Gender representations in British film. Trainspotting

Elaboration, 2002

17 Pages

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Introductory remarks page

Cinematic introduction of Trainspotting’s characters page

Gender concepts in connection with drug consumption page

Gender-related behaviour and language in Trainspotting page

Cinematic devices in connection with gender page

Trainspotting - Genderly correct?: A summary page

Introductory remarks

British social drama in the 1990s seemed to have a liking for characters that where born out of reach of the proverbial silver spoon with chances being low that they will ever be able to grab it. Furthermore, it has a reputation for depicting what seem to be “real people” in “real life contexts”.

The usage of realistic representation as a dominant stylistic device in contemporary British social drama must not fool us into believing that the cinema’s screen is a window to reality. It simply (or not so simply) uses ways of representing the world that strike us as familiar. We recognise the values, and the concepts and structures of the social world, depicted on the screen because they correspond to the ones prevailing in our part of the world.

Films as artefacts are products of this world with its concepts, values and expectations. Whether they criticise the current society, unquestioningly reproduce the status quo or depict a society with alternative concepts, films draw from and react to the actual world in which they were made.

Many aspects of our social world are deep-rooted enough to be taken for granted and hardly be questioned by the individuals whose lives they make up. From a possibly large number of aspects that were worthwhile examining, this paper deals with representations of gender as they are reproduced in contemporary British youth-orientated drama.

There is an obvious tendency to divide humankind into binary categories, with certain characteristics associated to them. They all have in common that they are socially and culturally constructed rather than being quasi-naturally given. One of the numerous binary oppositions[1] is the division between women and men. The division, being based on the fact that men and women have different genitalia, seems to be justified by biological conditions. The assumptions, however, that we make with regard to the behaviour we expect from and understand to be appropriate for women and men are not linked to biological but exclusively to social and cultural factors. Our ideas about men and women, those socially and culturally constructed genders, are inseparably woven into the web of our society. It is difficult to escape what is part of the context of our lives[2] but understanding the arbitrariness of the gender concept might help to understand why hardly anybody fits into the place allotted to them in the gender matrix[3] without a little bending or stretching.

The film that serves as the basis for my gender analysis was made in the mid-90s. For the British cinema of the 1990s men and masculinity in crisis were a favourite topic.[4] „Trainspotting“ is no exception: The male lead Mark Renton has hit rock bottom of the social ladder; he is a heroin addict. One could argue that it is unfair to examine gender in a film that was aimed at being „one for the boys“. But there is at least one question that inevitably emerges: When the cinema represents men and masculinity as being in crisis, what happens to the representation of women?

My focus is on the connection between gender and language, displayed gender-related attitudes, and, therefore, the way in which gender is cinematically represented. As the afore mentioned aspects occur simultaneously, I will not seperate them for structure’s sake but try to address them by analysing appropriate scenes.Thus, I exemplarily show how gender concepts are perceived and reproduced in the film.

Cinematic introduction of Trainspotting’s characters

The way in which characters are introduced in film is often decisive. The usual time frame of about two hours leaves not much room for establishing the characters slowly and gradually.

Hints that are aimed at summing up the personality of a character are often dropped at the very moment the character appears on the screen.

Three drug addicts, a drug addict-to-be, Begbie, two drug dealers, three fathers, a judge, a cab driver, a chatter-upper, a transvestite and two interviewers make up the male part of the cast. A minor, two girlfriends, five mothers (one of which is a heroin addict), and a job interviewer make up the female part of the cast.

In the following lines of this chapter I will concentrate on the way the main characters of Trainspotting are introduced.

… introducing the lead

We see a young man running down Princes Street in Edinburgh. The camera alternates between showing his skinny legs, clad in tight jeans and his upper body, breast heaving, sporting a crew cut and a desperate look in his eyes. Together with his friends he is trying to outrun a couple of semi-official-looking guys who are chasing after him. He seems to succeed when he chases down a flight of stairs, crosses a street and is hit by a car. The tension visibly falls from him when he leans against the chassis, unhurt, and looks straight into the camera, at the audience, and breaks into laughter.

