Greetings, loved ones. My first foray into Femslash Friday was so much fun that I had to come back for more. Today, we’ll be covering a film more central to my babyqueer awakening than any other piece of media (besides the music video for Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl”). That’s right, friends: we’re talking about Bend It Like Beckham.
I’m gonna re-enter puberty just thinking about it.
I swear on my Abby Wambach jersey that I pitched this piece before Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite’s lovely post on the same film came out a few weeks ago. However, if I could have planned this timing, I absolutely would have, and you should all go read her piece before this one to get an incredibly thoughtful take on the movie that is way less focused on who is and (tragically) is not banging in it.
In case you’ve made the terrible decision not to read Manisha’s piece, allow me to set the scene. We find ourselves in early-2000s west London. Our protagonist is Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, the younger daughter of protective parents. Jess is a massive footie fan, particularly devoted to David Beckham and Manchester United (a sin that I, as a Liverpool FC fan, can only just barely forgive).
You’re lucky you’re unbelievably pretty with eyebrows that could kill a man, Jess.
Jess’s parents disapprove of her interest in football for a variety of reasons: it’s not feminine enough, it involves too much time spent with men, there’s no future in it, it will drive away future husbands, etc.
So Jess plays football with her male friends in the park sometimes, unbeknownst to her family, and hits various dudes in the nuts when they’re insufficiently respectful of how much she kicks ass, but that’s her only outlet. Until, that is, she meets Juliette “Jules” Paxton.
I assume this image speaks for itself.
Jules plays for a local girls’ team, the Hounslow Harriers, and is a 100% dyed-in-the-wool tomboy, much to the dismay of her mother, Paula. Paula is desperate for Jules to behave more femininely, whether she’s begging her to buy push-up bras or bemoaning the fact that Jules never brings boys home.
Compulsory heterosexuality made flesh.
Jules sees Jess playing football at the park with her friends, and, based on Kiera Knightley’s facial expressions, falls in love with her on the spot.
This file is saved on my desktop as down_girl.jpg.
Beyond being able to cruise a hottie like a champ, Jules also realizes how good Jess is—she’s very good—and convinces Jess to join her team. I mean that literally, but if you want to come up with puns about who’s playing for which team, respectively, I won’t stand in your way.
The plot of the movie unfolds as one might expect—Jules and Jess tear up the pitch; Jess tries and continually fails to hide her footballery from her family, with increasingly dire consequences; Jess struggles to balance her pursuit of her dream with her commitments to her loved ones; Jess’s family eventually comes around and recognizes the value of her talents and passion. There’s much exploration and testing of boundaries along the way, plenty of which involves Jules introducing Jess to new experiences.
This set-up is so perfectly primed for a queer reading that, ever since the movie’s release, there have been persistent but unconfirmed rumors that the film’s director, Gurinder Chadha, originally intended Jules and Jess to be a love story, but scrapped the storyline out of fear that mainstream audiences would reject it. If the film were originally intended to be about Jules and Jess falling in love, that might explain certain moments, such as when Jess tells her friend Tony that she’s not sleeping with anyone and Jules materializes in the background as if summoned by a sapphic Batsignal.
Whether or not Jess and Jules were ever intended to be a couple in-text, they sure as hell act like one, whether they’re sharing sexually charged glances or going on adorable dates to buy cleats.
Jules, in particular, seems to have difficulty not ravishing Jess at any given opportunity, which is pretty fair given that Parminder Nagra looks like Parminder Nagra.
And here we see down_girl_2.jpg.
Unfortunately, rather than looking at these two characters and following their interactions to the logical conclusion, the film opts instead to shoehorn a love triangle between the two girls and their footie coach, Joe, as played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.
Their shared interest in Joe creates conflict between our heroines, in a clear case of triangulation and sublimation of their feelings for one another, but they don’t stay apart for long. Towards the end of the film, Jules shows up at Jess’s house to beg her to play in their team’s final match. An American scout will be there, potentially looking for recruits, and as we’ve established, Jules is all about recruitment.
By the end of the final match, Jess and Jules are closer than ever, Joe or no Joe. Their competition over him makes for some great manufactured angst, but when the chips are down they care so much more about each other and their team that Jules’ supposed jealousy over Jess’s relationship with Joe vanishes as quickly as it appeared.
Don’t think I’m operating purely on subtext, either. The love triangle may take up narrative space, but Jess and Jules’ lesbionic potential is powerful enough to develop a subplot of its own. They’re mistaken as a couple more than once, such as when Jess’s sister Pinky has her engagement broken up when her future in-laws see Jess and Jules having a totally platonic moment and misinterpret it as Jess making out with a boy.
When Jess’s family tells her about what she was supposedly seen doing, Jess is rightfully baffled.
In case there’s any confusion, this is the actual, real dialogue of the actual, real movie.
During Jess and Jules’ fight over Joe the Irrelevant, Jules mother overhears a snippet of them arguing and mistakenly thinks she’s overhearing them breaking up. This confirms all of her worst fears about her sports-bra-wearing progeny, and she spends most of the second half of the movie trying and failing to come to terms with it.
Tragically, Paula’s fears are never justified in-text, as Jess technically ends up with Joe. Remember Joe? You really shouldn’t.
