The Tragedy of Albert Nobbs

My response to the film “Albert Nobbs,” was originally posted on the In Our Words blog. You can read my article below, but I recommend visiting IOW for more queer perspectives on social, cultural, and political issues!


Spoiler alert: My reflection on this film includes a discussion of the whole film, beginning to end, and so if you plan to see it and want to be surprised, stop reading.

The film “Albert Nobbs” tells the story of Albert (Glenn Close), a woman who lives her life as a man in 19th century Ireland. Albert works as a waiter in a hotel and lives unassumingly with the other wait-staff, including Helen, a feisty, somewhat “boy crazy” blonde (played by Mia Wosikowska). Behind the safety of his bedroom door, we see Albert bind his breasts and obsessively count his coins, which he stores under a loose floorboard. Albert seems content with his life, but Close’s dreamy gaze into the distance tells us he wants more.

Enter Hubert Paige (Janet McTeer), a hot butch painter that makes all the women of the film weak at the knees. He’s hired to paint some of the rooms of the house and is told to stay overnight in Albert’s room so he can finish the next day. In a series of unfortunate events, Hubert discovers that Albert is a woman. Later the next day, to ease Albert’s worried mind, Hubert reveals that he too is a woman living as a man.  [1] In fact, Albert learns, Hubert is even married to a woman.

Hubert becomes a sort of pre-internet It Gets Better project for Albert. Albert is suddenly not alone. He has a role model. A role model that proves that he could live a “normal” life, which, for Albert means: 1) getting married to a woman, and 2) owning his own tobacco shop. Feeling immediately and urgently inspired, Albert asks the young Helen to “walk out” with him. At first she says no, since she’s already started sleeping with a new hotel hire, Joe Mackins. However, Joe wants to go to America and thinks Albert has a “whiff of money about him”—so he encourages Helen to go on dates with Albert in order to get gifts, and eventually money. Helen agrees, and although she seems distressed by this manipulation, she continues.

The unfolding of this plot is slow and awkward at best, weird and uninteresting at worst. However, the unremarkable quality of the film-making is less offensive to me than the framing of the gender non-conforming protagonists. You see, the reason Albert and Hubert are living their lives as men comes from a similar experience—their “root,” if you will, is that they were both abused by men. Hubert, as a woman, was married to a man who physically beat him, and Albert was gang raped. Of course. If Hollywood isn’t telling us that the only reason queers are queer is because they were “born this way,” it’s because of a brutal tragedy.

It’s also never entirely clear if Albert is actually attracted to women. Hubert and his wife are playful and flirtatious, but Albert’s dates with Helen are excruciatingly awkward. Albert’s entire approach to dating—and to his future—is portrayed as being dim and out-of-touch. I’m guessing the filmmakers were hoping this would encourage the audience to see Albert and “sweet and innocent,” but I was mostly annoyed that he was making such stupid decisions.

This ambiguous sexuality is highlighted when, after Hubert’s wife dies of typhoid, Albert proposes that he and Hubert live together and open up his fantasy tobacco shop. Albert suggests he could take the place of Hubert’s late wife. Hubert is horrified that Albert doesn’t realize that his wife can’t be “replaced,” and in response, he takes Albert to his wife’s closet and shows him her dresses. In the next scene, Albert and Hubert walk to the sea, adorned in the dresses from her closet. Both look uncomfortable, but when Albert arrives on the beach, he runs wild and ecstatic, arms waving, dress blowing, smile across his face. He seems free, until he trips on his dress and tumbles to the sand.

This is supposed to be a metaphor for something, I’m sure, but for what exactly, I’m not so sure. Is Albert happier as a woman? Or did the fall indicate that he’s not? When they get back to Hubert’s house and change into men’s clothes, Hubert reminds Albert that “you don’t have to be anything but who you are.”

I think this was supposed to be a really powerful, poignant moment in the film, but it was lost beneath Albert’s almost inhuman personality, and the dress metaphor-fail in the scene prior.

As I sat in the theater, sharing confused glances with my fellow queer media studies colleague, I thought maybe my puzzlement was a testament to the film’s ability to handle the complexity of gender non-conforming lives, especially over a hundred years ago. Perhaps the incoherence of these characters was actually really brilliant, and I was just doing the very un-queer move of trying to make sense of something that wasn’t supposed to be made sense of.

That moment of forgiveness lasted about five minutes—because the end the film brought with it the tired trope of queer death. Like the queers of Hollywood Oscar-nominated hits that came before, Albert dies a tragic death, joining the likes of Hilary Swank, Heath Ledger, Tom Hanks and Sean Penn. Nothing like a dead queer to teach us all a lesson about humanity, right? And what better way to honor that exploited figure than to award a straight actor for playing it so well!