It is clear from the first moment that Renton is the centre of attention. The camera focuses on him all the time and it becomes clear that it is his voice that we hear off-camera. In the introductory monologue of Trainspotting, Renton mocks “normal life” in Scots, the variety of English that will, with very few exceptions, be spoken throughout the film.[5] When he distances himself from what could be described as the stereotypical everyday life utensils of a large part of young British males - the electric tin opener, three piece suit, DIY, the stuffing themselves with „fucking junk food“ in front of the „fucking big television“ - he verbally distances himself from his peer group. He “chose not to chose life” as it is being lived by your everyday Scottish lad, he chose a “sincere and truthful junk habit” instead.

Thus, he is introduced as being far away from being the avarage „boy next door“ and this is certainly leading towards the right understanding of Renton’s character.

... introducing the characters: players and supporters

Against the background of Renton’s monologue, the main characters are introduced with help of a football scene. The male characters, Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Begbie, and Thommy are the players whilst the females, Lizzy, Alison, and Gail are represented as being watching the match.

This player-supporter constellation would have allowed for a gender-stereotyped representation that presents the male characters as the active and the female characters as the passive part. However, in Trainspotting’s football scene this dichotomy is challenged.

The sports gear that the boys wear already gives away what is to be expected from their performance. Whilst the players of the opposing team are attired in matching jerseys and outplay Renton’s team in any respect, Renton and the rest seem to have just jumped into whatever fell out of the drawer first and their play reflects their degree of professionalism accordingly. They are by no means active parts of the match. Football is happening to them, they do not let it happen themselves.

In contrast to that, the girls have perfectly adopted the behaviour one expects from football supporters. They comment with big gestures on the match, there’s whistling and shouting. They do not marvel at their (boy)friends’ football skills because they know it would be out of place, it is very clear that do not need a male who explains them what football is all about. The girls know what they want, and what the boys offer them, not only in the football match but throughout the film, is not it.

Gender concepts in connection with drug consumption

The fact that there is only one woman in Trainspotting that is represented as a Heroin consumer (compared to five male consumers) goes along with the traditional tendency to understand the drug subculture as highly male-dominated.

The reasons are closely linked to gendered ideas about women. Amongst the connotations of heroin addiction are „Filthiness“, „Criminality“, and „Antisocialness“. Those attributes are generally understood to be labels that, when combined, could only apply to male members of the of lowest social classes. It is bad enough but it will not change our perception of them as male members of the society. A woman, however, labelled with the very same attributes is threatened to lose her social femininity altogether. No matter what the circumstances are, women are expected to be clean social beings that would, if at all, only indulge in petty crimes.

Heroin as an alternative to sex

Throughout the film, Heroin is repeatedly compared to sexual activity.

The female and the male addicts are united by their verbal statements about the effects of heroin. There is no gendered difference as the very same comparison is used to describe the sensation that a Heroin high provides:

„Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had. Multiply it by a thousand and you are still nowhere near it.“ Renton

„That beats any meat injection. That beats any fucking cock in the world.“ Alison

„Better than sex, Mark. Better than sex.“ Thommy

Thus, the film does not differentiate the the motives for drug consumption in terms of gender. This goes along with a more contemporary perception of the motives for drug use[6]: when one takes into account the rapidly rising numbers of consumers of so-called „party-drugs“ (E, speed, cocaine and any mixture of those) it is clear that the „persuit of pleasure“ coupled with a hope to, if temporarily, „run away from the boring reality“ have become the dominant reasons for drug consumption and apply equally to men and women.

Homoerotic tendencies and Vulnerability after drug consumption

In the beginning of Trainspotting Spud is seen to be tenderly kissing Sick Boy on the mouth. Sick Boy responds with a „Fuck off, doss cunt.“ But when he is hugged and gently bitten in the nose by Mother Superiour only minutes later he does not object anymore. Heroin has put him past caring about homoerotic advances of his friends whom Heroin had made forget their heterosexual boundaries before.

