Billy Elliot -- Soaring Dancer, Sinking Union

Sophie Barnet-Higgins

Unions and labor organizers are accustomed to vilification from many directions, but aren’t generally on guard against attacks from popular fiction. Nonetheless, movies, TV, novels and other storytelling formats in mainstream culture can be potent detractors of unions and other social justice organizing, in most cases not because writers and filmmakers intentionally malign them, but because their portrayals–when they exist at all–are often full of unexamined stereotypes.

Billy Elliot, a film about a miner’s young son who aspires to be a ballet dancer, is set in Northern England during the coal miners’ strike of 1984-85, in the harsh climate of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Local labor leaders and strikers have an important role in this charming family story and dance film; yet, while the film convincingly challenges gender stereotyping in art and the pain this causes a creative child, anyone looking for challenges to stereotyping of workers and union activism will be disappointed. Having created this rare opportunity for an intimate look at life in a union household on strike, Billy Elliot instead reinforces stereotypes about strikes, unions, workers and labor leaders.

Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) hates his boxing lessons, feeling much more drawn to the ballet class held in the same small-town rec room. Deceiving his father and brother, both of whom are striking coal miners, Billy begins attending the dance class with the tutu-wearing girls and soon becomes the ballet teacher’s star pupil.

Upon discovering Billy’s ballet dancing, the father and brother are angry and contemptuous–until they see him dance. Once his secret is out and the shouting is over, the film centers on whether Billy will get into a famous London ballet school, and whether the father can afford the tuition.

Throughout the film we viewers empathize with Billy, a nice lad who seeks to follow the musical footsteps of his dead mother. We also grow to sympathize with the inner turmoil of the Billy’s father around his young son’s “sissy” inclination, and we are glad to see the dad’s love and desire to do what is best for his son win out over his sexist prejudice–to the point that he attempts to become a strike breaker to earn enough for Billy’s tuition at the Ballet Royale.

The movie is balanced in its portrayal of the complex class tensions that arise between the father, who is ashamed of his inability to pay for Billy’s dancing school, and the middle class teacher who wants to support Billy’s gift. The film adeptly handles Billy’s struggles with gender pigeonholes and his attempts to sort out his relationships with his gay best friend and the ballet teacher’s sexually precocious daughter, showing the reserved boy expressing his confusion and anger through his spectacular dancing.

Unfortunately, in the film’s portrayal of the miners’ strike and the union, nuance and empathy give way to stereotypes and “otherizing.” We viewers witness the economic hardships of the strike, and the bitter strife between strikers and scabs, but we are not allowed into the minds or hearts of the miners to understand the inspiration and motivations that kept them together in this difficult battle for over a year. We never learn why the strike happened, we never hear the miners discuss it, either within Billy’s family–even though his older brother is a strike leader–or in any group scene. We never catch a glimpse of the immense work–yes, and creativity!–that goes into organizing and sustaining an industry-wide strike, not to mention planning and carrying out their intense struggle against the forces of the government and the mining companies.

The scab-striker conflict is often key in a strike, and the clash between Billy’s father and his older brother could have been a great vehicle for personalizing the larger issue to illuminate the arguments and motivations of each side. Unfortunately,  while we understand why the father, despite his conflicted feelings, attempts to become a strikebreaker because he wants to help Billy pay for the expensive ballet school (although Roger Ebert points out that it’s an unlikely scenario: “I can believe a coal miner supporting his son’s dancing dreams, but anyone who believes he would become a scab to raise the money doesn’t know much about union miners.”), we do not hear any arguments for the union side. We watch with distaste as workers fling eggs at the strikebreakers’ bus while the father sits inside it—and we can’t help thinking eggs a weird choice of missile for people who are hungry. We hear the inarticulate anger of the strikers as they attack the bus attempting to cross the picket line, but do not get to hear any substantive conversation, however brief, that would provide context, history and, most important, empathy with their position.

While we are given ample chance to identify with Billy’s pulls toward art and self expression, as well as the individual motivations of his ballet teacher and his father toward helping Billy succeed, the movie does not invite us to look with similar understanding into the motivation of Billy’s brother, the strike leader, around organizing for justice for the miners, or at how this motivation might clash and also dovetail with individual desire to support his brother. The older brother wouldn’t need to be portrayed as an accomplished conversationalist to spell out, or even spit out in his usual mean tone, alternatives to strike-breaking that the father might have sought. We witness strong emotion and a scuffle as he prevents his and Billy’s father from crossing the picket line, and we see the ultimate bonding between them, but are given no information to help us understand the union perspective. Throughout the movie the miners shout or growl, and we learn next to nothing about them or about the movement that has gripped their community.

After they decide that ballet dancing is acceptable, the brother and father become devoted to furthering the son’s goal of studying at the Royale Ballet. When the father, overjoyed that his son has been accepted into the academy, races down to the hall to tell his union brothers (no women appear in any union scene; very few women appear at all in this movie) the miners regard him morosely and take the wind out of his sails by announcing that the strike is over, that “the union caved.” We see, across the deep, dim hall, the strikers slumped and despairing, the distance, gloom and silence further obscuring understanding of what happened with the strike. And not merely by omission, since the worker who speaks cites only the union as responsible for the strike’s debacle; no mention of the harsh, repressive policies of the mining companies and the British government’s explicit determination to break them.

