By Stephen Daldry
Billy Elliot lives with his widowed father, Jackie, his older brother, Tony, who also serves as the union delegate, and his maternal grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and once dreamed of becoming a professional dancer.
From the outset of the text, it is immediately obvious that Billy’s life is marked by hardship and sadness: his mother’s absence has left a gaping wound in the family unit, the pain of which is made only more intense by the financial hardship the family and town is currently experiencing. The film begins at a moment of crisis and strain, which is felt continually throughout.
Eager to see his son grow up to be masculine, Jackie sends Billy to the gym to learn how to box, but Billy is uninterested in it, and when he sees a ballet class happening at the same time, he determines to join it, unbeknownst to his father. Inevitably, Jackie discovers his son’s betrayal, and forbids him from continuing ballet. But Billy has become drawn to dancing, and his teacher, Sandra Wilkinson, helps him to continue his lessons in secret.
Sandra, believing that Billy is talented enough to attend the Royal Ballet School in London, organises for him to attend an upcoming audition. But on the day of it, Tony is arrested during a riot, and Billy is forced to miss the audition. Sandra informs Jackie of what happened, urging Jackie to recognise his son’s immense talent and the opportunities it could create for him.
Inevitably however, we see Jackie and Tony respond with bewilderment and express their toxic masculinity and chauvinism as they respond with concerns that pursuing ballet would make people think that Billy is gay. To them, the idea of a boy dancing is insane – boys are supposed to work to provide for their families, but also, it is the expressiveness of dance that they are uncomfortable with; by this point in the film, we have already recognised the contrast between Billy’s emotionality and Jackie and Tony’s stoicism.
While Billy’s capacity to express his emotion lends itself to dance, his father and brother’s stoicism is a product of their upbringing and is moulded by their current context.
During Christmas, Billy’s best friend, Michael, is revealed to be gay. Billy is supportive of this, but as the audience we understand that this is unfortunately problematic for Billy; his association with Michael will surely only increase his father’s anxieties. However, a short while later while Billy is dancing in the gym with Michael he is discovered by his father. Instead of reprimanding Billy for disobeying him once more though, Jackie instead realises his son’s immense talent, and determines to do whatever is necessary to get his son to the Ballet School.
Sandra attempts to offer Jackie financial support to help him fund Billy’s dream, but he rejects her offer out of pride. Again, we see the frustratingly uncompromising grasp of conservative masculinity and the extent to which it governs the men’s lives, to the point where it makes their lives materially more difficult. Jackie attempts to cross the picket line in order to pay for Billy’s trip to London, but Tony stops him, reminding him of the significance of such an act, and promising that there are different ways to raise the money. Jackie’s fellow miners and members of the town raise money, and Jackie sells his deceased wife’s jewellery to cover the cost. Billy and his father then travel to London for the audition.
At the audition, Billy performs well despite being extremely nervous. He punches another boy out of frustration, but immediately regrets doing so as he thinks he has ruined his chances. He is indeed rebuked for this act by the review board, and when they ask him what dancing feels like, he struggles to articulate himself until he simply says “like electricity.” Billy returns home, certain that he has failed.
A short while later, a letter from the Royal Ballet School arrives, informing Billy that he has been accepted into the institution. The letter arrives at the same time as the miner’s strike is ending, and Billy leaves home for London.
In 1998, 25-year-old Billy performs as the Swan in Swan Lake as Jackie, Tony and Michael watch from the audience. Jackie’s face is overcome with emotion.
Context and purpose
The events of Billy Elliot take place during the 1984-85 miner’s strike in County Durham, North England. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic and social policies were seen as anti-working class, as they led to widespread job loss and social hardship in areas such as where the film is set. The economic and other social pressures facing families are displayed prominently throughout the film.
As a working-class town, Everingham also serves to represent the stereotypes commonly associated with that demographic. Masculinity and chauvinism in particular are explored, along with the different ways in which young people both conformed to, and resisted, those qualities during this time.
In terms of the text’s purpose, Daldry seeks to highlight how meaning and joy can be found amid hardship, and how one’s sense of self is not necessarily defined by their context, but rather the opportunities they find within it.
Human Experiences Explored
The Pursuit of Creativity as a Means of Achieving Personal Growth; Determination
It is through his pursuit of ballet that Billy is able to achieve personal growth for both himself and his family. This idea unfolds in a highly linear fashion, as we see Billy as initially hesitant and somewhat reserved, before becoming more engaged in ballet, and ultimately embracing it completely. His family largely undergoes a similar process of personal growth, as they move from viewing Billy’s pursuit of ballet as something to be embarrassed by to recognising his immense potential and accepting it.
The character’s transformations are encapsulated within the final scene, as the shot of Billy leaping into the air, captured in the light, represents his personal growth, while the close-up of Jackie’s face as he cries similarly reveals just how much he has changed, as he recognises his son’s talent and grieves for the difficulties he placed him under when he was younger.
