Thoughts on “Billy Elliot”

My partner Katie, my mom, my sister, and i went to see “Billy Elliot” on Broadway when we were up in New York City this week. It’s a show i’ve wanted to see since it opened – not only because i loved the movie back in 2000 but because i’ve been volunteering with gender non-conforming (hereinafter, GNC) kids for the last two-and-a-half years.

The play did not disappoint. The music is great. The plot is gripping (if somewhat predictable), and the dancing is out of this world. And, really, it is the dancing that makes “Billy Elliot” what it is and is the play’s raison d’être. It’s amazing to see adults be able to dance like that. But to see those sorts of movements come out of the body of a pre-teen is truly amazing. The boys who play Billy have more grace and coordination in their pinky fingers than i do in my entire body. The Billy whom we saw, Alex Ko, left me almost literally breathless sometimes. I would pay to watch him dance any day.

What surprised me, though, is exactly how GNC Billy is not. I’m sure it’s the same in the movie, but i don’t remember the details of the film that much, nine or so years after i saw it. Yes, Billy loves ballet and clearly isn’t into boxing. But that’s about it. Other than that, he’s pretty much a “normal” boy. He lacks the characteristics of many of the GNC natal males whom i volunteer with – the lisp, talking with his hands, being obsessed with princesses or frills or pink, the desire to wear girls’ clothes, overt gentleness, being very quiet, etc. Billy is clearly a boy who loves to dance, not a GNC kid who may or may not be trans. There is, in fact, not a hint of transness about him at all.

This isn’t a bad thing, of course, especially since his character helps open up a space for otherwise “normal” boys to be ballet or tap dancers. But i expected something different, being “surrounded” by the kids that i’m with now. Their selves have obscured my memories of Billy in the film.

There is, of course, Billy’s best friend, Michael, who has a smaller but still important role in the play than in the movie. Michael is most likely gay (it’s not stated but very, very strongly implied that, if he’s not gay, he’s bisexual or questioning) and overtly cross-dresses. In fact, Michael has an entire song about the joys of cross-dressing for boys – including dressing up himself, getting Billy dressed up, and both of them dancing with oversized dresses and skirts. This is quite likely the only song in any musical that truly celebrates male children cross-dressing. It’s quite remarkable.

Also contributing to Billy’s gender conformity is his reaction to discovering Michael cross-dressed. While Billy isn’t disgusted, he’s quite clearly shocked and taken aback. And when Michael starts dressing Billy, Billy is initially quite reluctant to partake. Eventually, however, Billy himself comes to see the fun in wearing girls’ clothes and seems to enjoy it as much as Michael does. This one number serves to affirm boys’ cross-dressing in a way that perhaps nothing else on Broadway does and left Katie and me literally cheering for “my” GNC boys and others like them.

Michael himself does not cross-dress in public and, when around other characters, presents as a “normal,” gender-conforming boy with none of the other overtly GNC characteristics of some of the boys whom i know. This aspect of Michael’s character, however, is certainly very true to the experiences of some GNC boys who keep their gender non-conformity at home and confined merely to clothes, not letting it (or not wanting it to) leak out into other aspects of their person.

“Billy Elliot” is, in some ways, a great commentary on masculinity. Billy comes from a working class family of miners in England. His mother died before the play starts, and he lives with his grandmother, older brother, and father. The latter two both work in the mines and are on strike against Margaret Thatcher’s anti-mining union policies. Billy’s father and brother conform unquestioningly to traditional, working class notions of what it means to be a man. Billy’s desire to – and tremendous talent in – dancing throws into question what “masculinity” means for them. Both father and brother have a very difficult time initially accepting Billy’s dancing and do everything they can to thwart Billy’s talents and desires, wanting him to grow up into what they consider “real” men. (There is, in fact, one very funny scene in Act II when Billy’s father meets an adult male ballet dancer and notices how big the dancer’s penis, seen through his tights, is compared to his own.) Both father and brother eventually come to embrace Billy’s love of dance and support him in his quest to pursue his passion. Billy’s lack of other feminine characteristics makes it easier, undoubtedly, for them to accept him as both a dancer and a boy/man. If Billy would be a flaming gay child, things would likely have gone not nearly so well for him. But the struggle of Billy’s father and brother to accept him mirrors that of many, many (especially male) relatives of GNC and trans natal males.

In some ways, the biggest problem with “Billy Elliot” is that it is yet another example of hero-izing boys and men who do things that girls and women do all the time. Yes, boys and men certainly aren’t supposed to dance, which is exactly what makes Billy so unique and forms the central tension of the plot. But when girls and women dance as well as Billy does, they do not receive the same level of recognition that boys and men do. And this pattern repeats itself over and over again in our culture – with cooking, painting, nursing, teaching, etc. All of these are supposed to be “women’s” fields. But it is generally only the excelling men who get extra recognition. “Cooks” are assumed to be women, but “chefs” are men. Women and girls “do art,” but the image of “sculptors” and “painters” is more often than not an accomplished adult man. Women teach elementary school; college professors are assumed to be men until proven otherwise. So “Billy Elliot” fits quite nicely into the realm of lionizing men who enter a “woman’s” profession and excel in a way that a woman is assumed to be unable to do. As a feminist, this is troubling, to say the least.

But as a queer feminist, “Billy Elliot” is also fantastic. That can’t be denied. Despite its few problems, this is a wonderful musical that may help, in whatever small way, open us the world just a little more to boys out there.

I would highly recommend “Billy Elliot.” Even if it doesn’t present an image of feminine boyhood, its lessons of acceptance of a (slightly) different way of being a boy is laudable, especially in this age of backlash against LGBT rights and against the loosening of childhood gender norms. If you can’t make it to London, Broadway, or Chicago, keep an eye out for a roadshow to come to your area.

One note of caution: while the play has no violence and no sexual content, it is full of language. It very truthfully reproduces the way that people speak, especially in a “non-refined” community of miners and their families who don’t buy into upper-class notions of “appropriate” language. If you can think of a bad word that’s commonplace, you’re going to hear it in this play – and probably multiple times, both spoken and sung, and used by adults and children, boys and girls. There is a sign on the box office recommending that no one under the age of 8 be taken to see the play for this reason. Each parent needs to decide for hirself when this may be appropriate for hir child(ren). But needless to say, your child is not going to go “Billy Elliot” `and hear “Sesame Street”-type vocabulary.

Also, the heroes of this play are striking mineworkers. Before you take your kids to see this show, definitely explain to them the basics of unions and strikes. They also need to understand what a “scab” is and what difficult decisions strikebreakers face as they choose to cross a picket line. You may also want to explain who Margaret Thatcher was since she figures prominently in the play, especially in the opening to Act II. “Billy Elliot” doesn’t occur in a political, class, or economic vacuum. And to understand both the action of the musical and the motivations of various characters, some basic understanding of unions, strikes, and scabs is critical.

Oh, and among the most often-used British-isms in the play is “poof.” Make sure your kids know that this means “gay.”

So, in short, “Billy Elliot” was great. I’m incredibly glad that we saw it and would easily see it again someday. I look forward to the time when there are flaming gay boys and macho-butch lesbian girls on stage in New York City. But until that time, “Billy Elliot” can help tide us over.

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