Albert Nobbs: on singularity

Let me begin with an acknowledgement of the limits of my opinion.  I have not read the short story by George Moore that is the ultimate source of the story of Albert Nobbs.  Nor have I read script or watched the play as adapted from the short story by Simone Bermussa.  So all my criticism is limited to the movie by the same name.

I was invited to see the movie by a friend and so I went.  This I state as one of my list of acceptable reasons for going to watch the movie before having read the book!  Of course I tried to find a copy of the original short story or the screenplay for the play in my local library (yes, I knew this to be a long shot; but thems the rules) and on the internet but failed on both counts.  I was excited to watch the movie because it had Glen Close in it, which at least meant that the character would be saved from two-dimensional banality (I hoped) and because I would learn something about 19th century Ireland.  I was to be somewhat disappointed on both counts.

The movie takes the stance that it is telling the story of a woman who dressed and lived as a man in order to survive 19th century Dublin.  Albert Nobbs is a butler in a hotel and telling his story opens the door for viewing the stories of working class struggle as well as particular personal relationships.  The movie mostly tells the story of a moment in Albert’s life where his options are changed by the presence and actions of one Hubert Paige.  And the storytelling is at times compelling and at others spectacularly misses any chance of resonance (or rocket launchers!).  So there were parts that I loved and parts that annoyed me and a whole lot that I could have just done without.  This in spite of an impressive ensemble of actors with the capacity to play complexity any way it’s written.  How did that happen?  I have a theory (this brings me up to two Joss references in one post, ain’t I awesome?!) …

To me this was a story about a complex person in a complicated and complex situation.  And trying to be reductive with gender, sexuality, class and desire is a pretty good recipe for disaster.  So in some ways the movie was excellent in that it wasn’t a disaster, it just did nothing and no one justice.

Albert was introduced as a butler (performing masculinity) and then revealed to have breasts (essentially female).  He introduced himself as Albert (even when he was asked his ‘real’ name) and seemed to have made a decision after a clumsily portrayed attempt to clothe himself in and perform femininity.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough of Albert showing us his story.  Which kind of made sense because he was very much coming to grips with his own self.  But the eye of the film-makers was not neutral.  Every time there was an opportunity to delve into gender, the film shifted its eyes towards drama.  Which works once, but then feels like a cop out.  Mr.Paige’s story gave Albert hope and opened up questions… but these questions weren’t answered or even really asked by the film.  I guess what I’m saying is this: I don’t need Albert to ask these questions, his character was shown to be quiet and hesitant; the filming on the other hand was assured and shouldn’t have run away from posing the questions as well as exploring the answers.

Albert Nobbs transgressed gender.  Which is to say that he did not fit the neat boundaries created around him for gender roles and presentation.  I don’t know exactly what brought him to the life he led.  But I do know that to suggest that his decision was solely about his desire to gain access to better pay and less trauma can only ever be one aspect of his truth.  There is safety in constructing a different time where the rights of women were so compromised that only living as a man gave them any level of freedom.  This is a story often told not just about a different time but also a different place.  It’s a nice way to tell ourselves that we should feel lucky to live in the time and place that we do, and that decisions about gender are nothing but a pragmatic means to an end.

Neither the story of Albert nor the treatment of it by the writers and actors is singular.  And I mean that in the opposite-of-plural sense of the word.  Throughout history there have been stories of people defining, redefining and sculpting gender until it meets their needs.  And throughout the same time there have been people desperately trying to maintain the hierarchy and safety of a defined binary.  And I have not the least intention of defining the gender or sexuality of anyone else, but this makes me very suspicious of storytellers who tell the tales of women living as men and leave out the story of everyone else.

Perhaps this is a limitation of fiction, it is only as good as the biases of the writers.  Which is really to say that the writers in this case were limited in their fiction writing and truth-telling and their biases tended towards the status-quo banality.  Life is usually more inventive. All this to say… if you haven’t seen the movie, I would suggest that you do, if only so we can talk and you tell me what you thought!