Gender Expectations; Prejudice and Social Pressures
The prevalence and destructive power of gender expectations are explored thoroughly throughout Billy Elliot, but so too are the ways they can be negotiated and even overcome. At first, Billy’s family are militant and indeed violent in their attempts to indoctrinate Billy into the hyper-masculinity that characterises the town and its broader context – it is symbolic that Jackie urges him to box, itself a violent sport, as a way to secure his masculinity. Similarly, the uncompromising nature of Jackie and Tony’s masculinity is reflected through Jackie’s impassioned dialogue “Lads do football or boxing or wrestling. Not ballet.”
Billy’s pursuit of ballet is thus presented as a subversion of gender expectations, and while it would be reasonable to expect him to be exiled from his family given his father and brother’s attitudes, that they actually come to embrace his passion for dance and support it is reflective of how gender expectations can be dismantled, in turn revealing just how reductive and problematic they are.
How ballet allows Billy to break free from the pressures of gender expectations is conveyed through the long shot of him dancing through the alley way with the ocean in the background, which represents the scale of opportunity, while the bricked walls of the houses that surround him on both sides symbolise the oppressiveness of the town.
From the outset of the film, we are aware of the fact that Billy’s life is marked by loss. The notions of loss and grief are explored in two different ways: there is the economic suffering currently afflicting the town, and the loss and grief experienced by the Elliot family following the death of Billy’s mother. The way in which the two overlap is communicated through the wide-angle shot of Billy and his grandmother walking in the field towards his mother’s grave, with the coal factory in the background.
Moreover, the close-up shot of the family sitting at the kitchen table serves to emphasise the mother’s absence, and the way in which it bears down upon the family unit, and in doing so is as oppressive as their poverty is. The piano then serves to symbolise the mother’s continuing presence in the house, but it is how the characters interact with it that reveals how they deal with the grief. This sense of loss and grief somewhat fades as the film continues, as Billy’s determination and his family’s eventual support for his dreams come to overshadow any sense of hopelessness. Of course, this process comes to a climax when Billy receives the letter of acceptance just as the miner’s strike is ending.
Daldry’s exploration of belonging is closely tied to his examination of gender expectations. That is, it is those gender expectations that shape Billy’s sense of belonging, or lack thereof. As such, Daldry largely approaches the concept of belonging with an emphasis on the struggle that is often required in order to achieve it. An example of Billy’s unease toward boxing and the hyper-masculinity associated with it is when he sees the ballet class going on in the gym, as the blurring effect and close up of Billy’s face suggest how he longs to do something that he is comfortable with, rather than trying to perform masculine traits for his family.
As Billy becomes more engaged in dancing, we see his confidence grow, as he is simultaneously empowered to resist his family’s demands and stand up for himself. The Elliot family also struggles with the issue of belonging: though they are an important family within the community, they fear that Billy’s dancing may ruin their reputation. Nonetheless, it is in fact Billy’s dancing that reinstates their sense of belonging, as is ultimately brings the community together, and makes the family tighter. Daldry therefore demonstrates how a sense of belonging is achieved only through struggle, but it is that struggle that makes the sense of belonging worth the cost.
Billy Elliot - Video Summary
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Sample Essay Response
- High Range
Through the telling and receiving of stories, we become more aware of ourselves and our shared human experiences.
Explore this statement with close reference to your prescribed text.
Artists hold a mirror to the world and allow us to see ourselves anew through what we see reflected, growing in empathy, understanding and passion through the ineffable power of storytelling. In Stephan Daldry’s film Billy Elliot (2000) he interrogates societies understanding of gender, class and family as intersectional aspects of broader human identity, and further, individual identity within a broader community. He draws focus to these deeply relevant themes through their universality, but further, through the empathetic titular protagonist Billy Elliot as he serves as vehicle for the audience's journey to increased self-awareness and social understanding. Thus, it is through the acts of telling and engaging with stories that audiences and artists grow to deeper understand the human condition both within themselves and others, thus leading in a more nourished sense of self and community.
Social constructs such as gender impact the way that individuals both view themselves and are perceived by others as a result of internal and external bias, prejudice and stereotype. In Daldry’s film the audience is called to reflect upon their own internal judgements and stereotypes as he explores Billy’s fluid gender expression through his love of dance. This is initially shown through the contrast and associated binary of boxing and ballet, aligning with societies perceived gender binary, which is consolidated as Billy’s dad harshly states, “‘Lads do football, boxing or wrestling, not ballet!”. Here, his use of exclamatory tone serves to degrade and constrict Billy within these gendered expectations, furthered through the symbolism of his father’s boxing gloves. Billy is shown wearing the gloves around his neck in a way that communicates their weight, both literal and symbolic, as the standards that they embody literally sit upon his shoulders, almost choking him. Further, the cisheteronormative expectations of the film are challenged through the interrogation of the identities that it explores, summarised in Billy’s conversation with Mrs Wilkson, stating “plenty of boys do ballet you know’... “poofs”... “not necessarily”. Here, the use of derogatory language and slur communicates Billy’s internalisation of social values and rhetoric, which is challenged by Mrs Wilkson, who in turn challenges the audience to confront the ways in which they reflect social standards and expectations. Thus, it is through Billy’s own journey to unpacking his internalised binary thinking that the audience is invited to do the same, exploring ideas of gender both individually and collectively.
