Genders
 

Genders 37 2003
 

'Oi. Dancing Boy!'
Masculinity, Sexuality, and Youth in Billy Elliot

by CYNTHIA WEBER

[1]   A striking thing seems to be happening in contemporary male dance films. In the 1990s and into the new millennium, men suffering from masculinity crises often engage with dance in order to once again make a credible claim to their masculinity. So pervasive is this trend in films like Strictly Ballroom (1992), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994),The Full Monty (1997), and now Billy Elliot (2000) that there even seems to be something of a formula guiding it -- disturbing or disturbed femininity triggers a masculinity crisis which results in dance being set up as the recuperative cinematic space of mainly white male masculinity (Somerville). While variations abound in the implementation of this formula, the basic pattern in each film is the same. Somehow, somewhere, men engage with dance to at least temporarily emerge as forthrightly masculine.

[2]   What intrigues me about these films is their engagements with dance. For they all beg the question, 'Why dance?' In addressing this question, I want to resist the impulse to say what dance is. Approached genealogically (as Susan Leigh Foster does) or philosophically (as Graham McFee does), conclusions of dance theorists about dance are similar -- 'what we understand as dance is dance' (65).

[3]   At least initially, dance seems like an odd genre choice for films suturing male masculinity crises to make. Yet this choice of dance might make more sense if we consider how we popularly think about dance and how dance contributes to the construction of a cultural identity, understood as 'how one's body renders meaning [and is rendered meaningful] in society' (Albright, xxiii). Popularly, many meanings of dance circulate in contemporary Western cultures. Dance is commonly thought of as liberating, transformative, empowering, transgressive, and even as dangerous. We popularly think of dance in these ways because dance marks a space in which corporeality is offered to us as a rhythmic, mobile spectacle. Dance is a space that is brimming with what Laura Mulvey has called 'to-be-looked-at-ness' (also see Cohan). By making us look at it, dance also asks us to read it. In this respect, dance is no different from any other spectacle or even performance. What makes spectacles so gripping is their demand to be read.

[4]   But here, dance (and particularly dance in films about male masculinity crises) gets complicated. For what is so interesting about the 'look here' space of dance in dance films featuring male masculinity crises is that when we look at dance, we are both comforted and surprised. The dance is comforting because it is readable. Contrary to popular understandings of dance (as liberating, etc.), dance is among the most strictly coded performances we have. Dance is coded in terms of steps, scores, styles, genres. And it is these codes that make dance easy to read. We do not usually have problems distinguishing between a ballet and a striptease show, for example. Yet in these dance films it is the dancers who surprise us, for they are not who we expect to see. They are all boys or men. These boys and men do not fit into the codes of dance in ways we expect. Indeed, even in Mulvey's discussion of cinematic spectatorship, to-be-looked-at-ness is embodied by women, not by men.

[5]   The film In and Out (1997) explicitly spells out popular Western prejudices about dance and their connections to gender and sexuality. When small town high school teacher Howard Brackett, who initially thinks of himself as straight, is outed on national television, he turns to a home-improvement cassette program entitled 'Exploring Your Masculinity' to teach himself how to appear to be straight. In one of the cassette's segments, Howard must resist the temptation to dance while the tape plays 'I Will Survive' and the stern macho instructor implores Howard to think about real men like John Wayne and Arnold Swartznegger. Of Arnold, the instructor says, 'Arnold doesn't dance. He can barely walk'. But, alas, Howard loses his battle against the beat and dances, at which point the instructor assaults him with a barrage of homophobic insults. The lessons Howard and the film's viewers learn are clear -- dance is a feminine space, if men dance, dance is a queer space, and therefore 'real men' (i.e., normal, straight men) do not dance.

[6]   This lack of fit between popular ways of reading dance and male dancers is precisely what drives these contemporary male dance films. This is what makes not only the dance scenes in the films but the films themselves compelling spectacles. We want to watch them. We want to read them. We want to understand how paradoxical positions can be made sense of. And so we not only look at the space of dance (as it seems to demand). But in looking there, we find that dance provides us with several options for re-reading common sense ideas about the space of dance itself, male dancers in this space, and how male dance films construct cultural identities in relation to dance.

[7]   All this suggests that an answer to the question 'Why dance?' in films that feature male masculinity crises might be that dance presents us with opportunities to re-read not only the space of dance but the bodies and cultural meanings attached to these bodies found in this space. As an active space in which 'objectivity and subjectivity -- between seeing and being seen, experiencing and being experienced, moving and being moved' are constantly negotiated (Albright, 3), dance can function as a space in which one's cultural/corporeal identity is rethought by society and by the 'self' at the same time (also see Aalten). And that seems like a pretty good reason why male masculinity crisis films might turn to dance.

