Discover more from Activist Explorer Newsletter, by Juliana Barnet
June 31st Issue! :-)
Pride and Billy Elliot
In this issue: Re-Viewing Billy Elliot and Pride
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Pride and Billy Elliot : contradictory pictures of the same strike.
The current labor resurgence prompts me to wonder, How are worker movements portrayed in mainstream culture, particularly movies? Mostly not there, as far as I can tell.But I did recall, and re-watch, two feature films I remembered enjoying, both set during the pivotal 1984-5 miners’ strike in northern England, when the Miners’ Union held out for over a year against the implacable Thatcher government in their struggle to win better working conditions. The fact that each challenges gender stereotyping as well makes them good choices for Pride Month (which it still would be today, if June weren’t such a nonconformist, with just 30 days…)
I continue to like both movies, but the impression each gives of the strike and the workers could hardly be more different.
In Billy Elliot (2000, Stephen Daldry) eleven-year-old Billy faces disbelief and disdain when his father and brother, both striking miners, discover he’s been learning ballet and wants to be a dancer. The story follows Billy’s father’s transformation as he grows to accept his son’s unexpected talent and struggles to raise tuition money to send him to an elite ballet academy.
In Pride (2014, Matthew Warchus), an LGBTQ+ group offers support to the striking miners, seeing them as comrades in suffering and struggle. They discover that the miners’ prejudices and their own false assumptions make cooperation a challenge. The movie follows the poignant and often hilarious encounters as the two groups explore the complexities of solidarity.
In both films, striking miners are among the central characters, and all involved must battle class and gender-based oppression as well as their own prejudices.
So far, so good. But what impact does each have on viewers in regard to the workers and the strike?
Young Billy Elliot hates his boxing lessons. He’s fascinated by the ballet class that practices next to the local boxing ring (we’re told the strikers’ soup kitchen displaced the dancers from their usual classroom.) Deceiving his father and brother, Billy cuts boxing and attends ballet with the tutu-wearing girls, becoming the ballet teacher’s star pupil.
The father and brother discover Billy’s secret and pour contempt on him for being a “sissy”--until they see him dance. After they are won over, the story centers on whether Billy will get into a famous London ballet school, and whether the father can afford the tuition.
The movie gives a balanced, sympathetic portrayal of the class tensions that arise between the father (whose poverty we are given to understand is due to the strike) and the middle class teacher who wants to support Billy’s gift. It adeptly shows Billy wrestling with gender pigeonholes, and his relationships with his gay best friend and the ballet teacher's sexually precocious daughter, creating convincing opportunities for Billy to express his confusion and anger through his spectacular dancing.
Yet the film squanders its opportunity to realistically show a household on strike, to humanize it with the same empathy and gentle humor it bestows on the characters’ efforts to come to terms with Billy’s ballet. Instead, it retreats to stereotypes and othering, depicting the economic hardships of the strike and the bitter strife between strikers and “scabs” alienating ways that fail to illuminate the conflict, let alone show its incredible heroism.
Even though the father is a striking miner and Billy’s older brother is a strike leader, we glimpse nothing whatsoever of the energy and creativity needed to organize and sustain an industry-wide strike. We spend the entire film with these folks, at what turns out to be a crucial moment in their strike, yet we never see the characters engage in ordinary communal tasks or camaraderie.
Other than a few seconds overheard on somebody’s radio, we viewers get no information about how the Thatcher government and the mining companies constantly attacked the miners and their union, and we don’t hear the workers discuss it. The only clashes we see are between the miners and the police (with clubbing, arrests, and a chase scene) and between miners and strikebreakers (with yelling, snarling, and throwing things)—and we learn no information or background.
If the film had allowed the workers to express their demands, as they would on any picket line, we could have learned what motivated them. But they don’t even carry signs (unlike in our graphic above) and we only hear them monotonously shouting, “Scab! Scab! Scab!”, an epithet many viewers may not even understand, given the widespread marginalizing and distortion of labor struggles. Not to mention the puzzlement we feel at seeing the strikers throw eggs at the strikebreakers’ bus rather than feed them to their hungry children.
In the end, Billy triumphs as a lead dancer, while the union ignominiously “caves” and is heard from no more.
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In contrast, Pride provides a closeup of the striking miners’ dynamic in the midst of their struggle, giving us a intimate view of how the movement impacts their lives and how they deal with issues, including the bemusement they feel when first approached by an unexpected group of supporters.