Besides the display of a tendency in heterosexual characters to be less inhibited to show homoerotic tenderness in connection with drug consumption, there is a tendency to cinematically represent the vulnerabilty straight after drug injection.

Apart from Mother Superiour, every male drug user in Trainspotting is at least once shown lying semi-consciously on his back after drug injection. There is nothing masculine in the way, drug use is represented.[7] There is no action, no grandeur, only helplessness and vulnerability. And when the camera sometimes lingers over Renton’s chest and face, his eyes closed, his features completely relaxed after a hit, it seems to correspond with the camera movements that have long been reserved for filming beautiful women.

Gender-related behaviour and language in Trainspotting

There is a large number of examples in the representation of behaviour and language that lead directly to gender conceptions and I tried to pick the most characteristic as well as the most interesting ones.

Dealing with a boyfriend-girlfriend conflict

In a night out scene, a boyfriend-girlfriend conflict is portrayed:

Spud and Thommy are shown to sit in a corner of a club, talking about their relationships. Spud complains about the total lack of sexual interaction in his relationship to Gail. He tells Thommy that by refusing to have sex with him, she tries to put into practice an advice she had read in a cosmopolitan magazine. It is apparent that Thommy feels as sorry for him as Spud feels for himself. The problem with his girlfriend Lizzy is of different nature. He had forgotten about an anniversary and bought tickets to see an Iggy Pop concert for that day. Lizzy had found him out and set him an ultimatum „It’s me or Iggy Pop. Time to decide.“ Both appear to have little to set against their girlfriends’ domination. The girls set the rules and they are expected to follow.

At the same time, Lizzy and Gail discuss the very same matters from their perspectives.[8] Gail admits she cannot wait to have sex and that there is only reason for keeping Spud at a physical distance: „It’s just so much fun to watch him suffer.“ She uses sex as a strategic means to keep the development of her relationship and, ultimately, Spud under her control. Lizzy states that she would not follow her example, no matter how interesting it sounds, as sex is the only thing she fully enjoys in her relationship to Thommy. Without being represented as vamps, whores or sluts, both are shown as highly sexually interested and fully in charge of their relationships.

This inequality is cinematically realised and made visible when Lizzy and Gail come back from the toilet and meet Thommy and Spud again. The girls are filmed from a worm’s-eye view that makes them appear towering high and enables them to look down on Spud and Thommy (or at the camera which represents their point of view). The boys, on the contrary, are filmed from a bird’s-eye view, appearing small and pitiable.

When the two parties question each other „What are you two talking about?“, the answers meet any stereotyped expectation: „Football“ is what the boys instantly reply and „Shopping“ is the girls’ equivalent. Thus, they exclude their respective partners and keep them at a distance because boys generally like to discuss the latest trends in fashion as little as girls like to partake of endless rumblings on football.

Even though both couples seem to have severe problems in their relationships, they rather complain about them to their same-sex friends than speaking up to their respective partners, a phenomenon or practise that is as often picked out as the central theme of relationship dramas as it happens in real life.

Mocking male chat up strategies

The same night out ends for Renton just as he had hoped it would end. His sexual desire had returned after quitting Heroin and from the number of girls he tries to get close to on the dancefloor it is apparent that his intention was to find someone he could have sex with that night.

To put his intention into practise he even goes as far as running after a girl when she leaves the club. But the clever line he tries to use to chat her up is met with an even cleverer response. By finishing his lines, Diane is introduced as being fully aware of the verbal strategies that boys use to get laid. The tables turn quickly and in the end Renton is the one for whom the taxi that Diane hailed is waiting.

The way in which Diane is introduced is indicative of her character. Throughout the film, Diane is showed as not only knowing what she wants but also how to get it. She seems to always be one step ahead and I would go as far as saying that she is represented as the strongest character in Trainspotting.

