Home / News / The Thatcherite Britain of Blue Jean Is an Eerie Mirror for the Present

The Thatcherite Britain of Blue Jean Is an Eerie Mirror for the Present

Mar 11, 2023Mar 11, 2023

In Blue Jean, writer-director Georgia Oakley's feature debut, the phrase "resisting the shame regime" is carved on the bathroom stall of a lesbian bar. The film's titular Jean (Rosy McEwen) stares at it for a few moments. It's 1988 in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, and queer people are finding their fighting spirit. Shot on 16mm, the film's stunning visual language immerses the viewer in an alarming historical moment. The Conservative government is on the verge of passing Section 28, a censorious amendment that targeted LGBTQ+ literature, especially in schools, under the guise of curtailing the "promotion of homosexuality." The legislation essentially catalyzed Britain's contemporary LGBTQ+ rights movement — the national charity Stonewall was formed in 1989 as a response — but Blue Jean is set against those early, fomenting moments.

In the film, news breaks about three women launching a raid on the House of Lords in protest of the clause – and they aren't the only ones who are up in arms. Lesbians have stormed the BBC, and Ian McKellen has come out as gay and joined protesters. There is a movement happening in the streets. They are loudly demanding equality, but many in the community are staying silent.

For many queer folks at this time, like Jean, silence is a method of survival. She is a teacher and now she is suddenly being deemed a danger to children. Footage of Thatcher preaching that children "need to be taught to respect traditional moral values" plays like a bad song stuck in her head. Children "are being cheated of a sound start in life," Thatcher would continue. However, as an educator, Jean has devoted her life to helping youth. Oakley, according to the film's press notes, spoke to many lesbians who experienced the impact of Section 28 on their lives, including teachers like Jean. They all expressed the same sentiment, as Oakley summarizes: "This thing was ruining my life, but I couldn't march against it because I couldn't risk being seen by TV cameras and being outed at school."

Indeed, in the film, Jean's job is at risk. Her romantic relationship is at risk. She is at risk. Up to this point, her life has been a perfectly orchestrated performance, with slight variations in form for every social situation. When we first meet her, she's preparing for Act One of her daily play. She's dyeing her hair, getting into character. She looks in the mirror and her face is split between segments of the looking glass, themes of a double life introduced immediately. Hyper-aware of the knowing glances she gets from neighbors, Jean lives alone, not wanting to draw attention by having her out and proud butch girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), live with her. (And if anyone asks, like Jean's young nephew, they’re just "friends," to Viv's clear annoyance.) Jean's family seems supportive, her sister says as much. But, of course, with everything going on in politics, she also says she doesn't trust Jean wouldn't corrupt her child. If this homophobia is coming from her own sisters, what would parents at the school think if they knew a lesbian was teaching their children?

At work, Jean sticks to herself instead of sticking out. It's her motto, and it has to be, especially when the television and radio remind her of the reason she has to hide. She doesn't like to draw attention to herself, opting to eat alone. She doesn't have the freedom to exist in her workplace, but at least as the physical education teacher, she can sport her short hair and sleeveless top without questions. The underground lesbian bar scene she frequents after work is where we see the real Jean. With all the suffocating, heavy pressure hitting at her from all sides, being with people like her allows for a palpable sense of relief. She brightens up when she finally feels safe. However, when one of her students, Lois (Lucy Halliday), begins to frequent the bar, her safe haven shatters. The boundaries she built between her professional and personal lives begin to crack, and she desperately tries to prevent total collapse.

What makes Oakley's debut so stirring is, in large part, McEwen's performance. While Jean is quiet and soft-spoken, you can feel her constantly screaming on the inside. All the noise, from the TV, from colleagues, from her family and friends is exhausting. McEwen brings a believable weariness to her eyes and her every action. Meanwhile, Halliday as Lois is a blossoming flower. She has a toughness, like Hayes as Viv, but both show immense vulnerability underneath. Each character offers a contrast to Jean because they represent those in protest; they are the person Jean once was or hopes to be. But they have an equal amount to lose.

"All the noise, from the TV, from colleagues, from her family and friends is exhausting."

Blue Jean is not a film that seeks to damn Jean for her silence. In an interview with Letterboxd, Oakley makes it clear that she doesn't believe that queer people need to "fly a flag." It's okay that Jean doesn't wear her queerness as boldly as her girlfriend Viv or their friends do. In having Jean want to hide her sexuality at first, the film presents a timeless sense of everyday existence: Most, if not all, queer folks just want to go to work and go out without having to dodge political attacks. There's a scene where Jean dreams of her new student, Lois, having to evade student after student trying to attack her in the school gym. Despite all the bullying that Lois faces as rumors swirl about her sexuality, all Jean does is tell her to ignore it and to be careful. At Lois's age, I turned to my own gym teacher for help, but unlike Jean, she actually did help. Jean's unwillingness to do the same makes her an unlikable character in a way, as she doesn't do the right thing, to real detriment. "I’m damaged," she admits to Lois, and her internal battle is affecting to watch. Oakley, who shared in press notes that she has personal experience with internalized homophobia, ultimately turns Blue Jean into a brave journey of self-acceptance.

There's quite a powerful moment in the film where Viv, while watching the dating show Blind Date, speaks about how television is filled with heterosexual propaganda to distract from the fact that queer people exist. Jean retorts by saying that "not everything is political." Denial is a way for Jean to cope with the truth, but we know that too little has changed since Section 28. It's alive and well, really, even though it was repealed in England in 2003. Twenty years later, we are watching the same scenes play out again: LGBTQ+ teachers are afraid of losing their jobs, queer books are being pulled from library shelves, and conservatives are wielding children as unwitting pawns in a culture war.

This nimble and aching romance movie captures the furtiveness of first love.

Most prominently, Florida Governor and 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is taking a page out of Thatcher's playbook, basically enforcing his own Section 28 in his home state. The "Don't Say Gay" bill effectively bars public "classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity," and it has been expanded to cover all grades, K-12. The ACLU is currently nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills in the United States, targeting everything from drag performances and gender-affirming care to bathrooms and books. This is a global moral panic, too; dozens of countries criminalize homosexuality, and even some of those nations are seeking to escalate preexisting penalties. Even Canadian political leaders aren't exempt from wanting to review policies that protect LGBTQ+ students and provide them with safe and gender-affirming spaces.

There hasn't been a time when queer people weren't protesting. There hasn't been a time when queer people weren't afraid of the ire of right-wingers. Hell, we can't even get our one month of rainbow washing anymore. While the time and place of Blue Jean and the present day are pretty cozy bedfellows, the film's goal isn't to just make audiences feel that crushing relatable weight. While hard to deny, the film doesn't forget to present queer joy. Whether Jean is at the bar, at a friend's flat, or finally just not giving a shit what anyone thinks anymore, the jubilation that results from all those things shows one thing: resilience. And that's not going away.

Blue Jean is available in select theaters.

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