The English Game (2020)

Netflix six-part television series.

Jane and Kimberly make a sighting of modern women in The English Game turning grief into gold as men change the game of football from a boy’s game to one of the men.   

JAS: I started watching The English Game expecting a story about class clashes.  It is, after all, a story about how football (soccer as we know it and soccer it will be for the rest of our talk) went from an upper-class gentlemen’s game in England to a worldwide sport in which a boy could go from rags to riches.  What I wasn’t expecting and what makes it fit in with our Double-Mirror promise to bring attention to what’s new with women in our culture –  right up to 2020-date in spite of it being a story that takes place in late 1800’s – is its women’s voices.  In this presentation of a historic change in the sport of soccer, the women are portrayed as critical to the transformation of their men into men of true sportsmanship.  

KC: When you first turned me onto this series and mentioned the portrayal of women, I thought, maybe, but am I to believe strong roles of women set into a period of history that our feminists and our world tell us was heavy-handed with patriarchy? I realized that I carry societal expectations in my own life that basically, anything prior to 1950 for me is wrought with men treating women as second-class citizens. What watching The English Game toppled for me was the idea that we can pigeonhole or stereotype human relations and behaviors to the detriment of seeing the gold in the exceptional.

JAS: Yes, Julian Fellowes feels visionary in this, bringing truth of women’s influence to history and, by way of storytelling, to us.  In his six-part television series, women talk truth to one another (not trivial conversations), talk truth to men, and talk truth to power.  It’s actually pretty amazing to watch.  I caught on about half way through.  It wasn’t hard to believe that Fellowes got it right – women’s voices, however quiet they may have been in actual 1879, can be believed as the voices they got in The English Game.  They were surely a lesser-known but equally viable part of the fabric of change that came about in the men and in the sport.  I think we can say that the significance of achievement in football from being a boy’s game to a game of men that enhanced manhood in the eyes of family and community was a feminine contribution of the change that happened. Now we live in times that can make those quiet voices heard.  That’s new. 

KC: Let’s give some examples. Very early on in the show, I was impressed by Alma, the wife of Arthur, a privileged, upper class teammate of the Old Etonians football club, and son of a very stoic and stern “old school” man. Alma is always seen as an equal presence to her husband in scenes where they are together, and as they dine with friends who are guests to their home, I watched in delight as she openly and freely shared her opinions on topics of discussion and generously expressed her integration with her husband as a pair. Public or private, their marriage seemed very much one of a team. The telling points come when Alma has a miscarriage, suffering profound grief, and Arthur, rather than turn from her grief, holds space for it.

JAS: Yes, and learns from it. We see him transform.  He grows as a man when he admits his love for his wife comes before his love of the game out loud to his teammates when he chooses to go to her side when she challenges the system of adoption in England, grabbing babies from “fallen” women to sell to families deemed worthy.  His wife, in turn, backs him up when he confronts his well-entrenched in upper English society father to make soccer a part of his adult life as he steps into power in his father’s business.  “Yes,” Alma tells his father, “he draws a strength from playing football that will make him strong as a businessman.  It is not a child’s game to be put away to prove he’s a man.”  The father finally accepts her invitation to watch her husband play – and he, in modern terms, “gets it,” going up to his son after the game and telling him “I’m proud of you.”  With little or no freedom in those days to act independent of her husband, Alma finds a way (makes it valuable to men) to turn her volunteering at a home for unwed mothers into a focus for philanthropy, which her husband, his male friends, and his father can’t refuse.

KC: Right, and that validation was incredibly inspiring for a woman of Alma’s time. Arthur’s putting of faith in the “team” of his wife and himself ends up spilling over into his sports team, where he brings a decidedly feminine balance to the masculinity of the sport, leading the team in the end to do things that are right over things that are aggressive, malicious, or heavy handed. Arthur and his contemporaries are eschewing the roles that their own fathers played and forging their own with the help of their women’s touches, forming a bridge from the old interpersonal male/female relationships to the new.

