“I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission” film star Ellen Page said, during her much celebrated coming out speech at an HRC event in Las Vegas on Valentine’s Day. “I suffered for years, because I was scared to be out.”
Page’s revelation produced a media frenzy. Video of her coming out speech got so many hits that it temporarily broke the HRC’s website. While lesbian media sighed, “It’s about time!” (much like we did when Rosie, Ellen, and Robin came out), the mainstream media has spent the past couple of weeks over processing Page’s coming out.
And it has been fascinating.
Why? Because sexuality is not something that we can see. It is not readable to the eye, because it has no physical substance. This is precisely the basis of “coming out”: to make known or visible that which is invisible.
While The X-Men series has been interpreted by some as an allegory for the societal ostracization of gays, it is Ellen Page’s (not too subtly named) character, Kitty Pryde, whose special power of “phasing” – of becoming intangible to pass through objects unscathed – who ironically captures the essence of sexuality.
In articles about Page’s sexuality, there has been needless attention given to the androgyny of her style. In the actress’s first extensive interview since coming out, The Hollywood Reporter describes how Page was “outfitted,” “in her preferred uniform of jeans, red flannel shirt and black bomber jacket, [with] a TOM BOY trucker hat pulled snugly over her head.”
The writer of Flare Magazine‘s June cover story featuring Page is much more blunt: “One of the perks of being an out lesbian: being able to wear whatever you want.” Clearly, this means that social decorousness expands for Page and other lesbians – I guess “lesbian chic” is no longer en vogue? – to wear “whatever [we] want.” It’s admissible, in other words, to wear, as Flare notes, “leather pants, [an] untucked oxford shirt, and tie.” Or that Page, similarly attired during her interview, as well as elsewhere at award ceremonies and red carpets (including Sunday night’s premiere of X-Men: Days of Future Past), has seemingly appropriated a “masculine style” that says “[s]he is done hiding.” The attire is code for the media, making Page readable as a lesbian. “Well, it suits her! Ellen Page rocks androgynous shirt and tie and leather trousers at the MTV Movie Awards,” reads the belabored title of a piece over at The Daily Mail.
Androgyny, in other words, is a marker of homosexuality in mainstream culture. But it is a marker, let’s be clear, of one’s preferred gender expression, and not necessarily their sexuality. This is the problem with “gaydar,” which really isn’t as much gaydar as it is “gendar” – the queerness perceived speaks to what is visible in terms of gender. Sexuality is only readable when an image, or a scene, includes two or more people who are sharing some kind of intimate moment.
The media has latched on to anything within Page’s narrative, from growing up a tomboy to her “shy” persona, in order to produce a trite armchair psychologist rendering of her lesbian identity. The media’s fixation on her fear of tennis balls is simply hilarious in the Freudian clichéness of it all.
But this “therapy” isn’t for Page – it’s for us, her audience, who demands that she be honest with us. And she understands this very well, which is the part of the reason why she – and countless other public figures – remained in the closet; telling Flare: “You hear things like ‘People shouldn’t know about your life because you’re creating an illusion on-screen.’ But I don’t see other actresses going to great lengths to hide their heterosexuality. That’s an unfair double standard.”
Because heterosexuality is situated – much like maleness, much like whiteness—as the neutral or normative identity, it is always assumed, unless spoken otherwise. One’s sexuality is assumed to be straight, unless gender cues are (mis)read to imply one’s homosexuality.
By making Ellen Page readable, in terms of sexuality, the media circumscribes her power, or commercial viability, which is construed as her being “believable.” She is aware, that “she’s not up for romantic leads,” The Hollywood Reporter observes. Page assesses this consequence as a simple fact of film scripts penning women “through the male, patriarchal gaze,” implying her own understanding that she is not seen as a bankable sex object of men. She fails to fit the model, so to speak, of the female character desired to play a romantic lead. Even though she is set to star opposite Emile Hirsch as John Belushi’s wife in the biopic about the late comedian, it is highly unlikely the silver screen will ever see the likes of Mr. Wrong again.
Here’s the catch: the double standard is less about sexuality than it is about gender, or race. Female actors are pigeonholed by appearance. The hullabaloo surrounding Lupita Nyong’o’s lack of commercial viability because of the hue of her skin was rationalized by one Hollywood executive as there being “so few roles for women of color.” This is an obvious, and terribly poor, Jedi mind-trick. These roles are being written, but the white male executives running studios choose not to make those movies, or they choose not to “take a risk” with a woman of color.
Women’s bodies are policed, inside and outside the studio. We cannot see the Ellen Page’s libidinal desires for Rachel Maddow aswirl in her head, but we can see how androgynous she is presenting out in public at any given time.
Men’s bodies are not policed this way, which is why Neil Patrick Harris can play a “convincing” straight guy or Jared Leto can play a “convincing” trans woman. Men’s spaces, particularly in terms of their gendered and racialized bodies, are not regulated like those of women.
“I get more hate, honestly, about dressing androgynously than about being gay,” Page lamented in her Hollywood Reporter interview. “It blows my mind.”
Maybe it shouldn’t, because the root cause of homophobia is sexism- it always has been. If the media’s processing of Ellen Page’s coming out is any indication, it’s only when sexuality is made visible through gender markers and behaviors that it can then be policed, marginalized or typecast in terms of labor (for actresses, in terms of their “believability” in a particular role on screen).
This is why Page’s character Kitty Pryde is so fantastic; she refuses containment. Her freedom of movement cannot be defined by someone else. She is precisely the character who Page is trying to imitate in her newfound sense of freedom and happiness after coming out. And, who knows? Maybe Page’s career post coming out will embody this sense of freedom. In addition to the new X-Men film at the end of this month, Fox executives are developing an action vehicle for her, and the long gestating Freeheld – co starring Julianne Moore – the movie about a cancer-stricken New Jersey lesbian who is trying to transfer her benefits to her partner – finally seems ready to go into production.