The Unremarkable US Popular Press Reception of Bend It Like Beckham and Whale Rider

sarah projansky

The fact that U.S. popular culture pays attention to girls is certainly not a new phenomenon; nevertheless, I would argue that representations of girls have significantly intensified since the mid-1980s. For example, since as early as 1923, when Time began publishing, girls appeared on the cover of that magazine once per year in most years; but, starting in 1986 they appeared several times nearly every year. In the 1990s, new television shows centering on girls included Clarissa Explains It All (1991-1994), The Secret World of Alex Mack (1994-1998), and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo (19961999). All three aired on the children's cable station Nickelodeon as part of their explicit attempt to break new ground in children's programming by representing girls as central figures in shows aimed at a mixed-gender audience.1 By the late 1990s, shows featuring girls proliferated on the networks, with, for example, twins Tia and Tamara Mowry in Sister, Sister (1994-1999), music star Brandy as Moesha (1996-2001), and Melissa Joan Hart (formerly of Clarissa) as Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (1996-2003). Shows such as Buffythe Vampire Slayer (1996-2001), Joan of Arcadia (2003-2005), and Veronica Mars (2004-) followed. Relevant films include, for example, Clueless (1995), Pocahontas (1995), Harriet the Spy (1996), Mulan (1998), Bring It On (2000), Girl-fight (2000), Lilo and Stitch (2002), Real Women Have Curves (2002), Thirteen (2002), Ella Enchanted (2004), Mean Girls (2004), Ice Princess (2005), and Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005).

Also in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century, a spate of new magazines for girls appeared, including Teen People (1998-), Cosmo Girl! (2000-), Elle Girl (2001-), and Teen Vogue (2001-).2 While Seventeen (1944-) had previously dominated the teen and preteen market, the titles (and content) of these new magazines make explicit their link to women's magazines, while simultaneously declaring this industry's heightened attention to girls as a specific target market and as formidable consumers in their own right. Also in print media, Mary Pipher's best-selling book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1995), made "Ophelia" a well-known met-onym for contemporary girls' angst. In the wake of Reviving Ophelia, several books addressing girls as "troubled" have emerged, including Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (R. Simmons 2002) and Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (Wiseman). There has been a spate of "anti-Ophelia" books, as well, which argue that girls are more resilient and resourceful than Pipher would suggest and that angst is not so much a syndrome as one part of the experience of girlhood (e.g., Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write about Their Search for Self [Shandler], In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth [Gray], and Yell-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American [Nam]).

I would argue that collectively these representations (among many, many, many others) reveal a recent form of what Michel Foucault calls an "incitement to discourse,'' in this case about girls.3 While some of the discourse worries that girls are troubled, that "the media'' or "popular culture'' is to blame for much of girls' supposed difficulties, and that girls need protection —not attention—from the media, concomitantly, contemporary popular discourses provide a continuous discussion and surveillance of girls, expecting them to "live large'' (Harris) in the public eye and, of course, proliferating those very media depictions of girls about which they worry. In other words, anxiety discourse incites an endless supply of more discourse—whether anxious, defensive, or celebratory—about girls. Collectively, these discourses figure girls in complex and contradictory ways: as vulnerable, yet powerful; as endangered, yet dangerous; as violated, yet wholesome; as spectacular, yet ordinary; as childlike, yet adultlike. Anita Harris has summed up these contradictory binaries by putting contemporary representations of girls into two categories: "can-do girls'' and "at-risk girls.''4

Within this context, at the turn of the twenty-first century, several international films featuring girls as heroes have become runaway hits in the United States, including Run, Lola, Run (1998, Germany), Amelie (2001, France), Bend It Like Beckham (2002, U.K.), and Whale Rider (2002, New Zealand). These films have crossed over from a more typical, to-be-expected short art house run to lengthy art house runs in multiple cities and, more significantly in terms of box office, to "mainstream" multiplex screens throughout the United States. For example, late in the summer of 2003, in my home town of Champaign, Illinois (not far from Peoria), Bend It Like Beckham and Whale Rider were both playing at the same local multiplex, Whale Rider on what the multiplex has explicitly dubbed their ''art house'' screen5 and Bend It Like Beckham on one of their unnamed ''regular'' screens. The next week Bend It Like Beckham continued its run, while Whale Rider moved to a regular screen elsewhere in the theater and another ''art film'' took its place for the requisite one-week run. Almost simultaneously, a poster for the upcoming video/DVD release of Bend It Like Beckham 6 went up in a prominent place in the window of my local video rental store. A month or so later, the poster for the upcoming video/DVD release of Whale Rider7 went up. The two posters continued to sit side-by-side throughout the fall of 2003, inviting passers-by to rent these films and vicariously experience what reviews of the films overwhelmingly call ''girl power.''8

