It is always interesting to reflect as a writer and researcher on how you end up on certain paths. One of the experiences that led me on the path to writing about happiness as a path, was seeing the film Bend it Like Beckham. I actually find this film fascinating, and used to teach with it at Goldsmiths (on my course, Media, Ethnicity and Nation, which I have renamed this year, Race, Empire and Nation). It was the happy ending that caught my attention: I found it really annoying! Typical feminist killjoy moment I guess
😦 (:)) [translation: a cross face puts the smile in brackets]
I am posting below my reading of the film that formed part of the journal article, ‘Multiculturalism and the Promise of Happiness,’ which I originally wrote in early 2005, and which was published in New Formations in 2008. A longer reading of the firm then appeared in a chapter “Melancholic Migrants” in The Promise of Happiness in 2010 (http://www.dukeupress.edu/The-Promise-of-Happiness/). Lots of people (including some of my former students) disagree with my critique of the film. Do feel free to share any disagreements!
Happiness is not only promised by certain objects, it is also what we promise to give to others as an expression of love. I am especially interested in the speech act, ‘I just want you to be happy’. What does it mean to want ‘just’ happiness? What does it mean for a parent to say this to a child? In a way, the desire for the child’s happiness seems to offer certain kind of freedom, as if to say: ‘I don’t want you to be this, or to do that; I just want you to be or to do “whatever” makes you happy’. You could say that the ‘whatever’ seems to release us from the obligation of the ‘what’. The desire for the child’s happiness seems to offer the freedom of a certain indifference to the content of a future decision.
Take the psychic drama of the queer child. You could say that the queer child is an unhappy object for many parents. In some parental responses to the child coming out, this unhappiness is not so much expressed as being unhappy about the child being queer, but about being unhappy about the child being unhappy. Queer fiction is full of such moments. Take the following exchange that takes place in the lesbian novel, Annie on My Mind (1982) by Nancy Garden:
‘Lisa’, my father said, ‘I told you I’d support you and I will… But honey…well, maybe it’s just that I love your mother so much that I have to say to you I’ve never thought gay people can be very happy – no children for one thing, no real family life. Honey, you are probably going to be a very good architect – but I want you to be happy in other ways, too, as your mother is, to have a husband and children. I know you can do both….’ I am happy, I tried to tell him with my eyes. I’m happy with Annie; she and my work are all I’ll ever need; she’s happy too – we both were until this happened.[i]
The father makes an act of identification with an imagined future of necessary and inevitable unhappiness. Such an identification through grief about what the child will lose, reminds us that the queer life is already constructed as an unhappy life, as a life without the ‘things’ that make you happy (husband, children). The desire for the child’s happiness is far from indifferent. The speech act ‘I just want you to be happy’ is directive at the very point of its imagined indifference.
For the daughter, it is only the eyes that can speak; and they try to tell an alternative story about happiness and unhappiness. In her response, she claims happiness, for sure. She is happy ‘with Annie’; which is to say, she is happy with this relationship and this life that it will commit her to. She says we were happy ‘until’ this happened, where the ‘until’ marks the moment that the father speaks his disapproval. The unhappy queer is here the queer who is judged to be unhappy. The father’s speech act creates the very affective state of unhappiness that is imagined to be the inevitable consequence of the daughter’s decision. When ‘this’ happens, unhappiness does follow.
One of the most striking aspects of the film Bend it like Beckham is how the conflict and obstacle of the film is resolved through this speech act, again addressed from father to daughter that takes the approximate form: ‘I just want you to be happy’. How does this speech act direct the narrative? To answer this question, we need to describe the conflict of the film, or the obstacle to the happy ending. The film could be described as being about the generational conflict within a migrant Indian Sikh family living in Hounslow, London. Jess the daughter is good at football. Her idea of happiness would be to bend it like Beckham, which requires that she bends the rules about what Indian girls should do. The generational conflict between parents and daughter is also represented as a conflict between the demands of cultures: as Jess says, ‘anyone can cook Alo Gobi but who can bend the ball like Beckham’. This contrast sets up ‘cooking Alo Gobi’ as common place and customary, against an alternative world of celebrity, individualism and talent.