[8]   In these films, dance functions as the space men experiencing masculinity crises pass through in order to become something they think they no longer are, they think they used to be, and they wish to be again -- unquestionably masculine. Gender is not only performed in and through the space of dance (as Judith Butler claims); it seems to be choreographed (as Susan Leigh Foster claims, "Choreographies of Gender"). And, importantly, the men in the dance films often imagine themselves to be their own choreographers.

[9]   This last point about choreography moves us from thinking about dance as a space there to be read and re-read to dance as a space to be written. I would suggest that by presenting us with opportunities to read and re-read the space of dance and male dancers in this space, contemporary male dance films also begin to re-write the cultural codes that govern dance, dancers, and dance films. Dance functions in these films not only as what Roland Barthes calls a readerly space (a space in which we can take comfort from reading what we have already read before -- strictly coded dance) but also as what Barthes (S/Z) calls a writerly space (a space in which meanings cross, cancel, and construct more meanings -- men and boys dance to resolve masculinity crises).

[10]   What I find is most interestingly written in this space is heteronormative masculinity. How contemporary male masculinity films re-write heteronormativity in relation to the space of dance bears investigation because of how these films code dance. While I have suggested that dance can be coded in any number of ways, I find one consistent coding in these films is of dance as a queer space. What do I mean by queer?

[11]   The term 'queer' lacks definite character. It has been described as 'contra-, non-, or anti-straight' (Doty, xv) and as 'an in-your-face-rejection of the proper response to heteronormativity, a version of acting up' (Hennessy, 967). I am not completely satisfied with these ways of thinking about the term queer, for they tend to reinforce the opposition between the queer and the heteronormative, whereas I am not convinced that these terms are oppositional (Weber). For this reason, I tend to think of queer in much the same way that Barthes thinks of the plural, as 'that which confuses meaning, the norm, normativity' (Sade, 109), which is different to standing against the norm or normativity. This is an important difference, because what I think these contemporary male dance films demonstrate is that, paradoxically, heteronormative masculinity is secured in and through queer dance performances.

[12]   In very different ways, each of these films challenges the common sense notion that what is 'normal' and what is 'queer' are opposites -- however those terms are inscribed in specific contexts. Homosexuality does not only make heterosexuality possible as an opposite to it. Heterosexuality happens in homosexual, non-straight, and queer spaces. Indeed, contemporary heterosexuality (and, more broadly, heteronormativity) seems to require a passing in, if not a passing through, queer spaces in order to establish itself as 'normal' and 'dominant'. The result is a variety of heteronormative masculinities (as well as queer masculinities). Yet however varied these masculinities are, they all share debts to queerness in their construction -- not merely by opposing it (or, for queer masculinities, by embracing it), but by passing through it.

[13]   In this essay, I will investigate how the film Billy Elliot re-writes heteronormative masculinity in relation to the space of dance. I will do this by exploring how the film sets up its relationships among masculinity, sexuality, and dance, arguing that the understandings of and relationships among these terms are dependent upon another concept that structures the underlying meaning system in the film -- youth. Billy Elliot employs youth to defer questions of sexuality, questions which -- when left undeferred -- queer characters, relationships, and spectatorship. I will trace how questions of sexuality are suspended for the youthful Billy, how these questions catch up with the adult Billy, and how they ultimately reinscribe the meanings of masculinity, sexuality, and dance, thereby changing what it means to perform heteronormative masculinity.

[14]   One note of caution. I am not arguing that the film Billy Elliot or the body of Billy cannot be queered from start to finish. As I will point out, queer readings are possible at various moments in the cinematic narrative. What interests me is how the film itself tames these moments by providing an alternative (and I will argue, dominant) code through which to read the film -- the sexual innocence of youth, a code the film works extremely hard to construct. My reading of Billy Elliot, then, is not concerned with whether or not Billy and the film might be or are 'definitively' queer from scene to scene, but rather with how and when the film itself queers Billy and the narrative by suspending -- and thereby subverting -- its own dominant code.

[15]   I will offer this reading in four parts, organized around reflections on three central questions and a conclusion. My questions broadly follow the formula identified above -- disturbing or disturbed femininity leads to a masculinity crisis which leads to dance becoming the recuperative space of male masculinity -- by asking: (1) How does the film code the feminine?; (2) How does the film set up its masculinity crisis?; and (3) How is dance coded as both queer and as recuperative of heteronormative masculinity? In my conclusion, I will speculate on the impossibility of securing heteronormative masculinity.

