Comfortable and Furious

Bend it Like Beckham: Assessing the Movie’s Cultural Impact.

As Lee Perry famously spoke in the cult classic song Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen):

Accept certain inalienable truths: prices will wise, politicians will philander, you too will get old and there will never, ever, ever and I repeat this, ever, be a good football film.” Or words to that effect.

And whilst the song may have had a lot of wisdom, it was wrong on one point because despite the many dumpster fires of football films that have been produced, there are one or two decent films on the Beautiful Game that have hit cinemas.

One of which is the 2002 film Bend it Like Beckham, which followed the story of 18-year-old Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra trying to make it in the professional game. In terms of success it upset the football betting by becoming a smash-hit, grossing $76.6 million in the Box Office and millions more in home sales.

If you were to sit down and rewatch the film with your movie critic hat on, you might have one or two things to say about the plot and the acting, but culturally the impact of Bend it Like Beckham cannot be denied.

Below we look at just a few of the reasons that this cult film was not only such a significant but so impactful culturally.

Expanding the Women’s Game

In 2002 Arsenal won the Women’s Premier League National Division with Doncaster Belles and Charlton Athletic pushing them the distance. Relegated from the league that year were Barry Town and Sunderland.

Throughout the season the league leaders generated crowds of a couple of hundred, rising to a couple of thousand perhaps for more important games. It wasn’t just the domestic game that was struggling for spectators either, in their crucial World Cup Playoff home game against France, England women only attracted a crowd of 6,200.

Only last month a sold-out Emirates stadium packed with 60,000+ fans watched Arsenal beat Spurs 1-0 in the Women’s Super League. The national team too are regularly packing 60-70 thousand fans into Wembley for Lionesses’ games, so it’s safe to say then, that in the last 20 years the women’s game has grown enormously.

Bend it Like Beckham played a role in that. It showed young girls all around the country that women played football too and what’s more, that there was nothing wrong with it. It also demonstrated to men that female football could be exciting too and that the idea that women couldn’t or shouldn’t play was wrong.

In terms of sporting success, the film has a lot to answer for too with several of the European Championship winning side of 2022 claiming that the film inspired them to go outside and kick a ball.

Breaking Down Barriers

Football has a problem with discrimination. There is no hiding away from that fact and whilst we have seen a huge rise in the popularity of the women’s game, we have also unfortunately seen a lot of discriminatory blowback from characters such as failed Premier League footballer and failed League One manager Joey Barton.

That in itself should show that we still have a long way to go in terms of equality, despite the steps forward taken by the women’s game. One issue that hasn’t been as successful since the release of Bend it Like Beckham has been greater inclusion in the sport from ethnic minorities.

In the most recent census there were an estimated 5.5 million people within the UK who identified as Asians. Unfortunately you can count on one hand the number of British Asians currently playing professional football in the UK – only 0.25% of the 3,700 male professionals in the country are British Asian.

Whilst the film Bend it Like Beckham certainly showed that there should be no barriers to those of Asian descent playing football, it doesn’t quite seem to have had the same inspirational impact on British Asian footballers as it did on female footballers.

Perhaps though this is because the march to wider equality for those of ethnic minorities is still a way behind that of women in. That’s not to say that there is no discrimination toward women, just that there are more barriers existing to ethnic minorities due to a myriad of issues that cannot be explored in full in one article.

The take home message though is that films like Bend it Like Beckham can have a huge impact on social issues. Hopefully the impact on the female game is mirrored in greater inclusion and diversity in the coming years.



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