Monday, 21 March 2016

Discuss the treatment of masculinity in Billy Elliot (2000) and This Is England (2006)

This essay will focus on the treatment of masculinity in the films Billy Elliot (2000), written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, and This Is England (2006), written and directed by Shane Meadows, both set during the 1980’s. The film’s both feature young male protagonists who are ‘coming of age’ in a time of political and social upheaval. The community and family of Billy (Jamie Bell) in Billy Elliot (From here on referred to as BE) are involved in the miner’s strikes of 1984-5, suffering the closure of the coal pits in a small town near Durham.  For Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) in This Is England (From here on referred to as TIE), he faces the bleak future of life without his father, who was killed in the Falkland’s war, and involvement with a group of nationalists with racist principles. This essay will look firstly at what the stereotypical traits of masculinity are, followed by how these traits are subverted by various characters in the respective films, and finally at why these traits are subverted. Masculinity, the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men, has become ingrained into society’s expectations, however when the qualities are lost or changed, men can enter a state of crisis. Billy and Shaun define their own form of masculinity, based on the environments they live in and their ambition to move forward within them.

To begin with, this essay will observe some of the stereotypical traits of masculinity in BE and TIE. Both films are set in the North of England, during a period of high unemployment partly due to the cuts carried out by Margaret Thatcher and the conservative government. Mark Schreiber writes “one of the main features of the working classes in 1980s and 1990s Britain is that the greater proportion of them than of either the middle or the upper classes is not working. Loss of work to a class which defines itself as working is traumatic”(Schreiber, 2007, p.1). Schreiber identifies the catalyst for many of the insecurities expressed by men in these films. One of the first traits of masculinity to be explored is violence. BE is set in the fictional town of Everington, County Durham, with boxing presented as a generational sport used for male bonding and the pinnacle of masculinity. It is contrasted against the ultra-feminine dance form of ballet, to which Billy is drawn.
Stood outside of the boxing hall, Billy is seen as submissive when he is pushed out of the way by a boy who passes him, setting up the audience’s expectations of his lack of aggression. Next to Billy and his friend Michael (Stuart Wells) are two plaques, a large one that clearly reads ‘Everington Boys Club, Second Floor’ and has a picture of a boy boxing on it, the other beneath much smaller, reading ‘Dance School’. The masculine here presides over the feminine in importance, shown by the size and visibility of the male and female sports signage, but then again when the ballet lesson moves into the boxing hall, up from the basement as their space was used as a soup kitchen for the striking miners, another show of emasculation as the men are unable to provide food for themselves or their family. The peaceful ballet is kept out of sights, whilst the violent boxing is in a spacious hall above ground.
When Billy is knocked out in the sparring match, his coach yells, “Billy Elliot, you’re a disgrace to them gloves, your father and this boxing hall”. This statement flags up three traits of masculinity within the film; the sport of boxing, the generational tradition and the local perception. Within the film, boxing is a male orientated pastime involving fierce combat and competitive spirit. It requires dedication and discipline, which Billy evidently finds difficult as he rejects the sport for a more effeminate and creative activity.
The generational tradition shows the pressure of Billy to conform to his family’s ideals and not to break the mould, which ties in with the local perception as public shame is to be avoided by maintaining family honour, in this case through the boxing. For Billy’s father Jackie (Gary Lewis), Billy’s lack of aptitude towards boxing “threatens patriarchal tradition”(Hill, 2004, p.104), as he tells Billy, “they were my dads gloves. You’d better take better care of them”.