Billy Elliot

[16]   Billy Elliot is set in a coal mining village in country Durham, England during the mid-1980s miners' strike. It is the story of the Elliot family -- eleven-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell), his older brother Tony (Jamie Draven), their father (Gary Lewis), and their maternal grandmother/mother-in-law (Jean Heywood). Dad and Tony are striking miners, struggling to support this motherless family and give Billy a proper childhood. Part of that proper childhood involves Billy taking boxing lessons. But across the gym at one of these lessons, Billy discovers -- and joins -- an all-girl ballet class. The plot focuses on the tension created between Billy's preparation for an audition at the Royal Ballet School under the tutelage of Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) and his family's expectation that Billy will follow more manly pursuits.

[17]   The film wastes no time coding the feminine. It does so in the title sequence. The film opens showing young Billy in the bedroom he shares with Tony. The camera focuses on an old record player. With only his arms and hands in frame, Billy removes an LP from its well-worn sleeve and fumblingly places it on the turntable. After two attempts, Billy successfully maneuvers the needle at the start of 'Cosmic Dancer' by T. Rex. As Marc Bolan sings 'I was dancing when I was twelve', Billy hurriedly steps onto the bed in the background and begins to bounce up and down. Without the camera shifting its focus, we see Billy in the background from the waist down, clad in t-shirt, shorts, socks, and trainers. The camera cuts to the empty wallpapered wall. In a shot reminiscent of the opening sequence of The World According to Garp (1982), Billy's head enters the frame from below in slow motion. Bolan sings, 'I was dancing when I was out./ I was dancing when I was out./ I danced myself right out the womb. / Danced myself right out the womb. / Is it strange to dance so soon?' Still focused on the wallpapered background, now surrealistically too large for the small room it is meant to occupy, the camera cuts to parts of Billy's dancing body -- shoulder, chest, hand, foot, gleeful face -- then pulls back to show Billy's full-bodied energetic movements.

[18]   The bell of an egg timer sounds. The action resumes at normal speed. Billy, fresh from his dance, rushes into the kitchen to assemble a breakfast of eggs, toast, and tablets. 'Cosmic Dancer' continues, 'I danced myself into the tomb'. Billy playfully headbutts the clothespin bag hanging from a washing line in the kitchen, picks up the breakfast tray, and uses his head again, this time to slide open the door to his Grandmother's adjoining room. Bolan sings, 'Is it wrong to understand/ the fear that was inside a man?' Cut to interior of Grandmother's room. The room is empty. Cut to Billy's anxious face. Bolan, 'What's it like to be alone?'. Billy, 'Oh, no!' The camera cuts between shots of Billy full-front, then legs only, running outside in search of his Grandmother. Billy pauses at the edge of a field, looking in the wrong direction. Bolan, 'I danced myself out of the womb'. Behind Billy, we see Grandmother walking in an overgrown field. Billy sees her, approaches her, taps her on the shoulder. Grandmother is startled. A concerned Billy, 'Grandma, your eggs'. Grandma's face registers no recognition. 'It's Billy.' As Billy guides his confused Grandmother out of the field, the camera reveals the ridge above on which police are collecting their riot gear from their vans, readying themselves for their daily encounter with the striking miners.

[19]   In addition to situating the film historically and politically, this sequence successfully introduces us to Billy and positions him and the narrative in relation to the feminine. Billy is a wannabe dancer. This is the primary fact established by the film. As the Bolan lyrics and the Garp intertext suggest, dance is a life-force for Billy. For Billy to be Billy, he must dance. And, indeed, Dancer was the title under which the film was originally to be released. This wannabe dancer and his family experience the feminine as either absent or unreliable. The sheer physicality of feminine absence is depicted when we follow Billy's gaze into wandering grandmother's vacant room and, later, into wandering grandmother's vacant eyes. This initial sense of absence is soon multiplied and intensified, for we learn that Billy's mother has recently died. Death and senility in the places where the feminine ought to be in this family film conjoin to leave the space of the feminine empty. The feminine (which the film codes as people performing stereotypically female activities) is partially filled in by eleven-year-old Billy, the only available person who can consistently carry out these roles in the family.

[20]   The film codes the feminine, then, along the familiar psychoanalytic axis of lack leads to excess. What is unfamiliar about how this axis of lack/excess is employed in the film is that instead of lack and excess being located within one physical body, it is located in one social body, the Elliot family. (The lack/excess axis also applies to another social body in Billy Elliot, the striking community in which lack of adequately paid work leads to excessive responses by the state.) It is this family's lack of a mother and a functioning grandmother that leads to an excess of feminine activities like cooking and caring in Billy. That young, functionally feminized Billy also wants to be a dancer contributes to the film's central masculinity crisis. But, surprisingly, it is not Billy who is having a masculinity crisis. It is his father.

