Years ago I got into a heavy debate with a friend of mine over the pros and cons of aligning oneself with a group solely because one happens to have characteristics which make him or her fit into that group. At the time, my friend was defending her staunch Judaism, despite the fact that she didn’t really believe wholeheartedly in every tenet and practice of the religion. My counter-point was that the most important thing a person can be is the rarest thing: him or herself. In other words, while there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m Jewish,” I’m a woman,” “I’m a black, Venezuelan, gay goat-herder,” none of these groupings truly captures the wondrously precious qualities that make a single person a single person. No one is just like you. So to align yourself with a larger group isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it should never come at the expense of being exactly who you are.
I thought about this as I watched the social media response pour in to Jodie Foster’s poignant, lovely, brilliantly frazzled speech at the Golden Globe awards last night. By now you’ve probably seen and heard it for yourself so I won’t bother going into detail about it, but suffice it to say its purposeful ambiguity allowed a lot of people to project their own beliefs on to it and left a whole lot of room to make arguments for and against what Foster seemed to be saying. The headline today is that she finally “came out” after a four-and-a-half decade career in Hollywood, and that of course is sparking a metric ton of debate over why she didn’t do it sooner. The reality, of course, is so much more complex than that, though. What Foster revealed last night wasn’t simply the truth about her sexual orientation — which many have known for years anyway — but how wonderfully, eminently human she is. And that’s what made what she had to say so special and unforgettable.
This morning, quite a few pieces have been published lauding her for speaking somewhat openly about her sexuality but wondering aloud why it took her so long to get to the point where she felt willing to talk about it, given that so many others opened the closet door before her. I guess the implication is that it isn’t as fearless a statement to make as it would’ve been, say, a decade or more ago. The people making this argument seem to be saying that it was Jodie Foster’s responsibility as a gay woman to be up-front about who she was and is as an example to others — that she owes the gay community, including the many who are struggling with their identities and those who are fighting injustice out in the open, a debt and should be willing to “take a side.”
The thing is, that’s bullshit.
Of course it would be fantastic if Foster had decided years ago to be completely frank about her personal life but the fact remains that it was always her decision to make. Jodie Foster may be a gay woman but that’s certainly not all she is and somewhere along the line she made the personal choice to keep her private life private, a leviathan task in Hollywood and, more and more, a nearly insurmountable one in the age of TMZ ubiquity and absolute social media transparency. Foster chose to let her work speak for itself and not allow it to get bogged down in personal gossip and petty speculation — and the level of respect that work commands may be a testament to this tack working for her.
Now of course it can easily be argued that the whole reason that Jodie Foster casually mentioning her gayness amounts to no big scandal is that so many people before her fought uphill battles coming out of the closet, but again it’s Foster’s business how much or how little about herself she wants to divulge — how much or little she’s ever wanted to divulge. Her overall point last night seemed to be that the most difficult thing in Hollywood isn’t being gay or straight, in a relationship or not, etc. — it’s being who you are and somehow keeping your head on correctly in a business and environment that prides itself on stripping you bare for all to see. With that in mind, Jodie Foster has done the seemingly impossible throughout her very long career: she’s stayed true to who she is while deciding for herself that it was never the general public’s business to know exactly who she is.
She never wanted to be known as Jodie Foster, lesbian. Or Jodie Foster, activist crusader. Or Jodie Foster, whatever you need her to be. She just wanted to be Jodie Foster, actor and filmmaker. She talked about the intimate details of her life — her life — when she decided the time was right. And again, that’s her decision to make and no one else’s.