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A Love Letter to Bend it Like Beckham

 

As a South Asian woman, it is difficult for me to find accurate and quality representation in western media. Many of the TV shows and movies portray South Asians as nerdy, prudish and undesirable, often the comic relief in the white protagonist’s story. Growing up around these images of South Asians, I started to buy into it and I started seeing myself in inaccurate portrayals of South Asians because I had nothing else. 

One movie I wish I had seen earlier was 2002’s Bend it Like Beckham. It is not only a film centered around a woman of color, it also breaks stereotypes about South Asian women in particular. Bend it Like Beckham is a feminist film that was ahead of its time. The main conflict of the movie is about two young girls that want to pursue their dreams professionally, despite their parent’s wishes. Over half the main cast are people of color and the movie does not reinforce gender and racial stereotypes. Rather, South Asians are represented in a realistic light; there aren’t overtly nerdy South Asian characters in this film which a stereotype that has been in Hollywood movies for some time now. Jess, the main character, is an Indian woman who cares about her academics but does not let it define her. As someone who feels the same, it was refreshing to see that mentality on screen.

Jess’s story is not centered around a man, which is a staple in any feminist film. Her goals are to play professional soccer. While she does end up with a guy at the end of the movie, it is clear that romance isn’t her main priority, and she puts off dating to achieve her dreams. It is very rare to see a female protagonist’s story that has little to do with finding a man. Stories such as Jess’s remind the audience that a woman’s worth should not be determined by her relationships with men. It is important for women to have ambitions beyond getting married and having kids.

However, the film isn’t against love and relationships. Jess’s sister has an arc centered around her engagement. Pinky, one of the main characters, is an Indian woman who is allowed to have a love and sex life without being fetishized. While it may seem anti-feminist to have one of the main characters whose arc is about love, it is actually the opposite. Pinky already has an established and successful career, so it makes sense that her story is about her relationship. This makes her a well-written character, something that is rare when women of color are on the silver screen. 

One of the main misconceptions people have about South Asians is that the parents are ruthless tiger parents that have a predetermined for their children, which is far from the truth. While the stereotype of the strict immigrant parent is prevalent, the movie makes it clear that this behavior is not limited to minorities. Jess is not ridiculed for her parents being strict about soccer because her best friend, Jules, who is white, is in the same situation. The movie emphasizes that South Asian parenting styles are, at its core, just wanting the best for their kids. To depict Jess’s parents as carefree, uninvolved and neglectful would be inaccurate, not only as South Asian parents but as parents in general. South Asian parents can be strict to some extent, but the movie is hesitant to represent this as a racial phenomenon. By making Jules’ parents act similarly to Jess’ the movie shifts the dialogue about parenting away from race. 

One often overlooked criteria about what makes a film feminist is the way it is filmed. The women in the film are not filmed in an objectified manner. Jules is seen wearing a sports bra multiple times and there are no lingering shots of her body in the film. This is incredibly important because a movie can be feminist on paper, but antifeminist when it’s being filmed. Objectifying women on screen is the easiest way to lose credibility when it comes to feminist media. Most movie watchers are visual people, so even if the movie is extremely progressive it won’t matter if the women being filmed as objects of the male gaze.

Bend it Like Beckham is now one of my favorite movies. It was refreshing to see South Asians on screen who were well developed and not just comedic relief. For that alone, I would classify it as feminist. The fact that this movie didn’t rely on stereotypes and has well written female characters makes this film and extraordinary example of representation done right. 

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Ria Deshmukh

Virginia Tech '23

Virginia Tech student majoring in Criminology and Sociology.
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