[21]   How does the film set up its masculinity crisis? In Billy Elliot (as in the other films I mentioned earlier), the masculinity crisis is triggered by a disturbance in the feminine and played out through the father/son relationship. To understand how the film sets up its masculinity crisis, it is important to grasp how father and son are positioned in the film generally and in relation to one another.

[22]   Almost immediately, the film establishes the fact that Billy's father is widowed. He has no wife to reflect his masculinity back to him. Nor is there a feminine substitute -- a girlfriend or the grandmother -- who could perform this role. For the father, the feminine is experienced not only as absence but also as loss. Dad lost his wife to death, and he is losing his mother-in-law to senility. In addition to experiencing the feminine as loss, Dad has at least temporarily lost his livelihood, for he is a striking miner. This means that Dad is unable to provide adequate financial support for his youngest son Billy, while his older son Tony who has followed him into the mines seems (like his father) to have no future.

[23]   These losses of wife and work combine to position Dad as 'not man enough' for either of his sons. This is made explicit when Dad and Tony clash over their responses to the strike. Tony is fed up with the abuse the miners are taking and is determined to fight back. One night, Dad discovers Tony as he takes a hammer from the toolbox, readying himself for mayhem. When Dad warns him to stop, Tony replies, 'You haven't got it in you, man, you're finished. Since Mam died you're nothing but a useless twat! What the fuck are you gonna do about it?' What Dad does about it is punches Tony in the nose, but Tony leaves anyway, and is eventually arrested.

[24]   If Dad's example as a striking miner disappoints Tony, his example as a sportsman is not compelling enough to have Billy follow in his footsteps. Billy stops pursuing boxing, the sport of his father and of his father's father, and takes up ballet, which Dad makes clear he thinks is for 'poofs'. When Dad discovers Billy in a ballet class, he pulls Billy out of class and forbids him from taking future lessons. Billy is disappointed that his father will not allow him to dance. Feeling misunderstood, he continues his ballet lessons in secret. All of these factors combine to give Dad a masculinity crisis.

[25]   While this might explain why Billy's father is having a masculinity crisis, it does not explain why Billy, a functionally feminized boy with a passion for dancing, is not having one. What explains this is that Billy's sexuality is not in question. This may seem surprising since the dance that Billy engages with is ballet, and males in ballet still confront stereotypes that they are homosexuals (Buckroyd, and Burt). Yet while this might be how ballet is popularly read, it is not how is it is read by dance theorists (nor by the majority of dance films featuring ballet). Even though popular perceptions about men in ballet lead many to question the sexuality of male ballet dancers, it is argued by some dance theorists (excluding Foster, Choreography and Narrative) that ballet traditionally reserves positions of power for men. Classical ballet plays off of what Ann Daly refers to as 19th century gender stereotypes of 'female difference/male dominance'. Cynthia Novack argues that, choreographically and narratively, classical ballet 'evokes romantic, heterosexual love on both a literal and metaphoric level, emphasising opposing characteristics and distinctions between male and female'(39). Commenting on male ballet dancers' historic move from center stage to 'the status of hydraulic lifts for the lighter-than-air ballerinas', Roger Copeland suggests that this might not signify a demotion of men as much as it might play into a 'sexual politics [that] dictate[s] that the woman be displayed and the man do the displaying' (141). And Alexandra Carter has even gone so far as to characterize classical ballet as patriarchal. What this suggests is that even though it might popularly be read otherwise, ballet is not necessarily a queer space for men.

[26]   Working both with and against popular perceptions of ballet, Billy Elliot codes ballet as athletic. The rawness of Billy's talent for dance is displayed physically in his gymnastic approach in his dance lessons and his later audition for the Royal Ballet School and emotionally though a burgeoning, unbounded masculinity, most apparent in Billy's 'dance of rage' when Dad prohibits Billy from dancing ballet. That Billy thinks of dance as a male and masculine space is underscored after his first excursion into ballet when he receives encouragement from Mrs. Wilkinson to join the class properly. Mrs. Wilkinson and her daughter Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) exit the scene, leaving Billy staring into an imagined future framed in part by a cinematic sample of the past. As the music 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails' plays, Billy taps a large stick he is carrying twice on the ground, kicks it with his foot, and swings it over his shoulder like a cane. The film cuts to a scene from Top Hat (1935) in which Fred Astaire and some twenty other male dancers are dancing with canes. While this scene is suggestive of the homosociality of dance, Top Hat narratively places Astaire's dancing body and (by idealistic identification) Billy's dancing body into a space that masculinizes, heterosexualizes, and utopianizes dance (Dyer).