On the one hand, it is entirely unremarkable that the U.S. marketing campaigns for two films in the early twenty-first century simultaneously drew on girl power discourse about two very ''can-do'' girls to define and sell their films. It is even somewhat unremarkable that both were international films.9 After all, both were hugely successful in their home countries, internationally, and on the festival circuit10 prior to opening in the United States. In fact, Whale Rider is the most successful New Zealand film to date, and Bend It Like Beckham is the ''top-grossing British-financed and distributed film ever'' (Turan, March 12, 2003) and the first British film by a ''non-white Briton'' to become the top-grossing film on the British charts (Alibhai-Brown). In short, by the time these films came to mainstream U.S. theaters, they were as close to a sure bet as any nonblockbuster could be. On the other hand, it is worth remarking on the fact that, unlike Run, Lola, Run and Amelie, these two films center on girls of color who, during the course of the film, explicitly address issues of racialization and minoritization in the context of national and neocolonial identities.11 And, reviews of the films in the U.S. press celebrate and even highlight this fact. For example, in the case of Bend It Like Beckham, the U.S. reviews focus the majority of their attention on Jess, played by Parminder Nagra (who is Indian British), despite having the opportunity to center on (or at least pay equal attention to) her co-star/ sidekick Jules, played by Keira Knightley (who is Anglo British).12

This focus on two international films featuring confident and powerful girls of color challenging racism and sexism in their daily lives is unusual and potentially transformative or even disruptive in the context of U. S. popular culture. Nevertheless, in this essay I argue that the ways in which the reviews maintain this focus contribute to the continued displacement of U.S. girls of color. It is as though the comfort with seeing and addressing racism and sexism abroad and the full embrace of these films and their girl heroes stand in for a potential critique of racism and sexism or analysis of race and gender in a U.S. context. Collectively, the press coverage has a self-congratulatory tone about it: it addresses race, and even racism, gender, and even feminism, and celebrates the "overcoming" narratives the press itself finds in the films, all the while drawing the reader's attention to this broad-minded perspective.

The coverage, then, follows a typical "saving Other women from Other men" (Addison) logic, implying that things may be bad "over there" and we must support the girls who are doing something about it, but things must be better here, especially because we can recognize these "problems" and celebrate the girls who overcome them. Both Erin Addison, in her discussion of Aladdin, and Ella Shohat, in her discussion of media coverage of the early-1990s United States war against Iraq, point out that white men function as saviors in the respective narratives. In this case, the film Whale Rider refuses this narrative and Bend It Like Beckham resists it.13 I argue here, however, that the press coverage itself steps into the role of white savior of Other women from Other men/cultures, using reviews of the films to complete this narrative.

I base this argument on a review of national U.S. press coverage of these films from their emergence in the international film scene in mid- to late-2002 through the summer of 2004, when I completed this research. I should be clear that this is not an argument about audience, extrapolated from the reviews. Rather, I am interested in examining how the U.S. popular press' positioning of these films is itself both productive of particular readings of the films and supportive of two interconnected cultural narratives, in particular: one about the backwardness of Other cultures in comparison to the rationality of U.S. culture and the other about the supposed benevolent acceptance of gender equality such that, while feminism may still be necessary elsewhere, the United States is beyond any need for feminist activism or analysis. The United States is thus safely postfeminist, and happily so, in that having supposedly evolved to this point means it is safe to celebrate "girl power" films such as Bend It Like Beckham and Whale Rider. Simultaneously, the celebration of these films reinforces the implication that the United States is, indeed, in a postfeminist moment.14 I develop this discussion by exploring three themes that emerge consistently in the press coverage: a definition of the films as ahistorically authentic, a claim for the universality of the films' stories, and a disavowal of the relationship between the films and their (potential) feminism. While these certainly are not the only themes in the press coverage, they are dominant ones, and they appear consistently across time and across discussions of both films. Furthermore, they work together to produce the version of U.S. benevolence I am describing here. I turn now to an analysis of each of these themes, in turn.

the timelessness and authenticity of "other'' cultures

Defining a film as authentic and timeless is one way to distance it from the contemporary United States. For example, several reviews of Bend It Like Beckham attribute the film's supposed realism to the fact that the film's director is Sikh, as are her characters, and grew up in the same area of London where the film takes place. One review states that ''there is a reality underneath Bend It Like Beckham's easy humor, an impeccable sense of milieu that is the result of [the director] knowing the culture intimately enough to poke fun at it while understanding its underlying integrity'' (Turan, March 12, 2003). Here, the collapse of the director with the film in the service of producing an authenticity authorizes someone from the outside of the supposedly authentic culture to take pleasure in laughing at that culture without risking critique for denying the film's/culture's ''integrity.'' The ''authentic'' director, after all, provided the humor in the first place.

