The Full Monty and East is East

The Full Monty and East is East

We all accept nowadays that films reflect not just the artistic vision of the people who made them but the cultures those people inhabit - The Full Monty and East is East introduction. Two recent films from England – East is East (1996) by Ayub Khan Din and The Full Monty by Peter Cattaneo – are cases in point. All two films explore racial, class or gender conflict and subsequent possibilities for social cohesion. There is the theory that sameness reduces disorder and difference produces disorder. But what if both sameness and difference produce both order and disorder? And what if the distinctions between identity and difference and between order and disorder cannot be so easily maintained? These questions are raised by the British films East is East and The Full Monty.

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The strip show continues to be one the most persistent and controversial forms of indigenous English entertainment. During its first heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, the strip show so popular it threatened to engulf all of the legitimate theatres. The decade that spawned the stripper in England was marked by profound cultural and social disturbances. Women obtained the right to vote, bobbed their hair, shortened their skirts, and traded in their corsets for the androgynous look of the flapper. Liepe-Levinson, in the book Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire, says that:

The skits, songs, and dance numbers of the Burlesque were rife with sexual, racial, and ethnic stereotypes. In the years 1999-2001 alone, Broadway audiences were treated to the British play Closer, which featured the character of a female table dancer, and a musical adaptation of the British film The Full Monty, which centered on a male strip show for women that revealed everything (5).

The rise of men’s studies and the focus on a multicultural society in the past decade highlight how men in general have been displaced as the “norm” and replaced at the margins. Some men can still claim their space at the center of our attention – the Uber-men (supermen), those who engage in traditional forms of masculinity. But many other men are finding that their version of masculinity is no longer enough to validate them. The Full Monty represents cultural anxieties about where versions of masculinities are headed; about what is sex, and what is gender; and about cultural representations of the male body.

Popular culture’s love affair with striptease was cemented with the surprise cinematic hit of 1997, The Full Monty. Here, in a clever exploration of the ‘men-in-crisis’ mood of the late 1990s, striptease was, for the first time in mainstream cinema, presented as something which men did – reluctantly, at first, then with undeniable pride, despite the humiliations and objectifications experienced at the hands of their female spectators. In The Full Monty, like Striptease, stripping for money was framed as nothing to be ashamed of, but a rational choice in a culture where public nakedness has commercial value.

The Full Monty opens with a disparaging reference to Brassed Off. Jobless mates scavenging an abandoned factory see the factory brass band marching past: ‘the only thing around here still working’, one sneers. But does The Full Monty survive the comparison it invites with Brassed Off? I think not, despite its comic charms. In The Full Monty, blokes out of work decide to earn money by stripping. Movie audiences are denied ‘the full monty’, however. The camera is onstage behind the strip line at the climactic moment; all we see are cheering spectators and a footlight shining up someone’s bum. Moreover, The Full Monty denies its audience the full political monty. It ends with that climactic moment, before resolving its main characters’ many dilemmas.

The impotent fat one proudly displays his manhood, but did his manhood rise with a new job as store security guard? Will the ex-foreman’s new job really result in jobs for some of his former workers? And, though the divorced father can again visit his son, a System by which access depends on being able to pay child support remains unchanged. Alas, changes to The System are neither envisioned nor called for in The Full Monty. The film makes some amusing points about men exposing their physiques to women’s scrutiny, as women have long done for men. It’s fun to see once that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. But if the exploited classes, both men and women, are reduced to stripping for a living, Lord help us all. The factory brass band finally plays midway through The Full Monty, but it plays for a funeral: ‘Help of the helpless, Lord, abide with me’.

So, if these films reflect not just the artistic vision of their makers but the cultures they inhabit, what should we conclude? Workplaces close in both British films; jobs are lost and communities devastated, perhaps forever. By selling tickets to their strip show, The Full Monty’s out-of-work blokes find individual solutions to their individual problems. They fill immediate financial needs and regain some self-esteem. But the self-esteem seems hardly political, based as it is on displaying physical manhood rather than exercising political power. This apolitical film suggests no collective response to economic and social inequities.

