Jun 30, 2013

Billy Elliot: The Musical: Breaking Out of the Gender Box

Since getting my Ph.D. in 2001, I have worked at three universities, and at each one, a colleague -- a highly educated Ph.D. -- has asked:  "You're an expert on gays.  Tell me this -- why do gay men act so weird?  All swishy and girly?"

Sighing, I point out yet again that:
1. Most gay men do not have gender-atypical mannerisms, tastes, or interests.
2. Many heterosexual men do.

They never believe me.  "Gay" and "feminine" are so intimately linked in their minds that they see femininity in gay men when none is present, and ignore it in straight men.

Thus, every story that challenges hegemonic masculinity is a gay story, regardless of the sexual identity of the star.

Billy Eliot (2000) was about the movie about a working-class British kid (Jamie Bell) who wants to become a ballet dancer rather than a boxer, in spite of the opposition of his family and peers (it also starred Matthew James Thomas as a gay kid Billy beats up for being "bent").  In 2005, it was transformed into a musical, with book by Lee Hall and music by Elton John. It has become one of the most popular musicals of all time, with productions on Broadway, on London's West End, and in Australia, and in touring companies worldwide.

All musicals require a hetero-romance, and Billy Elliot: The Musical gets one, between Billy and his dance teacher's daughter, Debbie.  But it's very brief, and they don't share a love duet.

Besides, the musical version also gives Billy's gay friend Michael a bigger role.  He likes to wear dresses, an atypical interest that parallels ballet.  He has a crush on Billy.  Although Billy explains that he's heterosexual (gender atypical interests have nothing to do with same-sex desire, like I've been telling people for years), in the end he kisses Michael on the cheek.

The actors who portray eleven or twelve-year old Billy can't work a lot of hours, so there have to be a lot of them, a whole crew of Billys for each production.  Some of the more prominent are Kiril Kulish (bff of actor Sterling Beaumon, top photo), Giuseppe Bausillo (second photo), and Fox Jackson-Keen (left).

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