Kristen Stewart's Complicated New Appeal

In Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Kristen Stewart plays the object of queer desire — a role she’s played with increasing complexity for years, both on screen and in real life.

When I was in middle school, I had a bad late night habit of ordering Catch That Kid on pay-per-view. In the 2004 kid's action movie directed by Bart Freundlich, which was universally forgotten mere moments after its flop of a release, a girl named Maddie, played by Kristen Stewart, tricks her two best guy friends into helping her rob a bank. Maddie’s dad needs money for an experimental surgery, so she takes matters into her own hands, separately recruiting Gus (Max Thieriot) and Austin (Corbin Bleu) by professing her love. She craftily gives each boy different halves of the same friendship necklace while claiming to have the other half herself. Of course, she’s not interested in either of them, instead shamelessly weaponizing their affections (for a noble cause).

Throughout the movie, Kristen Stewart as a rock-climbing and go-cart-driving 12-year-old doesn’t show the remotest romantic interest in her lovesick male friends. Though I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, it thrilled me that Maddie wasn’t bound by compulsory heterosexuality and strict gender conformity like most every other female preteen character, then or since: This awkward, gangly tomboy just might have grown up to like girls.

In real life, much to the delight of my preteen self, Kristen Stewart did grow up to date women. (Catch that Kid, I’m guessing, was a lot more formative for my sexuality than it was for hers.) But for years, Stewart was hesitant to open up about her love life to the press — particularly because she had spent a large chunk of her young adulthood being subjected to the mass hysteria surrounding her relationship with Twilight costar Robert Pattinson. In interview after interview, she avoided bringing Pattinson up at all; the constant conflation of her on-screen relationship with her actual one, she felt, commodified her personal life and delegitimized her professionally.

“I was hiding everything that I did because everything personal felt like it was immediately trivialized,” she told Elle UK this past summer. “We were turned into these characters and placed into this ridiculous comic book.” So when photographs of Stewart and the video producer Alicia Cargile began popping up on gossip blogs and Tumblr fan pages soon after she and Pattinson broke up in 2013, it wasn’t surprising that Stewart didn’t divulge the relationship to the press. Whenever she vaguely referenced her dating life to reporters, she never mentioned her partner’s gender.

People finally started to suspect that these women who lived together, vacationed together, and wore each other’s clothes might have been more than just friends.

In 2012, Stewart starred in Snow White & the Huntsman and the last Twilight movie, after which she avoided big blockbusters. As she took roles in indie films like Camp X-Ray, Still Alice, and Anesthesia, critics noticed. She went from being almost universally derided circa Twilight to the first American actress to win a César Award, for best supporting actress in Olivier Assayas’ 2014 drama Clouds of Sils Maria. By her mid-twenties, Stewart was finally being taken seriously as an actor — the kind who picked strange, cerebral roles simply because they interested her. (After all the money she made from Twilight, she could certainly afford to.)

Meanwhile, after over a year of tabloids referring to Cargile as Stewart’s “gal pal” and “BFF,” people outside of queer Tumblr fan circles finally started to suspect that these women who lived together, vacationed together, and wore each other’s clothes might have been more than just friends. Soon enough, reporters for the mainstream press came knocking. When asked point-blank about her sexuality for a Nylon cover profile in 2015, Stewart responded with: “Google me, I’m not hiding.”

“I don’t feel like it would be true for me to be like, ‘I’m coming out!’,” she added. “No, I do a job. Until I decide that I’m starting a foundation or that I have some perspective or opinion that other people should be receiving...I don’t. I’m just a kid making movies.”

Many of Stewart’s fans praised her for refusing to label herself, which is particularly trendy these days, and shooting down reporters on the hunt for a salacious scoop. Others were frustrated with her for implying that by simply referring to her girlfriend as her girlfriend — or calling herself bisexual, or queer, or whatever else — she’d automatically have to be an activist. She seemed to be saying that LGBT identity automatically supersedes any other, in a way that identifying as straight, of course, never does — because it’s the default, the norm. I found myself drifting into the second camp — what's the harm in naming what we all can already see? — even as I supported her decision to focus on her professional accomplishments over the details of her personal life, which for so long had been used mercilessly against her.

Unlike so many young stars, Kristen Stewart doesn’t reach her fans through the pseudo-intimate channels of Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat. She thinks social media is a waste of time, and that there’s a “massive disconnect” between real life and the shiny selves we present online. (She’s not wrong.) Interviews — which she’s long been wary of — are therefore the only way Stewart’s fans can try and get a sense of who she really is, which requires diehards to wade through layer after layer of lackluster, PR-approved soundbytes. What remains, then, in the ultimately futile quest to get to know the real Kristen Stewart? Studying the roles she chooses to take.

