“Blue Jean” Is a Painful and Hopeful Story of a Queer Teacher

During my recent interview with actor and drag legend Murray Hill, he talked about the 7th grade teacher who showed him VHS tapes of Paris is Burning and The Queen. “I had one cool teacher,” he said. “There’s always one!”

Many of us survived closeted childhoods, because of that one teacher. Many of us grew up to be queer adults because one person saw something special while everyone else just saw difference. Not all of these people were queer themselves, but a lot of them were. We take care of our own when no one else will. But community is not a given among queer individuals — it requires work, it requires fight, it requires care.

Georgia Oakley’s new film Blue Jean takes place in a time much like our own. The year is 1988, and Thatcherism has the UK in the grip of traditional values — traditional values like hurting workers, increasing social inequalities, and oppressing anyone with a marginalized identity. Queer people are visible in all the wrong ways with daily debates about our existence occurring on TV and the radio.

Jean is a high school PE teacher and netball coach living a double life. At school, she tries to remain private, her short hair, lack of a husband, and teaching subject still leading to rumors. At home, she has a robust queer community, primarily due to her radical dyke girlfriend, Viv. These worlds start to collide when Jean sees her new student, Lois, at the gay bar — and, more importantly, Lois sees her.

Ninety years since The Children’s Hour was first on stage and over sixty years since it appeared on-screen, the story of a tortured lesbian teacher hovering at the door of the closet may seem tired. But there’s a reason teachers have long been a battleground for queer progress — in fiction and in real life. “Save the children” is just about the easiest manipulation tactic those who want us dead can use. It’s never: save the children from hunger by giving them free lunches. It is instead: save the children from queerness, education, themselves — anything that might result in life different from the conservative status quo.

The triumph of Blue Jean is that it takes time showing the queer lives at stake. This is not a dour film. It has hot lesbian sex, sweaty snapshots of queer bars, and, ultimately, portrays the power of community. This makes the constricting environment of the school all the more painful.

Rosy McEwen as Jean, Kerrie Hayes as Viv, and Lucy Halliday as Lois give a trio of complicated performances. Each of their characters is fighting different battles in the same war, approaching their queer lives with different bravery and compromise. The pain and pleasure of each is made clear in every look and line delivery.

This film does not present easy answers. The arc is not one of self-acceptance, a triumphant moment where Jean comes out and learns she should have been out the whole time. That’s not the world we lived in; it’s not the world we live in. Instead, the film exists within the complexities that face these various queer lives. Viv’s queerness doesn’t allow her the choice of being closeted — Jean’s does. By staying closeted, Jean is allowed to be around children, shaping their lives in the ways only that one cool teacher can.

But the film also doesn’t excuse cowardice in the face of these impossibilities. As the plot develops, as Jean’s balancing act becomes untenable, Oakley suggests that courage is a moral imperative. It’s not fair that we’re put in positions that require sacrifice. And yet at a certain point to focus on the not-fairness of our own lives means ignoring the lives of others. We have to accept that burden, meet that burden, and fight the best we can. It’s scary, it’s unfair, it’s essential. Queer people owe this to each other. All people owe this to each other.

Early in the film, Jean says: “Not everything is political.” Viv shoots back: “Of course it is.” There is room in queer cinema for work that is escapist, but in a moment when anti-queer, anti-trans legislation is rapidly being passed in the US, when transphobia continues to spread across the US and the UK, I’m grateful for a film like Blue Jean. We need art that grapples with these realities, and still — even still — finds hope.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 521 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. So glad to see Blue Jean reviewed here! As you outline, such a layered story with a pin-point precise sense of location and time, yet sadly still resonant in the here and now.

    I’m 27 so only my early schooling was under Section 28, but its legacy hung over my whole education with almost entirely closted teachers and students and an appalling lack of queer content in lessons, PSHE and libraries.

    PS The sport Jean coaches is netball which brought back some harrowing memories for me personally (:

  2. a beautiful piece, as always drew, and a beautiful film.

    one tiny correction: jean is a netball coach, not a basketball coach (but the sports do look v similar)

  3. I missed the film recently at a festival, and now i really want to watch it.
    I was around when clause 28 passed, and the idea of an out teacher, or an out majority at the time was absurd. The whole concept of being out was super new back then. Remember that not even people like Boy George were out. Everybody was hovering in a constant state of secret, but obvious signs and deniability. Before the internet it was possible to keep an activist private life and work life separate.
    In many European countries it was illegal to teach while gay, so all gay teachers were in the closet. This was normal, while at the same time there was a vibrant community life.
    Despite all this, the UK had the most visible gay community, and Clause 28 seemed to come out of nowhere. Things turned much worse very suddenly, within 2 or 3 weeks, and i understood how the early 1930s in Germany must have felt. The normal population became homophobic out of the blue, lead by the newspapers. And the law was over-obeyed by everyboddy, not just schools, even though it hadn’t passed through parliament yet. That was the most frightening thing. After experiencing that I’ve never trusted society.

    • I finally saw this movie.It’s finally available to stream on Amazon Prime and Apple +. I had been waiting patiently ever since I read your review. Thank you for your thoughtful piece. I am so glad I finally got to see it!

  4. I’m so happy we get to read your thoughts on this film, Drew (I had written into the A+ box requesting such, and am not at all surprised but glad it was in the works).

    I really appreciated the lack of resolution, and that “growth” or change was indicated sort of obliquely, like how (trying not to reveal too much) instead of some big coming out set piece for Jean at work, instead she quietly brings Lois into community, and also showing her a horizon for being gay, and even proudly out, beyond her current high school context.

    And I felt the film captured her increasing claustrophobia and almost manic anxiety, like everything in her life was about to tip out of control and fall apart. Rosy McEwan was mesmerizing.

  5. Great film, great writing and acting.

    I also liked the struggles in the relationship between the lead and her girlfriend. One is out, proud and not afraid of expressing herself, whereas Jean stays closeted for her own safety, and is rightly afraid.

    I’m not a fan of happy endings for queer women just because “We need queer happy endings”, because it really doesn’t work that way in real life. And I’m glad the film took this route. Life is messy, after all. No matter what you identify as.

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