Blue Jean Programme Notes

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Blue Jean follows recently divorced PE teacher Jean (Rosy McEwan) as she tries to keep her two worlds apart. However when she sees one of her pupils, Lois (Lucy Halliday), at the lesbian bar she frequents, Jean has to face the fact that her sexuality and her career are not as separate as she had hoped.

Director Georgia Oakley’s debut feature is set against the backdrop of Section 28, a law that prohibited the promotion of, ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ in schools¹. Blue Jean uses this setting to highlight the constant stress faced by queer people working in schools. As a teacher, Jean would lose her job if anyone found out about her sexuality. As her queer life dances closer to the edges of the school, Jean begins to buckle under the pressure of performing heterosexuality.

While Jean tries to hide her identity, her student Lois faces a torrent of homophobic abuse at the hands of her peers. Oakley highlights that, ‘The [Section 28] law was not repealed until 2003. My experiences at school were not dissimilar to Lois. I wanted [the film] to have these dual perspectives on institutionalised homophobia and how it trickles down.’². While Jean and Lois share an understanding, they are affected by the rampant homophobia of their peers in different ways, and Jean sacrifices solidarity for self-preservation.

Befitting of its title, Blue Jean’s colour palette is saturated with washed out blues and greys. Jean herself, pale with bleached blonde hair, tries to blend into the background. The 16mm print gives a grainy, tactile quality that not only helps transport the film to the 1980s but gives the feeling of a memory, slightly fuzzy where physical sensations and feelings are more powerful than details. Jean is tense, a deer caught in the headlights who cannot be fully present in her life and relationships. Wrapped inwards to survive, she is hyper aware of how she presents herself.

Perhaps because Jean is a PE teacher, it is inevitable that female bodies are on show. Whether it's Jean lingering after a bath, or the casual undressing and showering of schoolgirls after a netball session, Blue Jean is aware of the implications of a naked body. When Jean walks into the changing room, she has no choice but to purposefully avoid seeing young bodies in the full knowledge that one wrong look could lead to accusations of perversions. Queer schoolgirl Lois, too, is in a vulnerable position as her peers mock and tease her for her queerness, using the looming fears of the predatory lesbian as a stick to beat her with.

Blue Jean joins a host of British LGBTQ+ films set during the 1980s. Like Billy Elliot (dir. Stephen Daldry, 2000), Jean is a gender non-conforming person based in the North, a sore thumb in an economically deprived community where homophobia is rife. Like the more recent Pride (dir. Matthew Warchus, 2014), Jean finds safety and joy within the LGBTQ+ community. Unlike the protagonists of Pride, she is not on the front lines of queer activism, existing with one foot in the queer community but still firmly closeted in her work life. Blue Jean is unique in this way, showing the lives not of the outspoken changemakers but of the ordinary LGBTQ+ people who had to live covertly and felt the crushing unspeakable pressure of legislation designed to bar them from public life. While Billy Elliot was able to escape to the London Ballet School, Blue Jean is a reminder that he would not have been taught by any openly LGBTQ+ teachers.

Why are queer filmmakers so drawn to the Thatcherite 1980s as a setting? Perhaps it was a time where queer people were finally visible, through activism and through tragedy. As queer activists protested government neglect and systemic homophobia, they were frequently demonised by the mainstream media. The queer community was cast as an insidious evil, threatening the heterosexual family.

Children are often held up as figures of innocence, uncorrupted by sex and sexuality. Teachers, therefore, are believed to have a tremendous amount of power, with the ability to mould young minds in their image. Exposing a child to something queer has been seen as a danger. In this view, there is no such thing as a queer child, but rather a confused or manipulated heterosexual child.

Blue Jean could be seen as a tragedy, where its protagonist is unable to fully embrace her identity. She lives in a community where everything, the radio, the newspapers, the television, her colleagues are all screaming that people like her are dangerous, perverted and predatory. But within the storm there are spaces of refuge. A queer bar. Graffiti on a government advert. A lesbian house party. Quiet acts of resistance that whisper of something better. We can’t all be changemakers, but Blue Jean reminds us to celebrate the ordinary people who just survived.

Jo Reid, freelance film curator

[1]: Local Government Act, 1988

[2]: Tabbara, Mona, “History, unfortunately, is cyclical”: ‘Blue Jean’ filmmakers on the drama’s important warning, Screen Daily, December 2022

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