I have been asked by a number of people about my thoughts on Jodie Foster’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award. While I am not sure I have any particular expertise for commenting on the speech, its rhetorical moves...I am a lifelong fan of Jodie Foster’s work so I will, like so many others, throw in my two-cents.
Fortunately, I recently finished reading Nicholas de Villier’s new book Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol which is fitting for thinking about the concept of the “confessional” coming out speech. So, please stay with me a moment while I review his work before doing my work. de Villier’s goal, as he notes in the conclusion “has been to explain how and why the ‘mystique’ of Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol has continued into the new millenium, where the media’s desire for ‘full access and 360-degree disclosure’ is perhaps stronger than ever” (154). Proposing queer opacity as a particular “tactic”, he engages the interviews (the spoken, perhaps transcribed words) of Warhol, Barthes, and Foucault to think through this “multi-mediated object” and how these three particular queer authors disrupted then and it would seem now the “smooth functioning of ‘confessional discourse’, the image-system, and the celebrity interview” (154).
To not be completely opaque myself, I begin thinking about opacity. What is opacity and how does that translate into a tactic or strategy that “intervenes”? According to Merriam Webster (I’m lazy so excuse me for not using the OED) opacity means “an obscurity of sense; unintelligibleness”, “the quality or state of being mentally obtuse; dullness”, and “the quality or state of a body that makes it impervious to the rays of light; broadly : the relative capacity of matter to obstruct the transmission of radiant energy”. While it would seem to be insulting to be called unintelligible, dull...opaque, it appears that there might be queer potential in such states. Plus, it is rather en vogue to re-appropriate the abject and take the place of shameful affects these days within particular realms of queer theory. “Queer opacity” as de Villiers argues “ is one way of locating and marking the weak points in the system known as the ‘epistemology of the closet,’ and finding an opening for the creation of a queer public persona that manages to resist confessional discourse” (163).
There are it would seem a plethora of queer figures that might be taken up in exploring such tactics. But the constellation of Foucault, Warhol, and Barthes seems fitting. de Villier notes common reference points that exist between them - Foucault and Barthes were colleagues at the College de France; Barthes and Foucault both wrote about Duane Michal’s, a photographer of Warhol, and all three write about issues of the surface and contest similar cultural modes of being while offering alternatives.Drawing from those contestations, de Villier maps out the tactics such authors utilized to, well, contest, disrupt, and arguably drive people nuts for not abiding by the limiting “epistemology of the closet”. Drawing upon the reparative impulse that currently captivates a realm of queer scholarship, he wants to see the tactics, the strategies of these authors “less for their reactive or protective abilities...but rather more for what they might enable, creatively and politically” (6). Returning to my earlier comment, what would it mean to not allow these authors refusal to be “clear” or “intelligible” or “out” drive us nuts, but to “go nuts” and see what their opaque tactics enable. How might dullness, unintelligibleness, or being “impervious to light” (which we might see as impervious to depth) offer unthought possibilities that offer ways out or around current cultural ruts regarding sexuality, out-ness, and queer place and time of homosexuality historically and presently. Drawing on Foucault, this is a project that contests the idea of sexuality as one’s truth to be confessed, but “to move toward an understanding of the writer’s life as work, the relation to oneself taken as a creative activity” (13).
What exactly does this mean, well de Villiers provides a rather compelling engagement with his three authors of choice (Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol) so I will leave you to read and contend with his arguments. Instead, I want to think through de Villiers in relationship to the recent acceptance speech given by Jodie Foster. Ms. Foster’s speech was anything but clear. At times it seemed to ramble, she feigned nervousness, she performed the ...ellipsis...asking for the audiences support so she can “put it out there, loud and proud”, announcing that she is...single. Like one of Warhol’s interviews in David Bailey’s documentary on Warhold - addressed by de Villiers - Foster, in that moment, illuminated “the art of the anticlimax” (153). Instead, she announces she is single. Yes, all the build up when she says Ends up anti-climatically with people on the edge of their seats (particularly the editors of Out magazine that inanely argue that Foster is in the “The Glass Closet” and after Foster's speech "The Glass Closet Revisited") falling off because she didn’t say what she was expected to say, instead saying something else while still saying what it is people expected. She said it “Loud and Proud” (a mantra of gay rights) and even mentioned that she came out “a thousand years ago, in the Stone Age”. Yet, she refused to abide by the lesson other celebrity-gays-and-lesbians have learned which is that they are “expected to honor the details of their private life”.
Jodie Foster, I would argue, made an intervention - perhaps one that will inevitably fail - to contest the idea that one has to “confess”, that one must “tell it to the world”. Instead of abiding by the trope of the lonely lesbian trapped in the closet in need of a good, cathartic, televised coming out speech, Foster performs and regails a life lived creatively alongside for the last 20 years “my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life, my confessor, ski buddy,consigliere, most beloved BFF of 20 years, Cydney Bernard”. Jodie Foster came out of the closet years ago, but refused its logic. She created her life, her art, her films but did not see the need to or the point in confessing her sexuality as if it spoke her truth, her inner experience.
This, I think, is compelling because it refuses the clarity demanded by the “coming-out squad” while providing a rather humble, smart, and beautiful example of living creatively a rather queer life that does not use the confessional coming-out speech as a money-maker “with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show”. Not only does Foster eschew the confessional discourse, while playing with its logic, but she disrupts the consumerist logic that has developed around the coming-out story. She refuses to sell her story, to reveal what is already there, on the surface of her daily life for a quick couple of millions.
So, while Out can argue she missed her opportunity for “meaningful visibility”, I think Foster’s opacity promises something else. She exposes the ties between coming-out, consumerism, and the spectacle around the “open-secret”. She continues the challenge to the “closet-metaphor”, while illustrating a life lived “loud and proud” outside of the public eye and the demand for “clarity” and “outness” defined by the neoliberal gay machine (e.g., HRC, Out). She does this with grace and poise, performing nervousness amidst her colleagues and the watching audiences that speaks not to her inner depth, but to her creative way of doing what is wanted of her in her own terms to show other gays and lesbians the “confessional” as Foucault and others showed us in their work, has its own pitfalls. That one can opaquely do life and refuse to abide by other's logic.
I will end (almost) with Daniel Defert’s lesson from Michel Foucault’s death from AIDS. Foucault, as Defert points out, was heavily criticized for not being more vocal about living with AIDS and such silence often read as “shame”. In Defert’s (Foucault’s partner-in-crime) retort to such claims he penned a piece entitled “the more ashamed one is, the more one admits/claims” (de Villiers, 48). Perhaps then, it is in opacity, in refusing the opportunity for “meaningful visibility” defined a priori as having to utter “gay and lesbian” (or for Foucault “AIDS”) that new opportunities emerge. Perhaps the suspicious gaze should be turned to those at Out, HRC, and others who lambast people for not being “out” in the ways they themselves see one needing to be out. Perhaps it is them, their demands for clarity, visibility, and outness (seemingly tied to consumerism) that needs to be challenged and not Ms. Foster’s smart, snarky, and humble “confessional”. Perhaps their insistent and consistent demands speaks more of them and less of the state of out-ness.
I conclude then with Ms. Foster's final hope, a hope that is perhaps her lesson to her listeners...a hope "to be seen, to be understood...deeply and to not be so very lonely" in this mad world.