Wilco or not.

Last week I missed my deadline and failed to publish a post. This was in part because my life took a turn for the frenetic and in other part because my life took a turn for the morose. The kind of week where asking me how I’m doing, or how my day was, was a social minefield. An emotional minefield for me because I have a split second to decide if I’m going to speak, cry or run away and hide; or pretend to be someone to whom that question is a simple one to answer.  My current best response (I tried it out on a Potential New Friend) to being asked how I’m doing is to say: would you like polite fiction, creative fiction, an aspect of the truth or outright lies? In the case in point my companion took the oh-so-subtle-hint that perhaps this wasn’t the question they wanted to lead with and saying so turned to a different subject.

I grew up in the military.  So I’m quite familiar with ridiculously codified and specific means of communication.  When my family is out of town I’m required to send them a daily sitrep normal message.  We have SOPs for organising chores (and most of the rest of our collective lives) and quite a few EVAC procedures.  When I’m asked for a quick response in the affirmative I will often say wilco (and wonder later why I didn’t just say ‘okay’).  The point is, that I’m okay with specific and general codified conversations.  And for the most part this is what most of everyday polite conversation is: a fixed series of call and response codes.  What makes it interesting to me is that most people don’t like to think of them as such.  Any suggestion that they don’t actually care to hear the answer to their question usually results in either blank incomprehension or defensive consternation.  I have to work hard at understanding this.  And cultural and class differences in the worlds I inhabit do not make it an easy task.  Just when I think I have mastered the rules of one context, I am confronted with a variation that I then need to figure out the magnitude of.

Coping with polite conversation has become just another exercise in how to be inoffensively disingenuous.  Which just keeps taking me closer to my when-in-doubt-lie theorem of social interaction.  Which is occasionally underrating the intelligence and interest of the persons you’re talking to, but mostly safe!  Which still leaves me the far greater problem of how to deal with the things that people say that go beyond confusing me to outright offensiveness.  Like when they use words like ‘lame’, ‘gay’, ‘crazy’ and ‘gypped’.  Whether or not I challenge them each time they say something offensive often depends on how many spoons I have on me at the time.  And how angry it makes me.  I have this mechanism by which an excess of anger either leads to the spontaneous generation of a tiny ball of energy or a deluge of tears.

I have therefore come up with a few things that you should probably think about before saying to me that come under the umbrella of polite but problematic questions, namely: How’re you feeling?  How’re you doing?  How’s it going? What have you been up to?  These are problematic because I could be having a really messy time and you may not be prepared to hear the response.  General rule of thumb… don’t ask me a question if you don’t want to hear the answer.  Also don’t ask me a question if there is a correct response that you have not advised me of.  And don’t expect me to be the filter in your brain that determines whether a question/response is appropriate or offensive.

There is a another list of things that you should not say to me.  Or to anyone else.  At all.  Ever.  This I shall compile at a later date.  Right now it is enough that I have posted something this week.


I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I told my Dada (grandfather) that I didn’t believe in god.  It was an interesting conversation.  And my introduction to advaitic thought and the beginning of many years of reading and learning vedantic and upanishadic texts.  But what I want to talk about is what brought me to that decision of atheism.  As my grandfather pointed out, not believing in god is not a bar to being hindu.  In many ways it is the antecedent to brahman.  I think at least part of my reason for not believing in god was a deep-seated desire to have nothing to do with the hinduism that I saw around me.  So I’m talking here not of just religious thought but of codified religious hegemony.  That which legitamises the creation of a caste-based hierarchy that I passionately disagree with and am fundamentally opposed to.  So being an atheist was a possible escape.