As her stance on revealing personal details to the public continues to evolve, so, too, does Stewart’s choice in films — a number of which have her playing characters who aren’t necessarily queer themselves, but are the objects of women’s desires. Even in her Twilight days, she broke up the cycle of producing and promoting her international superbrand by taking on smaller and more emotionally ambitious projects in which she plays women whose sexuality, and sexual power, is as alluring and complicated as her own. They’re the sorts of roles that suggest a willingness to engage with queer material in ways both subtle and evocative, up to and including her performance in Kelly Reichardt’s quietly beautiful ensemble drama Certain Women, which hit select theaters on Friday.

Regardless of how she personally identifies, Stewart is among the most famous women who date women in the world — and the way she navigates expressing that identity, whether on the red carpet or in front of the camera, says a lot about how much the film industry has and hasn’t done to make room for queer female sexuality in Hollywood.

A character, of course, is only a character. But long after Catch that Kid, into my twenties, I tried to convince my dubious straight friends that Kristen Stewart was queer, relying on relatively little evidence besides blatant stereotyping (she wore a lot of flannel) and the gut feeling I got watching a silly movie she made when she was 12. Plus: pure, wild hope. Meanwhile, other fans were also equating the actor with one of her roles — by projecting their obsessions with Bella and Edward onto the real-life people who played them. But Twi-hards could get ugly. “People wanted me and Rob to be together so badly that our relationship was made into a product,” Stewart recently told T Magazine. “It wasn’t real life anymore. And that was gross to me.”

Stewart started taking lead roles in indies with queer undertones simmering so strongly beneath the surface, they constantly threaten to boil over.

The hysteria over RPatz and KStew cemented Stewart’s hatred for the conflation of her personal life with her characters. “I am an actress, man,” she told Nylon in the 2015 interview where she refused to have a traditional coming out. That’s how she wishes to be known — not as a star, not as a global celebrity. She hates being recognized in public; she drew ire in 2010 for equating paparazzi hunting her down for photos with being raped. It’s easy to play the world’s smallest violin for famous people who complain about the downfalls of their fame — especially those who, like Stewart, have estimated net worths in the tens of millions. But Stewart’s pivot to independent dramas, where she has smaller audiences and more chances of critical rather than commercial acclaim, lends credence to her professed desires for a quieter and more specific sort of recognition.

Even before the press started directly asking about her sexuality, Stewart easily could have avoided taking any queer or queer-ish roles — it’s not like there are a million to go around. (Stewart’s publicist did not respond to a request for comment.) Instead, mid-Twilight fervor, Stewart made out with Dakota Fanning as a swaggering and androgynous Joan Jett in Floria Sigismondi’s 2010 The Runaways. This was long before rumors of Stewart dating women were a-swirling, when the world had their eyes fixed on “Robsten”. During and after participating in Twilight, that billion-dollar love letter to old-timey heteronormativity (albeit with vampirism), Stewart complicated her image as America’s seemingly straight alt-sweetheart: She started taking lead roles in indies with queer undertones simmering so strongly beneath the surface, they constantly threaten to boil over.

In 2014’s fastidiously layered psychodrama Clouds of Sils Maria, which won her the César, Stewart plays Valentine, the personal assistant to Juliette Binoche’s forty-year-old famed actor, Maria Enders. 20 years after she was launched to stardom playing a young woman (Sigrid) who seduces an older woman (Helena), Maria is taking part in the play’s revival — but this time, she’s playing Helena instead of Sigrid. Maria and Val hole up together in the Swiss Alps to run lines; while they act out the disastrous lesbian relationship taking place on the page, the lines between the actors and their roles begin to blur. Throughout, Stewart’s Val is slouchy, sexy, grungy, flirty, constantly running a hand through her long, messy hair; she is blissfully unfamous in a film about fame, the foil to her real-life self. Her character isn’t strictly coded as queer, but is queerly lusted after. In one scene, Maria peeks into Valentine’s room and stares for a couple beats too long at Val — Stewart — splayed out on the bed in her thong, asleep.

The sexual tension between the two women never rises above the realm of subtext. Early on, Val is charmed by older, out-of-touch Maria, but becomes romantically involved with a male photographer we barely see on screen. And Maria, when she’s first approached about being in the play’s revival, asserts that she has “always been straight.” Stewart’s character is the object of queer desire in a way that defies straightforward queer categorization.

