Jodie Foster has never played a lesbian character on-screen, and yet she’s one of the most famous out women in Hollywood. For most of her long and celebrated career as an actress, director and producer, Foster’s sexuality was an open secret; something both accepted and eschewed by the LGBTQ community as her being a well-known figure had once proven to put then President Ronald Reagan’s life in danger. Once you’ve reached a status that has your stalker attempting assassination in your honor, it’s probably harder than ever to want to continue living a highly public persona.
Yet, Jodie Foster’s on-screen presence offered something queer enough on its own, even if she were playing a heterosexual character, which she has over and over and over again. And convincingly, winning Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTAs and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Opposite male leads or on screen alone, there’s something performatively queer about Foster, a recognized androgyny (not to be confused with a lack of femininity) that has allowed gay cinephiles a way to access queerness in even non-explicitly gay films, and that she shares this quality with her former Panic Room co-star and mentee, Kristen Stewart, is something worth considering.
One of the most famous celebrities of her generation (thanks largely in part to Twilight and an oft-cited showmance with co-star Robert Pattinson), Stewart and Foster share a lot of similarities, similarities they’ve both talked about in interviews and print.
“She’s very much like me,” Foster once told the Hollywood Reporter. “She’s not comfortable in life being a big externally, emotional person, beating her chest, crying every five minutes.”
Perhaps it’s this quiet way of expressing emotion that has also added to Stewart’s success, as evinced in the post-Twilight films she’s chosen to be a part of. After 2012’s Breaking Dawn – Part 2 closed the tween chapter of her life, Stewart took on projects that were not only more challenging topically, but also less heteronormative. In Camp X-Ray, Stewart plays a stoic soldier whose friendship with a prisoner of war threatens patriotism and world view. Clad in camouflage and called by her decidedly masculine last name “Cole” throughout the film, Stewart need not spend any time with another woman on screen for her queerness to be marked.
Like Jodie Foster, it’s in her mannerisms, her cheekbones, her stare, her delivery. It isn’t that these things take away from the heterosexuality that is undeniably a part of the roles she’s taking on in modern Hollywood, but more of an added bonus for queer filmgoers who can see it as an entry point into the depth a character like Cole might have.
The same thing can be said for Stewart’s more recent roles. In 2014, she starred alongside Juliette Binoche in Oliver Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, a thinly-veiled Sapphic offering that centered on relationships between three women (Chloe Grace Moretz playing the third). In Clouds, Stewart is Valentine, the attentive hipster assistant to Binoche’s Maria Enders, an actress who is experiencing the realities of agism when she’s asked to play the role of a much older woman in a reprisal of the stage play she once starred in as the ingénue. Moretz’s it-girl Jo-Ann Ellis is taking on that enticing part now and has no qualms about making Maria Enders feel like a prop in her own increasing bid for celebrity and stardom. Valentine is Maria’s confidant; the only person she trusts and actually wants to spend time with. Valentine challenges her boss, though she sees it benefitting her more financially than any other way, especially considering Maria’s diva tendencies. But there are clear moments where Maria is gazing upon Valentine with curiosity, a queer kind of lusty look in on Stewart’s thong-clad bottom while she’s sleeping.
Stewart worked again with Oliver Assayas for their newest film, Personal Shopper, which has a lot of similarities to Clouds of Sils Maria, some that might be noticed most by those looking for the queer clues that are there for the discovering. In Personal Shopper, Stewart is again an assistant to a successful actress, though this time, she works much more independently and spends most of her time moving from showrooms to shops to her boss’s apartment where she tries on the glamorous gowns and chic undergarments just to feel something outside of herself.
For some reason, Assayas’s scripts for Stewart include lesbianism but not in the way that might make the films specifically “gay” in a way that they are often expected to be in order to become a part of the queer canon. (Carol his films are not.) In Clouds of Sils Maria, the play Maria and Jo-Ann are to star together in is a fictitious tale of Sigrid, a heavy-handed older woman who essentially forces her subordinate, Helena, into a romantic and sexual relationship with her before breaking her heart, leading Helena to commit suicide.
In Personal Shopper, Stewart’s Maureen becomes obsessed with the work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist and mystic whose expressions and explorations of spirituality offer hope to Maureen’s search for a connection to her deceased twin brother. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Hilma af Klint was a known lesbian; perhaps it was not. But Stewart’s ability to connect with this kind of subtle queer material is what makes for her best, most interesting work. She won 10 Best Supporting Actress awards for her role in Clouds, including the César, and was nominated for 10 others. It’s highly possible Personal Shopper could follow suit, but, this time, nods for Best Actress.
Although her role in Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 ensemble film Certain Women was smaller, it, too, carried an underlying lesbian theme not explicit enough to be considered main text by most. Stewart plays Beth Travis, a lawyer who takes a job teaching a night school legal course in a small Montana town that she must drive four hours to each way twice a week to make. There, she meets Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a lonely ranch hand who stumbles into the class by chance, care of extreme boredom, and who is instantly enamored with her.
