Changing the coming out narrative: What we can learn from Jodie Foster

January 22, 2013

On January 13 at the Golden Globes, Jodie Foster managed to upstage the best awards show in recent memory and Argo’s surprise victory for Best Drama by ending decades of speculation on her sexuality. That night, before millions of American households, one of cinema’s most beloved icons came out—as single.
 
In an enigmatic yet incredibly heartfelt speech that instantly inspired a million parodies, Foster accepted the night’s honorary award by doing a bunch of things that rattled viewers. Continuing to stick by her friend Mel Gibson’s side, she not only sat next to him during the ceremony but also openly thanked a well-known homophobe—during a coming out speech.
 
But the thing that got America’s proverbial goat is that after all this time, Jodie Foster still didn’t actually come out. While all but spelling it out, Foster instead discussed our media’s culture of celebrity and Honey Boo Boo, and many felt that she was blaming Honey Boo Boo for not being able to come out. Because America has reality television, Jodie had to lie about who she was all of those years. Giving voice to this sentiment is a much-discussed article in the Huffington Post by Deb Baer, which details her reasons for being “angry” with the speech. It's the essay equivalent of a giant middle finger:

“Why am I so angry? Because I'm roughly the same age as Jodie, and yet I had the courage to come out exactly 20 years ago. This was before Glee and Modern Family and Will & Grace-- and even Ellen DeGeneres' historical and culture-changing pronouncement. I, and so very many others, took a leap of faith and dealt with the consequences. Sure, I wasn't worried about losing $20 million a picture, but it's all relative: I feared that family and friends would abandon me, that I'd get passed over for jobs and promotions, that I'd be the victim of violence, and all the other clich├ęs from the after-school specials.

But back to Jodie. She blamed publicly remaining in the closet all these years-- even with a long-term partner and two children -- on that whiny excuse that so many celebrities use: ‘privacy.’ Sorry, but there are a lot of ‘private’ stars who don't do a lot of press and don't talk about their personal lives, like Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp, but we know basic facts about them, such as whom they are married to. The ‘privacy’ excuse is just that: an excuse.”

However, what this public backlash against Foster does is negate Foster’s role in defining her own queer narrative, one that doesn’t have to conform to public expectations about her identity. As someone who has been famous almost her entire life, Jodie Foster grew up in America’s living rooms—from being a Disney star in Freaky Friday to outsmarting Hannibal Lecter and showing that women could compete in a man’s game. Throughout her career, Foster portrayed strong, independent women at a time when women in Hollywood were dominated by Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts— actresses whose main cinematic concerns were about landing a man and being likeable. Foster’s heroines are too busy kicking butt to worry about being America’s sweetheart.

In doing so, Foster battled the dominant expectations of what it means to be female in Hollywood to have this career—queering our expectations of female cinema. Jodie Foster has been plenty queer. But because of the hyper-public nature of her celebrity, Jodie Foster has long insisted that the movies were enough; Foster wanted her characters to be famous, not her. She’s hardly the first person to insist on this dichotomy between the public and the private—Terence Malick is notoriously reclusive—but Foster garners more attention because her preference makes it look like she has something to hide. For anyone watching Foster’s career, you know that couldn’t possibly be the case, as she's never lied about who she is. Foster has brought her children with her to awards shows for years and thanked her former partner, Cydney Bernard, in a speech a number of years ago. At the Globes, Foster mentioned that she’s been out to everyone who knows her for years, and frankly, I thought she’d already come out. Was not directly referencing her wife and children enough? What does everyone need, a People magazine-sponsored skywriter?

In a great piece on what Jodie Foster’s coming out process "teaches us," Huffington Post writer Dustin Bradley Goltz shows why Foster breaks with the media-mandated norms of celebrity, the ones Foster has railed against:

“[Her speech] pisses America off because it refuses to let people comfortably follow their paint-by-numbers way of audiencing-- here's who you like, here's who you detest, here's how you should feel, here's how you come out. Perhaps the reality show culture Foster indicted is not merely about coming out speeches, but a culture of idiocy where the complexities of lives, relations, illness, sexuality, gender, family, and age are carved up into tiny digestable news clips.”

In an article for The Daily Beast defending Kristen Stewart, Foster lambasted the culture of celebrity that demands actors live their lives for the audience, as Goltz suggests. Our media tabloid industry demands total access, total exposure and total consumption— nevermind the costs. Although the piece is about the paparazzi hounding of Stewart, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are better examples of this, performers whose personal lives have been destroyed through the demands of celebrity. When looking at the recent New York Times profile of Lohan and the freakshow her career has become, it’s no wonder that actors like Foster and Victor Garber prefer to stay out of the spotlight. Their queerness is not part of the public spectacle.

During a recent interview, Garber answered speculation about his private life by saying, “I don’t really talk about it but everybody knows.” And Garber isn’t kidding: Even Wikipedia mentions the fact that Garber has a long-time partner, fellow stage actor Rainer Andreesen.

Garber didn’t intend on “coming out” in this interview and simply answered a question honestly when it was asked of him, the same way that Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons have both nonchalantly come out in the past few years. Former Kyle XY actor Matt Dallas even recently came out on Twitter by announcing his engagement to his boyfriend, a tweet that (like Jodie Foster) never uses the word “gay.” Although Americans are becoming familiar with this new narrative of coming out, where being honest doesn’t come with a magazine cover, Foster’s own coming out totally disrupts the expected narrative. After Frank Ocean came out without ever defining his sexuality, Foster further pushed the envelope. She showed that coming out doesn’t have to be one thing and that sexuality is bigger and more complex than a People headline. As a queer person, you have the right to define yourself. You write your own rules. You create your own narrative.

By refusing to take part in the coming out ritual—and technically not come out at all—Foster again reiterated that her work was enough. The rest is just PR.

Nico Lang blogs about LGBTQ life in Chicago for WBEZ.org. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on Facebook.