In her book The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed reminds us that early depictions of queer life in media (starting originally with pulp lit), was only permitted “on the condition that it does not have a happy ending, as such an ending would ‘make homosexuality attractive’” (p.88). Since the first lesbian pulp novel in 1952, it appears little has changed. Ahmed runs through a long list of queer tragedies, from classic novels like The Well of Loneliness to lesbian teen romances like Lost and Delirious. Although Ahmed rejects that “happy” queer stories are necessarily any better (as a “happy” queer film is often a tale of assimilation, and one that erases the reality of hardship), she does insist that a queer form of happiness would require struggle, and that struggle requires aspiration. “We could remember that the Latin root of the word aspiration means ‘to breathe’,” she writes, “I think the struggle for a bearable life is the struggle for queers to have a space to breathe” (p.120).  Killing queer figures does exactly the opposite.

There was one moment of the film that actually passed all my queer/critical tests. During a scene at a party at the hotel, one of the hotel owners approaches Albert and asks him why he’s not in fancy dress. “I’m a waiter, sir,” Albert states. “And I’m a doctor,” the doctor replies, “We’re both disguised as ourselves.”

Astute point, Doctor. Judith Butler would be proud that you’re pointing out that we’re all in disguise, performing our selves and our gender, trans or not. I only wish that I had decided, on that night, to be disguised as a femme who saved $9 by not seeing Albert Nobbs. [2]



[1] No surprises here, folks. As a reviewer on NPR noted, Hubert looks a lot like Rachel Maddow. Agreed. A 19th century house-painting, smoking Rachel Maddow. Swoon.

[2] Actually, that’s not true. I’m glad I saw it. As a sucker for the Oscars, I’m always excited to see the nominated films, and as a critical media studies grad student, I’m always glad to see films if for no other reason than to critique them. : )

The Incarceration of CeCe McDonald: A Threat to Justice Everywhere

This was posted on the IOW blog on Monday, on MLK Day. I am going to post it in full on here because I think it’s very important that as many people as possible be informed about CeCe’s case.

On a cold night in December, a crowd of people filled a Minneapolis church with purpose and reflection. We were, all of us shoulder to shoulder in the crowded pews, moved to join this space in defense of justice, in defense of CeCe McDonald. After a spaghetti dinner, speakers—including CeCe’s lawyer, poet Andrea Jenkins, and activist/academic, Rose Brewer—galvanized us powerfully with their words, reminding us that CeCe’s case is one about white supremacy and heteropatriarchy verses the oppressed–with the odds, as usual, in favor of the former.

CeCe McDonald is an African-American transwoman who is described as “a wise, out-spoken, and welcoming person, with a cheerful disposition and a history of handling prejudice with amazing grace.” On June 5th, her life was forever altered. On the night in question, CeCe and two of her friends were walking to a local grocery store to get food. They passed a group of three white people—two women and one man—who began verbally harassing them, calling her and her friends “‘faggots,’ ‘niggers,’ and ‘chicks with dicks,’ and suggested that CeCe was ‘dressed as a woman’ in order to ‘rape’ Dean Schmitz, one of the attackers.”

One of the white women, the first to engage in physical violence, slashed CeCe’s cheek with a beer bottle. A fight ensued with several people joining in. During the chaotic altercation, Schmitz was fatally stabbed. His death is now being blamed on CeCe, who was first held in jail in solitary confinement, later transferred to a psychiatric ward, released briefly on bail, then returned to prison. It took two months for the prison to provide medical treatment to CeCe’s cheek wound, which, at that point, had grown into a “painful, golf-ball size lump.” CeCe has been officially charged with second-degree murder and will be charged in court on April 30, 2012.

I want to be shocked by this, but I am not. Horrified, yes, but not shocked. I want to wonder with sincerity how the fact that this altercation began — because of racism and transphobia could be ignored by the police and the courts — but I don’t. I don’t wonder because I realized, perhaps not so long ago, that we live in a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal world, and that whether the news tells us or not, things like this happen every single day. According to studies done by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, “Low-income trans people are exposed to arrest, police harassment, incarceration and violence far more than the average person.” [2]

For example, in a study from the late 90s:

  • 83% of FTMs and 85% of MTFs report verbal abuse because of their gender identity or gender presentation
  • 30% of FTMs and 37% of MTF report experiencing physical violence
  • 46% of FTMs and 57% report employment discrimination [3]

As a white, cisgender ally, I often feel paralyzed with the weight of complicity in this reality. Even as I go through life as an anti-racist activist with an anti-racist consciousness, I am complicit because I use privilege on a daily basis without knowing it. And that privilege is what maintains white supremacy, and what enacts this cycle of violence.

But the last thing this world needs is a bunch of white people, rendered useless by their privilege. I learned a hard lesson about white-guilt in college when a Puerto Rican Independentista professor of mine — who would later become my role-model and mentor — basically told me she didn’t have time to console me for feeling bad about gentrifying a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. White guilt is not only counter-productive, but it also centers the white individual over the racist system, and energy that could be used for participating in struggle and resistance, is used instead on personal self-flagellation.

So what can we do as allies? What can we do to defend CeCe specifically, and fight this broken racist, transphobic system, more generally? For CeCe’s case, I urge you to please consider hosting a fundraiser, writing her a letter in jail, and/or hosting an event to discuss the case and continue education about white supremacy. More information on how to get involved can be found on the Support CeCe McDonald website.