It is possible to read the film by putting this question of cultural difference to one side. We could read the story as being about the rebellion of the daughter, and an attempt to give validation to her re-scripting of what it means to have a good life. We might cheer for Jess, as she ‘scores’ and finds happiness somewhere other than where she is expected to find it. We would be happy about her freedom and her refusal of the demand to be a good girl, or even a happy housewife. We might applaud this film as showing the happiness that can follow leaving your parent’s expectations behind and following less well trodden paths. Yet, of course such a reading would fall short. It would not offer a reading of the ‘where’ that the happiness of this image of freedom takes us.
We need to think more critically about how cultural differences are associated with different affects: we have a contrast between the open space of the football pitch, where there is movement, sound, and laughter, and the domestic interiors of Jess’s home full of restrictions, demands and conflict. In other words, these two worlds are not given the same affective value. The happiness promised by football is over-determined. The desire to be like Beckham has a narrative function in the film. In the opening humorous shots, presented as Jess’s fantasy (she stares at a poster of Beckham before the scene unfolds), Jess takes up a place beside Beckham on the football ground, and is the one who scores the goal. Football signifies not only the national game, but also the opportunity for new identifications, where you can embody hope for the nation by taking a place alongside its national hero. By implication, the world of football promises freedom allowing you not only to be happy, but to become a happy object, by bringing happiness to others, who cheer as you score. The inclusion of Jess in the national game might be framed as Jess’s fantasy, but it also functions as a national fantasy about football, as the playing field which offers signs of inclusion and diversity, where ‘whoever’ scores will be cheered.
In her other world, Jess experiences frustration, pain and anxiety. The shots are all of domestic interiors: of dark and cramped spaces, where she Jess has to do this or do that, where freedom is lost under the weight of duty. In her Indian home, she is the object of parental shame. Her mother says to her: ‘I don’t want shame on the family. That’s it, no more football’. For Jess, playing football means having to play in secret, which in turn alienates her from her family. What makes her happy becomes a sign of shame, whilst her shame becomes an obstacle to happiness. In this secretive life she forms new bonds and intimacies: first with Jess who gets her on the girl’s team, and then with Joe, the football coach, with whom she falls ‘in love’. In other words, this other world, the world of freedom promised by football, puts in her in intimate contact with a white girl and white man. In this narrative, freedom involves proximity to whiteness.
For Jess, the dilemma is: how can she be in both worlds at once? The final of the football tournament coincides with Pinkie’s wedding. Again, this coincidence matters: Jess cannot be at both events at once. Unhappiness is used to show how Jess is ‘out of place’ in the wedding: she is unhappy, as she is not where she wants to be: she wants to be at the football match. We want her to be there too, and are encouraged to identify with the injustice of being held back. At this point, the point of Jess’s depression, her friend Tony intervenes and says she should go. Jess replies, ‘I can’t. Look how happy they are Tony. I don’t want to ruin it for them’. She accepts her own unhappiness by identifying with the happiness of her parents: she puts her own desire for happiness to one side. But the father is not happy with her being unhappy, even though she wants him to be happy. He lets her go because he wants to see her being happy. As he puts it: ‘Pinkie is so happy and you look as if you have come to your father’s funeral. If this is the only way I am going to see you smiling on your sister’s wedding day then go now. But when you come back I want to see you happy on the video’ Jess’s father lets her go because he wants her to see her happy, which also means he wants others to witness the family as being happy, as being what causes happiness.