The preceding narrative of TIE includes the death of Shaun’s father, leaving him vulnerable to dominant patriarchal influence. To begin with Shaun gravitates towards a predominantly male group of friends who are all older than him, searching for a place to belong. The two figures who Shaun finds particularly inspiring are Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and Combo (Stephen Graham). Woody is in some senses a patriarchal figure - he is the leader of the gang; he enforces goodwill between members of the group and buys Shaun his first Ben Sherman shirt – part of the uniform of the skinhead culture. The controlled violence of the scene where the group of boys dress up and go and destroy abandoned houses shows a bond being made through destruction, but the violence isn’t affecting or hurting anyone directly; this violence is a release rather than an aggressive act. Clare Monk writes that films that are youth-orientated “address the anxieties of young male viewers by portraying the young male underclass in terms of an appealing subculture of dissent from the demands of adulthood, women and work”(Monk, 2000, p.160). The film is set during Shaun’s school holidays, however most of the male members of his gang are a lot older and don’t seem to work. Woody, as a leader and a provider of fun, doesn’t assert his power over the group, rather promotes equality between all the members.
Because of this, Woody becomes a fraternal figure rather than a paternal one, made especially clear when Combo returns to the group and displays his alpha male personality. During his incarceration, Combo was exposed to extreme nationalist thought, within which he thinly veils a racist attitude. Shaun is attracted to his dominant personality and becomes his protégée. When the government conduct violence and initiate a war in another country, it shouldn’t be surprising that the violence permeates into our own society. War connotes violence and dominance, both masculine traits that are explored by Shane Meadows in the film. Shaun craves a masculine figure to look up to, holding his soldier father in high regard, even fighting at school when his name is besmirched.
Combo portrays the masculine trait of dominance through his violence and aggression towards immigrants and non-English residents, however mostly towards those who are physically weaker than him, such as a middle aged shopkeeper, young boys and women. The reasons behind Combo’s aggression and nationalist ideals could be because of the lack of employment, partly due to his lack of education and criminal record, partly due to Thatcher greatly diminishing industrial work and partly due to the influx of immigrants taking a minority of the available jobs. Geoff Mayer writes “It has been noted by some critics that issues relating to unemployment, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse are constituents not merely of the decline of the traditional working class, but symptomatic of a crisis in masculinity”(Mayer, 2003, p.25). In Combo’s case, his idea of the traditional working class is one of industrial-working English men, however in Meadows film, the only people who seem to be working are non-white individuals and women.
In the scene where Combo intercepts Lol (Vicky McClure) on her way to work at, the women who pass Lol and call out greetings are of Asian heritage. Combo’s confession of love for Lol in his car is a pivotal moment of his masculine crisis. Combo’s car is the place he feels most in control, however he has L-plates on the back, which undermines his experience. Not only is his love for Lol rejected when he tells her the night they spent together was “the best night of my life”, and she responds “It was the worst night of my life”, but when one of the young boys insults nationalist ideas whilst in Combo’s car, Combo feels his masculinity and his position of power challenged, and stops the car to physically eject him saying “Don’t you fucking ever undermine me again in front of my fucking troops”. This assertion of dominance isn’t believable as it is an extreme reaction that almost seems petulant and immature coming from a man who believes he has some kind of military authority.

Combo’s subverted masculinity is evidence of how Meadows takes the power away from the macho character in order to expose his humanity and to question the definition of masculinity. The subversion of masculinity is explored in both BE and TIE through themes such as ballet, empowered women, and homosexuality in the former, and nationalism in the latter, and unemployment in both. The mainly sympathetic view of the male protagonist is largely due to “the perceived ‘losses’ the narrative signal: losses of work, dignity, self-respect, familial and personal relationships, economic, political, social and sexual power and ‘potency’”(Lay, 2002, p.108). When men experience these losses, they fall into a crisis of masculinity because their place is questioned.
In BE, ballet is often referred to as being the pastime of the homosexual, which is viewed as inferior, for example in the scene when Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) tells Billy that “plenty of men” do ballet, Billy’s reply is a dismissive “poofs”. Behind Debbie there is a huge poster that shows a man next to a washing machine, below text which reads ‘At your service Susie. Your ever-faithful washing slave’. This poster highlights how key masculine identities are changing around the oblivious child protagonists as gender roles change to suit a society that thrives on consumerism rather than labour and production, consumerism that requires creativity to further advertising and entertainment.  
Billy’s explanation to Michael of why ballet isn’t a homosexual indulgence is filmed as the two boys are coming out of a tunnel. When Michael tells Billy he would look “wicked” in a tutu, this could be seen as a literal coming out. John Hill wrote “The film is acutely conscious of the popular associations of ballet with effeminacy and homosexuality and much of the film is preoccupied with downplaying these connotations”(Hill, 2004, pp.104). This is the first time Michael broaches his fascination for Billy. Hill writes that the attraction to ballet “sets in motion within the film the discourses of gender and sexuality, and a questioning of the heterosexual masculinity that underpins the working-class community”(Hill, 2004, pp.104). Apart from in the dance lessons with his teacher, much of Billy’s dancing is a mixture of tap and Irish, as seen in the scene where he dances out of frustration and seeks to “physically burst out of his environment”(Hill, 2004, pp.104) in the outdoor toilet. Michael could be seen as representing the working class homosexual, however he could also be seen as a foil for the ultra-masculine, heterosexual grown up Billy in the end scene. So ballet in Billy’s community is stereotyped as the indulgence of the homosexual, which Billy constantly has to prove he is not. Steve Blandford writes of BE, “The film is clearly at pains to avoid an easy correspondence between Billy’s aptitude for dance and the usual clichés about gay men that so often accompany the portrayal of male dancers”(Blandford, 2007, p.29). By having a gay best friend, Billy’s own sexuality is up for scrutiny, however James Leggot believes “the homosexual characters are mostly pushed to the fringes…to dislodge any anxieties that the main protagonist might be gay”(Leggot, 2008, p.88). Ballet is a vehicle for subverting traditional masculinity in BE through opening up a creative channel as a means of expression and redefining the boundaries of what is an acceptable masculinity. Hill wrote, “Billy becomes an emblem of economic rejuvenation through participation in the ‘creative’ industries” (Hill, 2004, pp.108).
In TIE, the minority who are discriminated against are people of ethnic or non-Christian backgrounds. Combo convinces Shaun that the war on immigration is more important than the war his father fought in; echoing the sentiments of the disillusioned British population who felt the influx of Asian Muslims into the country was preventing white Anglo-Saxon people from having a job or a place to live. He preaches that Thatcher sent “good, innocent” men on a “phony” war to “fight shepherds with rocks and little rifles”. Nationalism subverts the idea of masculinity by presenting an extreme territorial dominance that forces Shaun to question Combo’s views by the end.
Both filmmakers show men feeling threatened by change in their lives and communities, which in turn threatens their masculinity. The anxiety about unemployment leads to explosive aggression from Jackie and Combo. For Jackie this is directed towards the “scab” miners who cross the picket lines and against his son which carries “accusations of class treachery” at his “suspiciously non-masculine endeavour”(Leggot, 2008, p.94), whilst Combo blames immigration. In TIE, Combo’s masculine aggression could be perceived as deriving from his failure to fit into society, and his refusal to accept how his community has changed since his incarceration. He is visibly delighted in the scene where he passes on his aggressive, racist behaviour in the scene where he encourages Shaun to pace back and forth shouting “Fuck off, you Paki bastards”, calling him “son” and congratulating him. This scene is preceded by a shot of the Combo’s gang all walking towards the camera, shot from a low angle, with Gadget spitting; the men looking aggressive and threatening. This is a direct contrast to a shot previously with Woody’s gang where they were all laughing, looking friendly and approachable.
The ‘male-panic’ of BE with the men shown drinking, striking and barely being able to survive financially has an underlying positive portrayal of women. The only main character that is working and earning a living, as well as not drinking, is Billy’s dance teacher, Sandra, (Julie Walters), and in TIE, Shaun’s mum, the shoe-shop keeper and Lol, are the main white characters who are employed. All of these women represent the “de-industrialised, consumer-led, feminised world”(Lay, 2002, p.105). In BE, Walter’s is one of the only characters who has a car and lives in an area that is a complete dichotomy of the run down terraced streets of Billy’s world. When Billy goes to Sandra’s house, Sandra’s husband becomes an immediately detestable character, belittling the strike and supporting the idea of pit closure. Debbie later reveals that her father is “always pissed”, and at one point “pissed himself” as well as having been made redundant. This revelation takes away from the dominant figure in the previous scene that sits away from the family, in the foreground of the shot, making him seem bigger than the other characters, and turns him into a figure of ridicule. In the household, Sandra is the breadwinner whilst her husband is an incontinent, unemployed alcoholic.

Mark Schreiber, in his study of masculinity in Contemporary British Film described Britain as a “post-industrial scrap heap” after the decline of traditional industries, with the north hit especially hard because of its “consequential inflexibility for economic change” (Schreiber, 2007, p.1). It would seem however, there is consequential flexibility for a change of masculinity. In BE, Tony wakes in the early hours, takes his father’s hammer and attempts to leave the house when Jackie tries to stop him by hitting him, however this doesn’t work and Jackie is shown as being entirely powerless as Tony walks straight passed him and out of the door. With no work and no money, Tony and Jackie begin to fight like animals, which added to the shots of the striking miners with the verbal and physical missiles, indicates feral behaviour. However, Jackie comes through for Billy as a father and overlooks his prejudices towards ballet, even though it is an alien world to him. Even though Billy’s father is struggling with his changing identity, Billy is valiantly forging his own path, Leggot describing him as “angelic”(Leggot, 2004, p.168), accentuated through Billy’s literal balletic flight.
In TIE, Woody’s group are shown as sitting around in café’s and crowding into small rooms to shave Shaun’s hair or drink. They seem to have no space in society and little purpose or drive, with no real desire for employment, which gives them no need to provide therefore little expression of stereotypical masculine traits. Monk writes “The youth-orientated films present young male joblessness and social exclusion as taken-for-granted states with no history, no proposed solution and no expectation of change. With detached irony, they framed the male underclass not as a ‘social problem’ but as a subcultural ‘lifestyle’ with certain attractions for a young, post-political male audience”(Monk, 2000, p.160). Woody’s gang have rejected the violence of masculine models like the soldiers of the Falklands, instead creating their own utopian tribe of equality that has a new form of masculinity. Unemployment and a lack of political interest means the members of the crew are treated like family, with love and respect rather than a patriarchal hierarchy based on power.

