Is Asking Stars to Define Their Sexuality the New “Are You a Feminist?”


Asking stars if they’re feminists can be an exercise in frustration. I mean, it’s great when they say yes (Taylor, Lena, Beyoncé). But inevitably they will immediately be criticized for not being feminist enough, or be positioned as movement spokespeople. Either way, it leads to further blowups — welcome to the movement. Feminist stars, they’re just like us.

As for when they say “no,” I’m always game to mock them if their reasons are simply, as they so often are, “But I love men!” (D’oh!) Either way, the either/or nature of this common question has lost its utility. It’s important not to get too hung up on the label, to have the F-word question be just another “gotcha” way to trap celebrities in a news cycle that’s more shallow than productive.

Now I’m becoming worried that we’re entering a new era of the intrusive question. With Cate Blanchett making a veiled comment about same-sex relationships and then basically retracting it, major artists like Miley Cyrus and up-and-comers like Shamir talking about being genderless or gender-fluid — or rejecting labels altogether — and after Kristen Stewart’s mom basically outed her, the sexuality (and/or gender) question looms particularly large these days.

Actresses like Maria Bello refuse to define their sexuality, while artists like Janelle Monae, Laura Jane Grace, Frank Ocean, and many others are introducing their audiences to new iterations of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. So, will the questions that accompany this boundary-pushing — like, “define your gender and sexuality” — become the new litmus test, a hurdle for smart-seeming young celebs to leap over? And will we let them answer these inquiries their own way? Witness this NYLON cover interview with Stewart, which has now turned into dozens of news items that tease, “Kristen Stewart talks about her sexuality”:

Is she ready right now to make any big pronouncements about her sexuality? Yes… “Google me, I’m not hiding.” …And no: “If you feel like you really want to define yourself, and you have the ability to articulate those parameters and that in itself defines you, then do it. But I am an actress, man. I live in the fucking ambiguity of this life and I love it. I don’t feel like it would be true for me to be like, ‘I’m coming out!’ No, I do a job.

“I think in three or four years, there are going to be a whole lot more people who don’t think it’s necessary to figure out if you’re gay or straight,” Stewart continued. “It’s like, just do your thing.”

At her TED Talk earlier this summer, Bello said that she calls herself a “whatever” rather than embracing the lesbian label the media put on her after she announced she was in love with a woman:

She also spoke about the way she currently views her sexual identity, and how her relationship with a woman made her reevaluate it. “I had been engaged to several men. I asked myself, ‘am I LGB? Definitely not T.’” she said. Instead, Bello has come up with her own untraditional label for her sexuality. “I like to shorten it and I call myself a ‘whatever.’ This is the definition of whatever: used to emphasize a lack of restriction in referring to anything, no matter what,” she said.

She sounds a lot like a more sober and reasoned version of an ebullient Miley Cyrus telling PAPER magazine, “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age. Everything that’s legal, I’m down with. Yo, I’m down with any adult — anyone over the age of 18 who is down to love me… I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”

Of course, sexual orientations and gender identities are much more fluid than traditional labels allow for, and these celebrities are illuminating a complex truth that can’t be easily packaged. But it’s also true that it’s to their advantage, always, not to claim allegiance to a tribe, whether it’s gay, bi, or feminist. It’s in celebrities’ clear interest to project openness. The aforementioned labels, fairly or not, are associated with a specific image that can be hard to overcome if artists want to be given a wide variety of work opportunities. Those labels can also lead to a lot of industry discrimination and media prying. So, frankly, it also helps deflect further intrusion to be proudly ambiguous.

This isn’t to say we should ever discount a high-profile person’s account of their own sexuality — the rejection of labels can probably do a lot in this case to increase societal understanding. But we do have to understand the context into which these “define yourself” questions are thrown and take all responses, even the non-responses, with a grain of salt and a portion of empathy.