Published: Feb. 1, 2007 By

Where the political terrain can neither resolve nor suppress inequality, it erupts in culture. Because culture is the contemporary repository of memory, of history, it is through culture, rather than government, that alternative forms of subjectivity, collectivity, and public life are imagined.

–Lisa Lowe

We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there.

–Avery Gordon

[1] In the year 2000, a film based on Irish poet Brendan Behan’s classic 1958 memoir Borstal Boy was released. Both memoir and film narrate Behan’s coming of age in a reformatory in England where he was sentenced to three years for smuggling explosives for the IRA. The film adaptation of Borstal Boy chooses to focus on Behan’s relationship with Charlie, a young British soldier he falls in love with who causes him to rethink his feelings about the British as well as come to terms with his desire for other men. What I find most interesting about this choice is its construction of the boys’ romance as a national allegory wherein Ireland and England heal their centuries-old differences, at least temporarily, in their union. This narrative strategy reappears the following year in the internationally successful Mexican film Y tu mamá también and Irish writer Jamie O’Neill’s critically acclaimed novel At Swim, Two Boys. Each of these otherwise very different texts stages a crisis in the nation as a romance between characters who represent rival classes, factions, or nations. As they allegorize the nation via star-crossed lovers, these authors and filmmakers draw on a literary genre known as the national romance. Yet these contemporary postcolonial texts narrate the union of disparate factions in the nation (or rival nations) via a romance between two men or boys. As they queer the national romance,Borstal Boy and Y tu mamá también join a film genre that began in 1985 with Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette.

[2] My Beautiful Laundrette uses the story of two lovers to create an allegory of Thatcher’s England which unites some of the nation’s most disparate groups: blacks and whites, the rising, entrepreneurial middle class and the working class, and the (ex)racist and the immigrant. One of the primary reasons for the film’s popularity, I argue, is its use of the national romance and its decision to queer this familiar trope. With this choice, My Beautiful Laundrette inaugurated an international genre of films that I call the queer national romance. The national romance emerged in the eighteenth century as a literary genre in which star-crossed lovers from opposing nations—usually an imperial power and its colony—marry, healing the conflict between their respective communities. I contend that this narrative form found new life in queer postcolonial fiction and film in the late twentieth century. These films include The Crying Game (1992), The Wedding Banquet(1993), Fire (1996), Aimee and Jaguar (1999), Borstal Boy, Y tu mamá también, andProteus (2003). Like traditional national romances these texts solicit affective identification on the part of the spectator and negotiate a specific historical and cultural struggle, conflict, or anxiety about the status of the nation or the identity of the national citizen; instead of centering on a heterosexual couple however these texts focus on same-sex romantic unions.

[3] Although the queer national romance is a new genre, it has its roots in a much older literary tradition. Literary critics Doris Sommer and Lisa Moore have discussed the nation-building potential of the romance in their studies of nineteenth-century Latin American “foundational fictions” and the eighteenth-century Irish national tale. Both Sommer and Moore argue that the texts they analyze employ the romantic union of two star-crossed lovers who represent conflicting racial, religious, class, or regional interests as an allegory of the nation. These romantic and sexual unions represent legislative and political unions that the texts support, for example the Act of Union between England and Ireland in 1800. More than just serving as allegory, however, the texts Sommer and Moore discuss affectively work on their audiences as they position readers to invest emotionally in the successful union of the hero and heroine, a union which is depicted as inevitable and natural but is delayed by the characters’ allegiances to competing interests. By examining how each of the texts they study seeks to mobilize audiences in support of a particular national agenda, both critics convincingly demonstrate “the inextricability of politics from fiction in the history of nation-building” (Sommer 75).

[4] The national romance remains a popular way of narrating conflicts between rival groups, particularly on screen. In Ireland, for instance, A Love Divided (1999) tells the true story of a Catholic man, his Protestant wife, and a conflict that arises in their community over the education of their children. The national romance even appears in such unlikely places as the social realist Bloody Sunday (2002), a documentary-style film which includes a sub-plot about a Protestant teenage girl who loses her Catholic boyfriend in the massacre. Contemporary Indian films also frequently employ the conventions of divided lovers to tell stories of regional, caste, or class divides. Mani Ratnam’s controversial Bombay (1995) sets its romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman against the backdrop of the communal riots in 1993. Anti-colonial Indian films such as Lagaan and1942: A Love Story also narrate their stories, at least in part, as national romances. Most recently, the film Veer-Zaara (2004) tells the story of a Pakistani woman and an Indian Air Force pilot who fall in love and are tragically separated only to be reunited years later. The film’s director, Bollywood legend Yash Chopra, is quite explicit that the film is his attempt to heal the wounds of Partition and that the love story is the vehicle best-suited to achieve this feat. The national romance, these Irish and Indian examples suggest, often emerges from sites where actual partitions have rent the fabric of the nation.

