the cooking and cleaning, similar to a housewife in the 60s in the United Kingdom but still seems very evident in Indian culture, ‘It’s just culture that’s all’. The UK has a multicultural state policy which allows people to preserve their culture, which, on one hand is a good thing however it brings up problems of feminism and gender bias (Deol, 2001) because their culture means there are different rules for men and women and what is expected of them as shown in the film. In the film, Jess’ mother talks about another family that they know, where the daughter ran off to be with an English man and now she has been disowned from her family. There is a lot of emphasis on what Jess’ family expect of her from good grades to finding a ‘nice Indian boy’ to marry and as well as wanting to please them, Jess seems to like to test the boundaries and see what she might be able to get away with, ‘Do you think Mum and Dad would still speak to me if I ever brought home a gora (slang term for a white person)?’. She also thinks that whatever she does isn’t going to please them or it is going to let them down, ‘It’s not Indian enough for them’, which could also be why she thinks what she does won’t matter anymore and she can continue to challenge the rules. However, this sign of rebellion is not intended to hurt her parents, she is just wanting to live her life in a way that is going to make her happy. Additionally, the theme of homosexuality is brought up which is something else which goes against Indian tradition. Jess’ family friend Tony who plays football with all the boys and Jess in the park admits to her that he is gay to which Jess replies, ‘But you’re Indian’ and then ‘What’s your mum gonna say?’ which is another reflection on the idea that Indian culture is very judgmental and resolute on what it does and doesn’t agree with.
The idea of power in culture is also prevalent here because in the film Jess is told to ‘swear to Babaji’, one of the most respected martyrs in Sikhism, which is the religion the Bhamra family believe in, and is cherished as a highly religious person. Sikhism is a religion that emphasises the importance of doing good actions and the way in which to lead a respectable life is to keep God’s wishes in mind at all times, to work hard and to serve others. It is clear that everything the Bhamra family do and the rules they follow are for Babaji showing his power of the religion and his influence on their everyday lives. Mrs Bhamra also prays to Babaji asking that Jess has good exam results perhaps reflecting the idea that by following his teaching and respecting him, they are able to ask for something in return. Arranged marriages are spoken about in the film as well which are very uncommon in the UK, however, Jess talks about them very casually and as if it is something she has thought about a lot, ‘If I get an arranged marriage, would I get someone who’d let me play football whenever I wanted?’. However, the rules of marriage in Sikhism are very specific on who it is allowed to be, one of the girls in the football team asks if Jess can marry anyone and Jess responds, ‘White, no, black, definitely not, a Muslim, no way!’. This quote shows that every culture can be slightly racist towards others as Indians can only marry Indians and that it can be due to religion as well as the colour of one’s skin.
As previously mentioned, the representation of gender in the film is very focussed on the different rules that apply to girls and boy and it is not solely concentrated on Indian girls but women in general and what is expected of them which is heavily influenced by the surrounding environment, ‘Gender is constructed by every socializing agent and force in society: parents, teachers, the media, religion, and so on.’ (Basow, 1992) There is a great contrast between Jess, Jules and the girls in their football team against the other girls, who are sat on the bench in stereotypical pink outfits, staring at the boys trying to get their attention, whereas Jess is wearing navy tracksuit bottoms, similar to what the boys are wearing. This stereotype of a girl is widespread across all cultures which is shown when Jules’ mum, Paula, shouts at her when she is playing football in the garden with her dad, ‘Alan, when are you gonna realise that you have a daughter with breasts, not a son?’ ‘No boy is gonna want to go out with a girl who’s got bigger muscles than him!’. Throughout the film, Paula continuously tries to encourage Jules to be interested in “girly” things, like bras and boyfriends because she thinks that this is what girls should be associated with, not running around playing football, which is stereotypically a boy’s sport. For Jess, it seems that she is the only one has to abide by certain rules, ‘Indian girls aren’t allowed to play football’ however, Jules points out that it is girls in general, ‘Yeah but it ain’t just an Indian thing, how many people come out and support us?’. Jess is consistently told throughout the film that she needs to ‘start behaving like a proper woman’ and stop playing football which for her parents includes learning to cook and finding a husband, ‘What family would want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking a football all day but can’t make round chapattis?’. Similarly, Jess’ older sister Pinky informs her of the fact that nowadays, boys are becoming more modernised and are learning how to cook and wash up, allowing girls to get jobs and earn money for their family as well as their husbands, ‘It’s not like before you know’.
Indian music is used throughout the film which creates a juxtaposition when a scene includes British people. It seems to me that the film is trying to put the two together and make it seem normal, which foreshadows the ending when both families realise that traditions can be changed and they come together to support their daughters. Bend It Like Beckham features a large variety Indian music, both traditional and also music that has been slightly modernised with a more techno-feel, as well as pop songs from the 2000’s. The soundtrack includes, “She’s A Lady” by Paul Anka, a song about the perfect woman, ‘she always knows her place’ and ‘she never gets in the way’ which is a reflection of what Jess’s mother is trying to teach her and what tradition says about how Indian women should behave. However, this song is played at an ironic moment in a scene where the girls’ football team are training giving a message that just because the girls are playing a sport meant for boys, doesn’t mean they are not still “ladies”. Another way that representation can be examined in the film is by looking at the costume and the way that it balances traditional clothing with the modern. At the wedding of Jess’ sister Pinky, everyone is dressed in customary formal dress including colourful Indian saris for the women and turbans for the men. This scene is compared with the scene of an important football match with the girls in the team wearing their full kit, showing the parallels of a more modern British society and traditional Indian customs. After the match, there is a scene where the girls are helping Jess change back into her sari and there is a very clear and distinct contrast in colour between the white football kit and her bright pink Indian Sari highlighting that although they all have their love for football in common, there are still many differences in their cultures.
Representation issues are further highlighted when you consider the ways in which pairs of characters interrelate. One example is Jules and Jess, the two protagonists, who have many similarities. They both share the dream of playing football professionally as well as having clashes with their mothers because they aren’t “feminine” enough. Even though there are many differences between the two characters, their similarities allow them to look past this and build a strong friendship. Another example, is the similarities between the roles that Jess’ and Jules’ fathers play in allowing them to achieve their dreams. Mr Bhamra is the bridge between his daughters and his wife who is more traditionally minded and less prepared to accept the idea that girls can have more of a role in life than looking after their husbands. He relates to Jess because he tells the story of how he was a talented cricketer before he came to Britain but was rejected after arriving due to racism and he doesn’t want what happened to him to happen to Jess. However, throughout the film he becomes more accepting of the fact that his daughter’s generation is more respectful and allows more freedom in who is accepted. Likewise, Jules’ father is very encouraging of Jules to pursue her dreams of playing football and is more tolerant than his wife. Their roles seem to be primarily focussed on balancing the points of view in their respective families.
In conclusion, I think that the film is a great example of a cultural artefact that helps us understand the way that different interpretations of cultural identity might happen, including the representation of different cultures and the traditions or perceptions that are associated with them.
Deol, HK, 2001 “Perils of Multiculturalism”
Basow, S. A, 1992 “Gender: Stereotypes and roles (3rd ed.)”