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?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Kimye, Girls and PostInterracial Obsessions

Not everyone knows this about me, but I'm mildly obsessed with most things interracial or mixed race or biracial. There was a time when I read all of the memoirish books that came out: Bulletproof Diva, Black, White, and Jewish, Caucasia, Dreams From My Father, Another Country (I know this isn't a memoir, but I just thought of it and its characters :). I wouldn't say that I like all of these books--Jones' Diva is burned in my brain--but I had  to read them. Just like I had to watch Who Is Black in America?, hosted by Soledad O'Brien, mostly because many of folks they focused on had a white parent--I don't know if that's how it started out, but how it ended, for sure. And, if you haven't figured it out by now, yes my obsession really lies in Black/white interracial relationships and usually those between men and women. Um, so this may turn into a post where I work out something from my childhood. Just kidding. But, I am a little obsessed with Kimye's pregnancy. You know, because no one is going to make a big deal of that child's mixed race heritage....

Ok. Obviously, some of this does lie in my own experience, as I realized when, the Tuesday after Who is Black aired, an older, African American man stopped me in the grocery store to ask me if I did spoken word. "No," I said quickly, a little confused but just as quickly realized where he was going with it at the same time that he said "Oh, no, but you look a lot like this girl (Noya Jones) that I saw doing spoken word last night on TV!" And then we talked about the show for a minute as my groceries were rung up.

And there's something about that interaction that I simultaneously love, hate, and am intimately familiar with. For decades, I've been asked about "being mixed," about my features, have had comparisons made to other, mixed race people, etc. Family members, students, strangers want to know "what I am," and "what it's like." And there's something I love about that curiosity, that trying to figure out something about race, Blackness, and interracial "something." At the same time, it is incredibly invasive and feels like some birth service I'm supposed to perform like, "Oh, you want to know the intimate details of my life and experience while I'm riding the elevator up to my doctor's office? Of course, and let me explain it all to you while you finger my hair." This has subsided some as I've gotten older, but the frequency of it still lay in my bones, which is why I get a little eye twitch when Kim Kardashian dates (Kardashian has Armenian heritage but/and is very much consumed as white, especially in relationship to her often Black partners) or when Lena Dunham decides to address her critics by adding a Black character, aka her character, Hannah Horvath's boyfriend, Sandy (Donald Glover) in the second season of her award winning show, Girls. *spoilers* below, so stop reading if you don't want to know what happens.

I've only seen a couple of episodes of Girls, as I don't have HBO, but, because of the premieres, we got a free run this week so I was able to watch it. And, while I certainly understood the criticism of the show when it debuted, I didn't share the same feelings--except for the whole bit about Lesley Arfin--I  wasn't really surprised that there was a show about white (middle class) people in NYC--Williamsburg, a white hipster haven, who don't have any friends or interactions with people of color. As, Dunham herself has said, she really based it on her life, her gut and, not surprisingly, that's what it looks like. Truth be told, I kind of like the show, mostly because I watched the smart, vulnerable Tiny Furniture, prior. Dunham is often sharp about her presentation, which is what I appreciate about Girls. But, it's mostly her and her character and Zosia Mamet (who plays Shoshanna) who interest me, I think the rest of the characters played by Alison Williams, Jemima Kirke, and Andrew Rannells, are pretty flat (although last night's sex scene between Williams and Rannells might rattle that a little). And, I can't tell that the same won't be true of Sandy, who we were introduced to last night. On the one hand I liked the way that he was written in, their interaction in the record store, and, eventually, when they inevitably have an argument about their racial differences and she quotes Missy Elliot's line, saying "so why don't you lay this thing down, flip it and reverse it," which he calls her on. At the same time, it feels a little forced in that he's introduced in the first few minutes of the second season premiere through a pretty raw sex scene where he's telling her--playfully--to tell him she wants it and later they then have said argument (wonderfully written) about why they will never work. It's sort of like, "you want more people of color? Fine, I'm going to open with what much of the culture is really thinks about Black men and white women and then break up with my Black boyfriend so I can get back to the real focus of the show." Smart. Touches a nerve, I think, and pokes a little at a naive post-racial sentiment while also reinforcing it.

Which brings me to Kim and Kanye (affectionately known as Kimye, I wonder how Kimya Dawson feels about this?). I don't really care about these two, really--even though, yes, this is the 20th time Kanye West has been mentioned on this blog--these are not celebrities I'm invested in. So the news of their dating and, recently, her pregnancy, caused little stir. Still, because of my disclosed obsession, I perused Twitter right after the announcement. I wasn't surprised to find that most of the comments referenced a sex tape (hers with Ray J), whether or not the baby was Kris Humphries, and how Kim really did "let Kanye finish." I get it, she's an easy target, as one twitter line argued "on the one hand the baby will have great hip-hop genes and on the other--nope, nothing." However, I have to admit I was a bit shocked when someone posted a screen shot from the sex tape, showing Kardashian giving Ray J, who was only identified by his penis (for lack of a better phrase) a blow job. The tag line said, "This is who your mother was before she had you. BTW, this is not your father."

"Ouch" doesn't even begin to address how painful that felt.

I felt for Kardashian. I did. I felt for my parents, and for all of the ways that many interracial relationships between white people and people of color are read in this culture. That the women are whores. That the men are lost. Sounds extreme, maybe.  And I know that it's not like this in every single case, that not everyone has these feelings (immediately), etc. But, let's not pretend that the brutality of racism and white/nonwhite relationships don't shape the consumption of these relationships in popular culture (and everyday life) and that it doesn't shape our hopes and dreams about a "postracial" future. Where journalists like O'Brien--who is also mixed race--continue to get it wrong in questions  like, "Why don't you identify as Black" or "Why would you put white on your college application?" to Noya Jones and her friend Becca in Who is Black (and then feign surprise at answers) And people like Dr. Yaba Blay get it right in their questions, insistence, and acknowledgement of the legacy and reality of the one drop rule in the U.S.  And while I don't want to pit these two women against one another or other folks who do this work, I do want us to call this consumption what it is. And ultimately for us to stop hoping that the various Kimye babies will tell us something that we don't already know about race and racism in (the) America(s).