[5] Although it remains popular as a narrative strategy, the national romance has been criticized for legitimizing inequality. Mary Louise Pratt describes this danger in an examination of the interracial romance in her landmark study Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation:

It is easy to see transracial love plots as imaginings in which European supremacy is guaranteed by affective and social bonding; in which sex replaces slavery as the way others are seen to belong to the white man; in which romantic love rather than filial servitude or force guarantees the willful submission of the colonized. . . In the transformation a fundamental dimension of colonialism disappears, namely, the exploitation of labor. . . . The allegory of romantic love mystifies exploitation out of the picture. (97)

Here Pratt discusses interracial love stories that appear in European travel writings from the late eighteenth century, but other critics have noticed a similar tendency to “mystify exploitation” in different kinds of texts that tell their stories as romantic unions between opposing political forces. These texts can easily suppress political inequalities by resolving them in the romance narrative. In Doris Sommer’s words, “the pretty lies of national romance are … strategies to contain the racial, regional, economic, and gender conflicts” that threaten the nation (92). Despite its queering of the genre and its setting in postcolonial contexts, the queer national romance is not exempt from portraying inequality as love. Some national romances—heterosexual or queer—mask legitimate political struggles by resolving them in a romance narrative.

[6] However, the queer national romance does not necessarily work in the same obfuscating way. Instead, it can be used to rewrite constructions of the nation and attend to rather than erase the conflicts embodied in the lovers’ union. I argue that the ideological work a particular national romance is able to do is determined in part by which facets of the traditional romance it borrows. While some texts adopt the genre’s most regressive conventions, others employ its more subversive elements. The longer version of this study comparesMy Beautiful Laundrette with The Crying Game, the most popular, influential, and, indeed, notorious antecedent to more recent queer national romances. While I will focus on My Beautiful Laundrettein this article, a brief comparison with The Crying Game in the following paragraph reveals both the limits and possibilities of using the queer national romance as a narrative strategy.  While My Beautiful Laundretterelies heavily on the romance’s depiction of an ideal world to imagine a more inclusive, utopian nation, The Crying Game depicts a romantic union that implies we should let go of political grievances and all just get along.

[7] As My Beautiful Laundrette positions audiences to desire the romance between a white working-class punk and a middle-class, British-born Pakistani, it positions us to desire the union of disparate elements these characters represent. Yet the film never loses sight of the fact that the romance it depicts promises only a fantasy of healing and cannot actually work to bridge divides in a realist narrative. It therefore blends a realist style with fantasy, creating a hybrid work that demonstrates the potential of queer romance to re-imagine the nation. The Crying Game also imagines a healing of disparate factions—in this case, the Irish and the English—through a queer romance. Although at first glance it seems to be telling an original story about postcolonial Irish identity, The Crying Game borrows a number of regressive conventions that illustrate the potential dangers of the queer national romance as a narrative strategy. The Crying Game‘s depiction of a liberal humanist fantasy of tolerance and acceptance masks very real political struggles by resolving them in the romance. While My Beautiful Laundrette consistently dramatizes that the world inside the laundrette is provisional and fragile, a fantasy, The Crying Game is presented solely in a realist mode. The film’s unselfconscious creation of a world where conflicts are resolved in romance therefore creates a dangerous distortion of history. By adopting the exclusionary closure of the traditional romance, The Crying Game oversimplifies the Irish nationalist and feminist struggles, and transgender and racial politics it references. While many readers may be moved to celebrate the queering of the genre in the interest of inclusivity, the contrast between these two films cautions us against embracing all texts that seek to insert a queer subject into the national imaginary. We must first ask, just what kinds of nations are these films envisioning?

