Bend It Like Beckham
reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, April 21, 2003
"Bend It Like Beckham" is a well-executed, crowd-pleasing comedy that earned more money in Britain than any all-British film ever. It's the story of a teenage Indian Sikh girl who would rather head soccer balls into the goal than play a role in her big sister's marriage ceremony. Call it "My Big Fat Sikh Heading."
While Jesminder's parents plan their older daughter's elaborate wedding, they hope her test results will allow her to attend an elite college and become a doctor or solicitor. But she'd rather boot bending shots like her hero David Beckham (the soccer superstar better known in America for being Mr. Posh Spice). According to her mother, she is ruining her marriage prospects by showing her bare legs and, perhaps worse, letting them tan disgracefully dark.
American immigrant teen movies, like last year's Mexican-American "Real Women Have Curves," typically ask whether the daughter should stay close to her working class family or pursue higher education. In "Beckham," though, the class angle is reversed, which almost all U.S. critics have missed.
The American upper-middle class views soccer as a classy sport for their kids because Europeans play it and Europe is a classy place. Here, in fact, girls' soccer is even more upscale than boys' soccer because most female athletes come from intact two parent homes where the father pushes his daughter into sports, often because he lacks a son to live out his athletic ambitions. Ambitious American parents see organized athletics as a good way to distract their daughters from getting pregnant and marrying some loser when they should be finishing college.
In England, though, soccer traditionally has been the sport of louts, thugs, and yobbos. In Tony Blair's vulgarized Cool Britannia, everybody is supposed to love soccer. Yet, Jesminder's Mercedes-driving family, like so many of Britain's Sikhs and Hindus (but unlike its resentful and rioting Pakistani Muslim proles), is staunchly bourgeois. Jesminder's father played cricket, not soccer. To her parents, soccer is a dangerous step down the social ladder toward England's increasingly disorderly white working class.
For a low-budget foreign film with an incomprehensible title, "Bend It Like Beckham" should do particularly well in America because its basic presumption -- the wonderfulness of women's soccer -- is more American than European.
The film wants to launch in England one of the funnier American fads: those periodic whoop-tee-doos where we all swell up with national pride over an American women's team winning gold in some sport played by the women of practically no other county, except maybe Norway.
Think back to the ecstasy over the first Women's World Cup of soccer. We'd beaten the world! When cynics pointed out that the world didn't much care about women's soccer, well, that just made us even prouder of how liberated our women are, compared to those poor, oppressed women of Paris, Milan, and London, whose consciousnesses haven't been raised enough to want to trade in their Gucci high heels for soccer spikes.
Unfortunately, after each frenzy of patriotic feminist chauvinism, our poor women athletes come home and set up a domestic pro league that rapidly lost the interest of most everybody except lesbians and the kind of guy fan who'll watch anything on ESPN2. That's because, to be frank, even the best women aren't anywhere near as good at sports as the best men, so what's the point in watching them unless they are kicking foreign butt?
Not surprisingly, the young English women in "Beckham" are better actresses than soccer players. Indeed, one reason Europeans don't like women's soccer is because they know what well-played soccer looks like, which we don't. Not that we should care. If humans were built like horses, soccer would be the perfect sport, but as a game for a species with opposable thumbs, it's played with the wrong set of limbs.
Another example of the film's American approach: "Beckham" assumes that because Jesminder's traditionalist mother won't let her play in the girls' league final instead of taking part in her sister's nuptials, she's justified in acting like a big drip through all the ceremony and celebration. After all, as any good modern American knows, you shouldn't suppress your emotions just because of some outdated stiff-upper-lip social convention about not ruining your sister's wedding day.
In the end -- and if you haven't seen a girl-power sports movie in the last 20 years, please avert your eyes because you'll be shocked, shocked to learn this -- Jesminder dashes away and scores the winning goal, which makes all the fuddy-duddies repent and the audience cheer.
Yet, if you enter the theatre with such unenlightened ideas as thinking that a Sikh wedding, with its kaleidoscopic colors, would be a lot more fun to attend than the typical nil-nil soccer match, you may leave with your churlish un-American attitude intact.
Rated PG-13 for language and sexual content.
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