ARTICLE / LONG READ
WHAT does it now mean to be a ‘proper’ girl or boy? What are the costs of failing to inhabit this identity?” These questions are presented in a 2013 book GENDER, YOUTH AND CULTURE: GLOBAL MASCULINITIES AND FEMININITIES by sociology professors Anoop Nayak and Mary Jane Kehily. There continues to be an unspoken rule as to what we perceive as “conventional” for boys and girls to do. This is translated into on-screen stereotypes regarding what is considered “normal” for both genders. Conflict in both BILLY ELLIOT (Stephen Daldry 2000) and WHALE RIDER (Niki Caro 2002) is created because of attempted gender role reversal: 11-year-old schoolboy Billy (Jamie Bell) takes up ballet and 12-year-old Māori girl Paikea or “Pai” (Keisha Castle-Hughes) aspires to lead her tribe. Although at first Billy and Pai’s attempts are dismissed, they both eventually prove to their families their true potential. Both films can be read as calls to step away from gender expectations and stereotyping.
“Sex” and “gender” are terms that have often been used to describe the same thing. However, gender theorists and sociologists have long pointed out that sex is something given to us biologically, whereas gender is something ascribed to us from prevailing social “norms”. They also propose that we “do gender” every day in order to meet these male and female expectations that have been created as an unspoken rule.
BILLY ELLIOT wastes no time in introducing the apparent fact that there are clear lines between what boys should be doing and what girls should be doing. This channels the idea that being a man or woman means engaging in a general set of expectations linked to one’s sex. Billy’s father Jackie (Gary Lewis) communicates this idea after he finds out that Billy is not attending the boxing lessons he had been willing to pay for but is instead going to ballet classes. “All right for your Nana, for girls. No, not for lads, Billy. Lads do football. Or boxing. Or wrestling. Not friggin' ballet”. Jackie shouts a list of sports that would be socially acceptable for Billy’s “sex role”. However, he cannot give a justified explanation when Billy asks why he cannot do ballet. Jackie repeatedly says “you know what’s wrong with it”, never giving an actual reason as to why Billy should not do ballet. But should we blame Billy’s dad for his stereotypical views?
Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, author ofthe groundbreaking 1995 book MASCULINITIES, might consider Jackie’s ways to be evidence of “hegemonic masculinity”, an idealised form of masculinity that is culturally determined. This
concept is notable in BILLY ELLIOT because of Jackie’s sureness that ballet is not something men should have anything to do with. He has been conditioned to believe there is a set of expectations for men and women and that men should be traditionally masculine: powerful, authoritative and dominating. Perhaps Jackie too is a victim of gender stereotyping.
WE 'DO GENDER' EVERY DAY IN ORDER TO MEET MALE AND FEMALE EXPECTATIONS THAT HAVE BEEN CREATED AS AN UNSPOKEN RULE.
There is no question if gender stereotyping exists or not. In INTEGRATING GENDER AND CULTURE IN PARENTING, gender researchers Jennifer Greve Spees and Toni Schindler Zimmerman state “the fact that society has motives, values, and behaviors considered appropriate for an individual based on his or her sex is evidence
of the existence of sex stereotypes”. They also question, “could it be that rigid and polarized stereotypes might be preventing boys and girls from developing their full human potential?” If we are only to take part in roles that are deemed socially acceptable for our gender to participate in, how can we grow and become versatile
individuals? Being male or female should not restrict our ability to pursue a passion or enhance our lives or those of others.
In both Billy and Pai’s communities, it is the minority that is in support of what they are trying to achieve. WHALE RIDER explores how cultural expectations do not allow for Koro (Rawiri Paratene), Pai’s grandfather, to see Pai as an equal. In Maori legend, only males are allowed to become chiefs of their tribes and so Pai could never be deemed fit to lead. In Koro’s mind, a chief is a position to only be filled by a man; the thought of a woman leader is one that would never present itself. He says to Pai: “you are no
use to me”, which suggests he sees females as the lesser gender and incapable of such a high honour.
BEING MALE OR FEMALE SHOULD NOT RESTRICT OUR ABILITY TO PURSUE A PASSION.
Connell draws from New Zealand historian Jock Phillip, who has researched colonial
New Zealand, to note: “the demography and economics of settlement, created both a surplus of men among the white settlers and niches for all male work groups on the frontier”. From settlement in New Zealand there was a greater amount of male influence and presence than there was for women. “A turbulent masculine subculture resulted”, Connell notes, “which posed serious problems of social order”. Phillip’s research reflects Koro’s regard for Pai and also the ways of Māori culture; it is men who are seen to be the more influential gender and are the leaders in their community.
There are parallels here with the British culture of the mid-1980s when BILLY ELLIOT was set. Living in County Durham in the midst of the miners’ strike was a time when men were either striking and therefore unemployed, or working the mines and therefore in conflict with the strikers. Either way, men were encouraged to conform to
what was perceived to be a man and anyone diverting from said norms could be considered to be a “poof”. “Just because I like ballet doesn't mean I'm a poof you know”, Billy justifies himself to his best friend Michael (Stuart Wells). Billy’s father Jackie and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) accommodate 1980s British masculine
traits. They are both on strike and both display traits of aggressive behaviour, seen fighting more than once, whereas Billy’s innocent and nonconforming nature allows him to find a happy outlet amongst the chaos.
In an influential 1976 essay “The Male Sex Role: Our Culture’s Blueprint and What It’s Done for Us Lately”, Robert Brannon suggested that men, in general, are bound by certain expectations, such as “No Sissy Stuff”. Anything remotely feminine is seen as not the “norm” and potentially homosexual. There are multiple uses of the word “poof”, a derogatory term for homosexuality, throughout BILLY ELLIOT. This suggests that the idea of being homosexual is not desired within this backward-thinking community. When Michael finds out Billy is doing ballet, his first question is “you are not a poof are you?”, reinforcing the idea that we have become accustomed to these ideas of hegemonic masculinity as he immediately assumes something with feminine
qualities must affect Billy's sexuality.
Zimmerman cites a 1992 study by developmental psychologists Karin Frey and Diane Ruble who discovered “that boys with a constant concept of gender spent more time playing with a less attractive toy than with a more attractive toy (as determined during pre-testing) when the unattractive toy was recommended by other boys”. These results can be applied to BILLY ELLIOT as Billy originally keeps his ballet lessons a secret because he knows ballet would be deemed the “unattractive toy”. However, after Billy is confronted by his father and brother about why taking part in ballet is not acceptable for boys, he still continues to do so. Billy is not disheartened by social criticism and embarrassment like the boys in Frey and Ruble’s study. In depicting this, BILLY ELLIOT can be considered a modern text that attempts to break the conformity to filter yourself according to “sex-appropriate” activities.
SHE IS JUST AS, IF NOT MORE, CAPABLE THAN THE BOYS IN HER TRIBE.