Kimmel (1994) claims that men need other men to validate their masculinity. In The Full Monty, the men who are marginalized need any audience to display their bodies (phalluses) in front of and reify masculine status. Ironically, although we associate nudity with vulnerability, their nudity makes these men powerful. Some women who are strippers claim that it is a source of empowerment, not just because they are voluntarily choosing to do this work, but because they earn so much money. Gaz and his friends, by choosing to undertake this gender-atypical venture, demonstrate masculine attributes of agency and control, which will earn them their passport to masculinity – money. For these out-of-work men-on-the-margins, this is their route back to center.

All individuals at the margins must reveal the presence of a penis to claim masculine status. Masculinity at the margins is different from masculinity at the center in that it requires more proof. And it does not matter who is doing the performance – it can be Demi Moore as a Newsweek cover girl or a group of unemployed men doing the Full Monty. The naked penis also acts as a shock to our systems. As a culture, we are used to seeing women in all forms of undress, but the naked man’s body is still a taboo subject, especially when it comes to viewing it on film. In the early 1990s, Hollywood’s leading men slowly began to show their buttocks, for example, Mel Gibson in Bird on a Wire (Baldwin, 1990), Kevin Costner in Robin Hood (Reynolds, 1991), and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier (Emmerich, 1992). But few mainstream Hollywood movies show full frontal male nudity. As nudity can be viewed as a sign of weakness, of being vulnerable, and that is the antithesis of traditional notions of masculinity, men’s naked bodies in general, and their penises in particular, were kept from our view. Gaz, in The Full Monty, could not face going on stage naked when there were men in the audience. Men’s penises are still mostly kept from our view. Jordan O’Neil must appropriate a metaphorical penis, so we do not even see one in G. I. Jane. In Boogie Nights we, the viewing audience, only get a momentary flash of a penis. In The Full Monty, the viewing audience does not even get to see the men’s penises; rather, we see them from backstage, their buttocks, while the movie “audience” sees their nudity.

All of the characters in The Full Monty are engaging in gender transgressions. They all need to transgress in order to raise their status, not only personally, but more importantly, socially. Guarding against emasculation is the goal of the naked penis. It, and it alone, signifies masculinity. Hoch (1979) claims that as culture has moved from agrarian to industrial means of production, the activities that signify masculinity have become limited. Commenting on Hoch, bell hooks (1992) states that:

 This can be described as a shift from emphasis on patriarchal status (determined by one’s capacity to assert power over others in a number of spheres based on maleness) to a phallocentric model where what the male does with his penis becomes a great and certainly more accessible way to assert masculine status…. With the emergence of a fierce phallocentrism, a man was no longer a man because he provided care for his family, he was a man simply because he had a penis (94).

As we find ourselves enmeshed in this post-industrial information age, where the size of muscles no longer signifies anything, rather the size of one’s RAM does, phallocentricity takes on even greater significance. No longer are men able to simply claim the penis-as-masculinity, they must provide evidence of it. When gender roles are no longer so clearly defined, it is left to sexual markers to bifurcate and establish identity. It is no wonder, then, that we are seeing the rise of cultural depictions of the naked penis to prove masculinity, specifically by the people who are the least able to claim masculine status – women, and unemployed or working-class men.

After a long silence in Britain, Ayub Khan Din (the actor who played Sammy in Kureishi’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) released his film East Is East (1999), which was soon followed by an adaptation of a Kureishi short story titled My Son the Fanatic (1997), directed by Udayan Prasad. East is East was a major achievement – it was the first widely successful play to portray the problems of a Pakistani family who have settled in the North of England. It became a huge success all over the world, and then an award-winning film, the first popular comedy to handle such delicate subjects as marriage between the races, arranged marriage and homosexuality. The film was one of the overall top-grossing films in Britain during 1999, earning more than 7 million pounds at the box office. The film surprised many with its popularity and box office success as it simultaneously created controversy. On one hand, it was celebrated for its achievement in the extent of its box office success; on the other, it was criticized severely for perpetuating stereotypes of British Asians, especially in the character of the patriarchal and abusive father.

Importantly, even though the film takes place during the Cold War, the Cold War plays no role in the film, through plot, characters, or motivation. What this allows is for the world of East is East to be mapped not by ideology but by culture. And so it is. East is East tells the story of the Khan family – Pakistani father George (Om Puri), white British mother Ella (Linda Bassett), and their seven bi-racial, bi-ethnic children – Nazir, Abdul, Tariq, Saleem, Maneer, Meenah, and Sajid. The film introduces us to all of its major characters and defines the tensions over identity and difference within the Khan family in its title sequence and first post-credits series of scenes.