A Counter-Fantasy of England and its Reception

British films… have been rather successful in marketing and packaging the national literary heritage, the war years, the countryside, the upper classes and elite education, and in doing so have also succeeded in constructing and circulating quite limiting and restricting images of ‘britishness.’ (Elsaesser qtd. in Sarita Malik 214)

[8] Popular British film and television of the 1980s such as Brideshead Revisited (1981), Chariots of Fire(1981), and A Passage to India(1984) depicted a particular set of characteristics implicitly defined as British. As Thomas Elsaesser points out, these representations are often focused on the upper classes and set in country homes and public schools. Through consistently reproducing narrow criteria, Andrew Higson argues, a national cinema “privileges a limited range of subject positions which thereby become naturalized or reproduced through the work of cinema itself as the only legitimate positions of the national subject” (275). By privileging a particular class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or even temperament, films create an image of who is British, an image that excludes other subject positions. My Beautiful Laundrette, however, constructs a decidedly different picture from mainstream British cinema in the 1980s. In contrast to period pieces like Chariots of Fire, state-of-the-nation films like My Beautiful Laundrette portray the unemployment, class tension, and racist violence so prevalent in Thatcher’s England. And, in fact, Kureishi and Frears have stated that they constructed these aspects of My Beautiful Laundrette as an explicit attempt to intervene in the contemporary political situation and to contest Thatcher’s conservative policies and rhetoric. I will argue here that the film exceeds their goals as it envisions a new kind of national subject.

[9] My Beautiful Laundrette was produced during a time of national crisis in Great Britain. Massive unemployment, a rise in fascist organizations like the National Front, and a subsequent rise in violence against people of color created an anxiety around definitions of Britishness that though not new was certainly intensified during this period. This anxiety was heightened by the Thatcher regime’s constant attempts to construct British identity narrowly by excluding both racial and sexual minorities—rhetorically and sometimes legislatively—from its vision of the nation. My Beautiful Laundretteresponds to these concerns as it depicts England in the 1980s as a place of widespread unemployment and complex racial and class tensions, including those which arose from the existence of a growing black middle class. However My Beautiful Laundrette does more than merely reflect the social and cultural moment out of which it emerges; it constructs the relationship between Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) as an allegory through which communities in conflict are united in the figure of a romantic union. Yet rather than naïvely assuming a romance can actually bring about a bridging of divides, the film creates the laundrette as a space where it abandons realist conventions and depicts a fantasy of unity. This unreal space with its bright colors and tropical aesthetic stands in contrast to the gray streets, racist punks, and urban squalor outside, and it is in this space where the romance between Johnny and Omar thrives. As the film positions the audience to desire this romance, it likewise positions them to yearn for the union of disparate elements Johnny and Omar represent into one unified image of the national subject. In this way, the film gives audiences a romance which offers the possibility of healing the divides threatening the nation at that moment, yet retains its believability and sustains a political critique by acknowledging that this world could only exist in fantasy.

[10] In this volatile political and cultural climate of England in the 1980s, Hanif Kureishi was beginning to make his name as a provocative new playwright. During this period, Channel 4—a public service network created as an alternative to the BBC—was funding and broadcasting many of Britain’s best young, independent filmmakers because of its mandate to “encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes” (Hill 54). In 1985, they commissioned Kureishi to write a script for “Film on 4.” He eagerly accepted the offer and wrote the screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette during his first visit to Pakistan. According to Kureishi, “The great advantage of TV drama was that people watched it; difficult, challenging things could be said about contemporary life” (Kureishi, “Beautiful” 41). Although originally intended as a television release,My Beautiful Laundrette premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in autumn of 1985 to great critical acclaim and then showed at the London Film Festival in November. It was released in London theaters that month and was subsequently shown all over Europe, the U.S., and Australia. According to the British Film Institute, the film was one of the most critically and commercially successful British films of 1986 and earned Kureishi nominations for both an Oscar and a BAFTA for Best Screenplay (Screenonline). Everyone involved in its making was surprised about the film’s success, especially Frears. As he points out in interviews, in its depiction of the “desperate lives” in Thatcher’s England, My Beautiful Laundrette resembled much British television of its time. He fails to note, however, that in its focus on Asian communities and its sympathetic depiction of two men in love, the film broke with even the most radical television. Furthermore, the film’s unique use of a queer national romance to address the difficult social issues with which Britain was struggling proved exceptionally popular as well as controversial.

[11] In 1988 the Institute of Contemporary Art in London held a conference called Black Film, British Cinema. Although the conference was organized around the films Handsworth Songs, The Passion of Remembrance, and Playing Away (1987), My Beautiful Laundrette was ever-present in discussions. Kobena Mercer, coordinator of the conference, commented on the “unexpected scale” of My Beautiful Laundrette‘s popularity, saying, “Few would have anticipated that a gay romance between a British-born Asian and an ex-National Front supporter, set against the backdrop of Thatcherite enterprise culture, would be the stuff of which box office successes are made!” (4). What is most interesting about this success, Mercer went on to argue, is that, in spite of it, “many people actively disliked the film—and did so for very different reasons” (5). Mercer referred here to criticism from within Asian communities in Britain and to responses to the film from conservatives. The conservative responses are relatively easy to understand; the film depicted unapologetic gay sex, a critique of rampant racist violence, and a bleak view of the economy that Thatcherism was supposedly rejuvenating. This was not their view of Thatcher’s England nor was it the view they wanted the world to see. British-Asian responses to the film, however, were more complicated.

