Gender Non-Conformity Fail: The Tragedy of Albert Nobbs

by: Raechel T

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]

Raechel T is a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include: critical media studies, queer studies, rhetoric, critical pedagogy, and the labor movement. She’s a long-time labor activist and a full-time cat lady. You can read more of Raechel’s thoughts at rebelgrrlacademy.wordpress.com, and you can follow her adventures with vegan food and healthy living at rebelgrrlkitchen.wordpress.com.

——————————————-

[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. : )

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6 responses to “Gender Non-Conformity Fail: The Tragedy of Albert Nobbs

  1. The OP’s response to this movie is certainly one to which many people will concede. Her media studies background has served her well. I agree the film isn’t the best made film this year and it did, at times, seem slooow (but I allow for that being an avid watcher of British period films).

    Yet, I think the critique lacks contextualization that would bring better nuance. I think all too often we are too quick to put on our ‘queer’ lenses as one-size fits all modes of critique. We seek to find ‘queerness’ in ancient Greece, medieval France, or 19th Century europe. While we, as scholars, have a knack for finding whatever we’re looking for (even if it isn’t there), we should be careful about judging past societies by the constructions of our own.

    This is where I think context plays a crucial role in criticism.

    Firstly, Albert exists in 19th-century Ireland, which was a time when even the word ‘homosexual’ was just starting to get talked about in salons in England and slowly trickling over into Ireland (at a time when Irish masculinity was itself considered somehow less because it was not-British). It is therefore unfair to the character to assess his actions, his sexuality for the standpoint of a culture that has everything 2011 has, including the use of the word ‘queer.’ Its more complicated than ‘queer’ as we think of the word today. In order for it to be so, the character would have to first process the concept of “the homosexual” and then move into its deconstruction into the word ‘queer.’ Which just isn’t possible for Albert. (It may, and certainly must have been, possible for others at the time, but we aren’t given their story, so we must make due.) It seems to me that Albert’s story was far more of a political/class/economic critique than it was a gender one. For, I don’t think it was the desire to BE a man that made Albert, but the desperation of the economic times. (Does s/he not count his coins?)

    From here, we must also consider the context for the original work, published in 1927 as a short story in Moore’s ‘Celibate Lives.’ Moore was one of the writers at the time to begin questioning the Victorian ideals of marriage, sex laws, same-sex desire, etc. For 1927, I think ‘Albert Nobbs’ is a tremendous achievement. We can thus also see why he dies in the end. (If Hollywood today likes to kill of its queer characters, (an excellent point, btw!) then the 1920s-talking-about-the-1800s certainly would have preferred this ending.) To attack it as not sufficient enough by our standards robs us of the small elements of queer history that have been laid down by Moore and some of this other contemporaries (ex. Robert Louis Stevenson). These are small steps, even unintentional ones (as is my argument for Albert Nobbs), but they are important and we should treat them with respect by judging them on their own terms and contexts.

    Having starred in the 1980s stage production, Glenn Close took this on as a favorite project of hers. It would have been inconceivable to change the ending. Like it or not, the ending is what it is and I commend Ms. Close for not doctoring the original and trying to find a contemporary solution to its problematic nature. Works like this are hard to put on (and to get financed) so we must also consider that it finally did and be at least somewhat grateful that it did. (and to have such a versatile and compassionate actress as Glenn Close at the helm. It could have been played by far worse, IMO.)

    Where I DO somewhat see the room for “queer” critique is actually more of a “gender” critique in that these two characters, Albert and Hubert, are acting another gender. Yet, I think their confusion comes not necessarily from their own sexual desires, but rather their confusion as to how to properly act in this situation, how to “seem” like a man. (again, I think the emphasis falls on ‘seeming’ rather than ‘man,’ as I don’t think either of these characters want to be a man because they have a ‘trans-’ desire they have unfulfilled, but because it is the only way they see for them to survive. Should they falter in this test, so much more would be at stake than mere gender issues (mainly poverty and ruin). The character of Hubert, however, approaches our contemporary ‘queer’ ideas the closest. But, alas, the subject of the movie isn’t Hubert it is Albert.