Jess’s father cannot be indifferent to his daughter’s unhappiness: later he says to his wife, ‘maybe you could handle her long face, I could not’. At one level, this desire for the daughter’s happiness involves a form of indifference to the ‘where’ that she goes. From the point of view of the film, the desire for happiness is far from indifferent: indeed, the film works partly by ‘directing’ the apparent indifference of this gift of freedom. After all, this moment is when the father ‘switches’ from a desire that is out of line with the happy object of the film (not wanting Jess to play) to being in line (letting her go), which in turn is what allows the film’s happy ending. Importantly, the happy ending is about the co-incidence of happy objects. The daughters are happy (they are living the life they wish to lead), the parents are happy (as their daughters are happy), and we are happy (as they are happy). Good feeling involves these ‘points’ of alignment. We could say positive affect is what sutures the film, resolving the generational and cultural split: as soon as Jess is allowed to join the football game, the two worlds ‘come together’ in a shared moment of enjoyment. Whilst the happy objects are different from the point of view of the daughters (football, marriage) they allow us to arrive at the same point.
And yet, the film does not give equal value to the objects in which good feelings come to reside. Jess’s happiness is contrasted to her sister Pinkie, who is ridiculed throughout the film as not only wanting less, but as being less in the direction of her want. Pinkie asks Jess why does not want ‘this’. Jess does not say that she wants something different; she says it is because she wants something ‘more’. That word ‘more’ lingers, and frames the ending of the film, which gives us ‘flashes’ of an imagined future (pregnancy for Pinkie, photos of Jess on her sport’s team, her love for her football coach Joe, her friendship with Jules). During the sequence of shots as Jess gets ready to join the football final, the camera pans up to show an airplane. Airplanes are everywhere in this film, as they often are in diasporic films. In Bend it Like Beckham, they matter as technologies of flight, signifying what goes up and away. Happiness in the film is promised by what goes ‘up and away’. In an earlier scene, the song ‘Moving on Up’ is playing, as Jess and Jules run towards us. They overtake two Indian women wearing shalva kamises. I would suggest that the spatial promise of the ‘up and away’ is narrated as leaving Indian culture behind, even though Jess as a character articulates a fierce loyalty to her family and culture. The desire to play football, to join the national game, is read as leaving a certain world behind. Through the juxtaposition of the daughter’s happy objects, the film suggest that this desire gives a better return.
In reading the ‘directed’ nature of narratives of freedom, we need in part to consider how the film relates to wider discourses of the public good. The film locates the ‘pressure point’ in the migrant family; who pressurises Jess to live a life she does not want to live. And yet, many migrant individuals and families are under pressure to integrate, where integration is a key term for what they now call in the UK ‘good race relations’. Although integration is not defined as ‘leaving your culture behind’ (at least not officially), it is unevenly distributed, as a demand that new or would be citizens ‘embrace’ a common culture that is already given,[ii] ,locating the promise of happiness in the aspiration to become British. In this context, the migrant daughter who identifies with the national game is a happy object; she becomes a sign of the promise of integration. The unconventional daughter of the migrant family may even provide a conventional form of social hope.
The happiness of this film is partly that it imagines that multiculturalism can deliver its social promise by extending freedom to migrants on the condition that they embrace its game. Multiculturalism becomes in other words a happy object. I want to quote from one film critic, who identifies the film aptly as a ‘happy smiling multiculturalism’:
Yet we need to turn to the U.K. for the exemplary commercial film about happy, smiling multiculturalism. Bend it like Beckham is the most profitable all-British film of all time, appealing to a multicultural Britain where Robin Cook, former Foreign Secretary, recently declared Chicken Tikka Massala the most popular national dish. White Brits tend to love Bend it like Beckham because it doesn’t focus on race and racism — after all many are tired of feeling guilty.[iii]
What makes this film ‘happy’ is in part what it conceals or keeps from view. What makes this film happy might precisely by the relief it offers from the negative affects surrounding racism. You might note that the negative affects are not attributed to the experience of racism, but to white guilt: the film might be appealing as it allows white guilt to be displaced by good feelings: you do not have to feel guilty about racism, as you can be ‘uplifted’ by the happiness of the story of migrant success. The film ‘lifts you up’.