[12] Some British-Asian activists and filmmakers criticized the film for producing what they saw as negative images of Asians in an already racist culture (Jamal 21). In particular they objected to Asian characters who are gay, adulterous, alcoholic, superstitious, and involved in drug dealing. Kureishi has argued in response “having a gay Pakistani man in a film seems to me to be a positive image” (qtd. in Mani 6). In addition, Kureishi has critiqued the call for positive images by members of some minority communities as “fatal” for a writer. A cinema of positive images, he argues, “requires useful lies and cheering fictions: the writer as public relations officer, as hired liar” (Kureishi, “Sammy” 65). And this mandate, he contends, does not lead to good art. Conversely, other British-Asians criticized the film as an unrealistic depiction of their communities because it is too positive; they argued that the film fails to show the economic reality in which many British-Pakistanis lived (Malik 209). Disparity of opinion aboutMy Beautiful Laundrette stemmed in part from its status as one of the few British-Asian films of the time; because films representing British-Asians were scarce, My Beautiful Laundrette was asked to be all things to all people. Consequently, “the most publicized responses to the film refused to see it as anything but realist, or the characters as determined by anything other than their ethnic identity” (Ibid).

[13] One segment of the Asian community, however, had an overwhelmingly positive response to the film: gay South Asians throughout the diaspora. Trikone, a magazine for the South Asian queer diaspora, devoted almost an entire issue to the film in 2001 stating “the kiss between Johnny and Omar has, to many a queer South Asian, become the moment they came out to themselves” (Roy 2). In the same issue actor Gordon Warnecke, who played Omar, recounts how many gay South Asians have told him they identified with his character and were grateful for the film (9). In fact, gay communities internationally—South Asian and otherwise—responded positively to the film and it continues to be cited as a favorite gay romance. (As recently as 2004, the Advocate named My Beautiful Laundrette one of the ten best gay or lesbian films of all time.) Part of this popularity results from the fact that rather than depicting its characters as conflicted over their sexual identities—as, for instance, the British film Victim (1961) did—the film shows Johnny and Omar simply as two men in love. Some viewers praised the film precisely because of this ease, while others objected, claiming it was unrealistic. This tension again raises the issue of realism. If we expect the film to accurately represent reality and adhere to a realist narrative style, then My Beautiful Laundrette is a disappointment; however, if we read the film as a blend of fantasy and realism, it becomes much more internally coherent and successful.

[14] Critic Julian Henriques correctly notes that this question of realism is at the center of debates about My Beautiful Laundrette:

Most of the black people and particularly Asians who I have talked to about the film hated it. The reason for this, I think, is because they refused to look at the film in any other way than as a piece of realism, that is to say, a film that attempted an accurate representation of its subject (19).

He sees the film as successful precisely because of this break with realist narrative strategies: “The souped-up laundrette and the rest of the film were to me a fantasy expressing the feelings, contradictions, and imagination of the characters…. To me it was saying something about both the joys and the fears of living in mid-1980s Britain” (Ibid). It is important to remember, however, that My Beautiful Laundrettedoes not completely break with realism; it creates a realist narrative that exists alongside a more playful, idealized style that takes place inside the laundrette. In contrast, many black British films of the 1980s were abandoning realism altogether and constructing experimental documentaries and non-narrative videos and films such as Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989). Compared to these films, My Beautiful Laundretteis presented in a fairly realist manner and is often derided for this style:

It’s been a highly enjoyed film. In some ways it’s an absolute classic Romance. You’re just dying for those people to kiss—and they’re both men. And one is black and the other is white. And you’re sitting there in the role of the classic Hollywood spectator thinking “are they going to get off with each other? Is he going to say it? Will he be late?” The cinematic structures that it employs are completely mainstream, it is not an avant-garde film in its visual form at all…. And yet it had this enthusiastic reception just about everywhere except in what you might call theScreen world. (Williamson 34)

My Beautiful Laundrette is too non-realist for those looking for accurate representations of social realities, but it is too narrative and, therefore, too mainstream for critics and filmmakers who privilege an avant-garde cinema. When we look at the film on its own terms, however, we see that its use of romance and fantasy allows the film to imagine a union that represents a more inclusive nation and position audiences to invest in this construction.

