The film My Beautiful Launderette portrays the strong problem of cross cutting cleavages in Thatcher Britain. The storyline incorporates several different cleavages and combines them in the same people, mimicking the complexity of real life. These multifaceted individuals show how much tension can exist within a society and how difficult it may be to reach progress. Factors such as history, personal values, and gender play a critical role in having a thorough understanding of such conflicts.
A majority of the characters in the film are of Indian/Pakistani origin. Both countries were once a crown jewel in the vast British empire and thus it was inherent to possess a feeling of superiority by white Britons towards this relatively new ethnic enclave. The characters, such as Omar, Nasser, and Hussein, belong to the upper class in British society, having made a fortune in their adopted country. The white nationalists feel resentment toward this Desi elite. Once the conquered property, these individuals have now surpassed natives in their own society. The Indians own many of the businesses that the whites must now use on a daily basis, such as launderettes. This is not dissimilar to how the Indian subcontinent was run throughout the colonial era. The white nationalists take out their frustration on the Indians in the form of intimidation and violence. The Indians occasionally reciprocate with malice of their own, such as the running over of a white nationalist’s foot. Such tit-for-tat only serves to put salt in the wound. The racial cleavage divides what is essentially old Britain and new Britain. Those that have ancestry on the island nation and those that seek it. At its core, this cleavage is a xenophobic one. The well established mentality of British isolationism is the driving force behind this lack of enthusiasm for integration. Such cleavages may eventually subside, but not without trademark British gradualism.
Historic prejudice is not the only point of tension present in the movie. There is also a cleavage of values. Johnny and Omar are gay lovers, but attempt their best to conceal it from those around them. Johnny hides it from his gang and Omar veils it when he is in the presence of the other Indians, even pretending to show interest in marrying Tania, one of their daughters. When the launderette opens, the pair is having sex in the back room, and quickly decease and make up lies when the door opens. They are never directly persecuted for their sexuality, but it is made clear that they are in conservative company during most of the film. My Beautiful Launderette makes the insinuation that homosexuality, at the time, was such a unitary issue, by the regards of the general public, that it is not even present at a level where most people can see it. It is hidden away, in back rooms, meant only for private enjoyment. There is not wide enough support for it to have legitimate recognition. Race is not something that can be concealed, making confrontation impossible, homosexuality can be concealed. The issue of race is further along in being accepted in British society, homosexuality is still decades behind because of its more ambiguous nature.
While homosexuality may be a more subtle cleavage in the movie, even more muted is the cleavage of gender. Though there is never any risk of violence like the previous two cleavages, women in the film are given a secondary role. Tania is not so important to the storyline as most of the men. Her story is more an additional layer, than something for the audience to focus on. Tania’s great conflict is does not carry the same gravity, she is bored with her life of comfort and wishes to runaway, preferably with Omar, as her early flirtations suggest. However, her struggle is a realistic one. She is often ignored, spends all her time in the home, and is not given the benefit of choosing for herself whom she is to marry. Tania’s character represents a frustration with domestic traditions, those that have forced many women in Britain into part time work with little pay and non-existent benefits. Her act of running away is a sign of things to come in Thatcher Britain and in the years to follow. Women in Britain are fed up with being passive and submissive and will take action. The very notion that this movie takes place while Thatcher is in office adds to the feeling of a tide that will come after the movie ends.
Britain is a complex society with many points of division that My Beautiful Launderette highlights. The film ends in a fashion that leaves audiences unsatisfied, as the director wanted. These issues remain unresolved and there is still much work to be done for the nation to be socially harmonious. Divisions that are relatively new, such as race, and as old as the nation state, like gender, coexist in fragmenting the country. However, if Britons like Johnny and Omar can have such a positive relationship, there is perhaps hope with the newer generations to shape the future of the United Kingdom.