Why Rosario Dawson and Jameela Jamil’s ‘Coming Out’ Moments Ring Hollow
This new celeb trend sees “wealthy and attractive famous people make suspiciously timed claims to marginalized identities as an escape route,” writes Cassie da Costa.
Veiled opportunism is the latest iteration of celebrity scandal, and if you spend any of your life online it’s impossible to look away. Recently, this new scandal has seen wealthy and attractive famous people make suspiciously timed claims to marginalized identities as an escape route from valid criticism.
Case in point are Jameela Jamil—a self-appointed body-positivity movement spokeswoman and regular on the TV show The Good Place—and Rosario Dawson, who obliquely came out in an interview with Bustle about her new show Briarpatch and relationship with senator and former presidential candidate Cory Booker. Now, Dawson’s publicists are saying she was misquoted and “came out as an ally” and not as queer, which seems like an absurd cover-up for clumsiness. In her original conversation, Dawson admitted that she’s never been in a gay relationship, and there’s no indication that Jamil—who is dating musician James Blake—has either.
It’s always a bit suspect when cis celebrity “activists” in hetero relationships make these kinds of declarations in the middle of promoting a new project. At a cultural and political moment when it is no longer career suicide to be gay in the mainstream, certain celebrities and influencers have found a way to utilize their actual or appropriated identities to rally support or avoid criticism according to a bastardized politics. The key red flag of this behavior is that instead of being specific about how they identify as they come out to journalists, these hetero-partnered celebrities say that they are “part of the LGBTQ+ community” or “queer.” They are not bisexual, pansexual, curious and questioning, 75 percent straight, or the like; instead, they group themselves in with a large and varied community of people they are eager to curry favor from. Dawson’s claim that she was misquoted falls in line with this strategy—her vagueness can easily be retooled to the purposes most convenient for her career.
Of course, the relationships you are or have been in are not necessarily proof of whether or not you’re as queer as you say, but what’s notable about both of these women’s assertions is how conveniently they bolster their shallow politics. Jamil came out in the midst of heavy criticism about her securing a high-paying gig as a judge on the upcoming HBO ballroom show Legendary, and Dawson’s political views have been under scrutiny since Booker dropped out of the race. Entertainment journalists wonder exactly where she falls on the political spectrum given how passionate she is about advocating for voting and democracy, ultimately milquetoast liberal proclivities when unattached to ideology. (Dawson, a born-and-bred New Yorker, has not endorsed a specific candidate but says she’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is. I assume that includes former Stop-and-Frisk Mayor Michael Bloomberg.)
In her conversation with Bustle, Dawson seemed to be caught off guard when asked about her sexuality. Referring to a 2018 Instagram post in which she shouted out her “fellow lgbtq+ homies,” Dawson said, “People kept saying that I [came out]... I didn’t do that. I mean, it’s not inaccurate, but I never did come out come out. I mean, I guess I am now.” Then she clarifies to her interviewer, “I’ve never had a relationship in that space, so it’s never felt like an authentic calling to me.” Whether she’s speaking about allyship or not, Dawson’s statements to Bustle struck me as the typical one-foot-in, one-foot-out posturing of someone who has made trendy advocacy their job. By taking up no-longer-controversial (in her own “space,” at least) political positions on social media, and then mysteriously positioning herself amongst the LGBTQ+—which is an acronym and not an identity—Dawson can toggle between ally and activist depending on the political energies of the day.
There are examples of how to open up to the press about your sexuality with specificity and complexity in order to be more honest about where you’re coming from. A year ago, when promoting Lady Bird, actor Lucas Hedges, who plays the titular character’s closeted first boyfriend, told Vulture, “I recognize myself as existing on [a] spectrum: Not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual.” Hedges was careful to explain his sexuality without using prescribed terms that he felt didn’t actually fit, and in the process, did not appoint himself a bearer of the rainbow flag. Of course, many people did in turn express a kind of glassy-eyed wonderment at a young man expressing vulnerability in an interview and gave Hedges more credit than he is due. Still, Hedges didn’t have much to gain from teasing out the specifics of his sexuality aloud—male actors are still incentivized to perform heterosexuality in public if they want to have traditionally successful careers, and Hedges doesn’t maintain a social media brand to additionally promote himself with.
Interestingly, in a story that has been buried since it came to light in late October of last year, Dawson and her mother Isabel were sued by trans man Dedrek Finley, who accused them of both physically assaulting and misgendering him while he worked as their handyman while living in a Hollywood apartment the family rented out to him. The Dawson family’s lawyer denied the allegations to TMZ, calling them “false and baseless.” Isabel is the main target of the lawsuit, though Dawson is named as an enabler to the abuse, who allegedly called Finley a “grown woman” and helped Isabel pin him down during the alleged assault. Dawson’s personal representatives did not respond to multiple outlets’ requests for comment about the allegations.
It’s important to clarify two things when discussing Finley’s allegations: Abuse within the LGBTQ+ community is possible and documented; and, aside from a successful restraining order brought against Isabel Dawson by Finley after the alleged assault, no other evidence to support or contradict Finley’s claims has been made available to the media—we don’t know what really happened. Still, the existence of these allegations, as well as Dawson’s failure to substantively or directly respond to them, make her backpedaled coming-out-as-ally feel slimy.
Jamil, on the other hand, has faced increasing skepticism as she has built an ostentatious multimedia brand out of her liberal feminism, which has seen her criticizing Beyoncé for a sexy music video and calling out magazines for airbrushing celebrity images. After Jamil came out as queer during the Legendary controversy, ballroom veteran and trans woman Trace Lysette pointed out that whatever Jamil’s sexual identity, she isn’t part of the ballroom community, and it’s her lack of material involvement that makes her inclusion as a judge on the show disappointing. Jamil isn’t the only non-ballroom judge on the show—straight rapper Megan Thee Stallion has mostly avoided criticism about accepting the job; it is perhaps Jamil’s history of opportunistic advocacy that has opened her up to more scrutiny.
Jamil is tall and thin and has spoken extensively and casually about her struggles with disordered eating and numerous other illnesses and conditions, including cancer, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, celiac disease, shellfish and peanut allergies, partial deafness, something called labyrinthitis, seizures, and more. Writer Tracie Morrissey has documented several of these confessed illnesses and accidents and suspects the actress of making at least some of them up. Jamil’s boyfriend James Blake has come to her defense, saying, “I am there when she turns down amazing job opportunities because of her health limitations. I actually live with her. Her being attractive, tall and successful doesn’t mean she hasn’t been sick.”
Blake is right: rich, pretty people suffer, too. But Jamil isn’t criticized simply because her illnesses and sexual identity are illegible to the public, but because she, like many other social media influencers, has fashioned surface-level advocacy into a lucrative brand. Queer, sick, or not, both Jamil’s and Dawson’s positions lack the integrity of sustained political commitments by activists who have risked both their incomes and personal safety not simply to have the right views, but to do the right thing.