Jodie Foster: It’s Complicated

Jodie Foster’s reality show “would be so boring,” she told the world at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, where she was awarded for a lifetime in front of the camera. Foster’s speech was hotter and colder than a Katy Perry song. Wearing a “coming-out gown,” she seemed to reluctantly come out, and come out, while demanding privacy at one of the most public events on, well, the globe. These contradictions have ignited polarizing “blogofires” across the blogosphere, largely inflamed by Foster’s latent declaration of her sexual orientation.

I am of two minds on the speech. As a gay person I’m frustrated, disappointed and nonplussed by a public figure drawing attention to her sexuality while simultaneously defending herself against identification with our community, but as a psychotherapist I’m openly and empathically curious about her, a compartmentalized person struggling for a cohesive sense of self, hoping to be recognized by us in all her authentic contradictions — not unlike how I, and many in our community, hope to be recognized by her.

Such dilemmas of perspective often present themselves in my work with clients. At these times I find that the questions are far more valuable than answers.

Some questions to consider: Why did Foster use this platform, this symbolically terminal moment in her career, to address her sexuality? Why expose herself (and make her publicist “nervous”) if only to be defensive? Why give us what she suspects we wanted and then criticize us for wanting it? Was her tone defensive because she felt a general invasion of “privacy” (after all, she had no problem sharing images of her children, her “unfamous” friends or referring to her mother and even her ex-lover), or was the subject of her sexual identity the grain of sand that clogged the whole machine?

As much searching, ranting, probing or blogging we do, we won’t find objective answers to these questions, and perhaps they don’t exist. The only answers I’ll ever have are my own imperfect, subjective responses to the speech she gave, and her own imperfect, subjective justification for giving it.

That isn’t to say that my reactions aren’t valid, reasonable or real; for me they very much are. I still feel teased and slapped by her “anti-coming-out.” I still feel that the pros of queer public figures explicitly owning their identities (e.g., giving LGBT people who live in fear, shame and doubt a point of identification and hope) far outweigh the cons (e.g., the possibility of being blocked from “straight” roles, one Brett Easton Ellis raised in a tweet about the openly gay Matt Bomer). I can’t help but believe that the applause her audience was itching to give her if she had just spoken the words “I’m a lesbian” would not have been for her alone; it would not have been in the spirit of a private support group. I imagine it representing so much more, honoring the progress we have witnessed in the LGBT community thanks to the bravery of entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres (and the celebrities who followed in her footsteps), the advocacy and support of leaders like Barack Obama and, most of all, the brazen willingness of millions of non-famous people who have lived their lives truthfully, against all odds. This, I believe, is the applause she denied by declaring her lack of declaration. (I also can’t hide my involuntary grimace and confusion over the fact that she chose Mel Gibson — infamous for homophobic, racist and anti-semitic rants – as her date on the night that she chose to address, or at least insinuate, her sexuality).

Though my imagination can never approximate the traumatic rupture to her privacy that she experienced when John Hinckley cited his love for her (a college student at the time) in explaining his attempted assassination of President Reagan, I can’t help but also see that as an adult she chose to remain in an industry (you can be forced into acting at 3, but not at 33) that sells entertainment based on an audience’s virtual “love” of the entertainers. She is a bona fide public figure, and that comes with opportunities, choices and challenges but not a contract with the public that states, “You can identify with this piece of me but not this one. You can ask about this but not that.

But if I were her therapist, I would use these reactions to feed my curiosity instead of my frustration. I would consider the unique circumstances under which she grew up: in front of a camera and, to use her words, always “fight[ing] for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” I would wonder about her decision to stay in the limelight even as it threatened her sense of “real” and “normal.” I would consider that perhaps “real” and “normal” are words that she feels ambivalent about, words that she associates with reality TV stars, such as Honey Boo Boo Child (whom she derisively singled out in her speech). Perhaps she learned to find authenticity through compartmentalization (e.g., leading lady, lesbian, lover, mother, etc.). Perhaps this sense of authenticity was more achievable for her when entertainment was less “reality”-focused than it is now: “[H]ow beautiful it once was,” she says. Perhaps the shift in how entertainment is sold (i.e., actors now face more pressure to promote their personal lives instead of just their films) has created a rupture in the “self” she had spent years organizing, causing her to confront the unfortunate contradictions between her identity as “leading lady” (which implies heterosexuality) and “lesbian,” for example. Perhaps we can understand her defensiveness as an attempt to keep the identity she had pieced together so effectively from unraveling, and maybe this defensiveness suggests that she doesn’t like the reductiveness of Hollywood (a system we all contribute to) any more than we do.