[27]   Lest this subtle inscription of dance as masculine and heterosexual be overlooked, Billy Elliot provides its viewers with two characters they either know or suspect are homosexual, who serve as points of contrast to Billy himself. The most obvious of these is Billy's best friend Michael (Stuart Wells), first introduced chiding Billy about the futility of boxing, later revealed to us and to Billy to be a cross-dresser, and eventually confirmed to Billy and to a viewing audience primed to conflate male cross-dressing with homosexuality to be a 'poof' (Garber). Michael's strong presence throughout the film ensures that viewers 'know' how a homosexual behaves and what a homosexual looks like, making a male dancer like Billy appear to be straight in comparison. The film also introduces us to Simon (Matthew Thomas), a boy Billy encounters at his ballet school audition. Billy is in the changing room after his audition, upset by his perception that it has all gone badly, when Simon attempts to comfort him. Simon sits very close to Billy on a bench, speaks soothing words in his middle-class accent, and eventually puts his arm around Billy. Billy reacts by bludgeoning Simon, who he refers to as 'a bent bastard'. Compared to either Michael or Simon, then, Billy appears to be 'normal'.

[28]   Even so, there are moments in the film when Billy's sexuality is open to question -- when Billy acquiesces to a cross-dressed Michael putting lipstick on him, when Billy kisses Michael good-bye as Billy leaves for ballet school, and when Billy declines Debbie's offer to show him her fanny. I would suggest that none of these incidents necessarily queers Billy, in the sense of removing Billy from the category of 'the normal', because they are all coded through that value that, when questions of sexuality arise, trumps all other values in the film. That value is the sexual innocence of youth. While sociological research (much less psychoanalytic theory) does not support a claim to the sexual innocence of youth either at the dawn of the new millennium or in the mid-1980s, Billy Elliot can credibly make such a claim on Billy's behalf because it is not primarily an historical film. It is a nostalgia film -- nostalgic for a 1980s Britain in which viewers might imagine sexual innocence existed, just as they might imagine that the working class had a fair deal economically prior to their defeat in the mid-decade miners' strikes.

[29]   In this context, playing with gender codes in the privacy of Michael's home, being affectionate toward your best friend at a life-changing moment, and not being quite ready for a peek at a fanny for it raises all sorts of embarrassing questions like 'what do we do next?' and 'what does this make us to one another?' are not surprising behaviors for an eleven-year-old boy. They combine to make Billy not queer but sweet, which is part of the reason Billy Elliot is such a mainstream success. And, indeed, young Billy's dance sequences that are not explicitly masculine do not necessarily make Billy a 'poof' either, for they take care to infantalize Billy. Young Billy's dancing body is always presented as either masculine or childlike or both.

[30]   Even Michael's and Simon's sexualities are rendered harmless (or at least less harmful) by their youth. Michael's dressing in his sister's clothes and mother's make-up is narratively overcoded with innocence and naivete. When Billy stops by Michael's house and Michael answers the door wearing a dress, a shocked Billy asks Michael what he is doing. Michael nonchalantly replies, 'Nothing. Just dressing up.' When Billy asks if they will get in trouble for this kind of dressing up, Michael laughs off his question, saying, 'Don't be stupid. Me dad does it all the time.' In the case of Simon, it may not be his sexuality at all that is offensive to Billy and to an audience identified with Billy, but Simon's class. Simon's middle-class mannerisms are scripted as out of place in his encounter with Billy, even though we know that it is working-class Billy who is out of place at the firmly middle-class Royal Ballet School.

[31]   Youth, then, insures that questions of sexuality are postponed for Billy and the (other) possibly queer boys he encounters. This protects Billy and the cinematic narrative as a whole from being necessarily queered. Surely, queer readings of these scenes and the body of Billy are possible at this point in the film. But by privileging a-sexual youth over queer alternatives, the film insures that Billy can still be read as heterosexual, as normal, as not queer. It is this deferral of questions of sexuality through youth that explains why Billy is not having a masculinity crisis. He is too young to have one. He isn't even a 'man' yet!

