Last week, Jodie Foster received a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes and accepted it by thanking her loved ones and sharing her dislike of intrusion of privacy. Since then, she has been subject to much criticism, ranging from swipes at her continued friendship with Mel Gibson over bitterness that she didn’t say “I am lesbian” to anger that she hadn’t come out as gay before. Many pundits seem to think she was “rambling” and some were clearly amused that she shared so much in a speech about not wanting others to pry.
Maybe I don’t watch enough award ceremonies but to my mind her acceptance speech was neither rambling nor exceptional in its content. Jodie Foster thanked her family, agent, and friends coherently and with grace. The delivery, perhaps, was exceptional. In a time where reality television has made even over-sharing seem superficial Jodie Foster managed to be simultaneously vulnerable and in control.
In fact, the most interesting aspect of Jodie Foster’s speech is the criticism it has caused. Why do we think we get to tell people who their friends should be? Why are we obsessed with Jodie Foster saying, specifically, that she is a “lesbian” when she did actually say her co-parent and ex-partner of many years is a woman? And who are we to determine what, when, and where anyone else must share about their private lives?
Privacy is a human right. It is also intimately linked to privilege. The most destitute among us—the homeless—live their lives entirely in public.
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In fact, the connection between privilege and privacy is nuanced and linked to other expressions of privilege and power than mere possessions. In her book, Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry explores the effect of race and gender stereotypes on black women’s sense of privacy. Harris-Perry argues that many black women in the United States are caught between negative stereotypes that paint them as lazy, angry, and over-sexualized, on the one hand, and, on the other, positive stereotypes that sets impossible expectations for them as fiercely independent and unfailingly strong in the face of adversity. As a result, many have little truly private spaces, as their actions and motives are subject to exaggerated scrutiny. A white woman’s decision to apply for food stamps may be vilified by some but is rarely attributed to her color, and her private motivation to do so is not scrutinized against the backdrop of an expectation that she mooch because she is white.
The point here is not so much that gender, class, and race stereotypes can be damaging—though they obviously can be and are.
The point is that, as a society, we feel entitled to strip people of their privacy rights when they appear to transgress how we believe they should live their lives. Dharun Ravi felt entitled to expose Tyler Clementi’s private life because Clementi wasn’t heterosexual. Ma’lik Richmond, Trenton Mays, and many other students from Steubenville High School felt entitled to expose the private life of a fellow adolescent because she wasn’t sober. Hordes of anti-choicers believe it is entirely reasonable to require women to lay bare their private reasons to want to terminate a pregnancy before they can access health care they know they need.
In fact, we are extremely hypocritical in our approach to privacy. Juxtapose the outcry over Jodie Foster’s not-quite-out-enough speech with growing concern over adolescent over-sharing and (malignant or ignorant) non-consensual exposure of others over social media. We chide children for “outing” each other but are outraged when a perfect stranger doesn’t “out” herself and her private life enough to us.
Meanwhile, those who are homeless or otherwise forced to live their lives in public are often criminalized for doing so, in the shape of laws that punish sleeping rough, vagrancy, loitering, or public urination. And in Jodie Foster’s case, it is her failure to disclose she is gay that angers pundits: had we believed her to be straight, it is unlikely that her call for respect of privacy would have caused such a stir.
Thinking about privacy in a more coherent (and rights-related) manner doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions about the politics of sharing. I believe that those of us who are able and ready should challenge the stereotypes that cause injustice and abuse. Activism, as they say, is the rent we pay to live in this world. But this is my private belief and I don’t think I have a right to impose it on others. Moreover, I don’t think any of us can know when someone else is able and ready to use their private experience and identity to bust myths.
For some, decisions about when and if to stand up against injustice have to do with privilege and power. It is, after all, easier to challenge an unjust arrest, for example, if you can pay for a proper lawyer and aren’t fighting assumptions about your guilt because of your race, gender, age, previous arrests, or marital status.
For others, it has to do with privacy as a precious possession they don’t want to lose, often because they don’t have much of it. This is where privilege and lack of resources converge: we expect both celebrities and those who are homeless to have very little privacy.
Jodie Foster has chosen to transgress these expectations by demanding her right to share if, when, and what she wants about herself. This, in itself, is a form of human rights activism we should celebrate.