Do you remember Jamie Bell? He’s most recently known for playing Tintin in “The Adventures of Tintin” but he’s best known for playing 11 year-old Billy in “Billy Elliot” (2000). I’ve been thinking about Jamie Bell’s Billy lately, especially since my colleague Jarvis Slacks and I met last night to discuss our individual presentations for this Friday’s Gender Colloquium at Montgomery College. Jarvis will lead a discussion on gender in the creative writing classroom, and I will talk about the value of using the theme of sex and gender as identity categories in composition writing.
Back to Bell or, more accurately, back to Billy. Billy’s character is queer but not gay, and there is a difference. Billy is a boy growing up in a mostly male, working class home in northern England and he wants to be a dancer and not just any dancer but a ballet dancer. We can deduce that he isn’t gay because his best friend Michael, who is gay, is weary of coming out to him, but Michael doesn’t need to worry because Billy accepts him without judgment. (Of course, there’s the possibility that Billy might come out later, but we don’t know that story.)
Billy is a hero to me because, like me, he had an abusive alcoholic father that worked in a mine and a sweet old grandmother he utter loved, and through a troubled childhood he found the arts — dancing for him, writing for me — as a means to cope, escape, survive. Or as he would say, it makes him feel good, makes him disappear so that he feels like electricity.
Perhaps what I admire most about Billy is how relentless he is about dancing even after his tough father and rough brother find out. The two try hard to keep Billy from ballet, embarrassed by the fact that he’s been secretly going to Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class after school when he should have been taking boxing lessons. But when they see that he won’t or can’t stop doing something that comes so naturally to him, they spend their meagre wages so Billy can audition for the Royal Ballet School.
Four scenes remain with me to this day and they resemble my life in some ways. The first is of his grandmother wandering away from the house and Billy running through the brush to find her; when he does, he takes her tiny hand in his and steers her home. My grandmother never wandered away from home, but we did a lot of walking together: walking to church, walking around stores, walking through the two small towns in Mexico we visited on Catholic pilgrimages. What this scene shows and what it reminds me of my relationship with my granny is how much they care for and trust one another.
In another memorable scene, Billy shows his friend Michael a few dance steps; he even helps Michael into a tutu. (In the good-bye scene, Billy gives Michael a sweet kiss.) The boys dance, twirl, and laugh, until the fun is cut short when they’re caught by Billy’s drunken dad. I can recall playing with my sisters, always nervous about my own father’s dangerous wrath. Billy does something amazing, though, something I never did. He stands up to his father or rather, he dances for his father to prove that his love for dancing is more powerful than his father’s anger at him for dancing. The moment is powerful.
It’s important to note that Billy happened upon ballet, he didn’t seek it out. Mrs. Wilkinson’s class is temporarily held in the same gymnasium as Billy’s boxing lesson, so had she been teaching tap, it might have been tap. This is suggested by the bridge scene called Billy’s angry dance. In this scene, Mrs. Wilkinson confronts Billy’s father and brother and demands that they take notice of his gift, but they react angrily, call Mrs. Wilkinson a “middle-class sanctimonious twat,” and command Billy to dance in order to prove himself. Frustrated, Mrs. Wilkinson storms out and Billy leaves, too, and out of his anger, though he tries to resist dancing, he can’t keep his foot from tapping, his leg from moving until suddenly his body erupts into a wild expression to the song “A Town Called Malice”.
So many things about the movie resonate with me: the fights between father and son, the dancing and 80’s music, the granny who can’t bear to see her grandson go, and the image of Billy’s gruff father, waiting nervously for his son’s results, standing awkwardly in an elegant white hallway of the Royal Ballet School. But the most special scene is Billy’s audition. After he dances, one of the instructors seated sternly at a table of judges, asks in her posh English accent, “Can I ask you Billy, what does it feel like when you’re dancing?” Billy answers honestly, “I don’t know.” Then after some thought: “I sorta disappear. I sorta disappear. I feel a change in my body like there’s fire in my body. I’m just there, flying, like a bird, like electricity…. Yeah, like electricity.” Dancing is not just a means of escape for Billy, it’s also a way to generate power, something he lacks in a home dominated by older, bigger men.
Billy is queer not just because he dances ballet but because he resists the male-gendered sport of boxing. When his father confronts him, saying with disgust, “Ballet?” Billy says plenty of men do ballet and he names Wayne Sleep as evidence. In a working class town that reduces life to its gender norms — men work at the mine, women stay at home, boys go to boxing lessons, girls go to ballet — in this rigid setting, Billy accepts his gay friend and prefers ballet to boxing, education to mining, caring for his grandmother instead of tearing the home apart, all actions that are subversive for a 1980’s northern English boy.
Billy also manages to convince his father and brother to let him go to the Royal Ballet School because there he might have a chance. Not only does he convince them to look beyond gender norms, he also convinces them on a level they can understand — the need for one of them to rise above their social class. In the final scene, a strong, mature, well-muscled Billy emerges as the prince in Swan Lake. Back arched, chest forward, head high, he rises above his past in one powerful leap into the limelight.
That’s a hero if ever there was one.