SFF 2023: ‘Blue Jean’ and life under Thatcher’s homophobic Britain

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here. 

This year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival features Georgia Oakley’s directorial debut feature film Blue Jean, set during 1988 in the United Kingdom, when Margaret Thatcher’s government was on the precipice of enacting Section 28. 

Section 28 was UK legislation that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, and the “teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The discriminatory legislation was enacted in 1988, and caused devastating and long-lasting impacts on the country’s queer community, impacting the supports available to the community, their wellbeing and safety, and the quality, accuracy and inclusivity of education received. The legislation was not completely repealed until 2003 – a lengthy 15 years later. 

Our protagonist is Jean, a young physical education teacher at a local school in Newcastle, UK. She coaches the school’s netball team, has a particularly polite pet cat, and spends the evenings with her girlfriend Viv – either out together with friends at a bustling lesbian bar or watching the ever-patriarchal Blind Date series curled up at home. As homophobic posters plaster her streets, and radio commentary becomes more overt in queer discrimination, we see her increase the concealment of her sexuality – going to lengthy and exhausting efforts. She isolates herself from colleagues, joining in on their conversations only through silent eavesdropping, hurries Viv out of her place when her sister drops by, and refuses to take calls from Viv at school. 

When creating the bones of the film’s script, Georgia Oakley said that she and producer Hélène Sifre “were keen to tell a story about some of the things that were on our minds … we talk[ed] a lot about internalised homophobia, and the performative element of self. The fact that we can be one person when we’re at work, and another person when we’re with our families, in our relationships” and it was at this time that she came across an article about a group of lesbian activists who abseiled into the House of Lords after the legislation was enacted. She was struck by the fact that she’d not heard of Section 28, despite having been in school while the legislation was in place, and eventually repealed – with many friends and colleagues sharing her experience. 

Oakley’s exploration around the performative element of self, and the ways this can play into an individual’s internalised homophobia, is consistently reflected throughout the film. Jean has a close relationship with her young nephew Sammy, who has not yet been instilled with the homophobic beliefs and remarks that pervade his parents’ conversations with our protagonist. Jean reads Alice in Wonderland to Sammy, asking herself as well, “Who are you? … I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then…”. Jean knows who she is, when at home with Viv or out with her friends. And she has an idea of who she should be – in the staffroom, the classroom, when outside her house under the obtrusive gaze of her nightcapped neighbour. But this performative version of herself becomes harder to maintain when an openly queer student, Lois, joins her classroom. 

Jean’s fear of being ‘outed’ and attacked is weaved throughout the film. She constantly feels perceived, watched. We peer at her through cracked doors, mirrors, windows. The film itself begins with an angle that gazes at Jean through the reflection of her bathroom mirror, as she steadily bleaches her hair. We see her jumpy and anxious through her car window, or her ecstasy as she sits behind Viv on her motorbike, reflection captured in the circular side mirror. We see slithers of her fading face through half-closed gym doors, and the changing room doors too. It’s this fear that sees her attempt to stifle her new student’s identity, and right to take up space in a world that feels, to Jean, like it’s getting increasingly small. 

Jean struggles to support her students at school (Blue Jean, 2022) 

We witness a particularly devastating and vivid imagined scene where Jean watches helplessly as Lois faces her entire class in the gym, the room spectacularly darkened to appear as a battlefield, as she hurtles down alone in her crusade, dipping and weaving through her classmate’s attacks, until she is eventually tackled down. Teachers have long played a crucial role in supporting students’ wellbeing, sense of self, and feeling of belonging in the world – and Viv reminds us these circumstances are no exception. As Jean falters and fails to support Lois, even simply as a student in her classroom, Viv asks “How is that girl ever going to learn she has a place in this world, if you, of all people, tell her that she doesn’t?” 

The devastating legacy of Section 23 is still evident today – we know that rates of self-harm and suicide are disproportionately higher for LGBTQIA+ community members. The Stonewall’s School Report, that assessed the experiences of over 3,700 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students aged 11-19 in Britain’s schools, found that support for queer youth continues to lack in the school environment – with 53% of surveyed students saying there isn’t a trusted adult at school that they could talk to about being LGBT, and 68% reporting that teachers or school staff only ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ challenge homophobic language when they hear it. Reports conducted 21 years after the nationwide repeal of the legislation show that “three in ten secondary school teachers … said they didn’t know if they were allowed to teach lesbian, gay and bisexual issues”. Hopefully, with epic pieces like Blue Jean, we can continue to increase awareness around the legacies of discriminatory legislation and cultures that continue to impact the queer community today, and how pervasive this discrimination can be – because we still have such a long way to go. 

Editor: Anh Noel