“A Ritz among Laundrettes”: What Fantasy Allows

It is the British, the white British, who have to learn that being British isn’t what it was. Now it is a more complex thing, involving new elements. So there must be a fresh way of seeing Britain and the choices it faces: and a new way of being British after all this time. Much thought, discussion and self-examination must go into seeing the necessity for this, what this ‘new way of being British’ involves and how difficult it might be to attain. (Kureishi, “Rainbow” 38)

[15] When My Beautiful Laundrette begins, Omar lives at home with his father and Johnny squats in an abandoned building. Like the other characters in the film, neither works nor appears to have much purpose in his life. Soon Omar gets a job working for his Uncle Nasser, an entrepreneur who owns various businesses in South London. Racial tensions are rising in the community and Asians are frequently targeted by working-class white youth who resent their growing success. During one potentially violent incident, Omar meets Johnny, his old childhood friend, and hires him to help rehabilitate a laundrette Uncle Nasser has given Omar to manage. As the two work side-by-side to transform the trashed-out laundrette, their relationship evolves, following a traditional romance structure: they meet, fall in love, and are tested as obstacles appear. Though both of their communities oppose their relationship (although few recognize its true nature) and other love interests threaten to come between them, it is Johnny’s past participation in anti-immigrant marches that strains the relationship the most. The film, therefore, questions how individuals, and by extension communities, can connect in spite of the violence, resentments, and past wrongs which threaten to divide them. Despite the trials they suffer, the film ends with Johnny and Omar together inside the laundrette.

[16] It is not coincidental that the film ends in the laundrette. As might be expected from its prominence in the title, the space functions in a number of significant ways in My Beautiful Laundrette. As a business Johnny and Omar build together, it is a symbol of a black middle-class and white working-class partnership as well as a reversal of colonial power dynamics. In addition, it functions in the plot as a sort of community center where the neighborhood gathers. However, it is the laundrette’s mise en scene that I find most significant. It is the one beautiful, fantastic place we see, and it highlights the bleakness of the rest of the film’s settings. Not coincidentally, it is also the only space where Johnny and Omar can safely be together sexually and romantically; as such, it is “an outlet for socially transgressive desires” (Hill 218). John Hill describes the laundrette as an “ambivalent symbol” that pushes “the boundaries of realism outwards in order to give expression to those ‘realities’ which a realism ‘of the surface’ might not be otherwise equipped to provide” (Ibid). When we enter the transformed laundrette, we enter a space that, although “real” in the diegesis, is imbued with the sounds, colors, and exoticism of a dream world or fantasy. The editing, the mise en scene, and even the sound all alter in order to express the contrast between the outside world and the inside of the transformed laundrette.

[17] My Beautiful Laundrette opens in a small, dingy room in a squat from which Johnny and his friend Genghis are being evicted. As well as setting up some of the main thematic concerns of the film such as male friendship, black ownership, white poverty, homelessness, and displacement, we learn much from the mise en scene of this scene. The front door of the squat is barricaded with old furniture, the paint on the walls is faded and chipped, and the only light comes from the windows. Johnny and Genghis’ room has peeling yellow wallpaper and a bare mattress on the floor where Genghis sleeps. Johnny is asleep sitting up in a chair covered only by his coat. The scene is typical; the world the film portrays is dark and has little color in it. The film moves from dilapidated squats like this one to dark garages to the cramped, dingy flat Omar shares with his father. Outside is no better. Shot in London in February because Frears likes the bleak light of winter, the film depicts gray streets, nearly empty businesses, and people wandering aimlessly. Nothing is growing or thriving in this environment. Kureishi and Frears’ vision of Thatcher’s England is one of economic devastation with little hope for change. Only one space stands out in this sea of gray: the transformed laundrette.

[18] When we first see the laundrette, it is much like the other settings in the film: dimly lit, dirty, covered in graffiti, and filled with young men and boys loitering. Johnny and Omar soon smash walls, renovate washers, paint the building inside and out, and, finally, hang an elaborate configuration of lights out front. When the dozens of blinking light bulbs and the huge, flashing neon sign they surround light up, the laundrette formerly known as “Churchill’s” has become “Powders.” As the camera pulls back—revealing a sign more reminiscent of movie marquees of the 1930s than a laundrette in South London in the 1980s—we see that something has changed. The film is no longer solely a realist narrative documenting urban decay under Thatcher; it is also a fantasy. Yet it continues to interweave a realist narrative with the fantasy that takes place inside the laundrette.

