Lifetime Achievements: Jodie Foster and the Madwomen

Yes, as a matter of fact I did watch the Golden Globes Sunday night, in sisterly solidarity with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who, as it turned out, needed no help from me. Girls, you had me at, “[Meryl Streep] has the flu and I hear she’s amazing in it.” I tuned in not knowing that Jodie Foster was going to be honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award for being considered a worn-out old hag at the age of 50 “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” FYI: The average age of Cecil B. DeMille Award winners is 62. I did the math myself, because I don’t have to teach for 11 more days believe that numbers sometimes reveal important truths. (See, Nate Silver — I’ve been listening!)

Jodie, you might have heard, gave a little speech in accepting the award. Folks, queer folks in particular, have had a lot to say about the speech, which was, admittedly, kinda weird. Before we go any further, here’s a little link farm of reactions:

  • Andrew Sullivan hated the speech, which he described as “narcissistic, self-loving,” “unadulterated bull$hit.” Don’t hold back, Andrew. It isn’t healthy to hide your feelings, which is why I can’t resist mentioning that the redundancy of describing someone as “narcissistic, self-loving” gave me a headache. Also: It takes one to know one, doesn’t it?
  • Advocate editor-in-chief Matthew Breen declared the big gay magazine “deeply conflicted” about the speech because he doesn’t understand Foster’s avoidance of the L-word, even as she acknowledged former partner (“my ex-partner in love”) and co-parent Cydney Bernard and claimed to have done her coming out long ago, “in the Stone Age.” Breen is disappointed that Foster wasn’t willing simply to declare, “I’m a lesbian, and there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it.”
  • Our good buddy Tenured Radical offers a thoughtful critique of the speech focused on Foster’s problematic (to TR and many others) assertion of a right to privacy that is steeped in blind class privilege and insulates Foster from “having to make ethical decisions about what it means to be a lesbian out in public.” It’s a good piece. Click over and read the whole thing, and your reward will be a hilarious clip from the coming-out episodes of Ellen. (Toaster oven: Need I say more?)
  • Speaking of hilarious, the obtuseness of the speech provoked The Onion to do a report on how Foster is inspiring teens across the land “to come out [to their friends and family] using vague, rambling riddles.” The brilliant Justin Vivian Bond weighed in with an episode of The Drunk News that takes up not only Jodie and the Golden Globes, but gun violence and the crisis of uncertainty regarding . . . seafood. Go empty your bladder, and then give Viv a click.
  • Sam Leith in The Guardian has a piece on the rhetorical genius of Foster’s speech.  In which we learned that the whole coy/evasive/obtuse “I’m-going-to-talk-about-this-without-talking-about-this” thing was a dazzling rhetorical maneuver known as occultatio. Say that ten times fast, word nerds.
  • Richard Kim in The Nation declares himself grateful that Foster frustrated a form of role modelism that he thinks has been overly valued in the gay movement in recent years. “We maniacally search for the next has-been child star to splash across the covers of our magazines, as if fame were a short cut to liberation. We measure our success by the number of out actors/rock stars/professional athletes, as if this were somehow an index of political power. We seek to make Positive Examples of the lives of celebrities, because really, what can be a more useful primer of how to grow up gay than the life and times of Lance Bass?” Point taken.
  • Nathaniel Frank has a wonderfully nuanced take on the public/private issue that acknowledges the healthiness of disclosure but also the unique burdens imposed on gay people to come out, often repeatedly, as we encounter new people and situations in which our gayness is not known. Frank ends by urging compassion and by reminding LGBT people of the importance of “not bullying our own” for failing to negotiate “the messiness of the public-vs.-private dilemma” in a neat, (politically) correct way.

