There have been rumors across the internet that the two female characters in Bend It Like Beckham were meant to end up together. One source of this information is a soccer blog that tears the film apart, brushing off its international success citing the film’s “snappy title” and the success of a television show about an Indian family. The article states that “the original script for Bend It had Jess and Jules fall for each other. However, according to [director] Chadha’s friend and fellow director Nisha Ganatra she ‘chickened out’ of the lesbian romance storyline for fear of offending and upsetting Indian audiences.” The source isn’t the most credible one. However, watching the movie, one does wonder if there is some truth to the claim — was Jess, the main character, originally supposed to end up with her friend Jules? After all, a queer relationship would have fit perfectly with the film’s focus on familial acceptance and being true to yourself despite the expectations of others. This question haunts me, and I for one would like to have a chat with the director.
Not much besides the ending would have to be changed in order for the movie to become a queer film. The film’s message about being true to yourself against the beliefs of family is inherently queer. Although the film fails to bring to the surface the underlying romantic tension between Jess and Jules, there are many clues that lend to a queer reading of the movie. The two girls are queer coded through their gender presentation and unconventional (at least in the eyes of their families) desire to play sports, as well as Jess’s similarities with her friend Tony. This queer coding is magnified by their family’s fears of them never settling down with a man, and even outright fears of their child being gay. Although the two end up being able to play football despite the adversity they face, the message of self-acceptance is diluted by the unrealized romance between the two young women.
The film follows Jess as she attempts to balance the wishes of her traditional Indian family and her love of football (soccer in the US, obviously). Her mother especially doesn’t want her to play, let alone wear shorts outside. Her parents wish for her to eventually marry an Indian man, and in the meantime to focus on school and learning how to cook.
Jules is a player for a local women’s football team. When she sees Jess playing football with Tony and his friends in the park, she instantly recognizes Jess’s talent and invites her to try out for the team. Jess attempts to play on the team in secret, but is discovered by her family several times. This causes problems for Jess. Her sister Pinky is engaged, and one wrong move from Jess could jeopardize the wedding. Sure enough, the future groom’s family spots Jess and Jules hugging and laughing at a bus stop and mistakes Jules for a man that Jess is kissing. Jess explains the situation, but the audience is left with a clear picture of the consequences of Jess being with someone her family disapproves of.
Jess and Jules end up fighting over their coach, Joe, who takes a liking to Jess. Jules had been led to believe a relationship with him would be unprofessional, and is betrayed when she catches Joe making a move on Jess when the team is out at a club one night. In the end the girls make up just in time for Jess to leave her sister’s wedding and play in a football match, at which the girls are scouted for an American school and offered a free ride.
In the end, Jules and Jess end up together — but Joe is the one Jess kisses goodbye at the airport. She leaves him behind to go off to college with Jules, and I like to think this leaves the ending open to interpretation. Namely, the interpretation that Jules and Jess are in love and spend the rest of their lives together.
Although in real life, gender presentation does not necessarily correlate with sexuality, in movies and tv shows a character’s sexuality can often be coded in how they dress and present themselves. In the article “It’s Just a Movie: A Teaching Essay for Introductory Media Classes,” Greg Smith explains the deliberacy of each detail within a film, pointing out that a “Hollywood film is one of the most highly scrutinized, carefully constructed, least random works imaginable” (Smith 65). So while the average person may not put deep thought into what shirt they put on in the morning, “By contrast, a movie character’s shirt is chosen by a professional whose job it is to think about the shirt this character would wear” (65). In other words, a character’s style choices are a deliberate creation by professional storytellers, and those style choices absolutely add to the story being presented to the viewers.
Jess and Jules both spurn femininity and fashion for the sake of comfort and athleticism. Jess almost never deviates from a simple, sporty style. She wears sweatpants and jerseys, looking ready to jump into a football match at any time. Jules dresses similarly, and neither girl wears makeup or styles their hair (apart from one scene), contrasting with other female characters who are more typically feminine. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler writes that “Gender proves to be performative… In this sense gender is always a doing” (Butler 25). Jess and Jules “perform” their gender quite differently from their family and some of their friends, and in fact are shown to be completely disinterested in performing femininity.