[32]   Even in the possibly queer space of dance (and I will explain later how I think the film queers dance), a reading of Billy as just sweetly innocent is available to viewers. For example, the film's most blatantly 'queer' scene is sandwiched between two scenes which trouble any attempt to read it as candidly queer. The 'queer' scene affirms the film's blurring of ballet and boxing, foreshadowed by Billy's balletic boxing before he began ballet lessons and his consistent draping of his ballet slippers around his neck like boxing gloves. The scene blurs ballet and boxing by having a tutu-clad Michael receive a ballet lesson from Billy while both boys stand in the boxing ring. Read as a single moment, it is difficult to resist a queer reading of this scene. Yet just prior to this scene, Billy has refused Michael's pass -- a pass that leads to Michael's confession that he is indeed a homosexual -- to which Billy responds by explaining to Michael and to the audience, 'Just cos I like ballet, doesn't mean I'm a poof, you know'. And the tutu scene is followed by Billy's most exuberant ballet, performed for Dad who discovers the boys in the gym. Rather than worry Dad about Billy's sexuality, this encounter enables Dad to finally see Billy for who he 'really' is -- a dancer -- and sends Dad running off to Mrs. Wilkinson asking her how to make Billy's ballet school audition possible. This sequencing, then, allows for a jettisoning of the queer content of the tutu scene, at least as queerness applies to Billy. While in this sequence Michael relinquishes any claim to youthful, sexual innocence by 'coming out', Billy does nothing of the sort. And his acceptance of his best friend's sexuality works to put a mainstream audience at ease, for it affirms both their liberal tolerance of 'alternative lifestyles' and their belief in the norm of heterosexuality (for tolerance always functions by reasserting norms), even though the film presents no evidence that Billy is heterosexual.

[33]   It is important to point out that Billy's youthful sexual innocence is in contrast to all the other sons in the father/son film pairings. In Strictly Ballroom, it is the young adult son's own transgressions that bring to light the past transgressions of his father. In Priscilla, the son knows (and must teach his father) that drag is the most macho form of dance. And in The Full Monty, the son is complicitious in the striptease, making his father's attempts to protect him from the sexual implications of the performance a joke. What all four films suggest is that the sons have something their fathers do not have. In Strictly Ballroom, Priscilla, and The Full Monty, this something else comes across as extra knowledge; these sons are wiser, hipper, or freer than their fathers.

[34]   In the case of Billy Elliot, Billy's excess is not of knowledge but an excess of youthful non-knowledge that shields him from transgressions in what the film codes as feminine and queer spaces (household labor and dance, for example). This does not mean that Billy is not wise beyond his years in other ways. He is, after all, the working-class son of a striking miner, exposed to the day-to-day realities of economic deprivation and police brutality that result from his socio-economic position. It does mean, however, that juxtaposed to Billy's keen grasp of his class and its consequences is his willful negotiation of non-knowledge around the axis of sexuality. This is particularly evident in a scene in which Dad tries to discuss 'the facts of life' with Billy -- that male ballet dancers are queers.

[35]   In their exchange, Billy resists 'knowing' the 'facts' his father insists Billy already knows -- that male ballet dancers are homosexuals. Even when Billy allows the unsayable to be said -- protesting to his father about ballet that 'It's not just for poofs', this concession to Dad's 'knowledge' of Billy's 'knowledge' is immediately withdrawn when Billy offers Wayne Sleep as his example of an athletic dancer, for it is commonly known in 1980s Britain that Wayne Sleep is a homosexual. Whether Billy does or does not know the 'facts' as Dad tries to impress them upon him, it is his will not to know -- his persistent deflection and deferral of these 'facts' -- that protects him and his family from what this knowledge could do to them. It is akin (albeit in reverse) to a child pretending to believe in Santa Claus when all suspect he no longer does. Youth does indeed have its privileges.

[36]   Arguing that Billy's youth protects him and his family from the queer possibilities of dance means the answer to my third question, 'How is dance coded as both queer and as recuperative of heteronormative masculinity?' is not immediately evident. I will discuss this question in two parts, first addressing how the film queerly codes dance and then how the film utilizes the queerly coded space of dance to recuperate heteronormative masculinity.

[37]   Billy Elliot not only acknowledges but encourages traditional stereotypes associated with the gender and sexuality of dance. The film engenders the space of ballet as feminine by giving us an all-girl ballet class. And it codes ballet as stereotypically queer in the scenes in which Dad discusses the 'facts of life' about ballet with Billy and in which Michael wears a tutu. And yet it is not quite so simple. There are complicated tensions around gender and sexuality in the film's codings of dance and dancers, something the film marks even for a mainstream audience with 1970s Glam Rock icon Marc Bolan dominating the soundtrack.

