Mapping Trans-Domesticity in Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto




domesticity, queer, road film, gender, space

How to Cite

Deffenbacher, K. (2019). Mapping Trans-Domesticity in Jordan’s <em>Breakfast on Pluto</em>. M/C Journal, 22(4).
Vol. 22 No. 4 (2019): wandering
Published 2019-08-14

Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005) reconceives transience and domesticity together. This queer Irish road film collapses opposition between mobility and home by uncoupling them from heteronormative structures of gender, desire, and space—male/female, public/private. The film’s protagonist, Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy), wanders in search of a loved one without whom she does not feel at home. Along the way, the film exposes and exploits the doubleness of both “mobility” and “home” in the traditional road narrative, queering the conventions of the road film to convey the desire and possibilities for an alternative domesticity. In its rerouting of the traditional road plot, Breakfast on Pluto does not follow a hero escaping the obligations of home and family to find autonomy on the road. Instead, the film charts Kitten’s quest to realise a sense of home through trans-domesticity—that is, to find shelter in non-heteronormative, mutual care while in both transient and public spaces.

I affix “trans-” to “domesticity” to signal both the queerness and mobility that transform understandings of domestic spaces and practices in Breakfast on Pluto. To clarify, trans-domesticity is not queer assimilation to heteronormative domesticity, nor is it a relegation of queer culture to privatised and demobilised spaces. Rather, trans-domesticity challenges the assumption that all forms of domesticity are inherently normalising and demobilising. In other words, trans-domesticity uncovers tensions and violence swept under the rugs of hegemonic domesticity. Moreover, this alternative domesticity moves between and beyond the terms of gender and spatial oppositions that delimit the normative home.

Specifically, “trans-domesticity” names non-normative homemaking practices that arise out of the “desire to feel at home”, a desire that Anne-Marie Fortier identifies in queer diasporic narratives (1890-90). Accordingly, “trans-domesticity” also registers the affective processes that foster the connectedness and belonging of “home” away from private domestic spaces and places of origin, a “rethinking of the concept of home”, which Ed Madden traces in lesbian and gay migrant narratives (175-77). Building on the assumption of queer diaspora theorists “that not only can one be at home in movement, but that movement can be one’s very own home” (Rapport and Dawson 27), trans-domesticity focuses critical attention on the everyday practices and emotional labour that create a home in transience.

As Breakfast on Pluto tracks its transgender protagonist’s movement between a small Irish border town, Northern Ireland, and London, the film invokes both a specifically Irish migration and the broader queer diaspora of which it is a part. While trans-domesticity is a recurring theme across a wide range of queer diasporic narratives, in Breakfast on Pluto it also simultaneously drives the plot and functions as a narrative frame. The film begins and ends with Kitten telling her story as she wanders through the streets of Soho and cares for a member of her made family, her friend Charlie’s baby.

Although I am concerned with the film adaptation, Patrick McCabe’s “Prelude” to his novel, Breakfast on Pluto (1998), offers a useful point of departure: Patrick “Pussy” Braden’s dream, “as he negotiates the minefields of this world”, is “ending, once and for all, this ugly state of perpetual limbo” and “finding a map which might lead to that place called home” (McCabe x). In such a place, McCabe’s hero might lay “his head beneath a flower-bordered print that bears the words at last ‘You’re home’”(McCabe xi). By contrast, the film posits that “home” is never a “place” apart from “the minefields of this world”, and that while being in transit and in limbo might be a perpetual state, it is not necessarily an ugly one.

Jordan’s film thus addresses the same questions as does Susan Fraiman in her book Extreme Domesticity: “But what about those for whom dislocation is not back story but main event? Those who, having pulled themselves apart, realize no timely arrival at a place of their own, so that being not-unpacked is an ongoing condition?” (155). Through her trans-domestic shelter-making and caregiving practices, Kitten enacts “home” in motion and in public spaces, and thereby realises the elision in the flower-bordered print in McCabe’s “Prelude” (xi), which does not assure “You are at home” but, rather, “You are home”.

From Housed to Trans-Domestic Subjectivity

Self and home are equated in the dominant cultural narratives of Western modernity, but “home” in such formulations is assumed to be a self-owned, self-contained space. Psychoanalytic theorist Carl Jung describes this Ur-house as “a concretization of the individuation process, […] a symbol of psychic wholeness” (225). Philosopher Gaston Bachelard sees in the home “the topography of our intimate being”, a structure that “concentrates being within limits that protect” (xxxii). However, as historian Carolyn Steedman suggests, the mythic house that has become “the stuff of our ‘cultural psychology,’ the system of everyday metaphors by which we see ourselves”, is far from universal; rather, it reflects “the topography of the houses” of those who stand “in a central relationship to the dominant culture” (75, 17).

