Assessing Bend It Like Beckham in the social and political context of Blairism, Sacha Ismail considers the Gate Gourmet industrial dispute at Heathrow and union bureaucracies’ longstanding failure to fight for workers, particularly black, brown and migrant workers

I must have watched Bend It Like Beckham a dozen times – most recently on the twentieth anniversary of its release, last week. At the top of the UK box office for over three months in 2002, Gurinder Chadha’s film became a hit worldwide: the only film ever, believe it or not, officially released in every country, North Korea included. There are pages of statistics for its success.

It undoubtedly had special resonance for British Asians. As a middle-class 22 year-old second-generation man, with no interest whatsoever in football, I instantly felt that particular buzz. For younger working-class South Asian women, particularly football fans like heroine Jesminder Bhamra, the buzz was surely that much stronger. The twentieth anniversary has seen a fresh stream of tributes to the film’s personal impact.

That Bend It Like Beckham hasn’t “got old” reflects, I think, its deft combination of warm, even silly humour with serious, even world-changing issues and themes.

It would be unfair to subject such a light-hearted film to too stringent political criticism; but it is in important respects political, and can be usefully discussed politically. It is simultaneously progressive – in respects even radical – and conservative. Raising potentially radical questions, its answers struggle to escape its Blairite social context.

The place of ethnic minorities and migrants in British society, and the legacies of colonialism; the place of women, particularly young women, in this society and these communities; the relationship between tradition and social change; between family and society; sexuality… Reams have been written about what the film had to say or what it should make us consider about such questions.

This is a tale of radically “bending” social boundaries and identities, to challenge conservative and oppressive aspects of both “minority” and “majority” cultures and create a new, wider, freer social framework. By the end Jesminder (Jess) is able to pursue many aspects of her identity and dreams much more freely than at the start, and this is clearly part of a broader social change. In itself that’s not distinctive, but running through the channels of ethnicity, gender – and to some extent sexuality – in 2002, it was. 

Just having a young Asian woman as the central character in a mainstream film was itself pretty revolutionary. Gurinder Chadha has described the difficulties she had getting it made, and it’s been widely pointed out that there have been few films made since that are comparable.

Despite Bend It Like Beckham’s genuinely emancipatory elements, some of the praise for the film has amounted to little more than a shallow liberal celebration of “diversity”. Chadha recently cautioned that “diversity isn’t about sticking a woman of colour on a panel”, but counter-posed a distinctly neoliberal alternative: “It’s the very upper echelons [of business and society] allowing genuine, authentic voices and experiences to be heard and listened to”.

This reflects how British society was evolving in 2002 and has evolved since. The world Bend It Like Beckham depicts was changing not just for the better but in important ways for the worse. The world now is a product of both the progress and regression of that era.

The real liberatory trends in British society the film celebrates – including the pushing back of straightforward white racism and social domination, the expansion of sexual freedom and also, from what I understand, women’s involvement in football – have continued. We have also experienced stark social regression on many fronts, rooted in class and connecting to race and migration. This regression germinated in the Blair era in which the film is rooted.

A fair amount has been written about its over-positive depiction of race and racism in Blair’s Britain. In the aftermath of far right-orchestrated violence in northern cities with large South Asian populations, and the 9/11 attack, this was the time of the Blair government’s drive to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and its assault on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism – the civil liberties of South Asians above all. (Interestingly, the film touches twice on Sikh-Muslim tensions; but the situation in those years impacted those who “looked Muslim” as well as those who were.)

Celebrating real and positive social trends, Bend It Like Beckham was also a dose of sunny “Cool Britannia”-type optimism compensating for a much darker reality. Chadha somewhat absurdly described it as a “great moment of healing for the world” following 9/11 (she also conceded it was an attempt to “cash in” on the excitement around the 2002 World Cup).

The film is much more confident about “tackling” individual prejudice than the social and political framework of inequality.

