Aug 28

“When I Was a Boy”: Gender Norms and What’s Lost

A year after starting this blog with a therapy-related song by Dar Williams, it feels fitting to post another of her creations—“When I Was a Boy” from The Honesty Room. Why? Because it’s appealed to so many hearts and minds over the years with its message about gender.

In the mid-90’s when it was released, Scott Alarik wrote this about Williams and this song in Performing Songwriter Magazine:

‘When I was a boy,’ probably her best-known song, uses the obviously clever hook and some delicious reminiscences of an unfettered and proudly eccentric childhood to plaintively remind us that, once, we were all unfettered. Then, as society intrudes on our innocence, we learn how to be less than our whole selves, to strap ourselves into inhibiting clothing and even more inhibiting mores.

Since then Williams has performed this affecting song over and over, striking a chord with people of all sexual and gender identities. It has the quiet power, you’ll see, to make a grown woman mourn—for her boyhood—and a grown man cry—for his girlhood.

In an interview Laura Lasley did with Williams (Guitar Noise), there’s this exchange:

LL: It’s a wonderful song! As you listen, you remember those feelings. When I was a little girl, I was a boy, I played, I did this. And the ending is so endearing, when this man says “when I was a girl.” It’s a wonderful story to tell and it’s also an empathetic type of a song.

DAR: I’m very glad that was the effect, because I think there is a lot of empathy between men and women, and they want to share, but they get polarized by these debates. I didn’t want to feel that I was arguing against men, especially since men get shafted so much by their roles. Actually a lot of women that I speak to who would have been the separatists, they feel sorry for men. They don’t feel like men are the enemy, they feel like men are the victims of these roles.

If you don’t already know the lyrics, keep in mind as you read them below that these are the words of an adult female about her youth:

I won’t forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand
I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check.
I learned to fly, I learned to fight
I lived a whole life in one night
We saved each other’s lives out on the pirate’s deck.

And I remember that night
When I’m leaving a late night with some friends
And I hear somebody tell me it’s not safe, someone should help me
I need to find a nice man to walk me home.

When I was a boy, I scared the pants off of my mom,
Climbed what I could climb upon
And I don’t know how I survived,
I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew.
And you can walk me home, but I was a boy too.

I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, I didn’t care who saw.
My neighbor came outside to say ‘Get your shirt!’
I said ‘No way! It’s the last time, I’m not breaking any law.’
And now I’m in a clothing store where the sign says less is more
More that’s tight means more to see, more for them not more for me.
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat.

When I was a boy, see that picture that was me,
Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees.
And I know things have gotta change, they’ve got pills to sell
They’ve got implants to put in, they’ve got implants to remove.
But I am not forgetting that I was a boy too.

And like the woods where I would creep,
It’s a secret I can keep
Except when I’m tired, except when I’m being caught off guard.
I’ve had a lonesome awful day, the conversation finds its way
To catching fireflies out in the backyard.
So I tell the man I’m with about the other life I lived
And I say ‘Now you’re top gun, I have lost and you have won.’

And he says ‘oh no, can’t you see?
When I was a girl, my mom and I we always talked,
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked.
And I could cry all the time, now even when I’m alone, I seldom do.
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too,
And you were just like me
And I was just like you.’

Here’s a rather low-key performance of the song by Williams (but the best I could find):

Feb 28

“Albert Nobbs” Raises Interesting Issues About Gender and Class

As the film Albert Nobbs only played in my area for about a minute before breezing merrily along, I haven’t yet had the chance to see it. So, for now, I’ll have to settle for reading about it.

Albert Nobbs has received two significant Women Film Critics Circle Awards. One is for the film itself, “for best exemplifying a woman’s place in history or society, and a courageous search for identity.” Its material comes from a 1982 theatrical adaptation of a novella (1918) by George Moore, an Irish writer.

The other award is for the film’s main star, Glenn Close, who had also been involved in the play, and who fought long and hard to bring this story to the screen. She won “Courage in Acting,” which is for “taking on unconventional roles that radically redefine the images of women on screen.”

In scanning the reviews, it sure wasn’t hard to find puns of a certain ilk. Keep in mind that we know early on that both Albert Nobbs and newfound friend Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) are women pretending to be men in order to have work and income. Peter Debruge, Variety:

Too bad the film is such a drag.

This frequent play on words speaks to both the women-wearing-men’s-clothing aspect and the idea that many viewers find the film to be slow and boring. Could that be due, at least in part, to what’s involved in having to characterize the effects of such lifelong repression? David Edelstein, New York Magazine, about Close’s Albert:

She’s the personification of fear—the fear of being seen through, seen for what she is.

Another frequent theme of Albert Nobbs: that the movie is ultimately unsatisfying in its answers—or lack thereof—to the big questions it raises. As stated by The Opinioness:

Albert Nobbs raises so many thought-provoking questions. Why is the male gender the more “desirable” gender in society? What does it say about a society where half its population has a mere two options for their lives? How can women take charge of their own lives amidst confining gender norms? And therein lies my problem with the film. It provides no conclusions, the answers remain elusive…

And, Dana Stevens, Slate:

Albert Nobbs is the portrait of a person with an inner life so inaccessible that even he or she no longer knows what’s going on in there…

the rare double drag king bill you could plausibly take your grandmother to. It’s genteel, well-crafted, mostly sexless and frequently dull—a movie that, like its title character, never quite dares to let itself discover what it really wants to be.

Well. I’m still hoping, despite its flaws, that I’ll actually get to see it in the theater someday. I’m also hoping that when I do, I’ll be able to echo the concluding views of The Opinioness:

The tragic story of Albert Nobbs lingered in my memory long after I left the theatre. Its exploration of female friendship, lesbian love, class and poverty, gender roles and a woman’s self-discovery, truly make it a rare gem.