    I think, in this way, the character becomes so much more about being a ‘person’ rather than being ‘queer.’ Too frequently in cinema the plot line with ‘queer’ characters focuses entirely on them being ‘queer’ and we are left with one-dimensional people. (Perhaps that is why it is so easy to kill them off in the end?) For once, I would like to see a ‘queer’ character who does something else in the movie besides being ‘queer.’ Something approaching “universal” (however impossible the task).

    To me, this film got close to that and I applauded it for that. Was it the best movie evverrrr, certainly not. But it gives us all something to think about and anything that asks for active viewership in this cinematic era is something worth the price of admission.

  2. Sean, thank you for that incredibly thoughtful response! I appreciate the need for that context completely, and I am not at all well-versed in that time period, and especially not Ireland in that time period. So I thank you for bringing up all these truly important points.

    Still, I think the contemporary critique is worthwhile if for no other reason than these films shape the sensibilities of contemporary viewers who often take these films as gospel of “what it’s like” for any sort of non-normative modality. Or worse, they may see that and say “oh, good thing that kind of hiding and discrimination is a thing of the past, and not something we have to worry about any more!”

    But I concede to your knowledge and admit that, as you note, my response does lack some nuance….

  3. Ms Rachel,

    You are absolutely right, contemporary critique is absolutely worthwhile, I hope my post didn’t somehow convey that I think my critique is any better than yours. In fact, I think if we combined the two, we’d have a pretty sexy looking paper. ;o)

    In fact, my critique is certainly not one for the average American viewer (although, I don’t think the movie is being seen by the average viewer). As you may know, as a fellow scholar, most of our work is over-thinking-it to the rest of the general less interested population. (Still fun for us though!)

    To your point of taking films as gospel: I am in complete accordance. I think American popular cinema (and, more specifically, the business behind it) has made an audience of sheep who don’t really think too much about what their films are (or aren’t) doing/saying/making them feel. There are, of course, films/directors/actors/etc. that try and change this.

    But for the most part,we are taken to either extremes of the experience of Reality: either we believe that something is entirely (and universally) True or that something is mere fantasy and pure escapism. That is why any critique of an Art, if it has enough well supported claims, is valid. It shows a depth that often goes unnoticed, undiscussed, or unshaped. Yours is a finely crafted argument and a valid criticism for a queer framework and adds a layer that perhaps some were looking to say but couldn’t find the words. (I highly doubt many others jumped to 19th century Ireland like myself. But that’s the fun of interdisciplinary interests and scholarship, isn’t it? Learning a whole bunch of random shit just because you want to.)

    Now that I reread my post, nuance may not have been the right word. I feel like it impugns your work. This is only a blog post after all, one shouldn’t expect a dissertation (although once you’ve finish yours, you should consider linking it to IOW). I just thought there were other things to also be considered when viewing ‘Albert Nobbs’ that could complicate things and show just how complex viewership can be. I hope that makes sense and you don’t feel like I was too much of an asshole. My original draft was far too long and at higher risk for pretension instead of the geekyness I was aiming for. So, what you have seen has been trimmed and my use of nuance became less and less..well…nuanced. :0) Forgive me if you took any attack. I worry, perhaps too much, for an assertion of any absolute claim to any kind of Art (ex. “this is THE way to read this movie,” or “this is EXACTLY what Pollack had in mind when he drizzled yellow over here”).

    Is Albert Nobbs a “queer movie”? Yes, because it was to you and those you saw it with. That is what you were looking for and that is what you found. I find absolutely nothing wrong in that. Neither of us is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and that is the way it should be. That is the way Art should be. That’s the beauty of it is all.

    Thank you, again, for your post. What will you be watching next?

  4. Dear Sean,

    You are so lovely to write another thoughtful response. Our forces combined would make a sexy paper, indeed! I again appreciate all your comments and thoughts. (Where are you going to school? What program are you in?)

    Next on my list is “The Artist,” since, as I note, I’ll watch the Oscars no matter what. But I also just rented “The Help,” and it was as bad as all my critical race media scholar peers warned.

    Thanks again for engaging. Us academics…we love a good back and forth, eh?

  5. Pingback: The Tragedy of Albert Nobbs « .rebel grrrl academy: revolution in the shoproom, the classroom, the streets & the hips.·

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