Unfortunately, she is the only genuinely strong female character in the film and is not typical of the way in which women are represented in Trainspotting and could, therefore, be understood as the exception that confirms the rule.[9]

Dianne explains the „new world“ to Renton

Women are often depicted as either preserver of traditional values or agents of reformation whilst men are the ones who are to be reformed or who strive for new challenges.

When Diane and Renton lie in bed after he had his HIV test done and is off Heroin yet another time, we learn that he is the one who is behind and sticks to the past. Whatever he likes, Iggy Pop and Heroin, Diane declares it as passè. She explains that the world is changing, and the music and drugs with it and that he has to do something to catch up and keep the pace. She is clearly the one in charge of the communication whilst Renton merely responds to what she is saying and does not offer anything on his own accord. The scene closes with Diane’s words: „You’ve got to find something new.“This remark moves something in Renton and he does not only verbally but actively respond to what Diane said and in the next scene sets off to London, where he gets himself a job and acquaints himself with the new lifestyle.

Begbie’s dealing with life - knives and square-goes

To put it in a nutshell: Begbie is the caricature of a working-class male. He is careless to the point of negligence (remember the pub scene when he drops a pint glass from a balcony that leaves a woman streaming with blood), has always a knife ready at hand, has a liking for destruction and is probably one of the quickest-tempered characters in British film history. The style of his language is characterised by the series of swear words with which he garnishes his speech rather frequently. Swearing is generally the most dominant linguistic feature in Trainspotting[10] but the other characters use it in a less limited way than Begbie: For them it is an all purpose means that helps the characters to add emphasis when they voice their anger and distress as much as their excitement and affection. Begbie simply swears and nothing more.

He is represented as someone who enjoys it much more to be feared than loved and appears to be unable to express any feeling but anger.

Together with Spud he is represented as someone to laugh at, not to identify with. But whilst Spud can wake our sympathy, we will find it hard to feel sorry for Begbie.

Thommy’s dealing with the split up - Walks and Heroin

Thommy has his very own ideas for dealing with the split-up from Lizzy. He does not talk about it, he takes action: First he decides to run away from the pain by inviting his friends to walks in the highlands of Scotland. That fails when his friends simply refuse to walk on and Sick Boy seems to get to the very point when he states „We know that you’re having a hard time getting off Lizzy but there’s really no need to taking it out on us.“.

The second decision is aimed at numbing the pain. Thommy visits Renton and after a single sentence about the split-up and without trying to find a better solution, he asks him to sell him some Heroin. Sex was apparently what worked best in his relationship with Lizzy and when Thommy says that Heroin is meant to be better than sex than it becomes clear that by taking it he wants to find a substitute for her, or for the sensations he experienced with her.

His dealing with the separation goes along with the gender-expectation: A man does not talk about his emotions, a man takes action. In Thommy’s case this will eventually cost his life.

Begbie and the transvestite

On a night out with Renton, Begbie successfully chats up someone he mistakes for an attractive woman. They end up in a car together and we see Begbie’s hands tracing stockinged legs, finding the crotch and a little more than he had hoped to find there. Having been introduced as an extremely quick-tempered person, the viewer is hardly surprised when Begbie freaks out at his own mistake. It is more surprising, however, that he is shown as beating and kicking walls to express his anger whilst the transvestite is re-arranging his clothes in the car. For someone who is shown as having triggered off a huge fight in a pub, beaten up a couple of people for no reason, and who is wanted by the police for armed robbery this seems to be a fairly tame response to the „challenge of his heterosexuality“.

In our part of the world it is sneered upon and seen as a sign of weakness to use violence against women. This gendered expectation also seems to be engraved in Begbie and therefore he cannot bring himself to laying hands on someone who is wearing a skirt. It is like a Pawlovian response, with the skirt functioning as the light bulb and the inability to hit the person wearing it, replacing the salivation.