The wrenching failure of the strike leaves a bad taste in our mouths about the union, as does the stereotype of the union as a manipulative entity separate from the workers, leading them on, bringing hardship during the strike, then leaving them in the lurch as angry, inarticulate victims. We do not get to see rank and file members or leaders on screen confronting company representatives or discussing the demands, strategy or goals of this long and arduous struggle. The conflicts we’re actually shown on screen are among the workers themselves, lashing out at fellow workers attempting to scab, and attacking ballet, gender nonconformity, and the union itself.

Frustratingly, there is a nearly hidden moment that could have redeemed the film’s treatment of the union. Dwelling on the the father’s and the teachers efforts as individuals to support Billy at the academy, the film gives only a faraway glimpse of the interesting fact that the strikers also took up a collection to help Billy study ballet. This would have been the perfect moment to humanize the union, show them discussing whether their economic hardship allowed for them to give such support to an individual miner’s family member, and let us witness them grappling with gender stereotypes–but the film did not show this onscreen, so we don’t get to see them make this decision, even though the union members must have experienced an attitude adjustment toward Billy’s ballet dancing similar to that of the father and brother.

Instead of allowing the union this small story arc and transformative moment, Billy Elliot keeps the union, strike and strikers as a static backdrop, the negative ambiance of hardship and tension that Billy and his family must overcome in the pursuit of Billy’s personal dream.

Billy Elliot is about the triumph of creativity and the human spirit, and about the complexities of a family’s role as both obstacle and support for one of their own who attempts to forge a new path. The film is also about the possibilities for transformation, for changing one’s mind, taking in a new perspective, as occurs when the father and the brother overcome their prejudices to support instead of condemn Billy’s gift for ballet. They are rewarded by seeing Billy, at the end of the movie, soars triumphantly onstage as a solo dancer. The union in sad, stark contrast, collapses ignominiously and is heard from no more.

I’ve been a union organizer, union member, supporter of union struggles, and translator and interpreter for unions for many decades. As an artist/writer, I’m all for movies taking on the complex relationship between unions and art, collective vs. individual passions, and changing gender norms.

But we need movies–and novels and TV programs–that deal with strikes, unions and labor movement realistically, fairly and sympathetically, stories with genuine understanding, centering on labor activists portrayed as multi-dimensional human beings we can get close to. We need films that speak about art, individual freedom, and challenging gender norms, without pitting these good things against unions and workers, stories showing the conflict and passion of union struggles in their complexity, without the negative stereotypes which unfortunately abound in Billy Elliot.

Let me be clear: Billy Elliot is not an anti-union movie or a purposeful attack on unions. I do not think the filmmakers were motivated by conscious anti-union or anti-worker sentiments. However, whether these stereotypes are included with malicious intent is irrelevant; the dominant culture, an inseparable aspect of the Beast, instills in our collective consciousness as a matter of course a whole array of stereotypes to put the Beast’s enemies–activists!–in a bad light. These stereotypes spring up everywhere, unbidden, unless creators turn a stern stereotype-spotting eye upon their own work.

Billy Elliot gets points for having a strike, a union and a workers’ struggle as core elements in the story. But it falls far short of being a full and fair portrayal of the strike and the workers themselves.

And yet, such a portrayal could so easily have been part of this film, without changing the main story or adding length. No need for preachy swaths of narration; merely allow the union workers a few enlightening conversations of the kind that real workers, especially those who organize and sustain a strike together, actually have all the time.

Fiction invites you into the world and the minds of characters, and thus has tremendous ability to shape people’s feelings towards them. Strikes provide terrific settings for fiction, full of conflict, heroism, suspense, creativity, ingenuity, pain, triumph and loss, plenty of possibilities for personal and interpersonal drama, transformation, romance, spiritual awakening. Such stories would show fairly and realistically what it is like to be an activist in the thick of the risk, dilemmas, heroism, friendship and so many other aspects of human drama that arise.

By the same token, fiction has great power to shape your outlook and feelings through use of language, characterization, tone, and other subtle means. This is simply its power, not anything sinister in itself; but because this power often serves to introduce and reinforce bias, as has been amply shown in regard to oppressive portrayals of women, people of the global majority, and others, we need to become more aware of its role in the oppression and repression of activists.

In a subsequent post Activist Stereotype Spotter will take on Pride, another cinematic look at the same miners’ strike, where union and gay rights activists tackle solidarity and prejudice.

Activist Unmasked

Become an Activist Stereotype Spotter! When you watch/read/attend a Work of Fiction, run it through the Fiction Featuring Activists Review Guide

– Article: Juliana Barnet
– Artwork: Sophie Barnet-Higgins and JB


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