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Bend It Like Beckham and the Postcolonial


Identifications regarding what comprises concepts of the Other in the post-colonial world are wide-ranging and varied hinged on the current accepted norms within a society. These definitions are typically only selectively applied in a variety of areas such as gender or religious differences, expected social roles, personal sexuality, individual ability, physicality and ethnicity. How one positions oneself in relation to these factors and the perceived ideal helps to identify one’s place within the society in which they live as well as defines the possibilities one imagines are available to them in terms of lifetime goals or aspirations. Although these concepts frequently overlap in various ways, the degree to which individuals will be bound by these external definitions depends upon the degree to which the individual accepts or denies their association with the Other. In the film Bend it Like Beckham, many of these examples of the conceived Other are presented including gender roles, religious teachings, ability and ethnicity on both the societal and personal levels as they are understood within the post-colonial era.

Gender as limiting other

Gender roles are especially important within the film as the main character Jesminder, aka “Jess”, explores how her gender constricts her within the society in which she lives. Simply by virtue of being female, Jess is already identified as being the Other within her society – both in the family’s immediate cultural circle as well as in the larger community in which they live. Demonstrating that she has, in fact, accepted this definition of herself, Jess knows she is expected to be able to cook, maintain a household and take care of a family simply because she is a woman. This is reinforced by the attitudes of her father and mother. She feels guilt when she crosses these boundaries to pursue her own interests which conflict with these. Those around her define the important goals for her as remaining physically attractive to the opposite sex and to find a good husband to be father to her children and provider to the family. These ideals are represented in the activities of her sister, Pinky, who is embroiled in the activities and preparations for her own arranged marriage, and the sisters’ normal daytime activity of shopping, one of the only culturally acceptable activities for women. That these ideals are not strictly limited to Jess’ traditional Sikh family is evident in the family of Jess’ best friend Juliette, or “Jules”, as she appears with her mother, also shopping. The very shallow nature of Jules’ mother illustrates the detrimental results of these strict gender roles and its effect on the self who identifies with them, perhaps against early aspirations to the contrary.

Transcending the gender barrier

Yet, both Jess and Jules find ways to circumnavigate the boundaries assigned to them. Rather than accepting the constraints placed on them by their gender, each girl has pursued a love of football to the point that they are able to win the respect of the neighborhood boys on the field. In Jess’ skill at the sport, she has found acceptance among the boys, but she has not changed gender, religion, or ethnicity. This brings out fears in her father who had also loved the sport but experienced so much cultural bias that he was never able to play on a more professional level. In spite of this, she still remains the only player on the field who has always worn pants in deference to her spiritual beliefs. Rather than being seen as less than, these differences are merely accepted with little to no comment. This indicates the level to which the post-colonial world has come to accept and incorporate the differences of the Other to a much greater degree than the rigid domination of the past. While other girls sit on the bench and behave as young girls are supposed to, i.e. watching the boys play and marveling at their physique, Jess and Jules have learned how to join them on their own playing field, achieving equal status by virtue of skill and talent and thereby transcending the gender barriers. Rather than acceding to her mother’s wishes to purchase frilly, decorative undergarments, Jules fights to locate practical, supportive garments suitable for her type of heavy activity. In relationships, each girl takes an equal part of the development and maintenance of the relationships they value, rather than waiting for someone else to ‘make the next move’ or for permission from another as Pinky must when her wedding is cancelled. In Jess’ relationship with Jules, she makes an attempt to reconcile after the misunderstanding in Germany. Once Jules understands the situation, she also does her part to correct the breach. Despite her fears regarding her parents’ reaction to the idea of her dating an Englishman (they are all alike, her mother says), Jess does not ask permission to give Joe a parting kiss before leaving for the United States. And, of course, each girl defies the rules regarding women in sports by finding a way to participate in the closest thing to a professional team they can accomplish, eventually achieving their public goals instead of seeking the appropriately private aspirations of the families involved.