For others, the lack of such housing correlates with political marginalisation, as the house functions as both a metaphor and material marker for culturally-recognised selfhood. As cultural geographer John Agnew argues, in capitalist societies the self-owned home is both a sign of autonomous individuality and a prerequisite for full political subjectivity (60). Philosopher Rosi Braidotti asserts that this figuration of subjectivity in “the phallo-Eurocentric master code” treats as “disposable” the “bodies of women, youth, and others who are racialised or marked off by age, gender, sexuality, and income” (6). These bodies are “reduced to marginality” and subsequently “experience dispossession of their embodied and embedded selves, in a political economy of repeated and structurally enforced eviction” (Braidotti 6).

To shift the meaning of “home” and the intimately-linked “self” from a privately-owned, autonomous structure to trans-domesticity, to an ethos of care enacted even, and especially in, transient and public spaces, is not to romanticise homelessness or to deny the urgent necessity of material shelter. Breakfast on Pluto certainly does not allow viewers to do either. Rather, the figure of a trans-domestic self, like Braidotti’s “nomadic subject”, has the potential to challenge and transform the terms of power relations. Those now on the margins might then be seen as equally-embodied selves and full political subjects with the right to shelter and care.

Such a political project also entails recognising and revaluing—without appropriating and demobilising—existing trans-domesticity. As Fraiman argues, “domesticity” must be “map[ped] from the margins” in order to include the homemaking practices of gender rebels and the precariously housed, of castaways and outcasts (4-5). This alternative map would allow “outsiders to normative domesticity” to “claim domesticity while wrenching it away from such things as compulsory heterosexuality […] and the illusion of a safely barricaded life” (Fraiman 4-5). Breakfast on Pluto shares in this re-mapping work by exposing the violence embedded in heteronormative domestic structures, and by charting the radical political potential of trans-domesticity.

Unsettling Houses

In the traditional road narrative, “home” tends to be a static, confining structure from which the protagonist escapes, a space that then functions as “a structuring absence” on the road (Robertson 271). Bachelard describes this normative structure as a “dream house” that constitutes “a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability” (17); the house functions, Henri Lefebvre argues, as “the epitome of immobility” (92). Whether the dream is to escape and/or to return, “to write of houses”, as Adam Hanna asserts, “is to raise ideas of shelters that are fixed and secure” (113).

Breakfast on Pluto quickly gives lie to those expectations. Kitten is adopted by Ma Braden (Ruth McCabe), a single woman who raises Kitten and her adopted sister in domestic space that is connected to, and part of, a public house. That spatial contiguity undermines any illusion of privacy and security, as is evident in the scene in which a school-aged Kitten, who thought herself safely home alone and thus able to dress in her mother’s and sister’s clothes, is discovered in the act by her mother and sister from the pub’s street entrance. Further, the film lays bare the built-in mechanisms of surveillance and violence that reinforce heteronormative, patriarchal structures. After discovering Kitten in women’s clothes, Ma Braden violently scrubs her clean and whacks her with a brush until Kitten says, “I’m a boy, not a girl”. The public/house space facilitates Ma Braden’s close monitoring of Kitten thereafter.

As a young writer in secondary school, Kitten satirises the violence within the hegemonic home by narrating the story of the rape of her biological mother, Eily Bergin (Eva Birthistle), by Kitten’s father, Father Liam (Liam Neeson) in a scene of hyper-domesticity set in the rectory kitchen. As Patrick Mullen notes, “the rendition of the event follows the bubble-gum logic and tone of 1950s Hollywood culture” (130). The relationship between the ideal domesticity thereby invoked and the rape then depicted exposes the sexual violence for what it is: not an external violation of the double sanctity of church and home space, but rather an internal and even intrinsic violence that reinforces and is shielded by the power structures from which normative domesticity is never separate.

The only sense of home that seems to bind Kitten to her place of origin is based in her affective bonds to friends Charlie (Ruth Negga) and Lawrence (Seamus Reilly). When Lawrence is killed by a bomb, Kitten is no longer at home, and she leaves town to search for the “phantom” mother she never knew. The impetus for Kitten’s wandering, then, is connection rather than autonomy, and neither the home she leaves, nor the sense of home she seeks, are fixed structures.