Here is the Speech Itself:

So, what do I think? Jodie Foster and I have a long, fraught history. (No, of course she doesn’t know anything about it, unless she’s read the posts filed here.) Like many dykes of a certain age, I overly identify with her. Or I just totes have a crush on her. I’ve never been sure whether it was a desire to be or a desire to have situation, but never mind. I’ve taken her to task for being publicly coy about her sexuality, so, yeah, I’m guilty of the kind of role modelism Kim decries. As a teacher, I have felt a responsibility to be publicly out, to stand up and say, as Breen puts it above, “I’m a lesbian, and there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it.” If I had written the speech Foster gave that night (if only she had asked!), it would likely have been more in the mode of the Celebrity as Super Teacher. It would have been charming, funny, focused, clear. More humble than Foster’s actual speech. More gracious. Devoid of gratuitous swipes at little kids.

In other words, the speech I would have given written would have been far less queer than the one Foster delivered. I’ve watched it several times now (because I don’t have to teach for 11 more days I believe that careful attention reveals important truths) and am struck by how off kilter the whole performance seems. Tautness is one of Foster’s great strengths as an actor. (Think of those terrifying scenes in The Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling is nose-to-nose with Hannibal Lecter. She doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t look away. She barely moves.) At the Globes, though, Foster seemed wound a little too tight, overly amped, as if she had prepared for the occasion by lifting weights and watching NFL films rather than spending 20 minutes in yogic meditation. To my eyes and ears, she seems palpably uncomfortable during her seven minutes at the microphone. She rushes through her lines, steps on what are supposed to be jokes, and then, when she doesn’t get the reaction she was expecting, demands more from the audience. (“Can I get a wolf whistle or something? I mean, please, Jesus!”) She seems overly eager to advertise her intimacy, even kinship, with different pockets of the live audience (the “fathers mostly” among the industry heavyweights, the “fellow actors” with whom she has vomited and blown snot and had other kinds of fun, the “members of the crew” with whom she has formed “blood-shaking friendships, brothers and sisters”). It is as though, after 47 years in the film business, Foster is still unsure of her place and yearning for some form of recognition that has nothing to do with the award she has been given.

Meanwhile, toward the broadcast audience, Foster conveys an unsettling mix of anger, arrogance, and contempt that likely fueled the harshly negative responses that started cascading down my Facebook feed on Sunday night. It’s hard to imagine why Foster felt this was the occasion to lecture the public on the value of privacy and the difficulty of living authentically while being ridiculously famous. Suffice it to say that the line that begins, “But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler,” probably didn’t make Foster any new friends among the plebeians watching on TV.

So, she was rude. She was off, out of sorts, ill at ease. She was insufficiently humble. She got loud where she should probably have been quiet and publicly declared her allegiance to a man (Mel Gibson) universally regarded as a jerk. She was not a good girl or a good gay. She was unruly. She was mean. She was fractious. She was queer. Am I alone in finding it odd that reactions to the speech have been so harsh when queer studies has spent more than a decade celebrating precisely these qualities as aspects of anti-normativity? Did I miss something, or isn’t queer negativity supposed to be cool?

On Facebook, Ann Cvetkovich used the term “butch vulnerability” as a way of explaining and more sympathetically framing Foster’s speech. The term resonated with me, because I saw enormous vulnerability in the performance and agree that Foster didn’t look especially comfortable in that dress. No matter how hard she tries, Foster can’t look at home in one of those gender-normative Hollywood get-ups. She always looks like she’d rather be wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. (Moi aussi, mon amie!)  I was also really struck with the way she just sort of melted near the end of the speech when she started talking about her mother, Evelyn, who got Foster into show business when she was three years old and now suffers from dementia. Under everything, perhaps, is a daughter’s fear that her own mother might soon forget her. What does any award mean if that most primal form of recognition is lost? Ah, Jodie, on that point, at least, I can truly, painfully relate.