[38]   While the film gives us traditional stereotypes about dance to read, it also works hard to re-write dance as a not necessarily feminine or queer space because dancers are not necessarily feminine or queer. And, of course, it does this work through the youthful character of Billy. Young Billy is not a 'poof' (as he repeatedly tells us, a disavowal which might as easily mark Billy as gay as unmark him as such). In the scene in which Billy teaches Michael ballet, we notice not only that Michael is wearing a tutu, but that Billy is not wearing one. And we know from the film's opening sequence that while ballet may be the type of dance available to Billy, Billy is not so much a ballet dancer (or, as the film In and Out refers to dancing men, a 'big ballerina') as he is a dancer, full stop. This is why Billy can innocently and without prejudice on the part of a mainstream audience acknowledge Michael's hail, 'Oi. Dancing boy.' And it is this hail that protects Billy from the feminine and queer possibilities of dance. For Michael hails a youthful Billy. This 'dancing boy' is interpellated not so much into but beyond feminine and queer dance spaces.

[39]   This is in part why dancing is never a problem for Billy. Billy's problem is not that he is a dancing boy but that his father cannot overcome his fears and prejudices about dance and male dancers in order to allow Billy to just be Billy, dancer. This is where the central tension in the film lies. The turning point in the film is not when Billy is accepted into the Royal Ballet School. It is when Billy's potential as a dancer finally penetrates his father's consciousness, and this dancing boy provides his father with a way through his masculinity crisis.

[40]   Dad will succeed in resecuring a legitimate claim to heteronormative masculinity by giving 'wee Billy' a chance to be a ballet dancer. Of course, for cinematic effect, things must go terribly wrong before they go right. Dad's initial plan to pay for Billy's audition in London -- by crossing the picket line to work in the mines -- exacerbates his masculinity crisis. Recognizing his father on the bus carrying the scabs into the mine, Tony follows Dad to the mine. As Tony implores his father not to enter the mine, Dad explains himself, saying things like, 'I'm sorry, son. We're finished, son. What choice have we got, eh? Let's give the boy a fuckin' chance.'

[41]   Despite Dad's impassioned defense of his action to Tony, Dad cannot bring himself to be a scab, even for Billy. Tony takes his sobbing father away from the pit, unable to be a miner and still unsure how to be a proper father. And then he figures it out. Dad pawns his dead wife's jewelry, which provides enough money for the trip to London. Billy is awarded a place in the Royal Ballet School. Upon hearing the news, Dad runs to the working men's club to tell his mates, only to learn that the miners have settled the strike. They will return to work, defeated, Dad and Tony's decline marked by their journey into the pit in a descending lift. Even though Dad temporarily recovers his job, this is not what restores him to the proper place of father and man. It is his engagement with the space of dance, through his son Billy, that makes Dad properly masculine once again. This point is statuesquely suggested by Dad and Billy's good-bye hug at the bus station, in which Dad holds Billy like a male ballet dancer lifting a ballerina.

[42]   The final sequence of the film tells us that Dad's struggles have all been worthwhile. Set some 10-15 years after the rest of the film, we find Dad and Tony in London attending a ballet in which Billy is starring. With Dad and Tony watching, Billy leaps athletically onto the stage in the final shot, as the soundtrack plays T. Rex's 'Ride the White Swan'. With this, the film's swan metaphor (introduced and enacted primarily through the character of Mrs. Wilkinson, her supporting subplot being a sort of 'Educated Rita educating Billy') seems to have arrived at its logical conclusion. Dad's sacrifices for and support of his son have enabled Billy the working-class duckling to mature into the middle class and properly masculine swan.

[43]   Given all of this, how is it possible to argue that Dad's heteronormative masculinity is resecured through dance as a queer space, when I have suggested that young Billy is protected from the feminine and queer possibilities of dance and when what enables Dad's renewed masculinity is not only Billy's gift as a dancer but his wife's jewelry (i.e., the return to the feminine which in psychoanalytic discourse is traditionally how masculinity is secured, even if, in this instance, the feminine is dead)? I make this argument not so much based on the 'dancing boy' but on Billy as a dancing man. For, if as I have suggested, Billy's youth is the code the film employs to protect Billy from the feminine and queer possibilities of dance, his loss of youth in the final sequence works to queerly position Billy.

[44]   The adult Billy is less able to resist the queer possibilities of ballet than is the youthfully innocent Billy. The film makes this point in its selection of the ballet in the final sequence. The ballet is, unsurprisingly, Swan Lake. But it is not just any Swan Lake. It is Matthew Bourne's adaptation of Swan Lake (1996), in which all of the swans are male. The male lead in Bourne's Swan Lake, then, is not the prince but a doppelganger male swan, played by the adult Billy (Adam Cooper). Billy appears in Bourne's ballet as both the barefooted, bare-chested white swan who is the object of the Prince's desires and as the evil, leather-clad swan who seduces the queen and drives the prince mad with jealousy. Sally Banes argues that, when the lead of Swan Lake is danced by one ballerina, 'the monster and the angel...wrapped up in a single woman' suggests 'an underlying female dualism' (61-62). In Bourne's parodic version of Swan Lake, this dualism is not only of good and evil but of homosexuality and heterosexuality combined in one male dancing body, with the heterosexual located in the place the ballet reserves for evil.