Ironically its setting, or rather the background to its setting, is an industrial working-class one. Jess’ dad, a Punjabi migrant whose experience of racism causes him to first resist and then champion his daughter’s desire to play football, works at what remains the largest unionised workplace in the UK – Heathrow airport – it seems as ground staff of some sort. So does her sister Pinky, it seems as a flight attendant, and so does or did her mum, in an unspecified role. Heathrow is a presence throughout the film.

Jess’ parents want her to go to university, which Pinky hasn’t, and become a solicitor. That’s one way of moving up socially; Jess aspires to the more ambitious dream of becoming a professional footballer. She says she “wants more” than the life planned by her sister, who aspires mainly to get married and have a baby. In a classic neoliberal take on social progress, working-class background women who rise out of their class can change the world; working-class women cannot. (On a sour note, the pattern of Jess’ mother being more conservative than her father, more unsympathetic to their daughter’s dreams, is repeated with the mother of her white friend, Jules.)

The idea of moving up socially by pursuing a creative vocation is obviously a well-worn one. In Bend It Like Beckham the platform for such aspiration is the secure and improving living standards Jess’ family seem to enjoy. That was far from the whole picture of the Blair years, a time when, for millions of workers, stable and relatively well-paid employment was systematically undermined in favour of the widespread precariousness that runs riot today. Well before post-crash austerity, things did not “only get better” for the working class.

The impact on black and brown workers was heaviest. Three years after Chadha’s film a major, arguably epoch-making industrial dispute at Heathrow (Gate Gourmet) saw a bastion of trade union strength among Asian women – airline catering workers, mostly middle-aged Punjabi women like Jess’ mum, many living in the same part of West London – destroyed in a shameless act of union-busting, similar to the recent mass sacking at P&O.

Male airport workers like Jess’ dad – though in fact linked to the Gate Gourmet workers not by family connections but rather by class solidarity – took illegal secondary strike action to win the women’s reinstatement, but to no avail. This is a story of union bureaucracies’ longstanding failure to fight for workers, and particularly black, brown and migrant workers, as well as the neo-Thatcherite realities of New Labour.

Failing to fight in the relatively benign circumstances before 2008, organised labour in the UK has not stopped retreating since. Whether it’s middle-aged workers in established industries, younger generations, those with higher education, those without – or indeed the bulk of lower-rank professional footballers! – the whole working class has lost out. Migrants, ethnic minorities, women and the young, however, most of all.

With this class regression have come other forms, most obviously the tidal political assault on migrants. Racism in its old crude variants continues to retreat, mostly; in new, more veiled forms, it flourishes.

In 2002, Tony Blair wrote to Gurinder Chadha: “We loved it, loved it – because this is my Britain”. So far as Bend It Like Beckham said something important about a real Britain, it did not belong to an authoritarian conservative like Blair. Yet its mystifications about society were essentially Blairite.

The film remains remarkable. Its most moving moment, for me, is Mr Bhamra’s declaration of regret at accepting racism for many years and his hopes of a different path for Jess: he doesn’t want her to do as he did, “accepting life, accepting situations”. “I want her to fight.” Flying off to the States to seek wealth and fame as a footballer is no model for fighting injustice; but that sentiment is the starting point for renewed and larger progress.


Sacha Ismail is a socialist activist and writer based in South London. He is involved in a range of campaigns including Labour Movement Solidarity with Hong Kong, and author of a 2021 pamphlet about Shapurji Saklatvala, the communist and Indian nationalist who was the first Labour MP of colour. sacha_isma@hotmail.com

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One thought on “Bend It Like Beckham, Blair and Trade Unionism

  1. Re-reading this now, after all the buzz and discussion around the UK women’s team in Euro 2022, my ignorance about women’s football (and football in general) stands out. Because although women’s football has indeed made huge progress, there are also obviously huge issues about diversity and access both along lines of both race and class. That point would have strengthened the article, but not knowing that much about football I didn’t really think about it at the time!

    Sacha Ismail

    Like

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