Parenthood in Trainspotting

The drug addict Alison apparently raises her baby daughter Dawn by herself. But she is portrayed as being far away from being the caring, attentive mother. When Dawn appears on the screen for the first time, rolling around in a dealer’s dirty place while everyone is having heroin shot up or preparing the next hit, one can hardly avoid thinking of her as an utterly hopeless case. A bright future for the child just seems to be out of question. That this clichéd association about children that had been exposed to drugs in the due course of their mother’s pregnancy is provoked is unfortunate. It goes along with discriminating concepts regarding so-called “crack babies” in the United States.[11]

It is hardly surprising to the viewer that Dawn eventually dies in circumstances as described above. With a needle up her veins and her eyes glazed over, Alison was hardly depicted as the ideal mother. With our gender expectations we would have recognised her much easier as a good mother, when she had looked just a little more like the proper mums we know from commercials for diapers, baby food and washing powder and for which child rearing is one of the less difficult tasks.

More gender concepts come into play when Sick Boy turns out to be Dawn’s father. Despite the fact that the label “parent” could equally be attached to both, Sick Boy and Alison, my first impulse was to solely blame Alison for her child’s death. Ever since our ancestors jumped off the trees, women looked after their offspring and men went to pursue: First the traces of what was to be their dinner and later their careers. Nonetheless, this is mere convention.

So, while the film overcomes stereotyped depictions of mothers in a rather drastic way, the viewer, i.e. me, is still trapped in their gender expectations.

The reactions after Baby Dawns death are more in line with gender expectations. Alison, the mother is said to have been screaming all day. She aimlessly runs around in the flat and screams and cries hysterically. Nothing can console her until she rolls her sleeve up to await another hit to soothe the pain.

Sick Boy, the father, tries to come to terms with the loss by expressing his anger. He shouts and swears at his friends before he falls silent and quietly cries at his dead daughters crib.

Cinematic devices in connection with gender

The cinematic devices that are most closely linked to gender are the way in which nudity is photographed and Renton’s off-camera reflexions that give insight to the way in which he tries to understand the world.

Renton’s off-camera reflexions

Throughout the film off-camera text is used to relate Renton’s reflexions to the audience. Two of them are surprisingly emancipatory.

Most interesting is Renton’s concept of a third gender: „Even men and women are changing. One thousand years from now there will be no guys, no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me!“ From a gender perspective this probably sounds more emancipatory than it was ever intended to be. Nonetheless, it makes clear that there is a hightened awareness that gender roles and concepts are are far from being fixed and that there might be a time when a differentiation based on sex becomes unnecessary.

The other emancipatory off-camera reflexion challenges the concept of heterosexuality: „We are heterosexual by default not by decision. It’s just a matter of who you fancy.“ By saying (or rather: thinking) that, he completely overcomes the idea of heterosexuality as a natural norm. He introduces the idea of „decision“, a conscious act, and he goes even a step further when he states that it is circumstances that determine who we find sexually attractive.

There is also a reflexion in which he describes himself, if half-jokingly, as having fallen in love and another in which he wonders if he is a hypocrite because he had just given money to his HIV positive friend Thommy so he can buy Heroin.

With help of these and other off-camera comments, Renton is characterised as a „new man“ who has adopted the gender discourse, who has an idea what love could be, and who does care about the people who are close to him. All this is done internally, the film does not allow him to openly pronounce it but, however, this does not make it less remarkable.

Take your pants off! - Nudity in Trainspotting

The nude boys outnumber the nude girls. We see both Diane and Renton in full frontal nudity. We see Spud, undressed by his girlfriend as he is lying flat on his back. And we see Mother Superiour’s bare backside as Alison injects Heroin into the veins of his penis.

The camera remains still in the nudity scenes. There are no close-ups on private parts and the camera does not linger over the naked bodies and thus objectifys the nakedness of the characters. It is neither the male nor the female gaze the camera tries to imitate and I would go as far as saying the way in which nudity is filmed in Trainspotting is perfectly gender-neutral.

Trainspotting - Genderly correct?: A summary

For a film that has a reputation for being „one for the boys“ it deals surprisingly open with gender issues such as the questioning of both the male-female dichotomy and the hegemony of heterosexuality.

