Why Jodie Foster wasn't brave

The actress has been lauded for her coming out speech, but why?

George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Brendan Fraser, Richard Gere, Hugh Jackman, Will Smith, Kevin Spacey, John Travolta. What do all those names have in common? Off the top of my head, and without typing the words “Hollywood A-list gay” (honest) into a search engine, these are the movie stars who spring most readily to mind when thinking about celebrities who have been rumoured in recent years to be gay. Clooney gave a sane and proportionate response to the persistent tittle-tattle during an interview last year with the gay magazine The Advocate. “I think it’s funny,” he said, “but the last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, ‘These are lies!’ That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing. My private life is private, and I’m very happy in it. Who does it hurt if someone thinks I’m gay? I’ll be long dead and there will still be people who say I was gay. I don’t give a shit.”

I can’t think of a better way of handling the subject than to deliver this answer in public, and to visibly support gay equality, as Clooney has done tirelessly. (The interview coincided with his participation in a reading of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8, about the Proposition 8 bill against gay marriage.) As far as I know, the other actors on my entirely extemporaneous roll-call have not been as forthright in addressing the subject, though it’s impossible to know without typing the words “Hollywood A-list gay—denials” into a search engine. Hugh Jackman is an exception. He expressed much the same sentiments as Clooney back in 2009: “I’d be happy to go and deny it, because I’m not. But by denying it, I’m saying there is something shameful about it, and there isn’t anything shameful.” He also said in 2011 that he had suffered homophobic taunts when he showed as a child an enthusiasm for dance. So when he played Peter Allen, the late, gay singer-songwriter and former Mr Liza Minnelli, in the Broadway show The Boy from Oz, it was an act of defiance as well as a spectacular performance in its own right.

This week, Jodie Foster acknowledged her sexuality in a much-praised and wittily-written speech at the Golden Globes ceremony, where she was being presented with a lifetime achievement award. Jackman was once quizzed over his similarities to Peter Allen, and said something along the lines of: “It’s true. Like him, I’m… Australian.” Foster used the same comic device in her speech: “I’m just going to put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I’m going to need your support on this. I am… single. Yes I am, I am single.”

Foster is a charged, emotionally taut performer whose nerves always seem to be jangling audibly on screen: reviewing Anna and the King, the critic Charlotte O’Sullivan made the unimprovable observation that Foster seems to be constantly under attack “from a flock of invisible birds". I admire particularly her work in Taxi Driver and The Silence of the Lambs and Panic Room, and for daring to make a film as berserk as The Beaver (if not for the actual film itself). I know nothing of her as a person, but I am happy for her that she has reached a place psychologically where she can deliver such a speech. “Seriously, I hope you're not disappointed that there won't be a big coming-out speech tonight,” she went on to say, “because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age, in those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers and then gradually, proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met.” It was a coming-out speech that wasn’t. But also was. Well, sort of.

I wish she had felt strong enough to make such pronouncements earlier in her career, or that the support structure had been there for her to do so, or that the climate had been receptive to honesty — but then the point surely is to be brave when such elements are not positioned in your favour. It makes it even harder when there are examples like Anne Heche, who was revealed to be in a relationship with Ellen DeGeneres around the time that Heche’s romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights was released, and whose sexuality was said by some to be the reason no one went to see the film. Of course, the problem was not that audiences wouldn’t buy her on-screen romance with Harrison Ford because her off-screen one with DeGeneres kept getting in the way—the problem was that the movie was diabolically bad. I don’t think cinemagoers reacted adversely to Forrest Gump or Rust and Bone because actors who are able-bodied in reality played amputees on screen. Is our knowledge of an actor’s private life the one obstacle no CGI can overcome? It doesn’t help when Bret Easton Ellis tweets his objections to an openly gay actor being considered for the straight lead in the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey. But then we might just as well amend that sentence to “It doesn’t help when Bret Easton Ellis tweets.”

The problem some of us had with what Foster said was not only what she said, but the showbiz marshmallow-world from within which she said it. We all have our own relative hardships and obstacles, but she wasn’t speaking from a place of commercial or physical risk or danger. She was collecting an award. Her visibility is important, but we should perhaps be slow to laud her fearlessness. (Please do read Patrick Strudwick’s outstanding and eloquent blog on this subject: “Without visibility we would have nothing,” he writes. “Without millions of ordinary people, kids in British state schools, activists in Uganda, married Christians in the Bible belt, saying, ‘Actually, I'm gay,’ Jodie Foster would not be able to stand up, resplendent, creaking open the closet door free of consequences. She surfed the wave of others’ courage and gave back only when she felt like it.”)

As chance would have it, I read the ecstatic reports of Foster’s speech the morning after the ceremony while I was on my way to court to support a friend who was the victim last year of a violent homophobic assault. He had been attacked after answering in the affirmative when asked if he was gay. Bravery comes in different forms, different strengths, but I’ll take his version over the one delivered by an adored performer who need not fear very much beyond bad reviews or inadequate opening-weekend box-office.

Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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A powerful portrait of the Bangladeshi textiles industry

Jeremy Seabrook's The Song of the Shirt goes beyond hand-wringing to investigate the true cost of cheap labour.

On 24 April 2013, an eight-storey commercial building called Rana Plaza in the Bangladeshi capital city, Dhaka, collapsed. Hundreds of bodies were buried in the rubble. The search for the dead went on for weeks. More than 1,000 people lost their lives; 2,500 were injured. The deadliest ­accident at a garment factory in history, the incident shone a light on the dire conditions endured by those who produce cheap clothing for the west.

In a cramped and unstable building, the workers – many of whom were women – stitched clothes for international brands such as Benetton and Primark. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of what happened was the wanton disregard for human life shown by the bosses. The building was clearly structurally unsound. The day before the disaster, cracks had appeared in the walls. But many workers were ordered to return the next day. Some of those who died had yet to receive their first pay cheque.

While the international firms that sold clothes made at Rana Plaza have offered ­financial compensation to the survivors and to families of the victims, not much has happened to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. This is not surprising. Numerous factory fires in recent years, cumulatively resulting in the deaths of hundreds of workers, have also failed to trigger any systemic change.

In his book The Song of the Shirt, Jeremy Seabrook goes beyond the all-too-transient hand-wringing about sweatshops that has typified much of the media coverage of the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters. Seabrook is nothing if not prolific. He has written about forty books over the course of five decades, many of them focusing on poverty and development, both in the UK and on the Indian subcontinent. For several years he was a columnist for the New Statesman in Kolkata.

The richness of that experience is evident in this book. Researched over the course of many years, it stitches together history, folklore and hundreds of encounters with individual Bangladeshis to give a thorough picture of the structural injustices that have led to the present situation.

“The position of Bangladesh in the division of labour of globalism today is not to clothe the nakedness of the world but to provide it with limitless, cheap garments,” he writes. “The workers are disposable, rags of humanity, as it were, used up like any other raw material in the cause of production for export.”

In lyrical prose, Seabrook places the personal stories of garment workers and their families in a broader context, showing them as dots in a bigger picture of the destructive effects of British colonisation and the injustices of modern globalisation, but also as the inheritors of their history: a people who have long been associated with weaving, in a country at the mercy of the ­elements, where riverbanks break and ­water consumes whatever scant resources the poor have.

The stories of the people Seabrook meets often extend to just a few paragraphs and the chapters, too, are short, sometimes just a couple of pages. Yet this fragmentary approach never feels disjointed. Rather, each small section layers on the last, gradually building up a complex and textured whole that illustrates the ways in which big ideas – colonisation, industrialisation and deindustrialisation – play out on the smallest of levels.

What distinguishes this book is its deep historical consciousness. Quietly outraged, Seabrook sets out in detail how in the 18th century the East India Company deliberately destroyed the long-established weaving industry in Bengal in order to promote British textiles. At times, he makes specific comparisons, noting that the workers of Bengal were forced to produce opium, which was then used for sedatives and medicines that made things “less harsh for the disaffected and sometimes mutinous workers of industrial Britain”.

He also applies these contrasts, which illustrate relative privilege, to the present day, describing children at a factory in Dhaka who stitch clothes together for the lower end of the European and North American markets. “The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the west,” he writes. Elsewhere, he makes a cross-historical comparison between workers in the north of England in the 19th century and today’s Bangladeshi garment workers. Both groups are casualties of unjust capitalism.

Seabrook travels outside Dhaka, notably to Barisal, a city where poverty is so deep that families – many of which have lost what scant land they had to flooding – have no option but to send their daughters to work in the capital’s garment factories. These brief stories are woven into a fabric that displays the relentlessness of poverty in places hardly touched by modernity and the claustrophobic pressing-inwards of structural inequality.

Seabrook is at his best outlining the living conditions of the poor. He tells their stories dispassionately but vividly, always according his subjects dignity. These are people with the odds stacked against them. Lima, a garment worker who has migrated from Barisal to Dhaka, dreams of earning enough money to purchase land in her village and become self-sufficient. Seabrook explains to readers that it would take her 13 years to earn enough to buy a tenth of the land required for self-sufficiency. “Still, she goes about her daily work meekly obedient; her trust is absolute, both in the future and the grace of a God who will not fail her.”

There is not much hope in The Song of the Shirt but, sadly, that is a realistic representation of the situation. At present, for all the moments of collective outrage, there remains a huge demand in the west for cheap clothing, which is met by the supply of cheap labour in southern Asia. And if cheaper labour appears elsewhere, this industry that has sprung up so quickly that its buildings are hardly fit for purpose will instantly relocate.

Fittingly for what begins as a study of mutability, Seabrook ends with a question: “Will the resourcefulness of humanity demand a new and more ample relationship with material resources, one that does not continuously deplete the reservoirs of human energy, nor exhaust the limited treasures of a wasting planet?” We do not yet have an answer.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism