Sounds like someone’s been taking notes in his doctoral classes. Typically known for saying things that make him headlines, such as telling James Lipton, “Sometimes rabbits turn me on,” sharing his masturbation habits with The Hollywood Reporter while promoting 127 Hours, and playing coy with gay rumors despite his five-year relationship with actress Ahna O’Reilly, James Franco finally put some depth into looking at why the gay rumors circle around him, and more importantly, why these rumors even matter at all.
“It’s funny because the way that kind of stuff is talked about on blogs is so black-and-white,” he said in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly. “It’s all cut-and-dry identity politics. ‘Is he straight or is he gay?’ Or, ‘This is your third gay movie– come out already!’ And all based on, gay or straight, based on the idea that your object of affection decides your sexuality.”
“There are lots of other reasons to be interested in gay characters than wanting myself to go out and have sex with guys,” Franco went on to explain. “And there are also lots of other aspects about these characters that I’m interested in, in addition to their sexuality. So, in some ways it’s coincidental, in other ways it’s not. I mean, I’ve played a gay man who’s living in the ’60s and ’70s, a gay man who we depicted in the ’50s, and one being in the ’20s. And those were all periods when to be gay, at lease being gay in public, was much more difficult. Part of what I’m interested in is how these people who were living anti-normative lifestyles contended with opposition.”
He’s right. Not only is it restrictive to actors to demand that they come out based on the roles they take on, but to do so also reduces sexuality to the simplified cliche of gay versus straight.
Unfortunately, pop culture news headlines pushed past the meaty stuff and glommed on to what he said after–
“Or, you know what, maybe I’m just gay.”
I don’t think that part was supposed to be taken at the same face value as everything else before it. My first question when I saw the quote– what does it matter? Obviously something for some people, otherwise that sentence wouldn’t have gotten more publicity than the rest of the interview.
Franco is well known for his gay roles in Blind Spot, Howl, Milk, and The Broken Tower, as well as for making out with Will Forte on Saturday Night Live. What isn’t as publicized is his less-definable artistic fascination with gender, sexuality, and sexual confusion that has its hand in him taking on these roles.
The Dangerous Book Four Boys, his first solo art show, opened at the Clocktower Gallery in New York this past summer and featured sculptures, photography, drawings and video monologues exploring sexual identity and the sexual confusion of adolescence. “We’re all gender-fucked,” Franco stated in one video monologue, “we’re all something in between, floating like angels.” Queer studies was a research interest of his while pursuing his MFA at NYU, and studying with Michael Warner, a pioneer of queer theory, was a big reason why Franco decided to pursue his PhD at Yale. According to Warner, “queer” is “against the normal rather than the heterosexual,” a social critique as opposed to an easy labeling of who you sleep with.
Which brings another perspective to Franco’s frequent gay roles– a former teenage deviant himself, he has fascination with exploring the humanity behind living a life that isn’t in line with the dominant mainstream. “In the history of cinema, there are so many heterosexual love stories,” he told The Advocate this past fall. “It’s so hammered, so done. It’s just not that interesting to me. It’s more interesting to me to play roles and relationships that haven’t been portrayed as often.”
“His interest is less about homosexuality and more about boyhood, masculinity, and journeys of self-discovery,” says girlfriend Ahna O’Reilly.
All defining aspects of adolescence, Franco’s main artistic obsession. Part of exploring adolescence is confronting what it means to emerge as a sexual being. Not gay, not straight, but sexual. “I feel like shows or films that deal with kids, they’re playing to all of these sexual feelings that you have at that age, but they don’t fully admit to it,” he told the Wall Street Journal during the opening of The Dangerous Book Four Boys. “So I kind of try to draw that out. The implicit in those shows and books, I try to make it a little more explicit.”
“Riffing off what I normally get paid to do, and turning it into something else,” as he puts it. In this sense, New York Magazine notes, Franco “seems to be living an extended public adolescence:”
“Franco, you might say, is queering celebrity: erasing the border not just between gay and straight but between actor and artist, heartthrob and intellectual, junk TV and art museum. His obvious relish for gay roles challenges the default heterosexuality of Hollywood leading men like Clooney or Pitt. He seems more interested in fluidity, in every sense, than in a fixed identity.”
Which makes the “Maybe I’m just gay” statement about more than implying who he likes to sleep with. It can also translate out to “Maybe I’m just different,” or “Maybe I’m unlabeled.” As a society, we like to find comfort zones in labels, because they help us organize other people into tidy groups. But Franco isn’t interested in making things that easy for us. “He is sensitive to the restrictive effect of his celebrity,” The Wall Street Journal commented, “but revels in his newfound ability to harness it.”
“I like the idea that I can make people look at entertainment in a different way,” Franco told The Wall Street Journal. “And to the extent that my public persona allows me to do that, I’m doing it… I feel like there’s a lot of material to mine there.”
Like him or not, believer or skeptic, it’s hard to deny that part of pop culture’s fixation on James Franco is our inability to classify him. It’s a power game to resist definitions, and in this one, Franco keeps on winning by keeping us guessing. But the intellectual mind game goes deeper than that. Franco cares more about challenging what we think of him, which in turn confronts us into looking at how we define ourselves. Restricting public figures into the gay/straight binary reduces us all to sexual cliches. Celebrities are intimate strangers, good friends we grow with but never meet, convenient projections for whatever identity politics we’re learning to integrate into ourselves. And nothing challenges that like an actor who doesn’t fold nicely into pigeonholes.
Photo courtesy of Tiffanie via Flickr