And as for the larger struggle, I don’t have all the answers, but after years of learning from resistors that came before me, I have some ideas. I think it’s important that we never let our ostensible insignificance stop us from working for change. To do this, we must acknowledge that while we as individuals may be insignificant, that if we organize together for change, we can build power and a movement that ends these gross injustices. We must remember the ways that oppression is connected, and that even our privilege cannot save us from being violenced by the system, albeit in ways unique to others. We must remain outraged enough to fight.

And on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we must remember: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Why I Miss Chicago: Tales from the “L” train

The January day was unusually warm, and the sun shone brightly as I hurried to the Diversey train stop. I smiled to myself, enjoying this fast-paced march, a strut that has been dormant since my move to the much smaller, must slower-paced Minneapolis. But in Chicago, everyone walks like the sidewalk is a race track. Some might say this is the opposite of how we should go through life, that it means we’re not taking time to enjoy things. On the contrary, I think it’s characteristic of people with a sense of urgency towards life. The sidewalk doesn’t need to be gazed upon, it seeps into us through the soles of our shoes; the buildings don’t need to be noticed, we feel them, like a protective lover, holding us close; the cars don’t need to be observed, we hear them reverberate musically through the street. And our next stop feels important. And our next stop feels exciting. So we want to get there—sooner than later.

The wooden planks and rustic tracks make the L platform appear to be, in any light, an ideal backdrop for an epic romance. It is certain that every train station in Chicago has been the home to the beginnings and endings of great love stories.

And once you’re inside the silver boxcar, the real magic of the city begins. Unlike Minneapolis where you ride the bus with people from your neighborhood (which, for me, means I ride the bus with white college student hipsters), in Chicago, you ride with everyone from all over the city. That’s not to say that Chicago isn’t segregated–it is—but the train runs from the far north to the far south, so our transit ride is a multi-neighborhood experience. I prefer this, because eavesdropping is far more interesting. (There are only so many times I can stand to hear the same conversation about grad school en route to class).

Today I had the pleasure of sharing my train ride with two elderly folks, I’m guessing no younger than 75. The first, a white man, with a little old man hat, white hair peeking out on either side, and glasses. He was adorned in all tan: tan Members Only jacket, tan slacks (he most certainly called them ‘slacks’), and the aforementioned hat, also tan. His traveling companion was striking. Lovely salt and pepper hair piled atop her head in big, whipped cream-like curls. She wore all black: black coat, black pants, and big bold black sunglasses. Her lips, however, were stained with a vibrant magenta.

My ears were engaged in the middle of what appeared to be the sharing of a “list of likes.” The gentleman was naming entrees, and the woman interrupted, “You want to get into food that you like? Well, I like ice cream. Pecan ice cream, and…oh my! Rocky Road! You know, with the nuts, and the caramel…I suppose I’ve always been drawn to the ice cream with nuts.”

“Maybe we’ll have to get some ice cream today,” the man smiled, which made the woman blush.

“Is that what we’re doing?” she asked. He shrugged, still smiling.

A stop before mine, the man stood up. He looked at the woman to follow.

“This one? What’s here?”

“We’ll get off here because it’s one I’ve never done.”

“That’s fun!” the woman sounded excited, and they disappeared outside the doors.

[end scene].

“I found the safest place to keep all our tenderness, keep all those bad ideas, keep all our hope. It’s here in the smallest bones, the feet and the inner ear. It’s such an enormous thing to walk and to listen.

Chicago, you complete me.

“First Time”: The Real Problem with Sex on Glee

Another In Our Words blog post! This time it’s about how all the hub-bub about the “First Time” episode on glee revolved around virginity-loss, but totally ignored the fact that two of the characters revealed or were shown as being victims of sexual violence. Totally effed! Read the beginning here, then visit the site for the rest of it.

“I want to talk about that “Glee” episode that everyone is talking about.  But not for the same reasons.

Most people buzzing about the November 8th episode titled “First Time” are doing so because it implied that Rachel and Finn and Kurt and Blaine, two of the show’s main couples, lost their virginities. Some responses have lauded the show for its progressive approach to gay teenage sex—we actually get to see a fair amount of on-screen physical intimacy between Kurt and Blaine, albeit fully clothed – and others, like the Parents Television Source, were horrified.  After the episode, PTS stated, “Fox knows the show inherently attracts kids, celebrating teen sex constitutes gross recklessness.”  [1]

It probably comes as no surprise that I disagree that celebrating teenage sex is “gross recklessness.” As a sex-positive queer, I think making sure young people see representations of teenage sex is necessary. And although there were some overly moralistic “only have sex if you’re in love” kind of moments, I would still argue that the episode was groundbreaking, and that showing bedroom moments between two young men was a truly powerful and important television moment.

But there was gross recklessness being committed in other ways: the acceptance of sexual violence….”

Read more!