Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Our reaction to Jodie Foster's speech: the struggle between political correctness and activism

In case you hadn't heard, Jodie Foster got the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes this year, and her acceptance speech has us all talking.  (To read the transcript of her remarks and/or to watch the video, go to this link.)

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm another lesbian with a Jodie Foster fixation.  Ever since my own coming out (in 1994/1995), I'd heard the rumor that Jodie Foster was gay too.  But rather than feeling a kind of lesbian pride about this, it was all whispers and "but she should get to come out when she wants to come out".  So Jodie has been in my lesbian-psyche from day one, from the earliest and tender time of my own coming out... and she's always been stuck in my psyche as I struggle with whether being a lesbian is something that's private, or something that's no big deal, or something to be proud about -- or somehow all of the above.

Coming out can be a hard experience. Every person's coming out is unique to them.  There are almost infinite variables. What time (date in history) and place (country, city, neighborhood, etc.) are you living in? Under what other social circumstances (class, race, gender/sex, family of origin, religion, etc.)? And what is your personality type? Coming out is different for those who are naturally extroverted and/or who enjoy being non-conformists than it is for those who are naturally introverted and/or who don't particularly like to be different (in general) or to "stand out".

One reason I've always been puzzled by Jodie Foster's seeming reticence to come out (at least to the public -- I don't know how she's handled being out in her private life) is that it seems like (to me -- but what do I know?) that her circumstances for coming out are pretty favorable.  She's wealthy, white, attractive, and privileged in all sorts of ways... what would/does coming out really cost her?

Some will say that it could limit her in Hollywood, that she might not get cast in certain roles if she's "out".  In earlier times, this would no doubt have been true.  But is it really true now? Has it really been true for the last decade?  I personally don't think so.  I think most people are quite happy to cast Jodie Foster, or to have her direct their film.  I don't think her career is in a precarious position.  (She just got the Cecil B. DeMille Award, remember?)

But, then, there is the matter of her own unique personality. We all have one, after all. I don't know Jodie Foster personally. But I take it that she's a very private person, perhaps somewhat understated in her private life.  And therefore, it makes sense, on a human level, that making a big public proclamation about her sexual orientation would be very hard/awkward/foreign to her way of being.

I first watched her acceptance speech live, and it puzzled me.  Frankly, in the moment, it confused -- and sort of annoyed -- me.  I never expected her to come out or make some big personal revelation at the Golden Globes. I thought she'd get up there and share insights/memories/etc. about the art of movie-making.  So I wasn't expecting anything along the lines of a coming out.

But then, she kind of did come out. I mean, technically she did. But it was done in a round-about, almost angry-sounding way.  She was very defensive about her privacy.  She acknowledged her ex-partner in a way that was pretty clear, to be fair.  But still. I think most were left with a feeling of, "She just came out... right? Didn't she?"

She also sort of came out in 2007 when she acknowledged her (then) partner when she accepted an award (I forget which award... she's had quite a career!).

But if you come out on national television twice and we're still not sure you came out, I don't think you're doing it right! Just sayin'!

I'm sort of joking, of course. And there were lots of funny comments on Twitter.  One of my personal favorites was by @BillyEichner: "Just rewatched Jodie Foster's speech - pretty much the worst It Gets Better video ever."  But there were an amazing variety of responses to her speech. There were those who seemingly thought it was the most amazing thing they'd ever heard, and were very moved.  And there were those who were angry with her.  And there were those who were just puzzled, or bemused.  (Go to this link to see some of the variety of tweets on the topic.)

I watched her speech a second time today, and actually... I liked it better the second time.  I'm still a little confused.  But it no longer annoys me.

I think I feel ambivalent about it in part because she seems to be so ambivalent about coming out in public. Which makes me think... maybe she should just leave it alone for now. As I say, I don't think we were expecting her to come out at the Golden Globes. Were we?

The politically correct and empathetic part of me thinks her speech was just fine.  After all, every LGBT person should decide when to come out, and in what way.  And I appreciate that for whatever reason, it's a personal struggle for her, still.  And I appreciate that LGBT people are left with the challenge of coming out at all, and being critiqued for how/when/where we do it -- whereas straight and cisgender people never have to face any of this at all.  That's not fair. I get that.

But the activist in me wishes she would have just said, loud and proud, "Yes, I'm a lesbian." I wish she'd just said it in a clear, positive-sounding (rather than defensive-sounding) way.  Because the lesbian in me feels like until Jodie is okay with being a lesbian (publicly), who am I to be so okay with being a lesbian (publicly)?

Also, to what extent is my being a lesbian my "private life"?  I'm married, legally, in the state of Massachusetts, to another woman. That's a matter of public record.  So you can presume from that that I'm a lesbian (or bisexual). (I'm a lesbian, lest I confuse you!) Is that really my "private" life?  The nature of my relationship with my wife is private. But the fact that I have a wife (and therefore am presumably queer)? I don't see it as private.

And for me, this gives the lie to the whole matter.  What do I mean? Well, remember when Hilary Swank won the Oscar a few years back, and she neglected to mention/thank her (then) husband, Chad Lowe? There was a bit of a fuss and stir over this.  Why had she not thanked her husband publicly in her acceptance speech? Surely that was a faux pas, a social error!  It's just assumed that a wife would thank her husband in public for an award (and that a husband would thank his wife in public, too).  So therefore, being in a heterosexual marriage is apparently very public. But a homosexual marriage/partnership?  I guess that's private?  It's a ghost marriage? It's a lesser marriage?  It seems like a double-standard to me.

Yes, I know, I know. Sometimes being "out" is dangerous in this crazy world.  But I continue to struggle with out-ness as a private matter for someone privileged enough to come out in circumstances that involve minimal danger.