The On-Screen Queerness of Kristen Stewart

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This is not about Kristen Stewart‘s sexuality. This is about Kristen Stewart’s film roles and the innate queerness that she, as an actress, exudes on screen. Whether or not that translates to her real life is not for me to say. But what I can tell you is that, as a fan of her choices and work, from Panic Room to Twilight to The Runaways to Clouds of Sils Maria, almost everything she’s done reads differently than most other actresses might in the same roles.

Kristen’s first major movie role, when she was 10-years-old, was in the adaptation of out author A.M. Homes‘ novel, The Safety of Objects. Directed by lesbian filmmaker Rose Troche, Kristen played Sam, the tomboy daughter of Patricia Clarkson who was upset she couldn’t go to summer camp. (Her mom, going through a divorce, couldn’t afford it.) She smokes cigarettes with her skateboarding best friend, Sally, and Sally’s mom says they are a “little too exclusive,” and invites a boy from the neighborhood over to share in their slumber party.

safety

Kristen completely embodies the role of a tough, androgynous pre-teen who eschews dresses her mom asks her to wear. In an early interview, Rose Troche talked about finding Kristen:

“It was so difficult to find [a girl to play Sam] because I think young women who want to be actors are not tomboys as well. Kristen was just incredible. She’s this little surfer drummer, so cute. The guardian she came [to audition] with was a lesbian who was a writing partner of her mother’s. Her mother and father are married and straight, but her mother has this very good friend who’s her lesbian writing partner.”

As Jodie Foster‘s daughter, Sarah, in Panic Room, Kristen played a similar type. According to a book about director David Fincher’s work, she was specifically cast as a “tomboyish, androgynous, dismissive, a teenager at ten years old.” Nicole Kidman was originally set to star as Sarah’s mom, Meg, but Jodie Foster replaced her when she to drop out due to a knee injury. When Jodie stepped in, Meg was rewritten so that she could be “stronger” and “more similar to her daughter.” 

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Despite Kristen’s being so young on set, she has maintained a friendship with Jodie, who has since come out publicly. Jodie even wrote a Daily Beast piece in defense of Kristen’s privacy during her much-discussed break-up with Robert Pattinson in 2012. A child actress herself, Jodie said she worried for Kristen’s growing up as an actress in this paparazzi-crazed time.

In 2001 I spent 5 months with Kristen Stewart on the set of Panic Room mostly holed up in a space the size of a Manhattan closet. We talked and laughed for hours, sharing spontaneous mysteries and venting our boredom. I grew to love that kid. She turned 11 during our shoot and on her birthday I organized a mariachi band to serenade her at the taco bar while she blew out her candles. She begrudgingly danced around a sombrero with me but soon rushed off to a basketball game with the grip and electric departments. Her mother and I watched her jump around after the ball, hooting with every team basket. “She doesn’t want to be an actor when she grows up, does she?” I asked. Her mom sighed. “Yes … unfortunately.” We both smiled and shrugged with an ambivalence born from experience. “Can’t you talk her out of it?” I offered. “Oh, I’ve tried. She loves it. She just loves it.” More sighs. We watched her run around the court for a while, both of us silent, each thinking our own thoughts. I was pregnant at the time and found myself daydreaming of the child I might have soon. Would she be just like Kristen? All that beautiful talent and fearlessness … would she jump and dunk and make me so proud?