In one of the first scenes of the movie, Jess goes out shopping with her older sister, Pinky, for Pinky’s upcoming wedding. Pinky is wearing tight jeans and pink t-shirt, along with hoop earrings and eyeshadow. Jess is wearing a sleeveless tracksuit and tennis shoes. From her foot-dragging and sullen slouch, the audience can tell that Jess couldn’t care less about picking clothing for her sister’s wedding. Pinky is excited and animated while Jess stares into space and no doubt dreams of playing football.
Pinky is the definition of girly, contrasting with Jess’s disinterest in femininity. The character that serves this role for Jules is her mother, Paula. In the very next scene, which is cut to after a final eyeroll from Jess, Jules and her mother are introduced. The two women are in a lingerie store, surrounded by pink and lavender and lace. Paula is showing various bras to her disinterested daughter. She demonstrates to Jules a push-up bra with a pump, to which Jules says she would never be caught dead in. She moves past the colorful displays to the black and white sports bras, and her mother says, “Oh sweetheart, not the sports bras. They’re so plain.” When Jules counters that “no one’s going to see them,” Paula replies, “It’s not how they look, it’s how they make you feel.” The line is ironic and shows how out of touch she is with the fact that Jules feels the best when she isn’t presenting in a feminine manner.
Both Jess and Jules are shown at odds with their family in terms of style. They are surrounded by feminine women who care about appearance, whereas they care about feeling comfortable. This scene also introduce the worry that the girls’ families feel about their tomboyishness. Right off the bat, Paula is shown trying to persuade her daughter to dress and act in a more feminine manner, and by Jules’ exasperated tone, this is not the first time. Later, it becomes clear that Jess’ mother feels the same way about her daughter’s apparent lack of interest in appearance. It seems that Jess’ tomboyishness was only tolerable when she was a child, and is unacceptable now that she is a young adult. She tells her daughter that she is not a young girl anymore and shouldn’t be wearing shorts and playing with boys. “We let you play all you wanted when you were young. You’ve played enough.”
Paula cares about appearance and wishes Jules would behave and dress more femininely. She is obsessed with the idea of her daughter being too tomboyish to score a man, warning her that “there’s a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella’.” Paula constantly ignores Jules’ passion for football by undermining it and reminding her that being feminine and finding a boyfriend is a more suitable pursuit for a woman.
COMPARISON TO TONY
Jess and Tony are shown as close friends with many similarities, from their love of football and Beckham to their fears of disappointing their family. Jess and Tony’s relationship is questioned by their family throughout the entirety of the movie. Tony’s mother says, “pray for me that I get a lovely daughter-in-law like you for my Tony,” and Tony’s male friends call Jess his girlfriend. In one scene, Jules is talking to Jess and Tony and says, “Are you gonna show me what your fella can do or what?” Interestingly, Jess and Tony have the exact same reaction. The two speak over each other explaining that Tony isn’t her boyfriend, after which the two share an awkward look and Tony clears his throat. The scene is one of several that highlights the discomfort between the two when mistaken for a couple.
The fear that Jess’s family has about her possible homosexuality is more understated than that of Jules’s, and is focused more on the fact that she won’t end up with a husband rather than the fact that she may end up with a girl. Her family is steeped in traditional Indian culture, and one scene in particular highlights the struggles of being queer in an Indian family, when Tony comes out as gay to Jess. He does so by telling her that he “really likes Beckham,” insinuating that he likes Beckham in a way that Jess doesn’t. In response, Jess says, “What, you mean… but you’re Indian! God, what’s your mum going to say?” The exchange reveals that to be gay would be unacceptable in their families, and that Jess is all too aware of this fact. She reassures Tony that she won’t tell anyone, and that it’s fine with her at least. But both Jess and Tony know there is an expectation that they marry an Indian person of the opposite gender, and that to come out as gay would cause more serious consequences even than Jess’s family discovering that she’s dating a white man.
The mothers in particular fear the girls’ lack of femininity, feelings which boil down to the worry that the girls won’t marry men. Both families believe that the best thing for the girls is to marry a suitable man; to Jess’s family, it would be unacceptable for her to marry anyone other than a respectable Indian man. Jules’s mother simply wants her to be with a man, and produces constant warnings that men won’t like Jules if she’s too athletic. Jess’s mother acts similarly, going even further to say that no Indian family will want her to marry their son. “Who will want a daughter-in-law who can kick a football all day but can’t make round chapattis?” she asks Jess.