[19] The interior of the transformed laundrette is kept hidden from audiences as well as from the neighborhood until the scene of the grand opening. When we are finally let inside, the whole neighborhood is still queued up anxiously waiting to enter. A slow pan around the empty interior of the room reveals pastel colors, shiny, reflective surfaces, and bright sunlight. Blue and yellow washers with Japanese-style waves painted above them line the orange walls, plants and a large fish tank are arranged about the room, and an artificial, bubbling sound can be heard. A television hangs on the wall and a fancy sound system plays a waltz. Nothing we have seen so far prepares us for all of this; it is almost as if the film has changed from black and white to color. When guests are finally allowed inside, most are astonished. One woman calls it “a wonderful ship,” while Omar’s father compares it to “a ladies’ hair dressing salon.” As these comments point out, the space is both feminized and reminiscent of the tropics. It is, however, a completely artificial and obviously constructed tropics, a parody of the “hot country” film settings Kureishi disdains that create nostalgic colonial fantasies. Examining two significant scenes which take place in the laundrette reveals the importance of this space in creating a fantasy of union and allows us to evaluate how fantasy and national romance are being used in the film.

[20] The laundrette provides the setting for, and creates the possibility of, one of the most important scenes in the film. In this scene, the image of Johnny and Omar having sex in the back room is juxtaposed with Uncle Nasser and his mistress Rachael dancing in the front room of the laundrette. When the scene begins, Johnny is seductively drawing Omar into the back room as they wait to allow guests inside for the laundrette’s grand opening. The room is a small, dimly lit office with a large two-way mirror that enables them to see out without allowing anyone else to see in. Johnny sits on Omar’s lap and opens a bottle of champagne while they discuss their imminent success. When the discussion turns to Omar’s father, the man they are waiting for, Omar gets up and walks across the room. A series of medium shot/reverse shots reveals Omar with bars of shadow across his face and Johnny in the light. Suddenly upset, Omar looks off into space and begins to speak passionately:

Marching. Marching through Lewisham. It was bricks and bottles and Union Jacks. It was immigrants out. It was kill us. People we knew. And it was you. He saw you marching and you saw his face, watching you. Don’t deny it. We were there when you went past.

A close up of Johnny’s face reveals surprise and then shame. He looks down as Omar continues: “Papa hated himself and his job. He was afraid on the streets for me. So he took it out on her. And she couldn’t bear it.” As he says this, Johnny walks slowly over to Omar and sits with him. In the medium shot that follows, both men turn from each other and face the camera as Johnny leans in towards Omar, taking off his jacket, reaching into his shirt, and touching his chest. As he does so, Omar looks off into the distance saying, “Such failure, such emptiness.” Johnny’s head rests on Omar’s shoulder. They sit silently in the frame like this for a few seconds.

[21] The scene then cuts to Rachael and Nasser entering the laundrette and admiring what “the boys” have done. They speak to each other tenderly and discuss their relationship. It cuts back to a medium shot of “the boys,” now facing each other and shirtless. The light is dim but we see their faces. They are looking at each other and Omar smiles. Johnny has his hands on Omar’s neck as he says: “There ain’t nothing I can say to make it up to you. There’s only things I can do to show you that … that I am with you.” The lights dim and they kiss in the shadows. The scene cuts back to Rachael and Nasser who have begun waltzing to the music playing on the sound system. They continue to dance gracefully and begin to speak of Omar as Nasser expresses the desire to get him married. In a humorous juxtaposition, the film cuts to the backroom where Johnny is naked and on top of Omar as they kiss and pour champagne into each other’s mouths. Rachael and Nasser, politely waltzing, are visible through the mirror behind the boys. The scene cuts back to Rachael and Nasser kissing tenderly and then more passionately. It quickly returns to Omar and Johnny having sex as they suddenly notice Rachael and Nasser through the window, pull away from each other, and dress hastily.