East is East tells the story of how the Khan family – a working class bi-ethnic, bi-religious, and bi-racial family – struggles with the problem of cultural difference in a northern English suburb of Manchester in 1971. Conflict abounds in this family. Caught between their Pakistani father and their British mother, the Khan children appear to be the disputed fault line between Islamic and Western Christian cultures, where their father’s and their mother’s differences meet. Yet it is also possible to read the Khan children not as emblematic of the clash of civilizations but instead as symbolizing a British multiculturalism emerging in the wake of post-colonial immigration, where cultural identities do not so much clash as they reshape and redefine one another. By suggesting that the Khan children represent emerging identities rather than clashing ones, East is East directs us to look for the sources that motivate conflict in the Khan family elsewhere. Maybe, the film suggests, conflict is not located in the mere existence of cultural difference or even necessarily in attempts to transform cultural differences (bi-ethnic children) into pure cultural identities (either Pakistani or British but not both). Maybe conflict is (also) located in identity itself, in the desire to be a pure identity but the impossibility to achieve this desire. If this is the case, we have to ask what the implications of this might be for the identities that exist (civilizations) and their post-Cold War relations with one another (clashing).

In East Is East, the Muslim father is depicted as an abusive and controlling patriarch who attempts to enforce conservative law in the family, punishing defiance and deviance. Deviance, such as homosexuality, is seen as familiar to white liberal audiences who can feel empathetic with British Asians and feel that homosexuality is a sign of assimilation into Britishness. East Is East emphasizes these conflicts as being determined by generational differences that result from acculturation. Thus, the “traditional” Muslim father is framed as restrictive and abusive in regard to his liberal and progressive children and wife. The father’s physical and psychological abuse is, however, often naturalized as it is associated most frequently with traditional discourses on gender and sexuality rather than located more clearly in relation to the geopolitical, historical, and socioeconomic contexts.

Although the film is unable to create a productive dialogue between the conflicting voices, it certainly suggests the necessity of doing so. The response of different groups to the Salman Rushdie affair as it is popularly called reveals the differing and conflicting positions even within black Britain. Muslims in diaspora are increasingly formulated as the most dangerous and least assimilable of minorities, Europe’s most terrifying and volatile other. Kureishi and Prasad emphasize lack of coherency and unity to the idea of a black community. They do so, not simply by suggesting that black is insufficient to recognize the diversity of African and Asian experiences but by forwarding the serious contradictions and disagreements that exist within these communities.

For the moment, South Asian and Asian British media productions are highly visible in Britain, which seems to have embraced at least a few female artists including Gurinder Chadha and Meera Syal. More recently, Chadha’s new film about soccer and “Asian life” made a significant impact in 2002. Bend It Like Beckham opened in more than 400 cinemas its first weekend, in contrast to the five that featured Bhaji on the Beach. Sports and particularly soccer/football is a site in which the British Asian woman is interpellated into British heteronormativity.

Society is changing, but the fixed standards from which people are straying hover in the background. For example the journalist Burhan Wazir complains about the severity of his own upbringing in Pakistan, but reports that young British Muslims are managing to combine the practice of their religion with the freedom to go clubbing if they want to (Kimmel 54). The film East Is East highlights similar dilemmas.

The film gives indications of what is typical and deviant in the world of East is East. What is typical is for George’s values and Ella’s values to respectfully co-exist within the Khan family, even if in this patriarchal 1970s household, Ella’s values and the children’s respect for them must be concealed. What is deviant is for George to force his children to become fully integrated into his longed-for cultural identity, even if he believes it is for their own good.

This suggests that there is no “clash of civilizations” in the film. George and Ella never compete over the civilization identities of their children. Ella respects George’s wishes when it comes to religious matters, and so do the children (although, like children, they don’t necessary enjoy themselves in the process or take either their father’s or their mother’s religion seriously). And while Ella certainly exposes the children to Western Christianity, she does not, cannot, and (we are led to believe) would not insist that the children define themselves through her “civilization identity.” For Ella recognizes that her children embody new, distinct identities. They are the full cups of tea that George only ever takes as halves.