Paula’s worst fears are realized when she misunderstands a conversation between Jules and Jess. Overhearing an argument about the male coach that Jess and Jules both like, she believes that the two girls were in a relationship and that Jess broke Jules’s heart. In following scene, Paula is shown crying on the couch with her husband, who is attempting to comfort her. She tells her husband, “That is why she’s been so depressed lately, ‘cause that Jess broke her heart. She’s in love. With a girl.” At this last line, she breaks down into loud sobs. Paula again focuses on appearance, saying that she always tried to buy her daughter lovely clothes. Zooming in on her horrified expression, Paula says, “It was terrible what they did to that George Michael. Going on about him and all his private business in the papers like that. Oh no!”
All Paula’s fears regarding her daughter are culminating in this moment, when she believes her daughter is gay. Although after this supposed realization she attempts to accept her daughter for who she is, later in the movie, Paula confronts Jess at Pinky’s wedding after she sees Jules and Jess share a kiss. Her acceptance extends only to the hypothetical; when she sees what she believes is physical proof of the two women’s relationship, all acceptance is thrown out the window. “How could you be all respectful here with your lot when you’ve been kissing my daughter in broad daylight?!” she demands of a bewildered Jess. “Get your lesbian feet out of my shoes!”
Clearly, despite earlier claims, Paula is not okay with her daughter being gay. The audience sees that despite her efforts to learn about football and accept her daughter for who she is, seeing Jules and Jess together sets her off. “I saw you with my own eyes, you were kissing after your match! I’m not stupid, you know! And anyway, look at the clothes you wear!” Jules explains the argument between her and Jess, defensively telling her mother they’d between arguing about Joe, “as in male — Joe! Joe, our coach! Joe, man, Joe!” She adds that, “Anyway, being a lesbian is not that big of a deal.” The exchange shows that, sadly, despite finding some acceptance, the two girls do not have full unconditional acceptance from their parents. It’s likely that neither of the girls’ parents would have been happy to find out their daughters were gay.
In the following scene, Jess and her sister Pinky discuss the fact that Paula had accused Jess of being a lesbian. Jess doesn’t know what to make of it. “Don’t you want all of this? This is the best day of your life, innit?” Pinky asks, referring to the wedding. “I want more than this,” Jess responds.
“More than this” turns out to be going to America with Jules to play for the league there. In other words, Jess’s happy ending is not staying with Joe, although they do pledge to try their best to maintain their relationship despite being on different continents. Jess’s happily ever after is with Jules.
The film features a very queer narrative in the form of the expectations placed upon Jess and Jules by their family to be feminine and to marry an acceptable man. They overcome these expectations in order to play football, but the leap would have been much more exciting if they were lesbians playing football. The fact that the film is rumored to originally be gay highlights this, especially due to the fact that the director was worried about offending and alienating Indian audiences. It feels exactly like a “chickening out;” after all, it seems that above playing football, the biggest hurdle for the girls to face would have been the total acceptance of their family, no matter their sexuality. For all that they overcame, the girls never received the support and acceptance to come out. Anyway, in my interpretation of the ending, Jules and Jess are strolling down the street somewhere in America, hand in hand, probably talking about David Beckham.
Bend It like Beckham. Dir. Gurinder Chadha. Perf. Parminder Nagra, Kiera Knightley. Helkon SK, 2007.
Butler, Judith. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Gender Trouble.
“Goals on Film: Bend It Like Beckham.” Who Ate All The Goals?, Blogger , 12 May 2012, http://www.whoateallthegoals.com/2012/05/goals-on-film-bend-it-like-beckham.html. Accessed Apr. 2017.
Kiera Knightley and Juliet Stevenson in BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM. Digital image. Listal. N.p., 20 Dec. 2010. Web. <http://www.listal.com/viewimage/1594246>.
Parminder Nagra and Kiera Knightley in BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM. Digital image.Vagabond’s Movie Screenshots. Blogspot, 10 May 2006. Web. <http://moviescreenshots.blogspot.com/2006/05/bend-it-like-beckham-2002-directed-by.html>.
Smith, Greg M. “”It’s Just a Movie:” A Teaching Essay for Introductory Media Classes.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.