JAS: The conflict between father and son is an integral theme to The English Game.  Aside from Arthur, we have his working class equivalent in Ferguson, a grunt from Glasgow, Scotland, who, in the words of the woman he loves, ‘plays like a dream’. His father is a drunk prone to violent fits and beating up his mother and sisters.  It is Fergie’s determination to rescue them as much as his love of football that drives him to challenge the rules of the gentlemen’s game through the radically novel act of accepting money for his talents on the field. The woman he loves, Martha, is one of those “fallen” women who fell for a rich man named Mr. Cartwright’s lusting eye, and is now raising the child he left her with. She is also a woman of keen independence and determination.

KC: Yes, Martha. I loved her. She has pride and grit and takes no pity. Even though she is a single mother, spurned by the married man she fell for, and is now struggling to make it on her own, she shows no martyrdom in her actions. Naturally, she is drawn to the same spirit in Fergie and together they make a model for the trait of integrity. They are the underdogs. But they are also equal and valuable in the roles they play in the show. We don’t see Martha fall prey to victimhood due to her life circumstance, nor do we see Fergie fall prey to failure because of his own lot in life. Instead, we see them both pick themselves up again and again to fight for what they want with the strengths they were given.

JAS: Yes, Martha carries a truth of self-worth that keeps getting expressed in dialog and actions, showing not telling, of The English Game.  She knows that the love of a working-man from Scotland trumps the money of the man who walked away from her, who coincidentally becomes Fergie’s boss.  And she tells him so.  Her choice validates Fergie’s sense of himself as a man. “You play not just for yourself but for me,” she tells him as he goes to work as the key player for the wealthy man who is the father of her daughter.

KC: Which brings up another woman, Mr. Cartwright’s wife. Mrs. Cartwright runs the home for unwed mothers who deliver the babies that contribute to a thriving adoption industry. Her role is an ironic way to make up for her own miscarriage grief. She is a complicated woman who helps women adopt babies even while suffering her own loss. What appears to be a very bitter and harshly judgmental façade at first, turns to compassion later on, and we realize that she is experiencing her own inner transformations throughout the show as she comes to witness the progressive actions of the other women in her midst. Her job turns personal, her veneer eroded, when Alma first visits the home and makes her see an unwed mother as more than just a loose woman in a compromised situation, but an actual sister in a gender largely judged for its unwanted pregnancies. Then as she watches Alma later on fight for the return of said woman’s baby, we see her soften from hard edges to empathy.

JAS: Yes, to the point of even visiting Martha whom she despises as the source of her husband’s own wanton lust, and offering to take the daughter off of her hands despite the pain her existence has caused. When Martha refuses to give up her child, Mrs. Cartwright ends up giving Martha a job! As if looking in a mirror, Mrs. Cartwright goes from a spurned woman who can’t bear children to an empowered woman (and stepmother) who prefers love to the spoils of class. It’s a big win for all, set up by and carried out by the women. It’s a mad mad woman’s world in The English Game where acting from the heart pays off!

KC: And acting from the heart is the way that women transcend in a man’s world. These women carry the importance of living one’s values of caring as the worthy goal of The English Game. Which makes me want to bring up one more woman, Doris Platt. She is the wife of Fergie’s best bud Jimmy who becomes injured and unable to carry out his own soccer career right after getting married and finding a semblance of happiness. Doris is like the cheerleader on the sidelines, a quiet source of unconditional love, who patiently and quietly observes, listens, and supports the dramas unfolding around her. She is the silent presence of the feminine that influences from the shadows yet takes no credit, nor feels the need for acclaim. She is grace. And it’s by grace that many of us learn to shift our vision.

JAS: Yes. So, shift your vision.  Watch The English Game as a woman’s story. The importance of being a man is about being seen as a man – in the eyes of his community, his family and his woman.  And when a man has an active feminine, he serves those values to his advantage. How does the Downton Abbey writer/director Julian Fellowes know these things?  No doubt, a woman told him (or showed him) so. 

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