Beliefs as limiting other

However, Jess is classified by more than just her gender into identifying with the Other as she is a part of the minority Sikh population in London. Growing up within a strict traditional home, her family’s beliefs and obvious ethnicity serve to isolate her from the rest of society. This is immediately recognized in the lights strung up on the house in which she lives as the family prepares to celebrate Pinky’s wedding. Such outside decoration is not normal behavior for the neighbors surrounding them and serves to isolate the very house from the rest of the block, even during the daytime. The noisy party held in the backyard in celebration later in the film further emphasizes this isolation as other nearby backyards are shown to be completely devoid of any kind of human activity. The traditions of her religious beliefs hold even more tightly to the concept of woman as homemaker, wife and mother, with little opportunity for any kind of public life. Indeed, public life, such as being a professional sports figure, is shunned as being completely unacceptable to a woman of proper Sikh upbringing. These ideas are well-known to the surrounding community, who has had some interactions with the minority population as is evidenced in the reaction of Jules’ mother upon meeting Jess. She is thrilled her daughter has befriended a Sikh because perhaps now Jules will learn how to behave more like a proper girl instead of running around the football field all day. This reaction is so ingrained it is immediate upon seeing Jess’ face and the words are said before Jess has had a chance to say much more than hello. Like her sister, Jess is expected to wear suitable clothing that does not expose inordinate amounts of skin, such as the shorts that are a required part of the footballer’s uniform. For Jess, this rule is even more stringent because she has been scarred from a cooking burn and this ‘unattractive’ scar might serve to frighten away potential suitors.

Transcending beliefs as a limiting factor

Yet even differences in culture, once examined fully, turn out to reveal only further similarities which lead to an appreciation of the differences rather than a shunning of them. This is shown even in terms of the house lights. Despite the differences in symbols of celebration, Jess lives within the modern city of London and interacts with its inhabitants on a daily basis. Although the house might seem isolated from the surrounding structures, the truth remains that there are surrounding structures. Just as the basic house underneath the lights looks much the same as the houses on either side of it, Jess looks different on the outside but remains a part of the society she lives in. As soon as Jules’ mother realizes Jess is also a footballer, Jess is instantly reclassified into a different type of Other and the welcome is cooled. When Jess is seen in the required shorts as part of her football team uniform, her mother’s reaction is horror because her daughter is exposing her legs and the burn scar that they’ve tried to keep covered up so much, yet the uniform itself indicates a similarity to the greater culture around her and those in the greater community focus on the symbol of the uniform rather than the fact that a Sikh woman is showing her legs. Even the scar links her to the outside culture as it is a feature she shares only with Joe, the team coach. While the physical cause was different, the reason behind each scar revealed the same underlying desire for parental approval and disregard for individual limitations. Jess and Joe are the same, but different, and the differences are more like the icing on the cake rather than monstrous subhuman distortions.


Thus, Bend it Like Beckham serves to illustrate just how an examination of an individual’s differences can expose how they are more similar than was originally anticipated. While Jess is different from Jules in that she is Sikh and Indian, the girls are the same in that they are each rebellious teenagers who wish to play football professionally and gain national recognition. While the Sikh traditions are seen to hold more traditional beliefs regarding the proper role of women as being in the home, the film illustrates the still commonly held beliefs also exist in the wider community as shown by Jules’ mother’s protests against her daughter participating in football. It is the other within the other where growth and acceptance begin, though. As a member of the female gender group, Jess is not accepted among the boys as an equal, but as an exceptional football player, she is eagerly welcomed. The fact that she is female ceases to be a negative and instead is an interesting oddity. Her desire to participate in football, a non-traditional vocation for a woman and shamefully public, is an oddity within her community for a girl, but the desire to participate in sporting events in England is an ideal held by many. Through the experience of this film, one begins to identify with the many similarities inherent in a coming-of-age story even while appreciating the individual facets that make Jess’ society different from one’s own.


Bend it Like Beckham. (2002) [DVD]. Dir. Gurinder Chadha. Fox Searchlight.


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