Saturday, February 15, 2014

Pop culture moment: Ellen Page comes out

At least one genuinely beautiful thing happened on Valentine's Day:

Being the analytical killjoy that I am, I started critiquing this speech almost as soon as I had seen it.  Big deal, a wealthy and privileged actress comes out in front of a sympathetic audience.  She is accustomed to performing, and clearly waited for applause after making the big statement.  But, even if there is some truth in these critiques, the more I thought about it, the more I felt like there was something more significant and valuable here, and I felt bad that I was so cynical at first blush.

Ellen Page is a professional actress who earns her living – and yeah, sure, it's a good living – partly through her desirability: the pleasure that people take in watching her craft as well as in admiring her physical charms.  She's also young and young-looking: she's only twenty-six, and has some good years of ingenue parts left in her.  Those are exactly the kind of parts that, historically, have paid her bills, and they are exactly the kind of parts that she is most likely to lose in the wake of coming out.  Think about it: with all the actors who have come out, how many of them have continued to find work as romantic leads in heterosexual roles?  Coming out isn't career-ending the way it once was, but it certainly seems like it still threatens or diminishes an actor's marketability in Hollywood.  Page is taking a real risk with real potential consequences, and she clearly knows that.  Not a risk quite on the level of, say, Michael Sam aspiring to be the first openly gay NFL player, but significant nonetheless.

I'm a little mystified that a bunch of people immediately reacted with "No big shocker" or "No surprises here."  Are you people out of your minds?  Page has always styled herself as something of a tomboy, but that's a pretty far cry from telegraphing I am a lesbian to all and sundry.  Don't act like you knew, because you didn't.  That's bullshit.

And don't act like it's inevitable that a gay actor would come out, either: for a lot of gay actors, everyone around them either knows or suspects it, and they never breathe a public word about it in their lives.  Being something and talking about it are drastically different things.  If you want to know what made me a little sniffly when I thought about it, Page was scared and anxious and, poised professional actress or not, had to fight for self-control when she gave that speech. 

Page also indicates frank awareness of how shitty day-to-day life is for a lot of ordinary non-famous LGBT kids, and makes no attempt to aggrandize her own experience as ultimate victimhood.  For heaven's sake, she's there at Time To Thrive to support the work of people trying to change those kids' circumstances!  She's no clueless self-absorbed celebrity airily offering solidarity.  She recognizes her luck and privilege freely while offering empathy, which I think is perfectly fair.

Page's empathy sounded genuine to me because she obviously knows about feeling forced to hide her identity, and, by the sound of it, to sneak around to keep her relationships out of public sight.  (Just imagine what that's like when you don't have to worry only about friends and family, but also a troupe of tabloid photographers who want to catalog your every living moment.)  It's a privileged version of the horrors that lots of kids fear, but it's no less real anguish for that.  It certainly sounds like Page knows whereof she speaks when she mentions the toll it took on her mental health as well as her relationships.  When she said, "I am tired of lying by omission," she fucking meant it.

I'm glad for her, and I hope that she goes on to break the cliché of an actor coming out and promptly seeing her roles dry up.  And I hope that the young LGBT people that no one will ever see onscreen take heart from her talk.

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