Billy Elliot: Still Twirling 20 Years On
As Billy Elliot turns 20, I reflect on how the heartwarming ballet flick taught a generation to embrace uniqueness.
It’s been a quick 20 years since Billy Elliot danced into the Cannes Film Festival in May 2000. I didn’t catch the ballet drama until its cinematic release later that year, but from the minute I watched the uplifting coming-of-age tale from veteran screenwriter Lee Hall, I’ve had one line burned into my mind:
“Just because I like ballet, doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know.”
There are plenty of other, likely more impactful, quotes that could have stayed with me. I think this one did, in particular, because an 11-year-old me might have uttered similar words to an often callous mother who tried (and failed) to browbeat the pansy out of him — an experience with which the film’s eponymous danseur protagonist, Billy Elliot (newbie Jamie Bell), is all too familiar.
One day, my mum would be all, “Don’t cross your legs. It’s very gay, don’t you think?”
“Just because I like to cross my legs, doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know,” I’d respond, legs remaining firmly crossed in defiance.
The next day, she’d bark, “No, you can’t have a ‘wee cup of tea.’ You’ll drink Coke, like a normal child.”
“Just because I like to sip tea from bone china, pinkie finger lifted, doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know,” I’d say, flicking on the kettle and mincing to fetch a tin of first-flush loose-leaf Darjeeling from the larder.
I could go on, reciting carps around my childhood taste in music, film, literature and much more. I shan’t though, because I don’t have the wordcount of a thesis here.
Of course, while no so-called effeminate behaviour means a boy is “a poof,” I was one — a big one at that. I knew it. She knew it. That was irrelevant though, giving her no automatic right to stifle a child, to dampen perfectly natural manners she judged at alarming odds with standard masculinity. No parent has such a right, whatever they might tell themselves.
Yet, in reality and onscreen, we constantly see parents exercising that right regardless of its non-existence, as they cruelly try (mostly in vain) to “straighten-up” their very own mini Cameron Tuckers and Jack McFarlands.
Billy’s frustrated working-class dad, Jackie (a compelling Gary Lewis), is a textbook example, oozing toxic masculinity — at first, anyway.
In the midst of the 1984–1985 miners’ strike in the UK, the homophobic widower struggles to accept his young son’s intense passion for ballet, a hobby historically seen in the western world as suited only to the “weaker sex” — ironic when you think about the strength required of ballet dancers.
Jackie catches Billy — red-faced among a sea of tulle — participating in a ballet class on the downlow. “Lads do football or boxing or wrestling,” he insists in a broad Glaswegian accent. “Not frigging ballet.”
For all his dad’s protests, Billy — who likely isn’t even gay, by the way — sticks to his guns. He refuses to “see anything wrong with it,” and secretly continues to learn with the help of dance teacher Sandra (an ever-dependable Julie Walters).
And hurrah for that because Jackie finally comes around, grasping Billy’s talent and stopping at nothing to help his son land a spot at London’s prestigious Royal Ballet School.
Together with director Stephen Daldry, Hall saw to it Billy Elliot was packed with charm, humour and heart, pulling captivated viewers from laughter to tears at the short, sharp snap of a clapperboard. But the film was never schmaltzy, the gritty backdrop of the miners’ strike grounding it in realism.
For these reasons, despite dancing with two tropey left feet here and there, this tale of determination of transformation was met with widespread critical acclaim. See this rave review by Empire, for instance.
The movie went down a storm with audiences too, teaching kids born into oppressive households (me included) to accept themselves for themselves, to get out there and carve their own space in the world — even if that means chipping away at gender stereotypes in the process.
But Hall lightened their burden in this sense, himself smashing chunks from such ubiquitous stereotypes with a sledgehammer. He forced usually narrow-minded folks to question their rigid beliefs around what makes a man a man, and the cinema-going masses came to realise that pirouetting across a stage is no less valid a route to success than playing with balls — pun totally intended!
Ballet is “like electric,” says Billy, and we should all get the chance to feel that same electricity for at least one thing during our brief spell in this life — whether or not that thing is considered gender “appropriate.”
I was 16 when Billy Elliot came out, but it took another 3 years for me to muster the courage to come out myself. As expected, there were tears at my mum’s end, even if she’d always known. I mean, how could she not? I had, after all, complained a little too hard about her making me join the Scouts.
“It’ll be character building,” she argued. In reality, all she did was pack me off to camp with a group of randy, sexually confused teen boys. And the rest, as boundary-pushing gay icon Ru Paul would say, is herstory. It’s close to poetry, right?
But like Jackie, my mum eventually came around — and probably quicker than many other parents do. Now, whenever she dares try to push me reluctantly towards the claustrophobia of heteronormative behaviour, she finds herself on the receiving end of a menacing death stare, ashen and silenced.
That said, it still doesn’t quite register with her why these insensitive comments whip me up into a fury. Apparently, I’m just “looking for a fight.” Go figure…
Luckily, it has been a joyful age since my mum and I lived under the same roof — her roof, beneath which she got to lay down the law. And so, while she never really acclimatized to my individuality in the same way Jackie reconciled with Billy’s convention-breaking gift, I’m free as a Shakespearian dandy to be the tea-sipping, leg-crossing homo I was always destined to be.
It’s films like Billy Elliot that carried me to this point. They showed that my mum’s way wasn’t nearly the right way, that parents can support and encourage their kids’ uniqueness.
If you were fortunate enough to be raised by an Act 3 Jackie (a parent who stood behind your choices and peculiarities), thank them. If you are or were an Act 3 Jackie, way to go — you’re a rarer species than you might think!
But if you’re an Act 1 Jackie (a parent who doesn’t push your offspring to express themselves in whichever diverse ways they please, who seeks to compel gender conformity), get your shit together. If you don’t, there’s a shedload of deep-seated resentment coming your sorry way later down the line — trust me.
For those of the latter ilk, Billy Elliot is a must-watch. This little heartwarmer’s legacy lives on, spreading messages still pertinent today, and it’s a great place to begin leaping and twirling towards a true celebration of eccentricity and difference.
Happy 20th birthday to an absolute queer classic!