Table of Contents
TRUE DESIRES – DEEPER THAN A COAL MINE
BILLY IN DURHAM – DANCING IN THE WOMB
A TEACHER FROM A DIFFERENT WORLD
ONE FAMILY, ONE COMMUNITY
DURHAM IN BILLY – EXCUSE MY DUST
Billy Elliot and Habitus: A Cosmic Dancer from Everington, Durham
TRUE DESIRES – DEEPER THAN A COAL MINE
Everington, Durham, 1984 – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has just declared war on the mining industry, and therefore, on the entire county. The people have laid down their tools to go on strike, and they are willing to make sacrifices until their fight for better salaries and working conditions succeeds. In this environment, hard men cannot allow themselves to show any weaknesses, because it could lead to the ruin of their families or the entire community. The miners stick together—anyone who falls out of line, particularly the picket line, will certainly suffer a loss of reputation among the others.
In this male-dominated, standardized context, the rise of an individual can attract a great deal of attention, and Billy Elliot represents an individual in every sense of the word. He is a boy on the edge of reaching puberty and does not express himself in the rough Durhamian way. He is bad at boxing and speaks softly. His best friend is a secret homosexual, a misfit in the midst of the community. Despite his uniqueness, Billy still seems to possess a predetermined future: one day, he will become a miner, too. In Everington, your origins determine your future, and it is the natural order of things that a boy will follow in the footsteps of his ancestors.
Billy, however, is unwilling to accept this natural order, instead choosing a different way of expressing his feelings and struggle with life. He begins dancing ballet, an unthinkable activity for a boy from Durham, because it exactly contradicts the ideal of rural manhood. Even if Billy works extremely hard to improve his dancing skills with the support of his ballet teacher, he also must convince his biggest critics that his dream is one worth fighting for. Only when his father, his brother and the miners in general finally accept and support his determination can he claim his destiny and achieve his goals.
This implicit connection between the boy’s development and the changes happening around him reflect Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus theories. The following pages take a closer look at this relationship, always keeping in mind that “the ‘family’ functions as a field like any other” (Atkinson 45). In Billy’s case, the family starts off as the most narrowing aspect of his life, but it ultimately evolves into his greatest source of support. Without the family’s change of heart, he would never be able to dance himself “right out the womb” (T.Rex, “Cosmic Dancer” 00:27) or overcome “[t]he fear that dwells inside a man” (01:54).
BILLY IN DURHAM – DANCING IN THE WOMB
The description for one of the first scenes states that “Billy runs into the long grass. To Billy it is almost a jungle” (Hall 6). By creating this image of a primeval forest attempting to devour the hero, the author foreshadows the main conflict of the entire movie: the struggle between a boy who sticks out his head to gaze beyond his limitations and an environment that continually pulls him back. According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, this environment is called habitus, “a concept that expresses, on the one hand, the way in which individuals ‘become themselves’ – develop attitudes and dispositions – and, on the other hand, the ways in which those individuals engage in practice” (Webb xii). The theory describes the relationship “between objective social structures and everyday practices” (Webb 1) and the mutual influences between these two elements.
Billy Elliot lives in a male-dominated household. His mother died not so long ago, and both his father and brother are occupied with the coal miners’ strike. People like them usually see the high arts as “desiccated, pretentious, irrelevant bullshit – a symbol of the worst traits of the posher classes” (Hall 117). As such, it is not a simple question about Billy’s future when he asks his friend Michael whether it would be preferable to become a ballet dancer or a miner. It is also a comparison between two entirely different ways of life.
Billy’s differentness, however, starts before he even decides to exchange his boxing gloves for ballet shoes. From the beginning of the movie, he cheerfully jumps on his bed, plays the piano and dances around in the boxing ring instead of hitting his opponents. Meanwhile, his socially acceptable opinions seem insincere and contradictory to his true character. He fails to convince anyone, even himself, that boxing is fun and that he is good at it, nor are his concerns about being regarded as a “poof” (Daldry 14:03) truly honest. These thoughts are simply the community’s ideologies that he is expected to have internalized. In this sense, Billy is pressured by his habitus and therefore “subjected to forms of violence” (Webb 25), but he does not perceive his situation that way, because the ideologies seem “to be the ‘natural order of things’” (Webb 25).