Reviews sometimes specifically couch arguments ascribing realism to the film through references to food, implying the ''authenticity'' and attractiveness (even if the overall review is negative) of the culture in question. These reviews literalize what bell hooks calls ''eating the other'': representing an exoticized other as desirable and profoundly possessable/consumable for a white subject. Building on hooks' work, Laura Ann Lindenfeld argues that some U.S. films that focus on race and ethnicity offer ''a form of 'culinary tourism' ... [in which] the white spectator can safely visit the world of the ethnic other and consume this food and family in a comforting, inviting, vicarious environment'' (205). The reviews of Bend It Like Beckham exhibit this idea of''culinary tourism''with great delight.15 For example, one review comments that ''[the film has a] light-as-Indian-bread content and tone'' (Toumarkine) or, more disparagingly, ''[Jess' mother's] . . . shtick is as tired and unsalvageable as a week-old pakora'' (Zacharek). One headline about several Indian films, not just Bend It Like Beckham, is titled: ''Bollywood Flavor Curries Brit Favor'' (Dawtrey). Here, ''Indianness'' is collapsed into one thing, such that there is no difference between Indian-made films (which Bend It Like Beckham is not) and Indian British films (such as Bend It Like Beckham), and that one thing can then further be reduced to food: in this case, the ubiquitous ''curry.'' At least two reviewers take the discussion of food so far as to reveal their literal desire to eat the other. The more positive

Bend Like Beckham Symbols
Jess (Parminder Nagra) employs her football teammates to help dress her in formal attire for her sister's wedding in Bend It Like Beckham (2002).

(although perhaps more shockingly ethnocentric) of the two reviews claims ''all ethnic comedies feature scenes that make you want to leave the theater and immediately start eating, and Bend It Like Beckham may inspire some of its fans to make Indian friends simply so they can be invited over for dinner'' (Ebert, March 12, 2003).16

If Bend It Like Beckham's realism comes at least partly from a conflation of ''Indianness'' with ''Indian food,'' Whale Rider's authenticity comes at least partly from a well-worn cultural association of indigenousness with landscape and the physical body, also available for consumption. In her discussion of another context—the scholarly debate over the ''authenticity'' of Nanook of the North (1922—Fatimah Tobing Rony points out that whether the film is praised or condemned for its construction of authenticity, ''in both cases, what is ignored is how Nanook emerges from a web of discourses which constructed the Inuit as Primitive man, and which considered cinema, and particularly Flaherty's form of cinema, to be a mode of representation that could only be truthful. I am not so much interested in whether or not Flaherty was an artist or a liar, but in taxidermy and how the discourse of authenticity has created the film" (301, emphasis added). While no debate emerges in the reviews of Whale Rider, their discourse of authenticity follows the pattern Rony describes and produces a particular circum scribed reading of the film, as well as an objectifying anthropological gaze. In particular, reviews of Whale Rider take both the location shooting and the Maori actors (both professionals and locals who had not acted previously) to be evidence of the film's ''unmistakable authenticity" (LaSalle). One review says that the film ''vibrantly showcases authentic Maori culture—the cast is exclusively Maori'' (Calder, emphasis added).17 The film also ''opens a window into the indigenous Maori community and its traditions" (Tara-bay, emphasis added). In these two examples the film functions as a passive display of culture (''showcase,'' ''window'') available for the viewer to gaze at unwatched, as a voyeur. Yet another review claims ''Whale Rider is almost anthropological in its details'' (Butler), defining the film not as a display to be gazed at but rather as an object to be mined for evidence of cultural authenticity.

All of these examples, in addition to reducing the meaning of culture to a static thing to be consumed/observed/mined, also reveal tautological thinking. The logic goes something like this: ''I saw it in a movie that comes from/ is made by someone of that culture; I don't see those images everyday outside my back door; thus, it sure seems authentic/realistic; therefore, it must be authentic/realistic.'' For some, that tautology leads to a desire to consume the other, as in: ''let's go out to eat'' or ''let's take a tourist trip to a beautiful land.''