She plays a similarly complex role in Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Certain Women, a gorgeously captivating exploration of the sometimes-intersecting everyday lives of various people in Montana. In the film’s last and loveliest vignette, Stewart is Beth, a jittery, tired-eyed lawyer and teacher who draws the affections of a ranch hand named Jamie, played by talented newcomer Lily Gladstone. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Beth starts teaching a class on school law, which Jamie attends one night after following a crowd inside, seeking some human interaction. Even though Jamie has no interest in the subject, she returns again and again to Beth’s class; afterward, they eat at a diner together. Well, Beth eats — Jamie simply sits, and hangs adoringly onto her every word.

Queerness, or possible queerness, is so easily rendered a metaphor for lacking, a loss, an absence.

Jamie is living alone on a ranch that isn’t her own for the winter; she is untethered, without roots. And she is lonely. When Beth stops showing up for class, Jamie hops in her truck and drives four hours through the night to the town where Beth lives. When Jamie finds her, the scene is wracked with the quietest and most calamitous of tensions — we all know where this is going. Beth is shocked and confused to see Jamie there, and the two barely have a conversation before Jamie is back in her truck, driving the many hours home, in a long take trained on her softly shifting expression that positively devastates.

In a film about the lives of different lonely women, the story about the loneliest woman of them all is clearly, to me, a queer story. But it wasn’t written with romance in mind. Certain Women is based on a short story collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy; the story that director Kelly Reichardt adapted for Beth and Jamie’s vignette features a male and female character, rather than two women. On a recent phone call, Reichardt told me she switched the genders to make the film feel more whole. “It was never a gay story to me,” she said. “Meloy’s story is more about isolation and miscommunication.” For Jamie, she added, “It’s just a young girl crush, whatever that is. A young crush can’s wanting to be with someone, but it’s also wanting to be the person. It’s all mixed in — not one particular thing.”

Whether or not you read Jamie as queer or questioning, she is plainly pining for someone to fill the void of her loneliness. And queerness, or possible queerness, is so easily rendered a metaphor for lacking, a loss, an absence. Just as Jamie’s desire has no place to land — Beth is completely clueless, too wrapped up in her own professional and personal dramas, to see the way that Jamie looks at her — Maria gazes longingly at Val in Clouds of Sils Maria with barely-concealed desire. But, crucially, Maria also sees in Val the kind of young and beautiful woman she longs to be again. Queerness, in both films, functions as a warped funhouse mirror: When looking at each other, women are yearningly looking at themselves, but in different and unreachable dimensions.

It's frustrating for many queer people when films that are otherwise so masterful and enchanting only hint at queer elements — whether for titillation or as a narrative tool. LGBT audiences have so often been baited into rooting for queer or potentially queer characters who end up in straight relationships, or heartbroken, or dead. When so few queer roles exist at all (particularly in major releases), and when the handful of LGBT characters we do see on screen are overwhelmingly white, cis, and male, Queer-Lite™ filmmaking feels like a missed opportunity at best.

It's just as tempting to be frustrated with celebrities like Stewart who don't use their enormous megaphones to proudly claim and normalize queer identities — especially since queer women’s relationships are so often reduced to phases or go unrecognized, like Kristen Stewart and Alicia Cargile were for so long. Since Stewart won’t feed the public an easily digestible narrative when it comes to her private sexual identity, taking these sorts of film roles only seems to reify her refusal: it’s the professional embodiment of her giving paparazzi the middle finger. Am I queer? Is this character queer? I’m sure as hell not telling you!

We might think we know her — and we may think we know the messy humans she plays — but of course we don’t know much of anything at all. And when images of “respectable” (read: wealthy, white, gender-conforming) gays and lesbians are ever-sanitized as they inch into the mainstream, there is something perverse, something provocative, about a person who expresses queerness in ways that are simultaneously subtle and disruptive. As my colleague Kate Aurthur wrote about Stewart’s relationships with women last year: “She’s certainly not in hiding.” She’s just not playing by anybody’s rules.

At the New York Film Festival Q&A following Certain Women’s NYC premiere, Kristen Stewart spoke in her typically frenzied, manic way, using “fuck” and “fucking” as placeholders in every other sentence. Wearing a red suit and Vans, her hair short and radioactive blonde, she dodged an audience question about her character’s plotline. That audience member, like me, sensed unrequited love — or at least, an unrequited crush — in Beth and Jamie’s story.

“These guys don’t see each other at all,” Stewart said. “They’re two people having opposite conversations. They’re so unaware of each other.” Beth, she said, “just wants to feel valid.” And “this one” — referring to Jamie — “is looking for a friend.” On that point, she and director Kelly Reichardt are on the same page.

Stewart repeated the same talking point in a recent interview with W Magazine, where the reporter pushed back: “Jamie may be looking for a friend in Beth, but there’s also an undercurrent of romance there.”