If I were her therapist, I would invite a space between our realities, a third space, in the hope of breaking through her defensiveness and breaking down my frustration. Psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg describes such a space as “[a] space uniquely relational and still uniquely individual; a space belonging to neither person alone, and yet, belonging to both and to each; a twilight space in which ‘the impossible’ becomes possible; a space in which incompatible selves, each awake to its own ‘truth,’ can ‘dream’ the reality of the other without risk to its own integrity.”

I am not her therapist, of course, and we are not afforded such exchanges of perception with our entertainers, so my intervention will remain a fantasy; as Bromberg says, “this process requires an enacted collision of realities between [two people].” Instead, I will have to remain disappointed and frustrated, and perhaps she will remain defensive, but in the meantime we can all continue to be curious about Jodie Foster and hope that she continues to be so about us.

AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…YOU!

Face it, mid-winter is not your finest hour.Many of us are putting off our vows and ambitions for the new year.Some of us are unhappy with our bodies (holiday over-eating, relentless blizzards limiting effective gym time), and some just burying our heads like ostriches, in order to avoid the winter blues—or what some call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).We hibernate, isolate, avoid invitations – preferring the couch to the concourse – all because right now you just don’t feel like being “you” and certainly don’t want to expose your sorry state to anyone else.Fortunately television producers know exactly how you’re feeling, and obligingly offer you a buffet of exciting special events – in order to lose your blues in someone else’s excitement – including the Super Bowl, the Grammy’s and the Oscars.
The Oscars are perhaps the most alluring spectator sport of all, since we get to observe our beautiful heroines and heroes of the screen as they enjoy a surprise moment of unequivocal attention and lauds.Witnessing the Oscar winner seize this moment of grand deference, in a speech of three minutes or less – speaking from the heart as she expresses gratitude, shares her passions, and takes a moment to mention the ideals and social issues which are important to her – transports us from our SAD obscurity into a thrilling moment of receiving vicarious reverence.Of course the big hangover comes when the show is over, you return to your own life…and realize that it’s very late, on a very cold Sunday night.
For those of you who connect with the above experience, here’s what I suggest: give your own Oscar acceptance speech to the bathroom mirror.In three minutes or less, tell your looking glass how grateful you are, why it is so meaningful to win an award for “this” particular project, thank all of the people to whom you are indebted, blow kisses to all those who enrich your life, share what you value most about the work you do, and emphasize one or two important issues to which you’d like to bring international attention.If you feel it wanders or bombs the first time, take advantage of the fact that there is no orchestra to bully you off the stage (or out of the powder room) and give it another go until it feels right.
I know what you’re thinking: (1) “Isn’t this behavior Narcissistic?”; (2) “Isn’t this behavior Psychotic?”; and (3) “How can this be healthy?”My answers to these are:(1) “Yes, but there is such a thing as healthy narcissism.If you repeatedly thank yourself, as opposed to other people, in your “loo” speech, that would be the unhealthy kind.”(2) “Only if you do it every day, and at the exclusion of conversations with other people.”(3) “Because we all need our emotions, urges, and creative desires mirrored back to us, in order to feel secure, integrated, and motivated.If we’re not getting this mirroring from our relationships, we can at least imagine how we would express ourselves if given the opportunity to be showered with infinite positive attention.Besides, most of you have done this already anyway, so…”
The goal of this exercise is certainly not to replace social relationships with a reflective surface – the literally fatal moment of the Narcissus myth – but rather to motivate you to get off the couch and engage with others more purposefully, meaningfully, and effectively.We can’t really see other people and offer them generosity, love, and support if we’re not feeling seen, loved, and supported in our own skins.Perhaps your private Oscar moment will inspire you to surround yourself with people who are better reflectors than your current friends, or maybe it could open up significant topics to be discussed in your therapy.Whatever the outcome, at least you will have given yourself a moment to reflect on your potential as an individual and as part of a community.Just take it easy at any imagined “Oscar after parties” after you’ve finished your “speech.”