[22] This scene juxtaposing Johnny and Omar with Rachael and Nasser parallels a similar scene in Kureishi and Frears’ next collaboration, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, in which we see three couples having sex on a screen split in thirds. Both of these scenes reveal the prevalence of interracial relationships in Kureishi’s work: the films Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and My Son the Fanatic (1997) center on interracial relationships, and interracial sex and love feature prominently in the novels The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and The Black Album (1995). (For more on the theme of interracial relationships in Kureishi’s work see Kenneth Kaleta’s Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller.) In addition, like Kureishi himself and My Beautiful Laundrette‘s Omar, many of his main characters are the children of interracial unions. It is not surprising then that Kureishi would take on the conventions of the national romance, but his choice to make a same-sex relationship the one that that stands as the national allegory in My Beautiful Laundrette may surprise some viewers. The film depicts other relationships which cross class and racial boundaries and could have served as national romances, but Johnny and Omar’s is the only one shown to be both productive—it creates the laundrette—and functioning at the end of the film. By contrast, Nasser and Rachael are happy together, yet their relationship ends because of Nasser’s marriage. Other romantic unions in My Beautiful Laundrette fare even worse. Nasser and his wife are pictured in the frame together only once when they scream at each other in Urdu about his affair with Rachael. A picture on the mantle of Omar’s mother, a white woman who committed suicide before the film opens, is all that is left of Papa’s marriage. The contrast with these failed unions highlights the success of Johnny and Omar’s relationship, and this privileging of a gay relationship as the one that thrives was intentional on the parts of both Frears and Kureishi.

[23] More than just an intervention into previous representations of homosexuality, however, the relationship between Johnny and Omar raises questions about how we can negotiate painful aspects of the past, both individual and collective, and to what extent these traumas can and should be incorporated, forgotten, or healed. Both the couple and, by extension, the audience must come to terms with Johnny’s past participation in fascist marches. Johnny explicitly states that he cannot make up for his action with words, but will do “things” in an attempt “to show… that I am with you.” He proceeds to let Omar undress him and they have sex. Sex, then, becomes what Johnny offers to prove his devotion, and in this fantasy space it heals the rift caused by his betrayal. Yet the film does not allow Johnny’s past to be forgotten: it keeps reappearing in his friends’ racism and in Omar’s father’s memory of Johnny’s acts. This reliance on sex as a means of healing is, therefore, recognized as a fragile one based on a temporary act. Gayatri Gopinath includes a reading of the same scene in her study on queer diasporas and popular culture. She argues thatMy Beautiful Laundrette in general and that scene in particular makes visible “queer racialized desire and its relation to memory and history” (3). Queer desire, she argues, it what makes Omar able to access this memory and to grapple with the legacies of colonialism. It is sex then, interracial queer sex, that Kureishi and Frears use to allegorize healing national collective traumas.

[24] Significantly, the fantasy space of the laundrette is not, ultimately, safe from the violence of the film’s outside world. Tensions have been mounting throughout the film as conflicts between the black and white characters intensify, and, in the final scenes, Salim, a Pakistani character who works for Omar’s family and who injured one of the racist punks earlier, is attacked and badly beaten outside the laundrette. Johnny watches in discomfort from inside, finally stepping in and breaking up the fight when it looks like Salim might be killed. In the process, he must fight Genghis, his mate from the film’s opening. Omar arrives just as the fight breaks up and runs to a bleeding, stumbling Johnny. He holds and shields Johnny with his own body when the punks run back, but instead of attacking Johnny and Omar, they throw a garbage can through the window of the laundrette, breaking the fragile barrier the film had constructed between the two narrative spaces.

[25] The next shot shows the two inside the laundrette as Johnny talks angrily of leaving and Omar gently tries to wash the blood off of his face. Omar responds by telling anecdotes of Johnny as a child always running off. He calls Johnny “dirty” and “beautiful,” but Johnny rebuffs his words and his touch, walking to the door of the debris-filled laundrette and looking out as if he would leave. As Omar kisses his neck from behind, he stops. The final image of the film is a medium shot of Johnny and Omar facing each other, shirtless, over a sink full of water. Omar soaps Johnny’s chest and gets him wet as he tries to wash the soap off. The two splash each other and slowly begin to smile and laugh. It is a tender, playful image. The familiar, non-diegetic bubbling sound begins and the door closes obscuring our view.

[26] In contrast to earlier graphic and divisive images of white on black violence, the film’s final image is one of union. If we read the union of Johnny and Omar as being reborn in this final frame—a reading the water imagery encourages—and their relationship as a national allegory, then this image suggests the birth of a new Britain capable of healing from its racist past and present. It is significant too that the film resolves Johnny and Omar’s conflict not with words, but instead with images. As Johnny says, nothing he can say will make up for his fascist past and his betrayal of Omar and Papa; there are only things he can do to show that he is with Omar now. Consequently, the final image depicts them together, not speaking but laughing and playing. The film is not implying that racial violence is gone from the world outside the laundrette; in fact, it has just shown otherwise. Nor is it saying Johnny and Omar can escape these prejudices. It is, however, providing a counter image to the violence, and, significantly, this counter image is again set inside the laundrette: a space that is at once public and private, contained and permeable, as the garbage can breaking through the window shows.