In many of the discussions of both films, this ''authentic'' Indian and Maori culture, respectively, is taken to be, by definition, patriarchal. This association of authenticity and patriarchy then displaces gender issues to elsewhere. Again, it is an unquestioned tautological assumption of the reviews that the specific attitudes toward girls and women, and views of girls and women expressed by the fictional characters in the film, do in fact represent the actual views of the entire (assumed to be unified) cultures in question, and have always represented their views. For example, one review calls Jess' parents in Bend It Like Beckham "traditional disapproving parents'' (Bernard) who ''are adamant about holding on to their traditional Sikh ways'' (Gleiberman).18 One review offers a slightly less negative version of traditionalism, while still nicely revealing the logical leaps these articles make as they connect ''cultural tradition'' to ''patriarchal attitudes'': ''[these are] parents who, while not hidebound traditionalists, nonetheless think sports are an improper pastime for an almost-grown teenager with marriage and university to think about'' (Scott). Here, implicitly it is a slightly (although not ''hidebound'') traditional attitude to believe that sports are improper for girls. This claim is made as though ''we all know'' that girls do not, have not, never have, (never will?) play/played sports in ''Indian cultures,'' but do, of course, play sports in "our" culture, presumably without any fear of reprisal or discrimination.

Even the fact that, in Whale Rider, Pai's grandfather and grandmother disagree about the role of girls as leaders (he thinks it's a bad idea; she thinks it's a good idea) does not deter the critics from assuming that it is the grandfather's view that reveals the "truth" of Maori beliefs, despite the film's developed depiction of, for example, the grandmother as a key leader in the community and Pai's female teacher as a key figure for the perpetuation and interpretation of cultural traditions and the community's history and present. A typical claim in reviews of Whale Rider is that "tradition dictates absolutely that a girl, no matter how capable or involved, cannot fill [the] position [of leader]'' (Turan, June 6, 2003).19 One review states quite explicitly the assumption that "the beliefs that Koro [the grandfather] holds to are ones handed down for centuries'' (Pickle). Headlines often draw on this theme, as in "Beauty and the Beast Called Tradition'' (Whitty) and "Girl Battles Exotic Culture's Bias'' (Gillespie).

More starkly, even the fact that many articles report that Keisha Castle-Hughes (who plays Pai) learned to fight with taiaha sticks (which only men are supposed to handle) during the making of the film, thereby providing one specific example of the adaptability and complexity of the culture in relation to gender, functions in these reviews only to reinforce the idea of timeless patriarchy. In one interview, for example, Castle-Hughes says: "The men, the Maori warriors, used to fight each other with [the taiaha sticks], and the whole purpose of Pai doing it [in the film] is because girls aren't allowed to. Even to this day. When I learned to use taiaha, I found it funny at first. I was like, 'I shouldn't be doing this,' but I had heaps of support. And we did some Maori chants and things so that it was possible for us to do the fighting'' (Karan). This story reveals both that Castle-Hughes was able to use the taiaha sticks in her work and that there are ''chants and things'' within her community that address the possibility that a girl or woman might want to or need to use taiaha sticks. This story could be read to reveal that gender in this culture is neither static nor simplistic. The reviewers, however, report the story as evidence of the supposedly timeless rule that girls are not allowed to use the sticks. The culture = patriarchy = not modern = ahistori-cal = not-us/U.S. equation is so powerful that the reviews seem not to see the contradiction between Castle-Hughes' actions (using the sticks) and her claim (that girls do not use the sticks).

A few reviews mention the 1987 book on which the film was based, and report that the author, Witi Ihimaera, wrote the story after two significant events: first, his experience of seeing a whale swim up the Hudson River while he was in New York; and, second, his daughters' observation that there

Whale Rider Pai
Whale Rider presents Pai as an extraordinary young heroine. Keisha Castle-Hughes became the first performer under 20 to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

were very few stories available to them that had female heroes. One unusual article quotes Ihimaera saying, ''having the girl [Pai, in the film] ride the whale, which is also a symbol of patriarchy[,]. .. was my sneaky literary way of socking it to the guy thing'' (Richards). The process of Ihimaera having conceived of and written the book, and then the book's subsequent phenomenal success in New Zealand, show, of course, that culture does change and that the ''patriarchy'' of the culture is not an unchanging given that never faces challenges. But few articles mention this background, and this is the only article I found in which Ihimaera makes the point that the whale, itself, is a symbol of patriarchy. Thus, this apparently more subtle reworking of tradition and gender taking place over time through the life of the novel and now the life of the film is lost in the discussion of the film as a timeless story of girl versus authentic patriarchy.

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