Sports and athletics have always been a male domain and female athletes have always struggled to be taken seriously. Women are perceived as frail and delicate beings and they are not supposed to participate in activities that involve any kind of physicality. The traditional female roles require that women be limited to their homes and kitchens and their main interests be limited to looking sexy and getting married.
Bend it Like Beckham explores the problems faced by two women who want to pursue their passion in soccer but are conflicted by the traditionally expected role of women in society. Jesminder “Jess” Bhamara played by Parminder Nagra and Juliette “Jules” Paxton played by Keira Knightley are the two soccer crazy women who each face and overcome family and social pressures as they pursue their passion.
The biggest obstacle for women wanting to pursue a sporting career is that they are expected to be feminine while athletic women are considered to be masculine and hence sports are not considered an ideal career choice for women. The societal expectations from women make it difficult for them to pursue a career in sports and when they do go against the tradition to pursue their sporting dreams they are either not taken seriously or seen as less feminine than the more traditional women.
Jess’ and Jules’ parents consider their interest in soccer to be a temporary phase and expect them to outgrow their “childish” pursuits and eventually get married and settle into domesticity.
Both Jess and Jules are expected to spend more time on their grooming so that they may be able to attract men and eventually get married. Jules’ mother is horrified that her daughter does not dress in a more feminine manner and does not date any boys.
On the other hand, Jess’ parents want her to learn cooking so that she can become a good wife. Both sets of parents are concerned that their grown up daughters may not be feminine enough to get a good husband. Irrespective of their cultural background, marriage is the ultimate destiny for women.
When women dare to deviate from this path they are looked at suspiciously. And when they want to pursue a career that is predominantly male, they must be reprimanded and made to mend their ways. Sports, especially rough sports like soccer, that require athletes to sweat and bleed and can cause injuries that may render them unsuitable to carry out their marital duties are definitely off-limits for women.
Some of these apprehensions against women playing sports may stem from a misguided myth that rough sports may injure a woman’s reproductive health (Daniels 335). The myth could explain, in part, why younger girls are still tolerated if they indulge in active sports, but as they grow older, they are expected to become more serious about life. For women, this invariably means getting married and settling down. Jess’ mother berates her that she is too old to be playing around with boys.
Obviously, while it was alright for her to play soccer as a child, as a young women, indulging in a masculine past time makes her less feminine and hence less likely to find a suitable husband. Similarly, Jules’ mother is distraught that Jules is not interested in shopping, an acceptable past time for women. When women do not outgrow their passion for sports and insist on becoming a professional athlete, they have to overcome a mountain of opposition, which may start right at home.
Another reason why Jess and Jules face stiff opposition when they decide to pursue a sporting career is because women are supposed to have a different set of priorities than men. A sporting career is time consuming and involves travel hours of practice. Such a time consuming career can be difficult to manage for anyone and can be a cause for stress.
But for a woman, it can be even more stressful since they are expected to help out at home a lot more than men are. Jess laments that a boy never has to stay back to help out with housework. Because a women’s ultimate role in society is to get married and have children, she cannot be expected to be pursue a time consuming career option.
These different life priorities for man and women mean that while it is alright for men to be away from home for long periods of time, women cannot leave home without seriously jeopardizing their domestic life. Hence, a young girl must concentrate on learning skills that would be helpful to her as a married woman while a young boy must get skills that would help him earn a living. These traditional gender roles may seem inappropriate in the modern world where women demand equality in everything.
However, even today, few women are able to truly pursue a career without worrying about their family obligations. Under the circumstance, a woman wanting to pursue a sporting career, which is inherently time consuming can cause great conflicts between the traditionally expected female roles and their careers.
Jules and Jess are perceived as too masculine which could be because women attempting to make their mark in a rough sport like soccer may intentionally try to subdue their femininity so that they may be taken seriously. This means that they try to take an aggressive stance like men might do when challenged, instead of trying to handle problems in a more civilized manner.
Sports and aggression go hand in hand and many famous sports personality often have hot tempers. Such an aggression is never acceptable, whether in boys or girls. But as women try to imitate men, they may take on this aggression, not only to seem more masculine but also to protect themselves in a male dominated environment.
Since men are expected to be aggressive, when women become aggressive, they tend to become more acceptable in the men’s world. So when Jess is abused by a racial slur, she becomes physically violent with the abuser. Her violent reaction is not only on being abused but a direct result of playing a masculine sport wherein she has to constantly fight and prove herself.
Her aggression is a the result of her frustration with a system that does not give her the same rights as men. While there is no reason why women cannot play rough and aggressive games like soccer, women should guard against imitating male aggression in order to become more acceptable in a male-dominated sport.
Jules and Jess are mistaken for homosexuals indicating that when women participate in aggressive and rough traditionally male sports like soccer they can lose their femininity leading to an identity crisis. Jules has no interest in wearing sexy, feminine clothes or in shopping and her mother misinterprets this to mean that Jules and Jess are lesbian.
While the movie gives a humorous touch to this mistake, Daniels points out that “the athlete epitomizes masculinity… (so) the female athlete must be masculine” (346). In other words, if a woman wants to engage in an activity that is by definition masculine, than she must want to be man and hence women athletes must be lesbians (Daniels 346).
Under the circumstance, Jules’ mother’s error in thinking that Jules and Jess are lesbians may be a direct result of a social phenomenon that accepts female athletes only if they, in some way, do not conform to the acceptable social norm, in this case that of heterosexuality. Jules’ mother even blames soccer for her daughter’s homosexuality suggesting that if Jules had not participated in such a masculine sport she may be more feminine and heterosexual.
In other words, since aggressive sports is associated with masculinity, participating in such a sport is supposed to make a person so masculine and hence homosexual. This over-simplification of homosexuality is because humans have a need to put everything in neat boxes and when something or someone does not fit, they must be labeled in a way so that society can reconcile them with the known labels.
In conclusion, when women want to pursue a career in sports, they always face stiff opposition in a society that equates sports with masculinity and hence does not find a place for woman in the tight sporting circles. This opposition to female athletes starts right at home where parents and relatives often discourage young girls for pursuing a sporting career as it would mean being perceived as masculine and even a lesbian.
A woman’s acceptable role in society is that of a wife and a mother and when a woman deviates from these traditional roles, she faces an uphill task in proving herself. As such, a female athlete has to fight much more than a male athlete as she not only has to fight for her place in the team but also fight for her right to be an athlete.
Bend it Like Beckham. Dir. Gurinder Chadda. Perf. Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley. Kintop Pictures. 2002. DVD.
Daniels, Dayna B. “You Throw Like a Girl: Sports and Misogyny on the Silver Screen.” Celluloid Dreams: How Film Shapes America. Eds.
Chris M. Ramos, David T. Mayeda and Lisa Pasko. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2010. 335-346. Print.