And yet of course to evoke ‘happy multiculturalism’ in the United Kingdom is to use a political language that is already dated. Multiculturalism is increasingly evoked as an unhappy object, as a sign of the failure of communities to ‘happily integrate’. Multiculturalism has even been declared dead.[iv] We do need to register this political shift as a shift. But we also need to register what stays in place through this shift.
I would argue that integration is what keeps it place as a place holder of national desire. Earlier multiculturalism was read as a sign of integration, but is now being read as a symptom of its failure. For example, in the reports on the ‘race-riots’ in the North of England in 2001, multiculturalism is described as failing to deliver its promise of integration and harmony amongst others. The report argues there is nothing wrong with people choosing ‘to be close to others like themselves’, but that: ‘We cannot claim to be a truly multicultural society if the various communities within it live, as Cantle puts it, parallel lives that do not touch at any point’[v]. Multiculturalism is here associated with integration, with the very points at which lives would touch. So without integration, ‘we cannot claim to be a truly multicultural society’.
In more recent policy frameworks, multiculturalism becomes an unhappy object by being associated with segregation. In his preface to the Commission for Racial Equality’s Guide, Good Race Relations, Trevor Phillips suggests that: ‘Multiculturalism no longer provides the right answer to the complex nature of today’s race relations. Integration based on shared values and loyalties is the only way forward’.[vi] Integration becomes what promises happiness (if only we mixed, we would be happy), by converting bad feelings (read un-integrated migrants) into good feelings (read integrated migrants). Integration is read not only as promising happiness, but also as a matter of life and death. The heading for Trevor Phillips’s preface reads: ‘Integration is not a dream: it is a matter of survival’. Bend it Like Beckham gives us a story of integration as being a dream and a form of survival. This film, released in 2001, could be read simultaneously as dated, insofar as it gives us an image of happy multiculturalism that has now been given up, and as anticipatory, insofar as happiness is promised as the reward for integration.
Although the film Bend it Like Beckham seems to be about the promise of happiness, I would argue that injury and bad feeling play an important narrative function in the film. As you know, I am interested in how bad feelings are converted into good feelings. What are the conversion points in this film? We can focus here on two speeches made by Jess’s father: the first takes place early on in the film, and the second at the end of the film:
When I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was the best fast bowler in our school. Our team even won the East African cup. But when I came to this country, nothing. And these bloody gora in the club house made fun of my turban and set me off packing….She will only end up disappointed like me.
When those bloody English cricket players threw me out of their club like a dog, I never complained. On the contrary, I vowed that I would never play again. Who suffered? Me. But I don’t want Jess to suffer. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes her father made, accepting life, accepting situations. I want her to fight. And I want her to win.
In the first speech, the father says she should not play in order not to suffer like him. In the second, he says she should play in order not to suffer like him. The desire implicit in both speech acts is the avoidance of the daughter’s suffering, which is expressed in terms of the desire not to repeat his own. I would argue that the father is represented in the first speech as melancholic[vii]: as refusing to let go of his suffering, as incorporating the very object of own loss. His refusal to let Jess go is readable as a symptom of melancholia: as a stubborn attachment to his own injury, or as a form of self-harm (as he says: ‘who suffered? Me’). I would argue that the second speech suggests that the refusal to play a national game is the ‘truth’ being the migrant’s suffering: you suffer because you do not play the game, where not playing is a read as a kind of self-exclusion. For Jess to be happy he lets her be included, narrated as a form of letting go. By implication, not only is he letting her go, he is also letting go of his own suffering, the unhappiness caused by accepting racism, as the ‘point’ of his exclusion.