We see a group of LGBTQ+ Londoners discuss the strike and how they are linked by shared experience of persecution, a point sharply noted after the group’s little storefront headquarters is attacked early in the film, leading to their organizing—with some dissent—Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). The project raises money for the strike, and eventually makes a journey to the North of England to personally hand the funds to the miners.
Unlike in Billy Elliot, in Pride we see internal discussions, friendly and harsh, amongst both parties about how to tackle issues and face attacks. We follow the arc of the encounters between LGSM and the miners as it progresses from bemusement and rejection to friendship and solidarity, in engaging, often amusing scenes in the miners’ homes and union hall. The LGSM folks, for their part, reciprocate the hospitality by showing the union men and women London nightlife and holding a drag show fundraiser for the strike, where one of the striking miners steps up to the stage to raucous approval.
Pride illustrates the choices and challenges of building solidarity, focusing on how this process changes people in both groups in ways that go beyond the strike itself.
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Granted, the themes of the two movies are different: Billy Elliot is about the power of art to overcome preconceptions and stereotypes, with the strike being a subplot and context. Pride looks at how two very different subcultures overcome deep mistrust to find common ground, not only to support one another’s struggles, but to form real human connections.
The more individual focus of Billy Elliot is not why I think it is an unfortunate, stereotyped depiction of the workers’ movement. After all, fiction illuminates social issues precisely because it shows them up close, through the struggles of individuals.
The issue is that the union is portrayed as an alien entity, and while the strike is the setting for most of the film, we learn virtually nothing about its workings, demands, accomplishments, or progress. Nor do we learn about the solidarity that reached the strikers from all over England, including the LGBTQ+ groups that inspired the story of Pride.
Subtle emphasis and de-emphasis matter. In Billy Elliot, the vital collective support among the miners, like the soup kitchen set up in the ballet classroom, is all off-screen and mentioned only in passing. There is even a moment, barely referred to, where the union takes up a collection to contribute to Billy’s tuition. The barest on-screen view of this gesture might have somewhat counterbalanced the time spent showing the workers yelling at each other, and would have let us witness the union itself, in addition to the father and brother as individuals, working through prejudices to support the protagonist family in their unique aspiration.
Moreover, unlike Pride, where the union women are as key as the men, in Billy Elliot the women of the strike are not present. [For an excellent view of the real role of women in that strike, see Women in the Miners’ Strike, 1985-5.]
Anti-union details sneak past our awareness
Billy Elliot is a heartwarming family/dance film with a positive, progressive message concerning gender norms and the importance of allowing young people to express themselves creatively.
At the same time, many details, impressions, characterization, even the bleak color palette and other cinematographic choices, show us the union and the strike in a negative light.
This build-up of unarticulated impressions is more harmful than an overt anti-union message, because devices like those mentioned above play on our ingrained stereotypes: the manipulative union; the loutish, inarticulate workers; the strike sowing dissension and causing hardship. These affect us without our notice, and may or may not be deliberate; the filmmakers may simply be weaving their own unexamined prejudices into the story.
Pride is not without flaws in terms of activist representation—the LGSM members are all White, for instance, and the fact that their leader was in real life a socialist is absent in this story. And while the striking miners are shown in a much more nuanced and humanizing way than in Billy Elliot, we still don’t learn very much about the strike or its context. I know, a movie is not a history lesson, but a little more info could have been integrated very naturally into a couple of conversations, just as it could have in Billy Elliot.
Overall, however, Pride gives a much fairer view of this epic struggle, and ends not with the union’s defeat but with a major London march, with the miners and LGSM marching together amid thousands, leaving us with an uplifting image that reinforces its thoughtful exploration of the complexities and the beauty of solidarity.
So why does this matter?
I’ll be coming back to why I feel it is important to view fiction focused on activism with a critical eye, as well as cheering for full and fair portrayals. For now, check out my review and interview of the novel about a pair of organizers, Standing Up. I list a number of reasons this topic matters.
We need more awareness of this particular way in which the dominant culture messes with our minds and manipulates us into forgetting, dismissing, fearing, and otherwise being negatively disposed to what just happens to be the ruling class’s biggest nemesis: working class organizing.
Thanks for reading! I look forward to your views.
If you know of other movies, novels or other works of fiction about workers, strikes, and connections between LGBTQ+ and worker organizing, please suggest them in the comments! Whether they are fair portrayals or fall into stereotypes (or both) I’d love to hear about them.