Mobile Homes and Queering of the Western Road

Breakfast on Pluto tracks how the oppositions that seem to structure traditional road films—such as that between home and mobility, and between domestic and open spaces—continually collapse. The film invokes the “cowboy and Indian” mythology from which the Western road narrative descends (Boyle 19), but to different ends: to capture a desire for non-heteronormative affective bonds rather than “lone ranger” autonomy, and to convey a longing for domesticity on the trail, for a home that is both mobile and open. Across the past century of Irish fiction and film, “cowboy and Indian” mythology has often intersected with queer wandering, from James Joyce’s Dubliners story “An Encounter” (1914) to Lenny Abrahamson’s film Adam & Paul (2004). In this tradition, Breakfast on Pluto queers “cowboy and Indian” iconography to convey an alternative conception of domesticity and home. 

The prevailing ethos in the film’s queered Western scenes is of trans-domesticity—of inclusion and care during transience and in open spaces. After bar bouncers exclude Kitten and friends because of her transgenderism and Lawrence’s Down syndrome, “The Border Knights” (hippie-bikers-cum-cowboys) ride to their rescue and bring them to their temporary home under the stars. Once settled around the campfire, the first biker shares his philosophy with a cuddled-up Kitten: “When I’m riding my hog, you think I’m riding the road? No way, man. I’m travelling from the past into the future with a druid at my back”. “Druid man or woman?” Kitten asks. “That doesn’t matter”, the biker clarifies, “What matters is the journey”. What matters is not place as fixed destination or gender as static difference, but rather the practice of travelling with open relationships to space, to time, and to others. The bikers welcome all to their fire and include both Kitten and Lawrence in their sharing of jokes and joints. The only exclusion is of reference to political violence, which Charlie’s boyfriend, Irwin (Laurence Kinlan), tries to bring into the conversation.

Further, Kitten uses domesticity to try to establish a place for herself while on the road with “Billy Hatchett and The Mohawks”, the touring band that picks her up when she leaves Ma Braden’s. As Mullen notes, “Kitten literally works herself into the band by hand sewing a ‘squaw’ outfit to complement the group’s glam-rock Native American image” (Mullen 141). The duet that Kitten performs with Billy (Gavin Friday), a song about a woman inviting “a wandering man” to share the temporary shelter of her campfire, invokes trans-domesticity. But the film intercuts their performance with scenes of violent border-policing: first, by British soldiers at a checkpoint who threaten the group and boast about the “13 less to deal with” in Derry, and then by members of the Republican Prisoners Welfare Association, who throw cans at the group and yell them off stage. A number of critics have noted the postcolonial implications of Breakfast on Pluto’s use of Native American iconography, which in these intercut scenes clearly raises the national stakes of constructions of domestic belonging (see, for instance, Winston 153-71). In complementary ways, the film queers “cowboy and Indian” mythology to reimagine “mobility” and “home” together.

After Kitten is forced out by the rest of the band, Billy sets her up in a caravan, a mobile home left to him by his mother. Though Billy “wouldn’t exactly call it a house”, Kitten sees in it her first chance at a Bachelardian “dream house”: she calls it a “house of dreams and longing” and cries, “Oh, to have a little house, to own the hearth, stool, and all”. Kitten ecstatically begins to tidy the place, performing what Fraiman terms a “hyper-investment in homemaking” that functions “as compensation for domestic deprivation” (20).

Aisling Cormack suggests that Kitten’s hyper-investment in homemaking signals the film’s “radical disengagement with politics” to a “femininity that is inherently apolitical” (169-70). But that reading holds only if viewers assume a gendered, spatial divide between public and private, and between the political and the domestic. As Fraiman asserts, “the political meaning of fixating on domestic arrangements is more complex […] For the poor or transgendered person, the placeless immigrant or the woman on her own, aspiring to a safe, affirming home doesn’t reinforce hierarchical social relations but is pitched, precisely, against them” (20).

Trans-Domesticity as Political Act

Even as Kitten invokes the idea of a Bachelardian dream house, she performs a trans-domesticity that exposes the falseness of the gendered, spatial oppositions assumed to structure the normative home. Her domesticity is not an apolitical retreat; rather, it is pitched, precisely, against the violence that public/private and political/domestic oppositions enable within the house, as well as beyond it. As she cleans, Kitten discovers that violence is literally embedded in her caravan home when she finds a cache of Irish Republican Army (IRA) guns under the floor. After a bomb kills Lawrence, Kitten throws the guns into a reservoir, a defiant act that she describes to the IRA paramilitaries who come looking for the guns as “spring cleaning”. Cormack asserts that Kitten “describing her perilous destruction of the guns in terms of domestic labor” strips it “of all political significance” (179). I argue instead that it demonstrates the radical potential of trans-domesticity, of an ethos of care-taking and shelter-making asserted in public and political spaces. Kitten’s act is not apolitical, though it is decidedly anti-violence.