These attitudes, however, change over the course of the movie. Billy’s feigned homophobia, for instance, vanishes very quickly when he realizes that his closest friend Michael is gay. Even Michael’s shy approaches by kissing him on the cheek do not bother Billy, and he does not repel his friend. Instead, he provides him with a feeling of acceptance and tolerance that Billy himself has never experienced. By giving Michael a tutu and telling him that he looks “like a princess” (Daldry 1:05:41), Billy extends beyond his homophobic environment even before his dancing skills are acknowledged.
Another aspect of his environment also influences Billy’s progress as a dancer, the nearly nationwide strike. There is a steady police presence, which begins right after Billy leads his grandma out of the so-called jungle of high grass. At this point, the scene description says, “At the brow of a hill, we see a police van with policemen pouring out in riot gear. They seem to be dark crows on the horizon, an almost surreal, malevolent presence, quite at odds with the fragility of Billy and Grandma” (Hall 7). This kind of imagery hangs over Billy’s environment throughout the movie, but it rarely affects him directly. The children in the film seem to not even perceive the policemen most of the time. The best example for this oblivion is the dialogue scene between Debbie and Billy when she tries to convince him that dancing is for men like any other sport (c.f. Daldry 14:05). While talking to Billy, the young girl grinds a stick over a line of policemen’s riot shields as if they were just another brick wall. This behavior confirms Bourdieu’s conception of the “partly unconscious ‘taking in’ of rules, values and dispositions” (Webb 44). The children simply accept the police presence as a natural part of their environment.
The same holds true for the strike. The only difference is that the strike actually affects Billy from time to time even if unconsciously. For example, there is the miners’ soup kitchen, which forces Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class to take place in the boxing hall (c.f. Daldry 06:47). If this had never happened, Billy would never have become interested in ballet in the first place. This subtle influence also appears in the scene where he steals a ballet book from the library (c.f. Daldry 18:50). He hides the book in his jeans when the librarian becomes distracted by a miner who is running away from the police. In these two cases, the strike supports Billy’s progress in discovering his individuality. Of course, the strike also exerts negative influences on Billy. For example, the imprisonment of his brother Tony forces Billy to attend the trial instead of taking part in an important audition (c.f. Daldry 54:47). He is forced to accept both the positive and the negative effects of the strike, which again emphasizes Bourdieu’s concept of individuals who can take unrighteousness for granted, because it is the natural order of things.
In summary, we can say that Billy’s environment is constricted by the small-minded ideologies of his community, his own vain attempts to assimilate into them and the particular circumstances brought about by the miners’ strike. During the first half of the movie, he completely accepts these circumstances as part of his life and even defends his father’s unreasonable attitudes in front of Mrs. Wilkinson (c.f. Daldry 29:03), because “sign systems not only ‘think’ people into existence; they also determine how they perceive the world. What this means is that ‘reality’ is both produced and delimited by whatever sign systems we have at our disposal” (Webb 33). According to this concept, Billy needs some time to become fully aware of the opportunities that his dancing talent provides. A real change in his thinking, however, does not occur until Billy’s family is directly confronted by his ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who in this case, represents the high arts. Only the argument between these two oppositions (c.f. Daldry 56:15) allows Billy to finally realize that he might have to decide between the people he loves and the thing about which he is most passionate. This realization and the pressure connected to it lead to an almost eruptive dance to the song Town Called Malice, which expresses Billy’s suppressed feelings: “Better stop dreaming of the quiet life/Cause it’s the one we’ll never know” (The Jam, “Town Called Malice” 00:15). Whatever path Billy chooses, it will not be an easy one, a fact also highlighted in the final part of the dance when Billy bounces back off a wall that symbolically prevents him from leaving town (e.g., 01:00:46).
- Quote paper
- Yannick Brauner (Author), 2017, Billy Elliott and Habitus. A Cosmic Dancer from Everington, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/446799