“She’s not quite sure how she feels about her,” Stewart responded, then conceding: “But she has a crush on her, for sure.”

This rather maddening line of thinking — that a female character who is so clearly lusting after another might just be looking for “friendship” — allows Stewart, and films like Certain Women, to have it both ways: the mysterious allure of a queer-ish plotline and the queer fans it will attract, plus a “no homo” safety exit for when it’s promotionally advantageous to appeal to a broad base.

Stewart’s entire career has been balanced between two poles: blockbusters and indies, mainstream and queer audiences. Her ability to thrive on multiple planes of fame even as she refuses to give her most passionate fans — Twi-hards and queer people among them — exactly what they want is among one of her most remarkable skills as a celebrity, even though she’d rather consider herself anything but.

In many ways, Stewart emulates Jodie Foster, with whom she starred in David Fincher’s 2002 Panic Room; from her physical features down to the baby-butch stylings, Stewart in that film looks uncannily like a young Foster circa Taxi Driver. The actors have both been in the public eye since they were children; they’re both critical darlings, though Stewart more recently so; and they’ve both denied the public a “proper” coming out — Foster most famously in her rambling 2013 Golden Globes speech, where, to the media’s confusion, she said everything short of “Yes, you guys, I am in fact a lesbian.” A year earlier, in 2012, Foster wrote an op-ed for the Daily Beast defending Stewart’s right to privacy amidst the latest feeding frenzy over her breakup with Robert Pattinson, describing how Stewart and other celebrities navigate the chaos constantly surrounding them. “She keeps her head down, her shades on, fists in her pockets. Don’t speak. Don’t look. Don’t cry.” Foster ends the piece addressing Stewart directly: “Hopefully [...] you don’t lose your ability to throw your arms in the air again and spin in wild abandon. That is the ultimate F.U. and — finally — the most beautiful survival tool of all. Don’t let them take that away from you.”

In short, Kristen Stewart doesn’t give a fuck.

Though it happens less often these days, Stewart is still assailed for her disinterest in acting the part of a bubbly, eager, generous female celebrity — she glowers; she doesn’t ham it up for the paparazzi; she exists as a woman in the world who, remarkably, doesn’t smile 24/7. She can be effortlessly feminine, but often chooses not to be. Her running-around-LA looks involve a lot of greasy hair stuffed into beanies and oversized men’s jeans, the kind of outfits that might look sloppy on others but like the height of boho-dyke chic on her. In short, Kristen Stewart doesn’t give a fuck.

Of course, attempting to exist above the fray of the public’s standards means that Stewart will often disappoint. She starred in Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, released this summer; working with a director accused of sexual assault is, without doubt, a bad look — especially since she had reservations, but went ahead with the project anyway.

Yet she also has the power to pleasantly surprise. This past July, almost a year after her “I’m an actress, man” Nylon cover, she spoke about having a girlfriend to the press for the first time. In Elle UK, she said that when she was dating Robert Pattinson, she tried to keep her relationship out of the spotlight as much as possible so people couldn’t commodify it. “But then it changed when I started dating a girl,” she said. “I was like, ‘Actually, to hide this provides the implication that I’m not down with it or I’m ashamed of it, so I had to alter how I approached being in public. It opened my life up and I’m so much happier.” (She was likely referring to on-again-off-again girlfriend Alicia Cargile at the time, though this month she’s been seen spending a lot of time with musician Annie Clark.) After years of avoiding the subject, she suddenly put it all out there — the words to match what we’d been seeing all along. Just like that.

Perhaps she was finally throwing a bone to her queer fans, many of whom have long since wished she’d publicly acknowledge being a member of our club. Even though Stewart has been living openly for years, assuming anything about her sexuality was considered strictly off-limits until Stewart officially mentioned the relationship herself. Last year, when her mother Jules gave an interview to the Sunday Mirror in which she complimented Kristen’s new girlfriend and said her daughter “loves women and men,” the internet exploded, accusing Jules of outing her daughter. (Jules later denied discussing Kristen in the interview at all; the reporter stands by her story, saying the interview was recorded.) Even in 2016, female queerness largely remains an unspeakable taboo unless it’s owned and expressed by the queer person in question, made manifest on scales large and small. Oftentimes, not even that is enough.

This year, Stewart used the word “girlfriend.” She made that aspect of herself explicitly known; it’s the sort of clarity that a few of her characters — and many characters beyond hers — haven’t been afforded. Maybe someday soon, she and other actors of all genders and sexualities will be able to pick from a wide and rich variety of roles that don’t treat queerness like some sad, dark thing below a story’s surface. But there’s no telling whether she’d take those roles, anyway. I'm sure she'll keep us guessing.

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