Kristen’s love of acting (and obvious talent) has forced her to endure tabloid attention and speculation, which only really started when she was cast as the lead in the Twilight adaptation and subsequent sequels. But all of her roles during her teen years (smaller parts in films like Into the Wild and larger ones in The Messengers and The Cake Eaters) were not the typical male-female romance type that her peers were frequently part of. Kristen maintained an edge, even while exuding more femininity than in her younger years. As Bella in the Twilight series, Kristen successfully sold us on the Bella/Edward relationship all the while keeping her tomboy aesthetic that helped give her her start in Hollywood.

twilight

In 2010, between Twilight films New Moon and Eclipse, Kristen took on the part of young Joan Jett in The Runaways. Playing the queer rock icon included Joan’s signature swagger, and a kiss with co-star Dakota Fanning, who played Cherie Currie. A lot of talk surrounding the film focused on that moment, of which Kristen said

“It was such a unique friendship, and they rely on each other so strongly. You add a kiss to something and suddenly it’s like, “Oh. My. God. They love each other and they are lesbians!” Like, what?! We got to see them interact now, and seeing them together was really helpful. They turn into the same people they were back when they hung out all the time. So it’s cool, they still really love each other. It’s hard to describe — they’re just really close. They’re really close and they kissed one night.”

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Sexuality in The Runaways, like sexuality in real life, isn’t so black and white. The intimacy of female friendships is something all women experience, and some of the time, those friendships can become sexual or romantic, or both. Defining those relationships and the identities of the people in them can be difficult, which is one of the themes of Kristen’s newest role in Clouds of Sils Maria

clouds

As Valentine (pronounced Valen-teen), Kristen is the personal assistant to famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Valentine knows every facet of Maria’s life, and what she doesn’t know, she finds out through moments of drinking and smoking together while traveling and spending time alone in the Swiss Alps. But Valentine is somewhat of a mystery to Maria, an aging actress who has been asked to play the role of a jilted older woman in the new production of a play in which she is famous for playing the young ingenue. The play itself is about a May/December lesbian relationship, which draws strong parallels to the Valentine/Maria pairing throughout. Neither acts on the desires hinted at, but both characters have strong queer elements about them, subtext close to elevating to maintext but never quite reaching the peak. 

Kristen wanted to play the role of Valentine so bad that when she heard it had been taken by Mia Wasikowska, she “fought for it.” Mia eventually had to drop out for another role in Maps to the Stars, and Kristen was able to take the part that won her a César Award in February. She spoke of the film’s appeal to her with The Hollywood Reporter:

“It’s two women sitting in a room basically talking about being women and movies and their lives and their perspectives, and it never really cuts away from that. That would never be greenlit in this country, especially at the level that it was [$6.6 million]. Maybe you could do that movie for, like, a million dollars [in the U.S.], but not with the honor that they [the French] give to the stories that they tell, and how indulgent but completely unfrivolous they are, and how willing they are to take risks. They make movies because they have a compulsion to tell certain stories, they don’t make movies to become rich and famous, and that is a huge, massive divide between European and American cinema. The people who I’d like to work with in the States share that — but you have to find them.”

Kristen Stewart isn’t interested in being a star—she’s interested in being an actor. And with lesbian rumors surrounding her (despite her two public relationships with men—bisexual is interestingly never used), she does not seem to shy away from parts that could further any kind of discussion on her personal life. She is smart enough to know there’s probably nothing she can do about the interest people take in who she goes to bed with. Instead, she focuses on truth. From a big budget French indie like Clouds of Sils Maria to indies like Camp X-Ray, Kristen is an inspired actress of her generation who chooses her work based on its cinematic merit and challenges. Oftentimes, these roles aren’t about women who follow the straight and narrow, or lesser-thans to the men who play the expanded-upon leads. (Even when she is in romance situations with men, she is a tomboy type in jeans and hoodies.) Kristen prefers complicated, complex characters who defy labels or traditional ideas of what it is to be a woman. That includes a sexuality that’s not so easily defined.

xray

“As time goes on, who knows what my ambitions and objectives will be?” she told The Reporter. “Who knows how I’m gonna feel about what I do and what that’s gonna turn into? I have a feeling that I’m gonna do this for a while — at least, being involved in this industry.”

However Kristen Stewart, the person, identifies, Kristen Stewart, the actress, is helping to bring queer sensibility to mainstream film industry, whether they like it or not. She’s been doing it for 14 years: Why would she stop now?

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