Now let’s talk about why I like my Dada. I could always depend on him to point out what would then be entirely obvious.  People in power like to stay in power.  People in power don’t like it when people whom they oppress don’t do what they’re told.  And if you don’t want to be the person who has ‘power over’ then you have a pretty simple and incredibly frustrating time ahead.  Witness the smartness: he didn’t try to convince me of reasons why I should want to be hindu.  He just told me that it wasn’t something I could opt out of.  That it was part of where I come from and as such part of who I would become.  This was a valuable lesson in the nature of privilege.  Whether or not I align myself with the system of oppression my name and my genealogy gives me privilege as a brahmin.  It is, from that point on, up to me to determine whether being brahmin gives me automatic brahman.  Or, as I believe, gives me sufficient tools to know atman and strive for brahman through the life I live.

So here is my favourite poem that conveys the problem of religious hegemony most clearly and without apology.

Advaita: the utlimate question (By Meena Kandasamy)

Non                                      Dualism
Atman                                  Self
Brahman                               God
Are                                       Equal
And                                      Same.
So                                         I
Untouchable                        Outcast
Am                                       God.
Will                                       You
Ever                                      Agree?
No                                        Matter
What                                     You
Preach                                  Answer
Me.                                       Through
Your                                     Saints.
One                                      More
Final                                     Question
Can                                      My
Untouchable                        Atman
And                                      Your
Brahmin                               Atman
Ever                                     Be
`                      One
`                       ?

The formatting of the last two lines has gone a bit funky so I’d suggest you click the link in the title to get it the way is should be.  I also highly recommend that you go read more of her poetry.  You can find it here.  She’s a very talented poet-woman-dalit-feminist-activist who writes about the world as she experiences it.  Oh and if you discover you like her poetry and her politics you should also read her personal blog.  It is a joy to read the work of someone who writes as well as she does and has at least as much of a love and appreciation of baba saheb Ambedkar as I!

Looking for marigolds

I like resistance.  And in a world where every day I have to deal with injustice and stupidity I take comfort in the pockets of resistance I find.  This often means that strange things make me happy; seeing a stencil peeking out of foliage, yarn graffiti, graffiti in general, a community house, a picket line, news of a strike, a union building, badgemakers and the mythical monuments specially for me.  It makes me happy because I can see them, and it makes me happy that despite all efforts to erode, eradicate and erase; they’re still there.

When I was in Chicago a couple of years ago I went looking for Haymarket Square (I was there on the anniversary of the massacre and wanted to go pay my respects).  Most people I talked to had no idea what I was talking about, much less where it was.  Interestingly, the people who did not know anything about it were white.  The only white folk I found who knew what Haymarket Square was were two history teachers in their late 60s.  On the other hand, every black person I met on the street knew what it signified.  When I walked to the general location (I looked it up on the internet, the socialists were having a picnic there but had failed to mention the actual address!) an old man on the street told me I was in the right general area.  He also told me that he was too drunk to help with directions, but that if I asked any other black people they might be able to help.  I asked a girl in a bakery, she didn’t know where it was but she did know that her grandmother knew it ’cause she talked about it a lot.  So I got help from the grandmother, and two guys on the corner of the drug rehab centre.

I did finally find the square and the monument that had been built to replace the racist one that had been built there to begin with.  That was the highlight of my trip to Chicago.  And what it highlights is this: people with privilege don’t need to learn about things that don’t concern them, and people who are oppressed have to work to remember/forget their history and learn the history of their oppressors.

20th of November was Transgender remembrance day.  Another year of bigots and fools perpetrating violence against people they can never hope to equal.  I spent the day hiding from the world and thus missed going to the remembrance held by A Gender Agenda but I looked up the videos (go look/listen).  Which brings me to marigolds.  Not because I’m particularly fond of them as flowers.  I like tube roses and narssici.  But thanks to AGA’s project they are now going to be part of my mental map of transgender remembrance day.  AGA was giving away marigold plants to each person who was there as a living marker of the people who have lost their lives to transphobic violence.  I’m going to be walking around this city looking to find tiny little marigold spots of solidarity that mark out the memory of the people who should be here.  And what makes me really happy is that I know I won’t be the only one.

