Several videos from the ubiquitous “It Gets Better” project feature famous, “top” gays guaranteeing that a better life awaits all L’s, G’s, B’s and T’s if we hold our heads high. Pop star Adam Lambert advises not to give bullies “the power to affect you, [because] you’re letting them win.” Actor Neil Patrick Harris says, “you can act with strength, you can act with courage… stand tall…be proud.” And fashion designer Michael Kors assures us that if he wasn’t “different,” he couldn’t be, um, Michael Kors. While these statements are all extremely well-intentioned, they beg the question, “for whom does it get better”? (For pop stars with a security team to ward off haters? For exceedingly famous actors who are lauded for “acting straight” and conforming to gender stereotypes? For Michael Kors?)
Jodie Foster’s reality show “would be so boring,” she told the world at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, where she was awarded for a lifetime in front of the camera. Foster’s speech was hotter and colder than a Katy Perry song. Wearing a “coming-out gown,” she seemed to reluctantly come out, and come out, while demanding privacy at one of the most public events on, well, the globe. These contradictions have ignited polarizing “blogofires” across the blogosphere, largely inflamed by Foster’s latent declaration of her sexual orientation.
I am of two minds on the speech. As a gay person I’m frustrated, disappointed and nonplussed by a public figure drawing attention to her sexuality while simultaneously defending herself against identification with our community, but as a psychotherapist I’m openly and empathically curious about her, a compartmentalized person struggling for a cohesive sense of self, hoping to be recognized by us in all her authentic contradictions — not unlike how I, and many in our community, hope to be recognized by her.
Such dilemmas of perspective often present themselves in my work with clients. At these times I find that the questions are far more valuable than answers.
Some questions to consider: Why did Foster use this platform, this symbolically terminal moment in her career, to address her sexuality? Why expose herself (and make her publicist “nervous”) if only to be defensive? Why give us what she suspects we wanted and then criticize us for wanting it? Was her tone defensive because she felt a general invasion of “privacy” (after all, she had no problem sharing images of her children, her “unfamous” friends or referring to her mother and even her ex-lover), or was the subject of her sexual identity the grain of sand that clogged the whole machine?
As much searching, ranting, probing or blogging we do, we won’t find objective answers to these questions, and perhaps they don’t exist. The only answers I’ll ever have are my own imperfect, subjective responses to the speech she gave, and her own imperfect, subjective justification for giving it.
That isn’t to say that my reactions aren’t valid, reasonable or real; for me they very much are. I still feel teased and slapped by her “anti-coming-out.” I still feel that the pros of queer public figures explicitly owning their identities (e.g., giving LGBT people who live in fear, shame and doubt a point of identification and hope) far outweigh the cons (e.g., the possibility of being blocked from “straight” roles, one Brett Easton Ellis raised in a tweet about the openly gay Matt Bomer). I can’t help but believe that the applause her audience was itching to give her if she had just spoken the words “I’m a lesbian” would not have been for her alone; it would not have been in the spirit of a private support group. I imagine it representing so much more, honoring the progress we have witnessed in the LGBT community thanks to the bravery of entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres (and the celebrities who followed in her footsteps), the advocacy and support of leaders like Barack Obama and, most of all, the brazen willingness of millions of non-famous people who have lived their lives truthfully, against all odds. This, I believe, is the applause she denied by declaring her lack of declaration. (I also can’t hide my involuntary grimace and confusion over the fact that she chose Mel Gibson — infamous for homophobic, racist and anti-semitic rants – as her date on the night that she chose to address, or at least insinuate, her sexuality).
Though my imagination can never approximate the traumatic rupture to her privacy that she experienced when John Hinckley cited his love for her (a college student at the time) in explaining his attempted assassination of President Reagan, I can’t help but also see that as an adult she chose to remain in an industry (you can be forced into acting at 3, but not at 33) that sells entertainment based on an audience’s virtual “love” of the entertainers. She is a bona fide public figure, and that comes with opportunities, choices and challenges but not a contract with the public that states, “You can identify with this piece of me but not this one. You can ask about this but not that.
But if I were her therapist, I would use these reactions to feed my curiosity instead of my frustration. I would consider the unique circumstances under which she grew up: in front of a camera and, to use her words, always “fight[ing] for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” I would wonder about her decision to stay in the limelight even as it threatened her sense of “real” and “normal.” I would consider that perhaps “real” and “normal” are words that she feels ambivalent about, words that she associates with reality TV stars, such as Honey Boo Boo Child (whom she derisively singled out in her speech). Perhaps she learned to find authenticity through compartmentalization (e.g., leading lady, lesbian, lover, mother, etc.). Perhaps this sense of authenticity was more achievable for her when entertainment was less “reality”-focused than it is now: “[H]ow beautiful it once was,” she says. Perhaps the shift in how entertainment is sold (i.e., actors now face more pressure to promote their personal lives instead of just their films) has created a rupture in the “self” she had spent years organizing, causing her to confront the unfortunate contradictions between her identity as “leading lady” (which implies heterosexuality) and “lesbian,” for example. Perhaps we can understand her defensiveness as an attempt to keep the identity she had pieced together so effectively from unraveling, and maybe this defensiveness suggests that she doesn’t like the reductiveness of Hollywood (a system we all contribute to) any more than we do.
If I were her therapist, I would invite a space between our realities, a third space, in the hope of breaking through her defensiveness and breaking down my frustration. Psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg describes such a space as “[a] space uniquely relational and still uniquely individual; a space belonging to neither person alone, and yet, belonging to both and to each; a twilight space in which ‘the impossible’ becomes possible; a space in which incompatible selves, each awake to its own ‘truth,’ can ‘dream’ the reality of the other without risk to its own integrity.”
I am not her therapist, of course, and we are not afforded such exchanges of perception with our entertainers, so my intervention will remain a fantasy; as Bromberg says, “this process requires an enacted collision of realities between [two people].” Instead, I will have to remain disappointed and frustrated, and perhaps she will remain defensive, but in the meantime we can all continue to be curious about Jodie Foster and hope that she continues to be so about us.