The two share awkward conversation at the diner after class, and Jamie continues to show up, excitedly and expectantly, to see Beth and hope for the chance to spend more time together before she makes the trek back home. Sadly, it’s not long before Beth quits the gig, tired of the harrowing drive, and Jamie takes to the road herself in an obsessive state of finding her new friend. Once they reconnect at the parking lot of Beth’s work, however, it’s clear Jamie’s desperation is too much for Beth, and Jamie attempts to hide her embarrassment as she heads back home to be alone with her horses.
In Certain Women, Stewart is expert at both connecting superficially with her on-screen partner, while also maintaining an emotional distance that clues viewers into the one-sided nature of Jamie’s wants. It’s unclear if Beth Travis is straight, but it is clear that she doesn’t reciprocate the same kind of passion Jamie has for her. It’s a similar tension that she shares alongside Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, with the women never sharing their feelings of romance or erotic longings, just meaningful glances or exchanges that hint at something more than what’s being expressedsomething that a lot of queers picked up on between Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis in The Accused. (Michael Musto once posited that the 1998 film was “the most lesbian movie ever made.”)
While Jodie Foster may have yet to kiss another woman on-screen, Kristen Stewart has had the opportunity to fully express queerness in her role as Joan Jett in The Runaways biopic released in 2010. Although not a major part of the film (and criticized for its lacking in many other areas besides the ranging sexual identities and behaviors of the women in the band), Stewart’s kiss with Dakota Fanning was highly-publicized before the film even hit theaters, fans (some who even called themselves “Krisbians,” as in “would go lesbian for Kristen Stewart”) were electrified by the short but undeniably sensual lip lock.
As Joan Jett, Stewart sinks comfortably into the tomboyish persona that seems to prefer in her daily life. When paparazzi catch her off the red carpet, she’s most often in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. The face of Chanel, she’s frequently flaunting the brand for publicity purposes (premieres, parties, press dates, photo shoots), decidedly more feminine in these moments than in her downtime, or even most of her movie roles. She’s rarely cast as a glamazon, even when she’s the love interest or the “female lead.” Her aesthetic (like Jodie Foster or other contemporaries like Tilda Swinton or Ellen Page) is one that can be at once masculine and feminine; a kind of three-dimensionality that gives viewers more to consider about her characters because it’s almost like whomever she’s playing has more stories than could ever be contained in a few hours’ time; the kind of characters you crave more from because there is so much left to learn about them or from them.
It’s only been in the last year that Kristen Stewart has acknowledged her queer identity publicly (while she’s mentioned female partners and “not hiding” in print interviews, it was her 2017 SNL hosting gig that got tongues endlessly wagging when she used the words “I’m gay” in her opening monologue and then made out with Vanessa Bayer in a Totino’s pizza role sketch), but she’s been giving queer women and tomboys someone to latch onto since her earliest roles in The Safety of Objects and Panic Room, the latter of which had her playing Jodie Foster’s tough-as-nails tween daughter.
In 2012, Foster penned a piece about her co-star for The Daily Beast, remembering their time on set, watching then 11-year-old Stewart playing basketball, and considering the new challenges that being an actor in today’s fame-obsessed and social media-driven world that Stewart famously avoids but cannot seem to escape, a theme Personal Shopper encapsulates with great reverence.
“Acting is all about communicating vulnerability, allowing the truth inside yourself to shine through regardless of whether it looks foolish or shameful,” Foster wrote. “To open and give yourself completely. It is an act of freedom, love, connection. Actors long to be known in the deepest way for their subtleties of character, for their imperfections, their complexities, their instincts, their willingness to fall. The more fearless you are, the more truthful the performance.”
So it’s Stewart starring in the Sapphic-themed Sundance darling Lizzie that has finally delivered the explicitly queer content that viewers have been waiting for. As Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, Stewart delivers a perfectly repressed performance opposite Chloë Sevigny’s Lizzie Borden, based on historical research that suggests Borden, the infamous alleged axe murderer, had a romantic and sexual relationship with the family’s Irish servant (Stewart’s Sullivan). The story focuses on the instant connection the two women share, and the forbiddances of even a friendship between them. But Lizzie Borden defies rules, especially those set by her abusive father who is also sexually assaulting Bridget, and the scenes of tender sensuality and eventual sex between the two is the only reprieve viewers get from the otherwise rigid and suffocating world the women live in.
The tabloids continue to have a fascination with Stewart’s private life and personal relationships (she’s currently involved with model Stella Maxwell), but her dedication to the craft of acting and choosing of projects that allow her to commit to a worthy narrative are what keep fans and critics flocking her films. And it says something that Stewart is finally playing explicitly queer roles that have her not just kissing or flirting with women on screen, but engaging fully in lesbian sensuality and sexuality. It’s a kind of validation that only performers like Stewart can offeror Jodie Foster, should she choose to ever play a lesbian role.
Perhaps Stewart’s greatest talent lies in her fearlessness, and that inevitably includes her being unabashedly herself; unabashedly queer. After decades of watching characters who had a presumed heterosexuality or, in more recent and still fewer cases, a very obvious homosexuality, actors like Kristen Stewart offer something a little less resolute, and that may be something everyone can connect with on a much less stigmatizing level. Queer characters and stories are much more complex than coming outs and first lovesStewart’s career may just provide some of the best examples of that kind of intricate and watch-worthy complication.