The actress Ellen Page, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her breakout performance as a pregnant teenager in the 2007 movie Juno, has long been the subject of rumors that she is gay. Her coming out on Friday evening at the gay rights advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign’s THRIVE conference could have followed a formula that’s become common: a celebrity confirms what everyone suspects already, usually in a well-orchestrated roll-out on a cover of a magazine, and the meets with a decidedly muted reaction. Maybe we’re happy for them that they’re able to stop doing the logistical work of hiding in plain sight. But for the most part, we’re on to the next story.
Page did something rather different in her speech in Las Vegas, drawing a clear connection not just between being closeted and her own mental health, but between the closet and other standards that Hollywood places on young actors, particularly women — and that it communicates to the rest of us:
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“Here I am, an actress, representing at least in some sense an industry that places crushing standards on all of us,” Page told the audience. “And not just young people, everyone. Standards of beauty, of a good life, of success. Standards that I hate to admit, have affected me. You have ideas planted in your head, thoughts you never had before, that tell you how you have to look, how you have to act, and who you have to be. And I have been trying to push back, to be authentic, to follow my heart, but it can be hard.”
What she’s describing is closeting as part of a larger process of bringing people who work in Hollywood into conformity with what Page described as “pervasive stereotypes about masculinity and femininity that define how we’re all supposed to act, dress, and speak.”
That process doesn’t just encourage gay actors and actresses to stay in the closet as long as possible to give the impression that they’re heterosexual, and therefore in compliance with that rigid standard. It comes to bear on actresses, gay and straight alike, who have the temerity to get caught by celebrity photographers, as Page was, coming from the gym wearing sweatpants, and for a single moment, failing to live up to beauty standards that have nothing to do with what’s practical and appropriate in different situations, much less with what’s comfortable.
Those standards apply to actors, as well as actresses. Men may be told that their bodies should be big and strong, rather than curvy and diminutive. And there may be more career slots available to fleshier actors like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill than there are for the Melissa McCarthys of Hollywood. But rigorous body standards for men are on the rise, too, dictating hair-free chests and at minimum, a six-pack sitting just below.
When Page said that these standards “serve no one. Anyone who defies these so-called norms becomes worthy of comment and scrutiny,” she’s making an important jump. LGBT actors and actresses, and LGBT people who have to live in the world shaped by Hollywood products, may have a great deal to gain by tearing down these standards. But their heterosexual peers will benefit, too. Maybe their gains will be smaller: maybe they’ll be able to go out of the house without makeup, or they won’t have to make themselves sick preparing their bodies for a part. But whatever the potential benefits, we all have a common interest in a world where there are more than one way to be beautiful, more than one kind of good life, more than one barometer for success. This isn’t Page’s cause, this is all of ours.
And when Page imagines what it might be like “If we took just five minutes to recognize each other’s beauty instead of attacking each other for our differences,” she’s offering up a vision that could benefit not just students passing through a gauntlet of their peers every day, but the industry she works in. It’s easy to tell the same kinds of stories, about the same kinds of people, over and over again, even if that comes at a cost to the people in the audience who repeatedly take away the message that their lives aren’t worth representing, and their stories aren’t worth telling. But it’s far more interesting to seek out new characters and to follow them on new journeys.
Ellen Page has played superheroines and roller girls, far-left activists and architects of dreams. Now, as she begins her life off-screen as an openly gay woman, let’s hope Hollywood and audiences remain just as interested in her story, even as she departs from the script and sets off in a new, and exciting direction.