[27] This final scene does not imply that the romance between Johnny and Omar has done away with this very real social problem. The healing depicted in the film is symbolic and located in fantasy—it only happens inside the laundrette. Yet some critics miss this vital point. Susan Torrey Barber, for instance, claims:

Their relationship survives, suggesting not only that their bond of mutual love and devotion may bring their communities together in a spirit of trust and collaboration, but also that they will rebuild their trashed shop and perhaps create a chain of laundrettes. (326)

On the contrary, at the end of the film there is little evidence that they will continue to run the one laundrette together, let alone open a chain. And although their relationship does survive, there is no implication that their communities will be brought together by their romance. In fact, the opposite has proven to be true: their relationship has been the catalyst for much of the discord and violence in the film. Johnny is isolated from his old friends because he works for Omar, Omar’s family is suspicious of his relationship with Johnny, and their partnership has inadvertently led to the fight that leaves both Salim and Johnny badly beaten. Barber makes the mistake of reading the relationship literally and in terms of realism, when instead it functions allegorically and in terms of fantasy. It is only when we pay attention to the film’s formal choices and its hybridization of fantasy and realism that we can correctly interpret its politics.

[28] Although Thatcherism is usually remembered primarily in terms of its economic impact, Anna Marie Smith argues that the Conservative Party’s social policies and nationalist rhetoric were just as influential. It was through this nationalist rhetoric that Thatcher constructed a British subject based on exclusion. In a 1978 speech, for example, Thatcher refers to what she calls the “natural” fears “the British” had about their country being “swamped” by people from the “New Commonwealth” (qtd. in Smith 5). In her rhetoric, Thatcher constructs the “true” British as not from the Commonwealth and their prejudices as an understandable reaction to immigrants; immigrants thus become the problem and prejudice against them is naturalized. Conservatives employed a similar rhetoric in the late 1980s during debates over the homophobic legislation known as Section 28, a law that prohibited any entity that received government funding from “promoting homosexuality.” In this instance, the figure threatening the nation (and always constructed as outside of it) shifted from the immigrant to the diseased, predatory gay man. These rhetorical constructions are powerful and need to be countered with equally powerful rhetoric, yet the political leadership of the Left under Thatcher was not able to challenge it particularly effectively. The Labour Party moved to the right in a misguided attempt to appeal to voters who had shifted to the Conservative Party. In the absence of capable political leadership critiquing Thatcher, the work of artists, writers, and filmmakers took on an especially vital role. As Leonard Quart asserts, “it sometimes seemed that in their savage critiques of Thatcherism, the English films of the eighties produced one of the few effective political weapons against the Thatcher tide” (242). Unlike American films of the 1980s which, in general, mirrored the political shift to the right the country was undergoing, many British films and television series stood firmly in opposition to Thatcherism. Films such as Handsworth Songs (1986), The Last of England (1987), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) presented scathing critiques of different aspects of Thatcherism. My Beautiful Laundrette‘s use of the queer national romance is one particularly successful intervention that challenged Thatcherism—its economic policies and its racist and homophobic rhetoric—as it positioned audiences to envision a new national subject that incorporated the gay, immigrant, brown body.

[29] In addition to using Johnny and Omar’s romance to make an argument for a new, more inclusive nation,My Beautiful Laundrettecomments upon the genre of the national romance itself. The film revises the national romance, not only by its inclusion of a same-sex couple but, just as importantly, with its refusal to erase political tensions through the union of its protagonists. As such, it implicitly acknowledges the pitfalls of the national romance as a genre. Although some critics misread the romance in My Beautiful Laundretteas one that transcends class and race, the film itself does not support such a reading. Rather than erasing the differences between the two men with a humanist message that we are all alike, the film explores their differences and even, at times, exploits them. Moreover, the conflicts between their respective communities are not healed via their romance—except symbolically inside the fantasy space of the laundrette. Thus, My Beautiful Laundrette avoids the traps some other national romances fall into and demonstrates the potential of the queer national romance to re-imagine the nation, a potential critics have not recognized. Insofar as the imagined community of the nation is itself a kind of collective fantasy, the film is able to do real work through its fantasy—even if the utopic space of the laundrette and the relationship it enables are ultimately unsustainable. The film uses its audience’s desire to see this fragile space survive to create an emotional investment in a new conception of Britishness. At their most visionary than, queer national romances contest homophobic nationalisms as they revise imperial fantasies of domination, re-imagining citizenship in radical new ways.

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