Why we still love 'Bend It Like Beckham' 15 years later

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In "Bend It Like Beckham," the lead character Jess (Parminder K. Nagra) fights cultural and familial norms just to have the chance to play soccer.

David Beckham, the famed midfielder for Manchester United, makes a run down the sideline to accept a pass from a teammate. He fends off an Anderlecht defender and makes one of his golden crosses to the opposite post. Waiting there, and leaping over a defender for the header, is Jesminder "Jess" Bharma (Parminder Nagra). GOAL! Beckham and Jess celebrate with a friendly hug.

The fantasy is abruptly interrupted by Jess' mother telling her to quit daydreaming about soccer and to get downstairs to help her newly engaged sister, Pinky, with wedding planning.

This is the opening scene of "Bend It Like Beckham," which premiered in the United States 15 years ago. The cult-classic film made more than $76 million worldwide on a nearly $6 million budget. Its success spawned a musical adaptation that premiered in London in 2015, and it's now one of the most-celebrated sports films of all time. It just so happens to feature girls in the lead roles.

In the beginning of the movie, Juliette "Jules" Paxton (Keira Knightley), while she's jogging through the park, spots Jess playing soccer with a bunch of boys. Jules instantly befriends Jess and recruits her to play for a local women's team. Jess' parents, however, who are Punjabi Sikh and quite traditional, do not want her to play. This becomes the central conflict of the film, as Jess plays alongside Jules anyway, and later falls in love with her coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

Many sports movies, such as "Coach Carter," "Remember the Titans" and "Gridiron Gang," focus on a male coach instilling character into his players. A few do have women characters, but the genre is largely considered one for men and boys. "Bend It Like Beckham" -- along with films like "A League of Their Own," "Stick It" and "Love & Basketball"  -- does not fit this pattern, and that alone makes it stand out, even to this day.

What makes "Bend It Like Beckham" iconic is its diversity. Director Gurinder Chadha wasn't trying to fulfill a quota; the story of a Punjabi girl in London necessitated a diverse cast. And that simple truth brought a sense of authenticity to the movie -- one that's still difficult to achieve in 2018. 

These days, more mainstream films are featuring diverse casts, but Hollywood is still predominantly white. And while men's sports movies do have racial diversity, it is almost strictly limited to black representation. For the handful of sports films that do showcase women playing sports, few feature diverse casts -- the obvious exceptions are "Bring It On" and "Love & Basketball."

"Bend It Like Beckham" not only features a diverse cast in terms of gender and race, but it's the kind of diversity in the film that makes it hold up. A South Asian woman playing sports: It's the specificity of that story that matters. That remains true today.

Jess' dynamics with her family are also as relevant now as they were in the early 2000s. Her family's traditional values conflict with her passions. The moment when Jess changes out of her traditional sari and into her soccer uniform in the backseat of the car en route to a game is still relatable.

"As a teenager, I have changed out of my sweaty kit en route to a community dinner party or someone's wedding function into a bright and beautiful salwar kameez (a traditional outfit origination in the Indian subcontinent)," freelance writer and co-host of the "Burn It All Down" podcast Shireen Ahmed said. "My mom kept baby wipes and powder in the car for me to wipe my face so I wasn't too gross. Jess was me in that moment. "

Challenging the expectation of womanhood is a central theme in the film. Jess doesn't care much about the way she looks or about the kind of clothes she wears, and she resists her mother's overtures to get her to cook. She just wants to play soccer. Jules is also in constant conflict with her mother, Paula Paxton (Juliet Stevenson), particularly about her appearance. The first scene we meet Jules' mom, she's encouraging Jules to get a padded bra. She laments when her daughter wanders to the sports bra section.

This is the kind of tension and gender commentary that we expect from films today, but made "Bend It Like Beckham" so progressive for its time. These days, it's more accepted to have a more nuanced take on gender. It's "cool" to critique gender norms in a way that wasn't even 15 years ago. A film like newly released "Blockers" features a female character who is biracial (half South Asian actually) who was taught to love sports by her father (played by John Cena), feels like a direct character descendant of Jess. And yet "Bend It Like Beckham" doesn't feel old. The commentary offered still feels relevant because even though gender is being addressed in different ways in film, we're still catching up to the ideas Chada presented over a decade ago.

Photo by Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

"Bend It Like Beckham" director Gurinder Chadha (left, in yellow) brought a refreshing level of authenticity to the 2003 film.

Jules and Jess thumbing their noses at conventional notions is part of the reason that many members of the LGBTQ community have embraced the film, even though there is no explicit LGBTQ representation.

"It's honestly the plot of 'Pride and Prejudice' inside a soccer movie," says Heather Hogan, senior editor at Autostraddle.com, which covers LGBTQ culture and politics. "Both women being in love with coach Joe feels like it's wedged in there to convince the audience those two women aren't in love with each other.

"There really isn't another movie in the entirety of the queer subtext canon that is considered as universally queer as 'Bend It Like Beckham,'" Hogan adds.

It still gives us goosebumps to see Jess board the plane to the U.S. on a full scholarship to play soccer at Santa Clara University in California. In a world where racial slurs are still used against people of color on and off the pitch, it is refreshing to see Jess live her dreams.

Every time Jess and Jules challenge gender norms, a sports-playing girl or LGBTQ person sees a piece of themselves validated. And whenever a woman of color wants to accomplish something improbable, she can look at Jess and say, "She did it. I can do it, too."

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