Exaggerating gender stereotypes is one of the means that are used in the film to appeal to the audience in a humourous way. The best example is Begbie: we see him depicted as being absolutely incapable of solving conflicts with help of anything but violence, we see him sitting around in Renton’s flat sporting his undergarments and spitting beer on the floor, we see him being represented as so completely devoid of emotions that he does not even notice that his friends dislike him and all this strikes us as being so over the top that we cannot help but laugh.

In my introduction I said that films have to be understood as products of the world in which they were made. Besides, I also said that films with a realistic approach use concepts with which the audience is familiar. This corresponds with what I just described because we would hardly think it was funny if we did not recognise the origin of those exaggerations in Begbie’s representation.

Renton and Diane are represented as the most emancipated of the characters. But while she is allowed to openly live out her self-confidence, Renton is confined to his internal monologues in which he voices his ideas and opinions. The fact that Diane can be understood as provoking those new thoughts in Renton, however, goes along with the concept of women as agents of reformation, a concept far from being emancipatory.

To cut a long story short, I would like to summarise that Trainspotting’s representation of drug addiction might have been daring and progressive at the time, its representation of gender clearly is not.

Trainspotting picks up a few aspects of the gender discourse and challenges a few stereotypes but it does not offer anything revolutionary new. By remarking this, however, I do not try to use it as an accusation against the film because we have to keep in mind that Trainspotting was not exactly aimed at hightening the gender awareness of its audience.


[1] Amongst other examples are: people who own the means of production vs. people who provide their strength to use them, the Christian world vs. the non-Christian world or, respectively, the Muslim world vs. the Unbeliever, the civilised Western world vs. the un-civilised Eastern world, Black vs. White, …

[2]: This is not the place to discuss the advantages and shortcomings of a world without gender but I would like to recommend a work that challenges gender concepts vehemently and is both intelligently radical and still widely perceived even outside the gender studies circle: Judith Butler (1990): Gender Trouble.

[3] I borrowed the idea for this term from Judith Butler (see footnote 2) who introduced the term of the „heterosexual matrix“.

[4] This is not only my observation but Claire Monk’s, too. MONK, Claire: „Men in the 90s.“ in: MURPHY, Robert (ed.) (2000): British cinema of the 90s.

[5] Scots and Scottishness have strong masculine connotations but I will not go into that as I understand the use of Scots in this context as linked to national identity rather than to gender identity.

[6] As opposed to the more traditional link between masculinity and drug culture as described before.

[7] Despite the fact that drug culture actually was and has long been described a highly male-dominated subculture.

[8] It is noteworthy that the conversation takes place in the club’s ladies room, the place where, according to legend or stereotype, women never go alone and always discuss men.

[9] I agree with Claire Monk who complains that Diane is only confined to a single narrative within Trainspotting but I have to strongly object when she states that her self-assurance is presented „as an excess and therefore a joke“. MONK, Claire: „Men in the 90s.“ in: MURPHY, Robert (ed.) (2000): British cinema of the 90s.

[10] It would be a rather time-consuming task to count all the „fuck“s and „cunt“s.

[11]: In the mid-80s, Douglas Besharov, resident scholar of the influential conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, coined the term “bio-underclass” for cocaine-exposed children that, he warns, will burden the American society. In 1989, journalist Charles Krauthammer compares those children in his Washington Post column to the “race of (sub)human drones” that Huxley described in “Brave New World” and for which “future is closed from day one”. He states furthermore “the dead babies may be the lucky ones”. To neglect the desolate economic situation many women are in because of their drug addiction in connection with the existing drug policy is to turn a blind eye toward reality. To my understanding, the idea had been promoted that it is drug exposure rather than poverty that causes the infant’s defects, because the first can be blamed on the individual while the reasons for the latter will ultimately lead to society’s faults.

17 of 17 pages


Gender representations in British film. Trainspotting
Humboldt-University of Berlin
Seminar 'British cinema and National Identity'
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Gender, British, Trainspotting, Seminar, National, Identity“
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Katja Bartholmess (Author), 2002, Gender representations in British film. Trainspotting, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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