You’re not wrong, Sexy Voldemort.
But while Joe may be the one who “gets the girl,” the ending elevates Jess and Jules’ relationship high above Jess and Joe’s; Joe gets left behind in England while Jess and Jules head off to play football at an American university together though the magic of Fictional College Admissions Process.
So, to summarize, Jess and Jules meet, introduce one another to new and exciting things, develop an extremely intense and close relationship over a matter of months, help each other achieve their dreams, and then get on a plane to fly halfway around the world and start a new life together, all while wearing leather jackets and sleeveless sweatshirts and sporting alternative lifestyle haircuts and rejecting constant pressure on the part of their families to settle down with an appropriate human male and behave like a “normal” girl. In a related story, I sleep with this DVD tucked under my pillow.
Now, part of the reason I wanted to write about Bend It Like Beckham for Femslash Friday is that, obviously, the movie itself would have been even better than it already is if it had been about these two wonderful ladies falling in love. Envision it: Jess scores the winning goal in the final, and when she runs to Jules’ arms to celebrate, they share a kiss of Princess Bride proportions. Joe is sad but finds a new lease on life with Tony, Jess’s canonically gay best friend. Jules is Jess’s date to Pinky’s wedding, everybody’s parents join PFLAG, and we all live happily ever after.
Instead, the movie touched on the possibility of a romance between Jess and Jules, but then swiftly denied it in typical “Gay? Us? Gay, haha, nooooo, no, definitely not, but how progressive of you to suggest it!” fashion. Obviously, this is disappointing, especially given the rumors around the film’s original storyline. But you know what? Jess and Jules’ denials of anything romantic between them do absolutely nothing to dampen my queer love of this movie. Because you know who reacted similarly to adolescent questions about potential non-heterosexuality? Me. Me, and, like, a huge volume of the queer women I know.
When Jules finds out that her mother thinks she and Jess were together, they have the following conversation:
Jules: Mother, just because I wear trackies and play sport does not make me a lesbian! Me and Jess were fighting because we both fancied our coach—Joe!
Paula: Joe, a man, Joe?
Jules: Yeah, as in male—Joe! Joe, our coach! Joe, man, Joe! Anyway, being a lesbian is not that big a deal.
Paula: Oh, no, sweetheart, of course it isn’t. No! No! I’ve got nothing against it. I was cheering for Martina Navratilova as much as the next person.
Notably absent from this exchange are phrases such as “I don’t fancy Jess,” “I’m straight,” or “I’m not into girls.” How many of us had conversations like these in cars with our parents? I sure as hell did. I got very, very good at talking around something I didn’t even know how to talk to myself about. Half denial, half testing the waters, one hundred percent ambiguous and unarticulated.
Bend It Like Beckham resonates with me as a queer woman without a single adjustment being made to the text, because not all coming outs are, for lack of a better word, straight-forward. Not everyone knows which way they swing when they’re ten. For a lot of queer women, particularly those who didn’t come out until college or later, a big part of coming out to yourself involved cradling your head in your hands and saying “Oh my God, I cannot believe I genuinely thought I was heterosexual this entire time” and realizing how many people in your life figured it out before you did.
Maybe your internalized homophobia was hella strong. Maybe you didn’t realize there was more than one way to be queer, and thought that you must not count since you didn’t fit the stereotypes. Maybe you did fit the stereotypes and resented the hell out of it. Maybe you were attracted to some of the folks society told you to be attracted to, and so you automatically put yourself in the “straight” box since nobody ever told you there were options besides “straight” and “gay.” Maybe you have no idea if you were “born this way” or not, and never felt the slightest deviation from staunch heterosexuality until you met somebody who knocked your socks off. Maybe you just weren’t paying that much attention. Maybe the world did a really, really good job telling you that queerness was for “other people.” There are a lot of ways to keep people closeted unto themselves, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s spent significant time wincing over memories of my own oblivious denials.
I saw Bend It Like Beckham when I was 14, adored it, and immediately demanded that I be allowed to take all my female friends to see it again for my birthday; it was not for several years that I realized Keira Knightley’s abs might have had something to do with that. And why shouldn’t that be true of the characters, as well? Why shouldn’t Jess realize that the way she feels when Jules hugs her after they score is something more than the euphoria of victory? Why shouldn’t Jules slink nervously into an LGBT Co-op meeting, only to discover a level of comfort with the people she meets there that she’s never felt anywhere off the pitch? Why can’t they find out that their denials of desire for each other had a lot more to do with that desire’s consequences than its reality? Why can’t the two of them find a place where their kneejerk “no, no, no” can turn into a “maybe” without the world falling down around their heads?
In a perfect universe, there would be nothing preventing Jess and Jules from meeting, falling in love, and starting a relationship—both in terms of the events within the story of Bend It Like Beckham, and that story’s marketability as a romcom. Unfortunately, that’s not how things played out, in our world or theirs. But if I can look at the real world, where queer love stories are devalued and shamed, and find myself alive and happy and out, then nothing in the multiverse can stop me from seeing a happy ending for Jess and Jules, too. I’ve changed a lot since I first saw Bend It Like Beckham; I’d like to think that, somewhere out there, so have Jess and Jules.