Both films feature children as the protagonists, which begs the question; how do we identify with young boys from working-class, northern backgrounds? The masculinity of Billy and Shaun is examined through the male stereotypes imposed upon them by their families and friends, but what stereotypes are we imposing on them? To attempt to answer these questions, the audience need to understand that the traits of masculinity explored previously can be interpreted as being subverted because of reasons that supersede the narrative and characters of both films. BE was created as one of the first lottery funded films, winning three BAFTA’s including Best British Film. It was created in Hollywood style for a worldwide audience, with the strike being an inconsequential background to the real struggles of the arts in a society based on consumerist and industrialist values. Blair’s strategy with the UK’s Film Council funding, launched in 2000 was that it would finance popular films that entertain people and make them feel good, which is what BE does. It takes a period of time that the audience can relate to as being dismal and bleak, and gives it a utopian twist We identify with the Billy’s desire for a better life, for a brighter future. Meadows created TIE as a reflection of the bullying and violence he’d experienced in his own life and his involvement in the skinhead movement of the 80’s. He openly states, as does Stephen Graham, that he identified strongly not only with Shaun, but also with Thomas Turgoose. Through using real clips of soldiers in the Falkland’s war and playing popular upbeat music over the top, Meadows comments on the futility of war and the twisted perception civilians may have garnered from the footage shown to them at home. Masculinity is challenged in the film by Shaun’s various patriarchal role models, whilst representing the different forms of masculinity as a person changes with age. Meadows film allows the audience to identify with the idea of a child finding their own identity, their own voice in a society that ostracizes anyone outside of the mainstream.


Although BE and TIE are similar in so many aspects, from the young male protagonists to the disillusioned and unemployed man, the desire for change to the struggle for continuity, the treatment of masculinity is multifaceted. Blandford writes, “Billy Elliot appears to assert that masculine identity can only be enriched by embracing a much broader set of values in a rapidly changing world”(Blandford, 2007, 29) which can aptly be applied to TIE as well. Both Shaun and Billy are at a point in their life where they are finding their own voice and creating their own identity, the filmmakers highlighting this through exploring the limited options young men in 80’s England had. Shaun’s inclusion into the skinhead group and Billy’s discovery of ballet are vehicles for the boys to find their voice and to figure out their identity. The resistance Billy faces only makes him work harder in order to prove his choice of masculinity can still be taken as seriously as the men he grew up around. Shaun craves the inclusion of a crew, suffering from the grief of his father’s death, and experiences this twice, once with Woody and once with Combo. The last scene of the film shows Shaun throwing a St Georges flag into the ocean, a metaphor for him throwing away the ideas others have forced upon him. When he looks up and makes eye-contact with the camera, we are encouraged to believe he has come to his own decision about his identity and what it is to be a man. Schrieber writes of British Contemporary Cinema “I would like to read them as examples of a successful deconstruction of gender stereotypes and as triggers for a cultural healing process of the trauma of social and cultural destabilisation caused by economic decline and a gradual realisation of what one might call “post-industrial masculinity””(Schreiber, 2007, p.1).






Bibliography

1.     Blandford, Steve. 2007. Film, Drama and the Break-up of Britain. Bristol: Intellect Books.

2.     Hill, John. 2004. A working class hero is something to be: Changing representations of class and masculinity in British Cinema. In: P.Powrie, A. Davies and B. Babington, ed. 2004. The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema. London: Wallflower.

3.     Lay, Samantha. 2002. British Social Realism. London: Wallflower Press.

4.     Leggot, James. 2004. Like Father? Failing parents and angelic children in Contemporary British Social Realist Cinema. In: .Powrie, A. Davies and B. Babington, ed. 2004. The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema. London: Wallflower.

5.     Leggot, James. 2008. Contemporary British Cinema. London: Wallflower Press

6.     Mayer, Geoff. 2003. Guide to Cinema. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc.

7.     Monk, Claire. 2000. Men in the 90’s. In: Robert Murphy’s, 2000. British Cinema of the 90’s. London: British Film Institute.


8.     Schreiber, Mark, 2007. Re-negotiating Concepts of Masculinity in Contemporary British Film. Working Out Gender. [e-journal] 17. Available at http://www.genderforum.org/issues/working-out-gender/re-negotiating-concepts-of-masculinity-in-contemporary-british-film/ [Accessed 28 April 2014]

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