The figure of the melancholic migrant is a familiar one in contemporary British race politics. The melancholic migrant holds onto the unhappy objects of differences, such as the turban, or at least the memory of being teased about the turban, which ties it to a history of racism. Such differences become sore points or blockage points, where the smooth passage of communication stops. The melancholic migrant is the one who is not only stubbornly attached to difference, but who insists on speaking about racism, where such speech is heard as labouring over sore points. The duty of the migrant is to let go of the pain of racism by letting go of racism as a way of understanding that pain.
It is important to note that the melancholic migrant’s fixation with injury is read not only as an obstacle to their own happiness, but also to the happiness of the generation-to-come, and even to national happiness. This figure may even quickly convert in the national imaginary to the ‘could-be-terrorist’. His anger, pain, misery (all understood as forms of bad faith insofar as they won’t let go of something that is presumed to be already gone) becomes ‘our terror’.
To avoid such a terrifying end point, the duty of the migrant is to attach to a different happier object, one that can bring good fortune, such as the national game. The film ends with the fortune of this re-attachment. Jess goes to America to take up her dream of becoming a professional football player, a land which makes the pursuit of happiness an originary goal. This re-attachment is narrated as moving beyond the unhappy scripts of racism. We should note here that the father’s experience of being excluded from the national game are repeated in Jess’s own encounter with racism on the football pitch (she is called a ‘Paki’), which leaves to the injustice of her being sent off. In this case, however, Jess’s anger and hurt does not stick. She lets go of her suffering. How does she let go? When she says to Joe, ‘you don’t know what it feels like’, he replies, ‘of course I know how it feels like, I’m Irish’. It is this act of identification with suffering that brings Jess back into the national game (as if to say, ‘we all suffer, it is not just you’). The film suggests that whether racism ‘hurts’ depends upon individual choice and capacity: we can let go of racism as ‘something’ that happens, a capacity that is both attributed to skill (if you are good enough, you will get by), as well as the proximate gift of white empathy, where the hurt of racism is re-imagined as a common ground.
The love story between Jess and Joe offers another point of re-attachment. Heterosexuality becomes itself a form of happy return: promising to allow us to overcome injury; heterosexual love is what heals. It is worth noting that the director of the film Gurinder Chadha originally planned to have the girls falling in love. This decision to drop the lesbian plot was of course to make the film more marketable.[viii] We can see here the importance of ‘appeal’ as a form of capital, and how happiness can function as a moral economy: only some scripts can lead to happy endings given that happiness is both a good that circulate as well as a way of making things good. In Bend it Like Beckham, the heterosexual script involves proximity to queer. Not only does the film play with the possibility of female rebellion as lesbianism (girls with short hair who wear sports bras are presented as ‘could be’ lesbians rather than as ‘being’ lesbians), it also involves the use of a queer male character, Tony, in which an alternative set of desires are deposited. As Gayatri Gopinath notes, the film ‘ultimately reassures viewers that football loving girls are indeed properly heterosexual by once again using the gay male character as the “real” queer character in the film’.[ix] Indeed, we could argue that the narrative of bending the rules of femininity involves a straightening device: you can bend, only insofar as you return to the straight line, which provides as it were our end point. So girls playing football leads to the male football coach. Narratives of rebellion can involve deviations from the straight line, if they return us to this point.
Heterosexuality also promises to overcome the injury or damage of racism. The acceptance of interracial heterosexual love is a conventional narrative of reconciliation as if love can overcome past antagonism and create what I would call ‘hybrid familiality’: white with colour, white with another. Such fantasies of proximity are premised on the following belief: if only we could be closer, we would be as one. Proximity becomes a promise: the happiness of the film is the promise of ‘the one’, as if giving love to the white man, as the ego ideal of the nation, would allow us to have a share in this promise.
