Double Feature: Whip It & Bend It Like Beckham
Compulsory Heterosexuality (AKA Just Gals Bein' Pals)
May 19, 2017 at 10:36 am
So, don’t get me wrong, here. I am ALL ABOUT the power and importance of female friendship, but listen: sometimes it is genuinely more than friendship; sometimes it’s just gay.
Whip It — Bend It Like Beckham
Now, I cannot claim to know what possessed these writers and directors to swap out the beautiful and perfect romantic interests with some pasty dude right at the end, but I can tell you that the decision to do so flies in the face of all rom-com convention; it undermines the foundations of this genre, and for what? All for a big ol’ “No Homo,” that’s what.
We begin with Whip It (2009). The obvious romantic interest in this movie is the adorable, supportive and maybe sort-of-awkward best friend who works the same shitty after-school job. There is a rich tradition in the rom-com genre of both:
- Childhood friends being the ones you were meant to be with all along (see: Lizzie McGuire, Some Kind of Wonderful, The DUFF — I could go on)
- Teen workplace romance (see: Pitch Perfect, Adventureland, arguably 13 Reasons Why, etc.).
So, when you see these two childhood friends slogging through their afternoons at the Piggly Wiggly, you know that there are years and years of narrative precedent driving them together.
Ultimately, the arc of this movie follows Ellen Page on a journey of self-discovery — she gains confidence and self-assurance through the mentorship she finds within the roller derby community; this gives her the confidence to stand up to bullies and her mom and shitty musicians. The movie is about Ellen Page learning who she is and what she wants.
But she has to make some mistakes to figure that out.
I mean — that guy? Really? Look, it’s not as if there isn’t structural precedent for him — the protagonist has to want someone else before they can realize that they’ve wanted their childhood best friend/coworker all along, and often the person they want does represent the things they’re insecure about (in this case, it makes sense that a wallflower from Nowhere, Texas might be attracted to a cool and hip ~performer~ who plays shows in Austin). But, that’s not what happens here.
Whip It only delivers the first half of this traditional resolution — that is, Ellen Page does end up rejecting this greasy beanpole because she understands that he’s just a pile of garbage that she had painted her dreams on top of, but she never turns to Alia Shawkat and says that it’s always been her all along.
Now, look: there is certainly something to be said for self-knowledge being its own reward, and I understand that there aren’t enough movies out there about people dumping their boyfriends and finding inner peace as an independent woman, BUT it’s just frustrating to watch these traditional rom com plot structures bent off course for the sole purpose of avoiding women loving women.
Bend It Like Beckham
And nowhere is it more frustrating than in Bend It Like Beckham (2002). There is a rumor surrounding this film that it was originally written to end with Jess and Jules together, romantically, but that the writer changed the ending at the last minute in order to avoid offending her older, more conservative audience. This may or may not be true, but sitting down and watching the movie, it certainly seems plausible.
Now, I admit: about 20% of this movie is montages set to shitty remixes of popular yet unplaceable 90s bopping; but in between all those strung-together shots of Keira Knightley kicking things is a lovely story about a young Indian woman following her heart and challenging her family to accept her true self.
And again, I am all for that. But, watching some of the scenes that were clearly filmed before the technically unconfirmed script changes is just a painful reminder of what could have been. For example:
The scene above, which should have been one of climactic reconciliation and celebration, is abruptly cut about 1/8th of a second after this still. The movie then immediately transitions into Keira Knightley’s mom freaking out about ~lesbians~ (a pretty sharp turn from her concerned acceptance, seen earlier) and the massive “No Homo” that follows.
But it just feels so tacked on — you can tell from the dialogue between Keira Knightley and her mother (and, later, between Parminder Nagra and her gay best friend Tony) that the “No Homo” was really just a clumsy attempt to salvage as much as they could of the gay ending because of the very real need to address hoW IN LOVE the two of them were FOR THE ENTIRE MOVIE!!
And then there’s the pasty replacement love interest.
This greasy, emaciated waif — this pair of cheekbones on stilts — who seems to think that he faces the same amount of prejudice as an Irishman that she faces as an Indian woman. That guy. Nearly all of their romantic scenes occur with a limited cast and/or on sets that aren’t used anywhere else in the film, and absolutely all of them are insufferable.
Mr. “I-played-nearly-professional-soccer-but-for-some-reason-I-run-like-a-drunk-toddler” is just a completely redundant character — every purpose he serves is also served by Keira Knightley.
Parminder Nagra needs to come out of her shell, needs to believe in herself, needs to stand up for what she wants; and so Keira Knightley is there to pick her out of the crowd, to tell her she’s good enough, to patiently support her through the ups and downs with her family, but then this guy also is there and doing that.
It’s like they wrote one perfectly capable (and in fact generically-conventional) love interest and then split the lines down the middle between Keira Knightley and this culturally-insensitive giraffe.
It breaks my heart, is what it does.
There are just so few movies out there that treat women who love women like normal people who exist in our mundane reality; there are so many tragic dramas about hot lesbians dying, and so few cheesy rom coms about cute girls falling in love and living happily ever after.
But, there are a surprising number of movies about female friendships that stubbornly refuse to address the possibility of romance (I’m looking at you Frances Ha). After years and years of shit like this, years and years of being written around and out of the narrative, there’s still practically nothing. So, one makes do with what one has — and what one has is these movies and imagination.