The conflict in East is East, then, occurs not because differences cannot peacefully and respectfully co-exist (as they have for the past 25 years of the Khan marriage). Conflict seems to exist because George insists on transforming difference (first his bi-cultural children and later his English wife) into identity (Pakistani Muslims fully integrated into that community). It is only at this point that his children and his wife lose respect for him and his culture. At this point, George turns on Ella, beating her.

What causes instability are attempts to transform difference into identity. The solution for the modernization and development tradition was first to recognize this and second to support sometimes authoritarian Third World governments to insure stability during the transition to development. This is precisely the logic that George follows. When faced with resistance as he tries to transform difference into identity, George becomes increasingly authoritarian in order to retain order within his family.

In East is East, it is the Rest (Islam) that is trying to secure itself from the West (Western Christianity). But, because George cannot separate, segregate and thereby secure his family’s Islamic identity from the pervasive Western Christian civilization in which it exists, conflict is inevitable. Difference leads to disorder. This is not primarily because, as George tells himself, the family live in a Western Christian environment (Salford) rather than a more Pakistani one (Bradford/Bradistan/Pakistan). Rather, it is because George’s children, George’s wife, and indeed George himself bring difference (the West) into the identity George strives for (Islam).

By demonstrating that differences can peacefully and respectfully co-exist within the Khan family before marriages are forced on the children and within the younger generation of the Salford community (the Khan and Moorhouse children), East is East suggests that it is not necessary to separate, segregate, and secure identity from difference. The film also raises the question of whether the move from difference to identity causes instability. While this might indeed be the case at times, East is East points out that instability and conflict are not always generated from either the mere existence of difference or its transformation to identity. Instability and conflict can be located firmly within identity, in the desire to be a unified identity and in the impossibility of ever achieving that desire. This is George’s impossible desire, and it is exposed when Tariq confronts him about his wedding.

While East is East rejects construction of civilizational identities by complicating the notion of culture – by both multiplying culture and thereby allowing for the birth of new cultural identities (“being” multicultural) – the film still enables contemporary subjects to answer questions of identity with reference to culture. For some people, the answer will still be “I am a singular identity,” whereas for others (like the Khan children) the answer will be “I am a multiple identity.” But either way, identity is secured with reference to culture because, as we all should know by now, “being” multicultural is the new identity of many individuals in the era of globalization (Childs 25).

All of this is terribly reassuring because culture and multiculturalism not only provide individuals with identities. They provide individuals with security, not only personally but politically. Why? Because cultural identities that ground individuals are easily collectivized so that they can also ground states and civilizations, whether they are singular or multiple. So, for example, East is East explores how a state like post-World War II Britain identified itself as “being” one culture, and how contemporary Britain increasingly identifies itself as “being” multicultural. Because it now officially claims a multiple cultural identity as its answer to the question “who am I?,” Britain has translated its problem of cultural difference into the cultural source of its secure identity. Britain is multicultural. Multiculturalism is the new singular identity to which Britain officially refers.

East is East and The Full Monty, though British, must both seem relevant to Australian movie goers because, if films reflect not just individual artistic vision but entire cultures, Australia’s history and social institutions are still largely British. Why then should Australians see Amistad, the recent Steven Spielberg movie about an 1839 insurrection on a Spanish slave ship and the subsequent American court cases and appeals? Amistad’s political issues are hardly current, and never were relevant to Australia. Australia will always be closer to England in its history than to America. The Full Monty, strangely, seems more optimistic than East Is East.  Whereas The Full Monty offers a snapshot of a segment of British society whose primary motivation and identity is fiscal, East Is East takes a ‘sociological’ approach to contemporary culture and covers a broader spectrum. It contains a survey of public attitudes and behavior.

Works Cited

Childs, Peter. British Cultural Identities. Routledge: London, 2002.

East Is East Directed by Darren O’Donnell, 1999.

Hoch, P. White hero, black beast: Racism, sexism and the mask of masculinity. London, Pluto Press, 1979.

hooks, b. Black looks: Race and representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

Kimmel, M. Masculinity as homophobia: Fear, shame, and silence in the construction of gender identity. In H. Brod & M. Kaufman (Eds.), Theorizing masculinities (pp. 119-141). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1994.

Liepe-Levinson, Katherine Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire. Routledge: New York, 2001.

The Full Monty. Directed by Peter Cattaneo. Starring Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Addy, Paul Barber, Steven Huison, Hugo Speer, Lesley Sharp. 95 min. GB. 1997. Motion Picture.

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