The final scene is a cricket scene: the first of the film. As we know, cricket is an unhappy object in the film, associated with the suffering of racism. Jess’s father is batting. Joe, in the foreground, is bowling. He smiles as he approaches us. He turns around, bowls, and gets the father out. In a playful scene, Joe then ‘celebrates’ and his body gestures mimics that of a plane, in a classic football gesture. As I have suggested, planes are happy objects in the film; associated with flight, with moving up and away. By mimicking the plane, Joe becomes the agent that converts bad feeling (unhappy racism) into good feeling (multicultural happiness). It is the white man who enables the father to let go of his injury about racism and to play cricket again. It is the white man who brings the suffering migrant back into the national fold. His body is our conversion point.
Such conversions function as displacements of injury from public view. We need to get beyond the appeal of happy surfaces. And yet, some critics suggest that we have paid too much attention to melancholia, suffering and injury and that we need to be more affirmative. Rosi Braidotti, for example, suggests that the focus on negativity has become a problem within feminism, and calls for a more affirmative feminism. She offers a bleak reading of bleakness: ‘I actively yearn for a more joyful and empowering concept of desire and for a political economy that foregrounds positivity, not gloom.’[x] In her more recent book, the call for affirmation rather than negativity involves an explicit turn to happiness. Braidotti suggest that an affirmative feminism would make happiness a crucial political ideal. As she argues: ‘I consider happiness a political issue, as are well-being, self-confidence and a sense of empowerment. These are fundamentally ethical concerns. The feminist movement has played the historical role of placing these items at the centre of the social and political agenda: happiness as a fundamental human right and hence a political question’.[xi]
What concerns me is how much this turn to happiness actually depends on the very distinction between good and bad feelings that presume bad feelings are backward and conservative and good feelings are forward and progressive. Bad feelings are seen as orientated towards the past; as a kind of stubbornness that ‘stops’ the subject from embracing the future. Good feelings are associated here with moving up, and getting out. I would argue that it is the very assumption that good feelings are open and bad feelings are closed that allows historical forms of injustice to disappear. The demand for happiness is what makes those histories disappear or projects them onto others, by seeing them as a form of melancholia (you hold onto something that is already gone) or even as a paranoid fantasy. These histories have not gone: we would be letting go of that which persists in the present. To let go would be to keep those histories present.
I am not saying that feminist, anti-racist and queer politics do not have anything to say about happiness other than point to its unhappy effects. I think it is the very exposure of these unhappy effects that is affirmative, which gives us an alternative set of imaginings of what might count as a good or at least better life. If injustice does have unhappy effects, then the story does not end there. Unhappiness is not our end point. If anything, the experience of being outside the very ideals that are presumed to enable a good life still gets us somewhere. It is the resources we develop in sharing such experiences that might form the basis of alternative models of happiness. A concern with histories that hurt is not then a backward orientation: to move on, you must make this return. If anything we might want to reread the melancholic subject, the one who refuses to let go of suffering, and who is even prepared to kill some forms of joy, as offering an alternative model of the social good.
[i] Nancy Garden, Annie On My Mind, Aerial Fiction: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1982, p.191.
[ii] For an analysis of integration as ‘the imperative to love difference’ see chapter 5, ‘In the Name of Love’ in Ahmed, Cultural Politics, op.cit.
[iv] The death of multiculturalism is linked to how multiculturalism has been associated with death, for instance, by being attributed as the cause of the London bombings in July 2005. As Paul Gilroy describes ‘Multiculturalism was officially pronounced dead in July 2005’, ‘Multi-Culture in Times of War, Inaugural Lecture, London School of Economics, May 10 2006.
[v] Home Office, Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team, 2002, p.13. For a more detailed analysis of this document see Ahmed, Cultural Politics, op.cit, 133-140.
[vii] For excellent readings of racial melancholia see Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholia of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; and David L. Eng and Shinhee Han, ‘A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia’ in David L.Eng and David Kazanjian (eds), Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2003.
[ix] Gayatri Gopinath, Gayatri, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian
Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005, p.129.
[x] Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming..
Cambridge: Polity, 2002, p. 57.
[xi] Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity, 2006, p. 230.