Billy Elliot Syndrome is everywhere

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The Independent Online

Scotland's health minister, Susan Deacon, yesterday launched a new sex-education initiative called Healthy Respect, aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Costing £3m, it is being trialled with a view to forming the basis of a nationwide strategy. But family-values and religious groups are appalled at all the "filth" being pumped into schools.

Scotland's health minister, Susan Deacon, yesterday launched a new sex-education initiative called Healthy Respect, aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Costing £3m, it is being trialled with a view to forming the basis of a nationwide strategy. But family-values and religious groups are appalled at all the "filth" being pumped into schools.

Lynda Warrington, president of the Girls' Schools Association, yesterday made a keynote speech in which she urged parents to get tough with their teenage daughters. She believes that parents are too afraid to issue guidelines for fear of confrontation, and says that they leave sex and alcohol education too much to teachers. She also suggests that teen magazines and family-planning organisations are to blame for pushing children too quickly into adult activity, "forgetting that underage sex is illegal".

The House of Lords (debating the Age of Consent bill last night), has always cautioned the Commons against using the Parliament Act to push through the legislation making the age of consent the same for gay and straight teenagers.

Tony Blair, at the weekend, was exposed as having had to jettison his wish to lead the Government in promoting marriage as the best way to organise a family. Instead, the Government will sanction whatever your family happens to be as perfectly acceptable. So thanks, Government. That approval feels so good.

Sex education. Responsible parenting. Traditional parenting. Equality. Behind all of this pulling and pushing, toing and froing, about what we should do about our children and their sex lives, I see what I call Billy ElliotSyndrome. Since I watched the film, I've been seeing Billy Elliot Syndrome everywhere. I know that cinemagoers were supposed to leave Billy Elliot feeling that wonderful synthesis of weepiness and euphoria that cinema delivers so effectively. But I just felt really annoyed.

Not that I didn't like the film. I did. What I didn't like, for many reasons, was the film's certificate. What is the point of making a film about an inspirational 11-year-old that you have to be at least 15 to see? And what does it say about us as a culture, that film critics didn't focus strongly on this significant, and worrying, anomaly?

I think it says quite a lot. First, let's be clear about the kind of censorship that is being imposed on us here. It is class censorship, designed to protect children whose real lives don't expose them to the kind of life lived by Billy and his friends. It has to be. Everyone agrees that Billy Elliot was strong on social realism, so an 11-year-old viewing the movie would by definition be exposed to nothing more than the real issues faced by all little boys and girls of Billy's age and class. Bad language, violence, budding young sexuality - both gay and straight - political struggle, poverty. What kind of society do we live in, where some children are actually living lives like this - while others cannot even be taken by their parents to see it?

The same society in which a sex- education programme is undertaken because underage sexual activity is causing not just the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe, but also very high levels of sexually transmitted diseases. The same society as the one in which "family values campaigners" complain about the Scottish Health Department's roadshow telling vulnerable teenagers about contraception because they don't want their children to walk into a community centre and be taught about sex.

And what about parents who do want to teach their children about sex, and much else besides? Say they wanted to teach their children about finding a talent they loved and letting nothing get in the way of their pursuit of that talent? Why can't these parents take their children to see Billy Elliot?

Then there are the parents who want their children to learn about homosexuality not from playground sniggering but from them. The sexual- awakening storyline in Billy Elliot is neither explicit nor intrusive. But it is sensitively handled. Why can't these parents take their children to see Billy Elliot? Why indeed, can't they take the House of Lords to see Billy Elliot?

Or parents who want their children to understand their recent social history? Billy Elliot offers a passionate account of the 1984 miners' strike, an important part of Britain's recent history that many parents may feel it important for their children to understand. Why can't they take their children to see Billy Elliot?

They can't because they are expected to communicate with their children - if at all - across a monolithic cultural divide. When Lynda Warrington talks about parents who are afraid to ban their daughters from drinking and sex, she is right in her observation. But it is not necessarily the fault of the parents.

Rather it is the fault of a society which draws too heavy a line between childhood and adulthood and leaves nothing in between for people in the all-important transitional stage. There is children's entertainment - multimillion-pound blockbuster movies, Teletubbies and toys. Then there's adult entertainment, with only Top of the Pops, the school disco, adult-aping shows like Hollyoaks and video games in between. No wonder teenagers get drunk and have sex.

There's virtually nothing for families to enjoy together, or for older children and their parents to enjoy together, even though we all know from experience that the early teenage years are at once the most complex and the most boring of our lives.

When something that unites the generations does break through, such as the Harry Potter books, we repackage them, so that the books look different for children and for adults, missing the point that the fabulous, and very unusual, thing about them is that they are for everybody.

Meanwhile, Billy Elliot has a 15 certificate, and so does Blair Witch 2. It's as if children move from Toy Story to The Exorcist with nothing in between. No wonder children find it so difficult to steer their way through adolescence to adulthood. They get no help from the wider world in linking those two states at all. And parents who do want to educate their children in such a way, find that the tools which might help them to do the job better are simply not there.

Am I the only person who imagines that if film companies with strong directors made films that first set out to be great films and along the way explored realistically what teenage life in Britain might be like, then parents would be more than keen to take their children to see them and to discuss the contents? Not to mention teachers.

Instead, when a film a little like that, such as Billy Elliot, comes along, the very people for whom it has most resonance are banned. Maybe that's why families have such a rough ride here - because not just economically and socially but culturally too, they are sidelined, whether the parents are married or not.

The kind of progressive attitude to family life that would be exemplified by a trip to the cinema is crushed by "family values" campaigners who demand a neat delineation between childhood and adulthood, not just for them but for everyone. They may wish to protect their children from the realities of life, but other parents wish only to contextualise those realities in a meaningful way.

Billy Elliot syndrome is rife in Britain among pressure groups and in mainstream politics. And they don't stop at telling you what kind of childhood is the right one in the movies. They tell you what kind of childhood is right in real life. Then they wonder why real life isn't like that.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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