Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Jodie Foster and the Significance of Private Spaces

I *heart* Jodie Foster. I really do. And, not for the reasons you might assume. I am not a Jodie Foster lesbian. Like, I've never watched her in a film and thought, "I really hope she's a lesbian!" or "When is she going to come out?" or " She's so hot!" She's not my type. Not even as Clarice Starling who, though sad and vulnerable--the whole lambs screaming thing--was really kind of hot. Still, I love her and have mad respect for her after her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. Demile award on Sunday night.

I knew something was going on with Foster even before I watched the Golden Globes. I was at dinner at a friend's house with Joan and, rudely and ill-advised, I was looking at my Facebook page on my phone (not cool, sorry friends :). With no full spoilers, I understood that she was referencing--drunk or high according to posts--something about her sexual orientation or, as she says, her private life. And, really, it is her private life, isn't it? And aren't our so-called private lives more complicated and interesting than the public, in the way that private and public spheres have been designated? The private: where people create communities and their own, articulated identities that challenge or counter the limited public where only select identities are recognized, visible, and able to access the benefits allowed in the public sphere. Where, often gay = white + male (I know, I know. Ellen proves me wrong). Where we get to take things from the public, especially places we may not be allowed or recognized and use them, or throw them out entirely to create spaces and identities that are more accurate and sometimes a combination of different identities? (How's that for Haber--Nancy Fraser?)

And I think that's what Foster spoke to the other night in her discussion of "privacy." And, again, I'm not a queer person who has long wanted Foster to be gay. I understand it and where it comes from, as others have pointed out in the past couple of days. But for me, Jodie Foster is an actress and, as an actress, she has chosen some incredibly brave roles: Sarah Tobias, Clarice Starling and Iris, from Taxi Driver. But, I've never needed her to be gay in her personal life. I've needed her to be the strong presence she has been in the industry--elusive, smart, and sometimes critical of the media (yeah, I don't understand the attachment to Mel Gibson either). I need her to be those things, and that's what she presents. But I get why some folks might be upset that she has never come out as a lesbian or, as many actresses/comedians like to describe themselves: a gay woman. To have someone visible, out in the public sphere has been important for folks: It was important for me to know that Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, and Me'shell Ndgeocello were queer when I was figuring out my own queerness. But, they had different roles: writers and poets. Jodie Foster is a celebrity. A performer. A skilled performer no doubt, but her position allows her (like the rest of us) to decide what kind of front stage performances she want to display. Don't ask me where Goffman came from. But, she has a choice. And so much of the current discourse around coming out is rooted in the action of coming out and not the identity(s) itself. Or, even the way that a person lives her life. We want people to do something--often this one, limited act--with their identity and I think the point Foster was trying to make was that she already has. As she stated on Sunday,

"I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age, in those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers and then gradually, proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met."


So, I loved her speech. I really did. Unfortunately, I think I really liked it because it made me so incredibly uncomfortable. Like hand over my eyes, gritting teeth for fear of what's next, which I find alternately terrifying and thrilling. I mean, she was kind of weird, right? Like weird defensive, nervous, and kind of mad, yeah? And that's not how we want people to be when they come out. There is a politic to this coming out business. We want them to be relaxed and confident and like it's the best thing ever and sometimes the only thing, ever. That's kind of been the thing, our marching orders, so to speak, from our beloved Harvey Milk so many years ago when he insisted:

Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents. ...Come out to your relatives Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But, once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions (Milk 1978).

I reference this speech a lot when I talk about young, queer people of color who may not be able to come out in the public sphere or, as the NY Times recently reported, aren't interested in the identities  available and are claiming--or not--others. Just a note: if you want to really see how limiting the public sphere is in terms of queerness and coming out, read the comments section of "Generation LGBTQIA." People are not having it and going after the "hipster youth" who know "nothing about Bayarad Rustin, Harry Hay or Phyllis Lyon." And that's a tame post. Also, I like how they put Rustin first, you know, keep it real. Honestly, I thought the article was kind of lame because people have been modifying queerness and gender for years, but somehow Stephen Ira (the child of celebrities) has made it popular or worthy of a Times piece.

Which complicates a reflection on Milk and Foster's speeches. Come out as what? Embody what, exactly? Milk's words were and are important, but they are also historically specific, and that's critical. If you could come out at the time (perhaps absent of other, intersecting, marginalized identities) and if you can now, it may have been a liberating, significant moment. But, is that all there is? It was important for people--straight and queer--to know that queer people exist(ed).  But, coming out has shifted (or maybe has always been) into a process, which has very little to do with an actual person or identity. More importantly, it has become a requirement in the LGBTQ(IA) community. It's not really about identity at all, at this point, since the ones we are allowed to be are so limiting and homonormative, which is what the young people in the Times article--and many of us--are pushing back against. Maybe even Foster, who never said the words, "I am a lesbian," or "I am gay," but did say that she created a "private" life with friends, partners,  and children who took care of a "fragile girl" who gave "everything up there [as a public figure, to the industry] from the time that I was 3 years old. Isn't that reality TV show [or public] enough?"

Well, isn't it?

1 comment:

c.c. said...

well said. the majority of the push-back floating around the internet claims that foster's speech was "vague", "misleading", "reinforcing the borders of the closet". to the contrary, what i saw carried a clear and consistent message: i am me. i am happy. rest easy in the knowledge that i am content.

what right do we have to demand that she lay bare what her "me" entails?