From the beginning of Breakfast on Pluto, Kitten’s trans-domesticity exposes the violence structurally embedded in heteronormative domestic ideology. Additionally, the film’s regular juxtaposition of scenes of Kitten’s homemaking practices with scenes of political violence demonstrates that no form of domesticity functions as a private, apolitical retreat from “the minefields of this world” (McCabe x). This latter counterpoint throws into relief the political significance of Kitten’s trans-domesticity. Her domestic practices are her means of resisting and transforming the structural violence that poses an existential threat to marginalised and dispossessed people.

After Kitten is accused of being responsible for an IRA bombing in London, the ruthless, violent interrogation of Kitten by British police officers begins to break down her sense of self. Throughout this brutal scene, Kitten compulsively straightens the chairs and tidies the room, and she responds to her interrogators with kindness and even affection. Fraiman’s theorisation of “extreme domesticity” helps to articulate how Kitten’s homemaking in carceral space—she calls it “My Sweet Little Cell”—is an “urgent” act that, “in the wake of dislocation”, can mean “safety, sanity, and self-expression; survival in the most basic sense” (25). Cormack reads Kitten’s reactions in this scene as “masochistic” and the male police officers’ nurturing response as of a piece with the film’s “more-feminine-than-feminine disengagement from political realities” (185-89). However, I disagree: Kitten’s trans-domesticity is a political act that both sustains her within structures that would erase her and converts officers of the state to an ethos of care and shelter. Inspector Routledge, for example, gently carries Kitten back to her cell, and after her release, PC Wallis ensures that she is safely (if not privately) housed with a cooperatively-run peep show, the address at which an atoning Father Liam locates her in London.

After Kitten and a pregnant Charlie are burned out of the refuge that they temporarily find with Father Liam, Kitten and Charlie return to London, where Charlie’s baby is born soon after into the trans-domesticity that opens the film. Rejoining the story’s frame, Breakfast on Pluto ends close to where it begins: Kitten and the baby meet Charlie outside a London hospital, where Kitten sees Eily Bergin with her new son, Patrick. Instead of meeting where their paths intersect, the two families pass each other and turn in opposite directions. Kitten now knows that hers is both a different road and a different kind of home. “Home”, then, is not a place gained once and for all. Rather, home is a perpetual practice that does not separate one from the world, but can create the shelter of mutual care as one wanders through it.

The Radical Potential and Structural Limits of Trans-Domesticity

Breakfast on Pluto demonstrates the agency that trans-domesticity can afford in the lives of marginalised and dispossessed individuals, as well as the power of the structures that militate against its broader realisation. The radical political potential of trans-domesticity manifests in the transformation in the two police officers’ relational practices. Kitten’s trans-domesticity also inspires a reformation in Father Liam, the film’s representative of the Catholic Church and a man whose relationship to others transmutes from sexual violence and repressive secrecy to mutual nurturance and inclusive love. Although these individual conversions do not signify changes in structures of power, they do allow viewers to imagine the possibility of a state and a church that cherish, shelter, and care for all people equally. The film’s ending conveys this sense of fairy-tale-like possibility through its Disney-esque chattering birds and the bubble-gum pop song, “Sugar Baby Love”.

In the end, the sense of hopefulness that closes Breakfast on Pluto coexists with the reality that dominant power structures will not recognise Kitten’s trans-domestic subjectivity and family, and that those structures will work to contain any perceived threat, just as the Catholic Church banishes the converted Father Liam to Kilburn Parish. That Kitten and Charlie nevertheless realise a clear contentment in themselves and in their made family demonstrates the vital importance of trans-domesticity and other forms of “extreme domesticity” in the lives of those who wander.


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Author Biography

Kristina Deffenbacher, Hamline University

Kristina Deffenbacher is Professor of English at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she teaches and writes in the fields of gender studies, cultural studies, and British and Irish literatures. Her most recent work on gender, media, and culture includes the essay, “Good Girls Revolt, ‘Nasty Women’ and the Politics of Recognition,” and the article, “Alternative Gazes, Aesthetics, and Affects in I Love Dick.”