The Media Zone

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Jodie Foster: To Come Out Lesbian Or Let Sleeping Rumors Lie

FLASH:Gays and Lesbians have complex lives extending beyond their homoSEXUALITY.

jodie and golden globe award

In a slightly manic Lifetime Achievement acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, actor-director Jodie Foster came out of the closet… sort of.

To the disappointment of many, Foster did not say, “I’m a Lesbian.”  The exact declaration was, “I’m single.”

Foster’s revelatory moment was teasingly vague, but she went on to say,"I already did my coming out about 1,000 years ago back in the stone age, those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers, and then gradually and proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met."

Confused?  Join the crowd.  There’s even a straw poll on what Foster meant on the Doonsbury home page.

Was Foster using “single” as a surrogate for the L word? Did her word choice cloak a clash between her preference for privacy and a need to publically unburden herself from the rumors about her sexuality (gay, bi-, a-) that have floated around her for most of her adult life? 

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Or was she purposefully opaque  because she wanted to save her children from "dealing with it” in their outside world?   I don’t know. 

Jodie and Cindy
In a time when it feels every day an actor, singer, newscaster, athlete, or politician comes out, to the point that coming out almost seems like a J. Crew fashion statement, I do know that “coming out,” is one small step for the movement but also one giant leap into career fragility.

If Foster was cagey about her sexual orientation, it is TOTALLY understandable.  Perhaps she calculated that it was more practical to have rumors fly than proffer explicit declarations. Wiggle room and the blessed fog of ambiguity can be valuable assets the morning after, when last night’s pride and bravery now slump and stoop in the withering light of declarer’s remorse -- “Shit what did I just do?”

The Gay Stigma: A major reason film and television actors publicly deny, hide, or are evasive about their homosexuality is that coming out can and often does hurt their careers.

Anything that interferes with the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief as they enter the onscreen fantasy -- like the believability of an actor in the part-- hurts box office.

And that in turn hurts casting prospects, especially for romantic leads in mass-audience mainstream films.   Coming out to the public can be considered reckless heroism when coming out to the world is not necessary.

Rumors about sexual orientation are not facts.  They jiggle in the jello of uncertainty.  But that may not be protection enough.  Marriage is one way to cripple the gossip.  It is working for Scientologists John Travolta and Tom Cruise.  Likewise is flirting with the dance of bi-sexuality, which has the scent of an appealing edginess, examples:  Lindsay Lohan and the louche Lady Gaga.

Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres
 One of the delicious illustrations of declarer’s remorse and a muddled reverse course is Anne Heche.  Although the story is a bit murky, then-up-and-coming romantic leading lady Heche came out of the closet with her publicized  relationship with comedian Ellen DeGeneres.  Heche’s film career quickly began to stutter.  After a nervous breakdown, she either decided to return to the closet or came to the realization that she misconstrued a transient passion for a stable sexual orientation. 

Whatever the truth, Heche’s film career did not fully recover.  Ditto for leading man Rupert Everett. Arguably, Jodie Foster has good reason to remain a sexual enigma.

The profession of acting fundamentally is artful lying to make an audience believe that the actor is someone they are not, doing things that they aren’t, in a world that isn’t.  We fairly ask, then: “Should an actor’s off-screen sexual orientation qualify or disqualify them for a role?  Straight actors play gay roles -- Robin Williams did in The Birdcage or Harry Hamlin did in Making Love, and  Naomi Watts in "Mullholland Drive." No problem there.

Problem here:  Most relevant for my purposes is the distracting impact of culturally prevalent stereotypes, those pictures in our heads of how people in various social categories (religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, age) look and behave and the favorable and unfavorable beliefs and feelings we have toward them.

When a known Gay actor appears in a straight romantic role, Gay stereotypes may wreck the audience’s suspension of disbelief.   At the most basic level, there are people who are flat out homophobic  — homosexuality raises their  levels of anxiety which can create psychological panic even  threaten their confidence in their own heterosexuality.  Distracting from the movie?  Yup. 

Then there are those who are not homophobic in the clinical sense but are rather homo-hostile, morally or religiously opposed to homosexuality.  They do not see it as an alternative life style but as a perverse or sinful lifestyle.  Their reaction to a known Gay actor playing straight might include walking out in the middle of the film or sitting there muttering and clucking,

An added problem: Research has shown that people think of homosexuality solely in terms of sexuality.  Announcement: Gays and Lesbians have lives beyond sex.

The harsh reality remains, particularly for those critical of Jody Foster’s moment -- those who wanted a full-throated declaration of her sexual parameters – that she might have wanted her options open to do a few more straight romantic roles (although never actually her strong suit)  before she completely abandons the space in front of the camera for the space behind.

Then there’s another possibility seen in this anecdote:  Tony- winning actor Nathan Lane was asked during an interview if he was Gay.  He replied, "I'm 40, single and work a lot in the musical theater. You do the math."

nathan lane
When Lane later told his mother he was Gay, she replied, "I'd rather you were dead,” to which he replied, "I knew you'd understand."   

My guess is Jodi Foster did the math.

 

 

 

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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