Bottom line? Yes, the speech was messy, which is what I found fascinating about it. I think the messiness makes all kinds of sense and that Nathaniel Frank is wise to urge queers not to bully one of our own, even if Foster has gone out of her way not to ally herself with public queer culture. I also think it will be interesting to see, though, if the speech signals a shift in Foster’s career. Many have wondered if she wasn’t announcing some kind of retirement. My hope is she was signaling a shift away from Hollywood and toward bolder, more radical films. I don’t care if we need a dog whistle to understand them. I just hope we don’t have to sit through anything as painful and repugnant as The Brave One. (About which I had this to say when it came out.)

The Madwoman in the AtticInterestingly, as I tuned in simultaneously to the Globes and the critique of the Globes coming in on my laptop Sunday evening, I saw some similar but different and very happy news pop up on my Facebook feed: the announcement that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar had won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle for their transformative work in feminist literary criticism. To which I say: hip hip hooray! Go read that article, which is full of deserved praise and the kind of warm, fuzzy reaction one hopes/expects to see in lifetime achievement stories. My favorite line is the last one, from Gubar, who notes that, though she and Gilbert haven’t worked together in several years, “We’ve remained fast and true friends.”

And that, my darlings, is an achievement worth celebrating. Congratulations, Susan, Sandra, and, yes, you, too, Jodie. Thanks for showing the world that you don’t have to be a good girl to be great.

Comments

  1. Lovely post.

    There are people who are palpably uncomfortable in their own skin, and Foster’s one of them. Standing there tomboyish persona masquerading as old-style starlet, she seemed like a kid in a Hallowe’en costume. She this way when we were students at Yale, and she remains unchanged in this respect.

    I, too, took it as a retirement speech, or at the very least an aborted coming out speech. Usually you retire in Hollywood when they don’t want you any more, so who knows?But Foster is to me an unsympathetic character not only for her spiny demeanor, her oddly machine-gun like delivery, her apparent narcissism, her way of talking without saying anything so that the listener thinks that s/he is missing in-joke after in-joke, and her undoubtedly conflicted emotions about Mommy Dearest who’s the one who subjected her to becoming a child object of desire and now is too ga-ga (or mean? or in a coma?) to “see” her through those “blue, blue eyes” — she is unsympathetic for all of these reasons, but mainly because she lacks any sense humor. One cannot imagine Foster laughing a bit at herself, or just being grateful and saying, thanks. To quote the Wizard of Oz who famously said to Dorothy and her companions, “Go away and come back tomorrow!”

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    • “when we were students at Yale” — Ah, so someone has an actual fraught history with Foster as opposed to an imaginary fraught history. Cool! I think you are on to something with the lack of a sense of humor. That hadn’t occurred to me.

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  2. Thanks for both the roundup and the thoughtful analysis. I think the reactions have been more interesting than the speech (which as you note, is rambling, and unfocused, and it’s as if she didn’t quite remember her lines). I’ve decided Sullivan is just plain sexist. The bit with her mother was heartbreaking — I spent an inordinate amount of time tracking down information about her mother — but completely real. And anyone with a parent with dementia understands that pain.

    But it’s great to hear the news about Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Transforming an academic field? That’s an accomplishment!

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  3. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Freud and Foucault, but Foster’s speech reminded me of both the return of the repressed, as well as the repressive hypothesis, especially the logorrhea masked as rhetorical elusiveness.

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  4. I am constitutionally unable to watch those kinds of self-congratulatory speeches, and didn’t. Nevertheless, my opinion having read your post, Tenured Radical’s, and some other bloggers’, and having read about Foster’s history, is that she was essentially forced into show business at an absurdly young age and never had any real options to pursue another career. And for that reason–among others–I think she is due some of slack.

    It seems unfair to make her bear the burden of “outness” for everyone, and to blame her for being ambivalent about it. Yes, she is a rich pampered privileged celebrity, but she is still an individual, and her rich privileged pamperedness doesn’t mean she can’t feel discomfort and pain about whatever it is that she feels those things about.

    My guess is that she feels a huge pressure to talk about these things, and that she is in a catch-22 situation: If she doesn’t talk about them, she will be blamed for that, and if she does talk about them, she will be blamed for that.

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