[45]   What all this suggests is that while up to this point Billy Elliot hints at the queer possibilities of ballet and protects the youthfully innocent Billy from these queer possibilities, the final scene brings both ballet and Billy in ballet into queer spaces. To be clear here, I am not making an argument about whether Billy is or is not a homosexual. This point is undecidable. The point I am arguing is that Bourne's ballet places Billy -- gay or straight, we cannot know -- into the space of queer performance. In Bourne's ballet as in the final sequence of Billy Elliot, questions of sexuality are not deferred. Rather, they seize our attention.

[46]   What does this reading of Billy Elliot tell us about masculinity, sexuality, and dance, particularly in relation to the possibilities of securing heteronormative masculinity through queer performativity?

[47]   On a first reading, Billy Elliot is a mainstream film in its codings of femininity, masculinity, and sexuality. The feminine is troubled or troubling. The masculine needs to be and is recuperated. And a line always exists between what is 'normal' and what is 'queer', even if the film changes the boundary between 'normal' and 'queer' by widening the realm of normal male behaviors (presumably straight boys dance ballet) and exaggerating more and more what queer behaviors are supposed to be (a move that is particularly evident in the film's final portrayal of Michael as a grown-up, out, cross-dresser apparently accompanied to the ballet by his black boyfriend , the only black character in the film). Even so, Billy Elliot, like the other contemporary male dance films I have identified, is a bit twisted, for it secures heteronormative masculinity in queer spaces and through queer performances. It is only though Billy's relationship to ballet that Dad moves from a dying patriarchal masculinity into a new male masculinity based upon patriarchal uncertainty, with loss as its central motif. But because ballet is ultimately queered in Billy Elliot, the film's ending not only fails to suture heteronormative masculinity back into a completely 'normal' space; it rips the idea of the normal vs. the queer wide open. To illustrate this point, imagine if the film rolled a bit longer, and we got to see Dad watch Billy in Bourne's choreographed love scenes with the prince. Imagine Dad squirming in the knowledge that he made all of these queer dance scenes possible for Billy, which we know in turn made Dad's own heteronormative masculinity possible?

[48]   The film, of course, does not end with Dad's realization that his and his sons' masculinities are queerly secured. It ends instead with Billy's powerful leap, the ultimately balletic masculine move. And with this, the film is trying to have it both ways -- by openly giving a wink and a nod to the queer crowd while, for the mainstream audience, dulling the radical edges of queer performances and the radical knowledge that heteronormative masculinity is often constructed through queer performances. And, of course, it is because this knowledge is dulled and delayed (if not missed altogether) for a mainstream audience that the film is such a success. The film encourages its viewers to look at adult Billy as the successful embodiment of the sexually innocent dancing boy they identified with throughout the film. And by not giving a mainstream audience enough clues as to just whose Swan Lake is being performed, it denies that audience the opportunity to imagine a slightly longer version of the film that cuts between adult Billy dancing Swan Lake and Dad and Tony watching Billy's performance. All of this is reminiscent of Teresa de Lauretis' observation about lesbian representations, that because 'conventions of seeing, and the relations of desire and meaning in spectatorship [remain] partially anchored or contained by a frame of visibility that is still heterosexual,' it is extremely difficult to alter the 'standard vision, the frame of reference of visibility, of what can be seen' (33, 35; emphasis in original).

[49]   Even so, Billy Elliot refuses to let a restabilized heteronormative masculinity remain secured. This is because the film introduces us to the adult, queered (if not queer) Billy, which in turn introduces queer spaces and queer spectatorship into the film in ways that complicate any attempt to separate the heteronormative from the queer.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: This research was supported by a grant from the British Academy. Thanks to Anna Aalten, Terrell Carver, Annette Davison, Amy Kenyon, Griselda Pollock, and two anonymous referees for their helpful comments, as well as to participants in the ESRC 'Sexuality: Representation and Lived Experience' seminar at the University of York, UK and at seminars at York University, Toronto, and Trinity All Saints College, Leeds.

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Banes, Sally. Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage. London: Routledge, 1998.

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CYNTHIA WEBER is Professor of International Studies at the University of Leeds. In addition to her work on international politics, she has written on feminism, gender, and queer theory and on cultural studies and American studies.

Copyright ©2003 Ann Kibbey. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
 

Copyright ©2003 Ann Kibbey.
 

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