The ways in which individuals are judged and perceived by the outside world is a result of the complex intersections of each person's identity, encompassing ideas of class, religion, race, gender and sexuality. Aspects of identity such as class can bare further weight upon an individual's monetary status, job, political ideologies and more as shown through Daldry’s exploration of the Miners' Strike in Billy Elliot, which interrogates not only class and classism, but toxic masculinity and union rights as well. The socioeconomic struggle in Billy Elliot reflects contextual concerns and historical events, thus drawing upon the shared experience of the audience to create a film with empathy built in. This is highlighted as Billy is shown burning his mother’s piano for firewood and having a terse exchange with his father, ‘’do you think she’ll mind’’/‘’shut up Billy she’s dead’’. Here, the use of a closeup shot on Billy communicates the weight of his emotions at this complex situation, understood by the audience as the piano has developed into a symbol of maternal affection and his mother's memory. The sacrifice of this object skilfully communicates the severe weight of classism and financial hardship, furthered as Jackie decides to cross the picket-line and return to work, thus sacrificing his moral values in order to try and support his family. Through the use of a close-up progression and a long shot, Daldry communicates the slowly mending relationship between Billy and Jackie, juxtaposed with the effect this has on Jackies moral and social wellbeing. This choice is in direct contrast to the Miners' Strike scene, wherein a bird's eye shot and the diegetic sound of police sirens emphasises the tensions between the striking workers and the police force, elucidating the ways in which economic status and identity can impact the way that you move through the world, such as being harmed by judicial bodies that are meant to protect you. Thus, it is through the interrogation of the complex ways in which economic hardship effects our experiences of the world and sense of self that Daldry invites viewers to consider this impact and the way in effects ourselves and those around us.
Social constructs and ideas of family can bar individuals from receiving aid, connection and community, as it is not blood that connects society, but rather values, ideas and hopes. Daldry inspects our social ideas of nuclear family structures and the ways in which traditional family units can be strained through conflicting hopes and beliefs, specifically between parents and children. This is explored through the family dynamics of Billy Elliot, specifically the ways in which the family responds to grief and social change in numerous dysfunctional ways, highlighted through the Christmas Lunch scene wherein the use of silence and close ups communicate the family’s dysfunction as they attempt to remain within the nuclear family social norms. The still faces of Billy and Tony are contrasted as Jackie breaks down sobbing over Christmas lunch, absurdly juxtaposed by Christmas hats and inaction from the rest of the family as they watch on, highlighting the intergenerational stoicism and lack of emotional awareness within the family unit. This lack of connection is further emphasised through the symbolism of the boxing ring, becoming a location with rich significance throughout the film as it embodies social expectations, specifically Jackies. It is here that Billy reads a letter from his mother, which says to “always be yourself”, the sincere tone thus imbued with a sense of irony as the boxing ring represents everything Billy is not, clarified within the boxing match where the coach states “you’re a disgrace to your family”, subverting the notion that biological family is everything. This subversion is fully manifested as Billy runs away to Mrs Wilkinsons home, which clearly contrasts his own, thus communicating that he finds safety with chosen family and mentor figures as a result of the broken communication and dysfunction of his own household. Thus, through subverting audience expectations of family structures and support systems, Daldry welcomes new perspectives on what family means to individuals and within their shared communities, asking us to hold space and empathy for structures that are not our own.
In summary, it is the telling and receiving of stories that defines the human spirit for empathy and our understanding of one another. Through Daldry’s text, the audience is welcomed to consider their own understanding of gender, economic identity and family and the ways in which these concepts apply to their own lives, and the lives of others. In his exploration of these intersectional ideas, Daldry paints a vivid picture of the human experience which lies in the overlapping of many unique, nuanced and individual perspectives and brings into focus the joy that is sharing our lives with others.
What makes this a High Range Response?
Utilises high modality language and a varied vocabulary in a skilful way. You shouldn’t throw a thesaurus at an essay and call it a day- when you learn new words make sure you fully understand what they mean and imply before bringing them into your writing.
Links back to the question wherever possible and in a variety of ways to ensure a lack of repetition but the constant building of a strong argument.
Topic sentences are thematic and immediately link to the rubric, thus showing the marker that this is at the forefront of your mind as you craft your response. Additionally, by crafting rubric-focused topic sentences prior to an exam, you can come into the HSC with a flexible and focused start to a paragraph that will be adaptable to most questions.
Opens and closes each paragraph with rubric and question specific language, thus bookending all analysis through the lens of the question.