Why I am okay with Jodie Foster’s speech

January 15, 2013, 7:31 pm

Like my friend, Tenured Radical, and millions of other folks, I spent part of my time this weekend watching the Golden Globe awards. While I skipped the red carpet, as that kind of “Who are you wearing? How does it feel to be nominated?” drivel doesn’t interest me, I wanted to learn about the television shows and movies I have missed, due to the craziness of my still relatively new role as an academic administrator.  I wasn’t disappointed, as there were many movies and television shows that I had never seen, and a few that were completely off my radar. Some of the actors who were nominated for awards were people I had only heard of in passing (such as the funny and tattooed Lena Dunham who is apparently on a highly regarded show, “Girls”), whereas others I recall from movies or television shows long ago (I fondly remember Claire Danes from “My so-called life,” but have never seen her new show, “Homeland”). All in all, it was a good night, and I left with some ideas for movies and shows I might investigate.

One of the best parts of the awards for me, and another big draw for watching, was that Jodie Foster would be getting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. I have always been a Jodie Foster fan, and I was pleased to see a woman actress/director/producer get this kind of recognition.

I watched Foster’s acceptance speech with my partner of 21 years, who herself is Foster’s age and has been out over 30 years. Both of us were really touched and impressed by her speech. My read, and the read of many of my academic and nonacademic friends, is pretty different from many others, including Tenured Radical’s thoughtful critique.

In case you missed it, Foster…is seeking love and empathy. Why? Because, as it turns out, being a movie star is a tough slog, and has forced her to fight for a life that was “real and honest” (something we civilians have at our fingertips), one in which she has sought “privacy above all else.”

Aaaargh. How to think about this little exercise in narcissism, one that so trivializes the struggles of most GLBTQ people in comparison to Foster’s depiction of herself “a fragile girl”?

As I read TR’s critique, echoed by many others, one of the biggest problems is that Foster’s complaints about privacy and having a real life strike her as something of a white whine… Real queers are suffering, dammit, and the poor little rich (famous) girl has no right to complain about a lack of privacy or to limit access to her truths. I honestly feel like that is creating a pretty high standard for anyone being able to speak about their experiences and their traumas. I am especially tender about that argument, as a white, upper-income academic administrator who has a blog that frequently hosts complaints about my life and my job. The critique also implies that coming out, privately or publicly, is more political than personal. I would argue that neither of these positions is true or fair.

Foster wasn’t speaking for all queers, just for herself, out of her own specificity. She was speaking to other Hollywood people and those who fetishize famous people. As a child actor and a young person in the entertainment industry, Foster likely missed out on some important developmental experiences that some of us “normal folks” take for granted, and she had experiences that none of us would want. I never had to think about whether my friends liked me because of my resources or name recognition. I never had people try to steal my clothing, my trash, or my used napkins just to own something I once used or to sell it on Ebay. I also cannot help remembering that Foster had a traumatic experience as a young college student, when she was the obsession of a mentally ill man who shot the sitting President of the United States just to get her attention. Many famous people, especially those in Hollywood, have stalkers, and the fear of what one deranged fan could do must be haunting. Having known my fair share of survivors of trauma, I am not at all surprised that Foster has taken steps to eliminate these kinds of potential threats in her life–even to an unhealthy extent. I actually thought I heard in her speech (and her decision to bring her family to the awards ceremony) a move to reclaim a more comfortable connection to a public self, for herself and her family.

So, I didn’t think of Foster’s speech as a coming out speech; I think it was a mid-life reflection and declaration for the future.  I thought that while her speech was carefully crafted and delivered, I think it had an underlying sincerity and purpose, and it reflected a moment of change, of decision, and of intentionality in her life. Think about how it ended: “This feels like the end of one era and the beginning of something else. Scary and exciting and now what? …Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely.” Something new is coming for Foster, something that may honor her intention to engage the world. Do I know the whole of her plans? No. But I don’t really need to.

As for the public’s interpretation as a “coming out speech,” I think Foster teased the audience with the whole “coming out” theme, ultimately making people’s preoccupation with her sexuality into a joke by coming out as single. I thought that was both clever and funny, as it recognized that even though she did “come out” by claiming her then-partner in a speech in 2007, people are still somewhat obsessed with the idea that Foster hadn’t publicly claimed her gayness. (And some are still mad that she didn’t say lesbian last night, dammit!)

Honestly, even before this weekend, if you did a Google search for Jodie Foster, the search option that came up first was “Jodie Foster gay.” She knows that people–queers, straights, asexuals, and everyone else–are wanting to name her, claim her, and declaim her, and she has reason for, and interest in, challenging that. And those reasons are not only related to the homophobia of Hollywood… they are rooted in the homophobia we queers carry within each of us, the homophobia that makes it scary to tell your mom, the homophobia that makes us wonder if maybe we really are confused and could work it out another way, the homophobia that makes us wonder if God still loves us. Famous or not, rich or not, many queers have to wrestle with these questions and fears. And I thought Foster was acknowledging that experience, talking about herself as a young queer who tried to navigate her own coming out with friends and family. She chose to do it outside of the spotlight. She chose to keep it more private. She described the personal part of coming out, and I thought she did it with aplomb.

But here is the larger issue: Does Jodie Foster have a responsibility to be out? Just because she acts in, directs, and produces movies, is she required to give up her private life and talk to reporters about her family life, her relationship, her sexuality? I honestly don’t think she does. Would I like it if she was publicly out and proud, working on LGBTQ issues across the US and the globe? Sure. I celebrate every public coming out of a celebrity, politician, athlete, and public figure, as I think it moves our cause (that being civil rights) forward. But I also understand that coming out is a process, and people have to work their way through it. And I know that I cannot judge the way another person decides to manage their sexuality, unless they use it to oppress other people.

And I say this as a lesbian who has spent my career being the “designated queer” who studies gay stuff, speaks to classes/public assemblies/conferences/colleagues/reporters and almost anyone else who will listen about the challenges and wonderful parts of being a queer person in America, lobbies for LGBTQ-supportive organizational and public policies, teaches the queer studies courses, and often has been the only out queer person in my department, if not my college. I do all of that because I think it is important, and I have the capacity, commitment, and strength of self to do it. But I also understand that people approach their sexuality in different ways, and not everyone wants to or can do what I do. All I ask is that my more “private friends” get my back when I face losing credibility, being the butt of jokes, and even threats to my job as a result of my speaking out. And I think Jodie would live into that. To wit:

In the early 1990s, Foster helped her best friend Randy Stone and co-producer Peggy Rajski make the Oscar-winning 1994 short film Trevor (which was remade for HBO in 1998, ironically produced by the newly out Ellen DeGeneres). And in 2007, the same year that Randy Stone died of heart disease, Foster contributed another huge chunk of change to The Trevor Project, the largest in the organization’s history.

Jodie Foster may be difficult to understand. You may hate her relationship with homophobic, Anti-Semitic (and likely mentally ill alcoholic) Mel Gibson; you may wish she would claim the word lesbian in public; you may want her to be someone she isn’t. But you have to take Foster as she is, on her own terms. I am okay with that.


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