I hope that when someone sees the little marigold I’ve planted outside my office window they will know they aren’t alone in remembering what they remember.  And that we’re still fighting, we’re still here*.

*Luna Lovegood is smart.

पहले-पहले दिखातें हैं की …

That is how my stories begin.  Literally translated it means, “at first they show that…”.  And this is how my mother expects books, movies and life to be narrated.  So here it is, पहले-पहले दिखातें हैं की … there was a little girl.

This girl was desperately wanted.  So much so that she had been wished for and named a year before she was thought of and two years before she was born.  The people whose she was wanted very much to do right by her.  And they did.  Of course, she did not grow up to be exactly who they expected when they taught her those things; she didn’t even really grow up to be who she expected to be when she learnt them; but grow up right she did.

At least, that’s how I tell the story.

One of the things I was taught was that beauty (the having or not) was irrelevant.  That the way you look was (more often than not) something that was determined by an accident of genetic combination; and as such not something that my person-hood needed to be evaluated by.  Another edict drummed into me was that the only appropriate way to respond to a compliment was to say ‘thank you’.  That anything else tended to either insult the intelligence and judgement of the giver or suggest an unflattering lack of belief in their intention.  So when someone tells me I’m beautiful, I say thank you.  And then I wonder what they mean.

Beauty can be a capricious creature.  In India alone I have seen the standards shift to accommodate capitalist sales targets and global marketing standards.  History tells us that beauty has defined itself in various iterations.  But I think it’s fair to say that ‘inner beauty’ arguments not withstanding, it is something to do with the way you look.  And with how much effort you put in to conform to the prevailing model of beauty.  And the extent to which you succeed.  Which, to my mind, makes it a scary thing to base even a part of my self on.  Even with the best intentions of my parents, I still learned what it meant to be beautiful and it still confuses me.  And because beauty is so enmeshed in desire, parts of me want to be thought of as beautiful.  But desire and desirability are complicated.  Largely because I want to be desired for what I think makes me desirable.  How I move through this world, what I do, and how I do it.

Now my Ma worries that she did it wrong.  That she made me believe I wasn’t beautiful.  She didn’t.  She made me believe that whether or not anyone else thought I was beautiful said more about them than it did about me.  So if you think I’m beautiful, thank you.  Now let’s talk about how.

For the benign indifference of the universe

I have a twisted love for the absence of grand design.  It comes from being an atheistic hindu.  You know, I don’t believe in the intentions of things (even though occasionally the way they behave makes me question this generosity) and I have not the arrogance to think the universe is conspiring against me.  I find it comforting to think of the world as benignly indifferent rather than actively evil.  I suppose this denies me the luxury of believing the world to be deliberately helpful, but I’m okay with that.  So this poem makes me happy.

The More Loving One

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

W. H. Auden (Orginally published in Homage to Clio, 1960)

In which our heroine goes a little loopy

It has been that kind of week.  I’ve had to listen to lot of people talking about how unions are BAD and are running the country into the ground.  And how Australia is a slave to political correctness (seriously, where was I when this happened?).  And of course my personal favourite of how being gender neutral when talking to people about their partners is such an unnecessary imposition on normal people.  So I have put together an abbreviated list of videos that make me less irritable so I and everyone I know can get click happy.  At some point I will write a coherent post about the fallacies and idiocies contained in the cited ideas spouted, but for now – this is all you get.

1. Boycotts, queers, song and dance – what’s not to love?

2. I know Joss Whedon can get a tad self-indulgent but then he says things like this and I kinda like ’em.

3. Disney mustn’t have realised what the movie was about.  I’m glad they paid for it anyhow.

4. And this, this never fails to cheer me up.

Fair work has asked Qantas to come to the table and ended the lock out.  The country (in my opinion) is nowhere near politically correct.  And pronouns for people and partners are speech acts with the power to hurt and liberate.  That is all.

Have a lovely day.