Okay, time for a confession.
Long before I began to unpack my internalized misogyny and unchecked 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’ve embraced how beautiful and complex being a woman is, and how I can be perfectly myself and similar to a lot of other women — a truly lovely thing. But before I could come to terms with such a concept, I needed to uncover the missing piece of myself that was ardently telling me I was different and could never fit in with the girls around me. This, I would realize, was my unrecognized Queerness.
When people ask me now about being bisexual and whether it was something I always knew about myself, I chuckle because the answer is no, but I totally should have. My journey to recognition required a series of key moments, spurned on by passing touches, lingering feelings in my stomach and encountering a pivotal piece of media at precisely the right time. For me, this was “Bend It Like Beckham.”
It’s no secret that the film is a Queer allegory, though not a Queer story. It explicitly depicts Jessminder (Parminder Nagra, “The Blacklist”), or Jess — a tomboy who is forbidden from playing soccer (or football) because it isn’t proper for a girl, according to her parents — and implicitly depicts her secret desire to be herself much in the same way many experience Queerness. All the while, she is encouraged to follow her passion without inhibition 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 soccer to their easy banter and mutual disdain for boys, that made me realize maybe my aching desire for a relationship like theirs wasn’t based in friendship — I already had plenty of valued, close friendships with women — but was instead fueled by something more romantic.
There is plenty of analysis out there that gets into the nitty gritty of just how sapphic Jules and Jess’s relationship really was, including the abundance of lingering gazes and their Queer-coded aesthetics (their hatred for bras isn’t exactly subtle). From start to finish, it’s glaringly obvious that the film is laced with Queer-coded elements. There is the character of Tony (Ameet Chana, “Unhallowed Ground”) who explicitly comes out as gay, as well as direct references to Queerness, like when Jules says, “Being a lesbian isn’t that big of a deal.” In a moment of unchecked legend behavior, Knightley even remarked during an 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 run with a lukewarm romance between Jess and her soccer coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, “The Tudors”) instead. (To this day … ew.) To the film’s credit, it does put genuine effort into building a developed relationship in which both characters are vulnerable with each other; Joe opens up about his relationship with his father, and Jess describes her relationship with her parents and her insecurities. Yet even during my first watch, I got the sense that their relationship was one of mutual emotional support, certainly, but not one with any romantic chemistry. I felt betrayed by the forced run to the airport scene at the end, because Jess had never shown any serious interest in boys prior, and even if the film didn’t depict Jess and Jules in a romantic relationship, why would a relationship with a man be the narrative’s cathartic moment?
Despite my feelings of betrayal, I wouldn’t go as far as saying the film Queerbaits in the traditional sense of the word. Queerbaiting is a term used to describe media that intentionally hints at LGBTQIA+ representation to appeal to a Queer audience, but never substantively does so to avoid alienating heteronormative consumers. The director of “Bend It Like Beckham,” Gurinder Chadha (“Bride & Prejudice”), had originally written Joe as an older coach, never intending for him to be a love interest for Jess, but later changed the script at the recommendation of the production company she was working with. This doesn’t help the film’s Queerbaiting case, but it does make me consider the director’s sincere intent. Chadha describes the driving premise of the film in the same interview, stating, “And I never played soccer, but I understood the metaphor of it and for me it was a film about people breaking the rules, but actually you’re bending the rules. So what I did my whole life was bend the rules, and there were expectations of how I should behave as a girl, as an Indian girl, and then 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 the way my heart would race watching the admiring stares Jules would send Jess while watching her play. But the real straw that broke the proverbial gay camel’s back was seeing these elements tied within a narrative that proposes that all the societal rules I felt bound by, the very factors that made me so vehement about declaring I wasn’t like other girls, could be subverted. It sounds silly, but I didn’t know! I thought I was trapped in a life of pushing down these feelings and never addressing them, but then I watched Jess, who found balance between her identities and the expectations of her strict parents and still found a way to be herself. In her case, this meant playing soccer without fear. But come on! We all know this is way bigger than soccer. Chadha certainly knew it when she wrote the film. In the ambiguity of the film’s metaphor, Queer people and anyone who feels suppressed by social standards can find the comfort and courage to be themselves. Whether the film Queerbaited or not is still up for discussion, but I will always appreciate how “Bend It Like Beckham” dared me to put my feelings to words.
I am Queer.
Senior Arts Editor Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.