Billy Elliot is a story about working-class self-realisation, and one that challenges gender stereotypes. The crass call for the production to be pulled from the Hungarian State Opera sums up the ethos behind the ‘illberal democracy’ that Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, would like to install.
In an op-ed for the Magyar Idők, considered to be a mouthpiece of the Orbán-regime, it was alleged that the musical sought to ‘promote homosexuality’. The article was written under the name Zsofia Horvath, although it has been speculated that this might be a pseudonym for figures from Fidesz – the nationalistic political party that Orbán leads. The opera house’s director-general, Szilveszter Ókovács, informed an independent Hungarian website that there had been a clear link between a negative media campaign and the cancellation of at least fifteen performances. Yet, for now, the show will go on. Pressure from Orbán and his allies has led to there being fewer independent Hungarian news outlets and much of Hungary’s media now takes an unequivocally pro-government, right-wing stance. As such, this attack on Billy Elliot can be understood as a clear demonstration of Orbán’s politics.
The Horvath article is expressly predicated on the assumption that children seeing the musical will be encouraged to ‘turn gay’. This is a starling and troubling claim. It implies entrenched homophobia and a regressive, outdated understanding of human psychology. A more socially liberal commentator might offer a more celebratory analysis of Billy Elliot. One might concede that endorsing a play with LGBT+ characters might prove that a society is not prejudiced against homosexuality or LGBT+ adolescents. Denouncing and denigrating Billy Elliot, as Orbán-sympathisers now have, is indicative of an all-encompassing rejection of both tolerance and the musical’s emphasis on expressing individuality. Re-evaluating Billy Elliot can therefore give an indication of the types of values that Orbán is keen to distance himself from.
The well-known plot of both the Billy Elliot film of 2000 and musical of 2005 revolve around an 11-year-old boy that chooses to learn ballet, over attending boxing classes meant ‘for lads’. The story is set in England’s County Durham, during the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike, a fraught moment in Britain’s cultural memory. Suffocated by toxic masculinity and from a single-parent working-class family, Billy seems destined to become a miner and for his dreams of joining the Royal Ballet School to remain unfulfilled. Ultimately, Billy is triumphant. Not only does he actually become a ballet dancer, but he eventually brings the whole community together to support him. This success allows for a reinforcement of the idea of ‘Solidarity Forever!’, an important lyric from the musical. Billy challenges the oppressive nature of patriarchy at every opportunity, by expressing his angry frustration through dancing, swearing and shouting.
That is not to say that he’s gay, despite his father’s suspicions. On the other hand, Billy’s best mate Michael is. Cut from the Hungarian adaptation, even before the publication of the Horvath article, the Michael-subplot sees a young person go from hiding and feeling insecure about their sexuality to eventually embracing it. With growing confidence, Michael explores his love of wearing make-up, dresses and especially tutus. Throughout, Michael is supported by Billy’s refusal to belittle or bully his friend. The film and the uncut musical even conclude with them sharing a platonic kiss. Billy is straight and into ballet, criticised by his family as being for ‘puffs’ and ‘sissys’. In contrast, Michael is gay and not a proficient dancer but supported by male peers. Together, they completely disrupt traditional portrayals of gendered stereotypes. Likewise, they are shown to have transcended the adversity of their backgrounds to fully realise their potential and to come to terms with their individual identities.
The presence of Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of 1980s Britain, looms over Billy Elliot both thematically and as a giant, menacing puppet. For the purposes of the musical, Thatcher is a symbol of the ‘illiberal’ politics that the miners are in conflict with. In the end, her government defeats the miners: the coal pits are closed, and the community’s working-men are left unemployed. How does this relate to Billy’s story? Well, it acts as a reminder for how difficult it is to achieve self-fulfilment when living under oppressive conditions such as poverty. Billy’s success stands in stark contrast to his brother’s failure. With the mines closed, Tony Elliot tells Billy, 200,000 men will be left unemployed and they “can’t all be fucking dancers.”
In short, the musical asks, how can people express their individuality under social, economic or political circumstances that actively suppress it? Clearly, this is a message that Orbán would feel uncomfortable with.
The Horvath article warned that “the propagation of homosexuality cannot be a national goal [for Hungary] when the population is getting older and smaller.” Such avowedly intolerant statements, coming from sources close to the heart of a European government, should make us sit up and take notice. Fears of declining populations have been used to justify attempts to mould the composition of said-populations since at least the eighteenth-century. Noémi Herczog, of the Élet és Irodalom literary review, has reportedly stated the Billy Elliot controversy has echoed the forms of censorship that afflicted Hungary during its Communist past. With Orbán seemingly set on establishing a state monopoly over the news, and content with these outlets to condemn potentially subversive art, it is easy to see Herczog’s point.
Orbán’s shadow now looms over European politics just as much as the Thatcher-puppet does in Billy Elliot. At a time when the right-wing is in growing ascendency, Europeans should not become complacent about LGBT+ rights. Moreover, Horvath’s criticism of the musical should be understood as a wholescale attack on individuality and non-conformity. It should be exposed as being deeply disturbing and suggestive of the direction that Orbán’s administration seeks to continue taking Hungary.
We can only hope that opposition to Orbán’s growing authoritarianism, and support for Billy Elliot, will spark... like Electricity.