14
Jan
13

it’s not about you. it’s not even about me.

January 14, 2013

So. I am in New York now, after four years in East Africa. I have a dog that I brought back with me from Burundi. I am attending Columbia’s School of Journalism. I started a new photoblog. And the first thing I really want to write about after the long lay-off relates to a few threads that have criss-crossed in my last few years: identity, privacy, cultural appropriation and, of course, the media. And all of these themes sort of crashed together last night at the Golden Globes when, shockingly, a celebrity named Jodie Foster revealed herself to be a wildly independent and hyper-intelligent human being with a lot on her mind. We are all still reeling with this fact. Here goes. (And yes, I’ll get back to blogging about my life-events sooner than later but there’ll be more articles like this, too.)

The way the media has seized on Jodie Foster’s speech last night at the Golden Globes reveals a desperation to appropriate the world around us, as if a pageant of Olympian celebrities congratulating themselves was not enough of an artificial media ploy. Foster is probably gracious enough to answer follow-up questions to her speech but sharp enough to realize we have all missed the point.

This sample (http://jezebel.com/5975643/jodie-foster-comes-out-in-most-amazing-awards-speech-of-our-time) in particular jarred me into a frothy indignation. I haven’t seen an article so quickly and resoundingly get it all wrong. It begins, “OK, we need to walk through what just happened.”

Actually, no, we don’t. It’s her private life.  That’s the point. She will reveal as much or as little of it as she wants, in whatever way she wants.

The article’s suggestion of a “refusal” to come out is particularly baffling. It reminds me of the speculation with Anderson Cooper before he came out. One simply has to make a personal declaration in the way others have done – with the same words, looking straight into the camera. It is the tyranny of the collective with its Own Way. It might be important for a community to hear those exact words (“I am [fill with proper designation].), in that format, but that’s not how personal choices are made or communicated. As Foster suggested, we arrive at these choices in our own way and share them with the people around us: friends, family, colleagues. Funny enough, activists and fans aren’t on that list.

What is more important here is the tone, which hints at a larger cultural trait. The public, whether it’s one person or an audience, demands more and more to be addressed directly, with a clear pronouncement, squeezing out the words that we/they want to hear. The media happily feeds that obsession. The whole routine has the feel of a confession, in the way we push for an apology – from a child who refuses to say ‘sorry’ to a sibling to evasive politicians to governments demanding accountability over wartime atrocities. Except, of course, Foster has absolutely nothing to be sorry about.

So why is this speech so provocative? Is it because she has peeked out from behind the mask that we have placed on her? More than most she has had to live in a crystal-clear media-obsessed fishbowl since the 1970s (!), and – I’m confident in saying this – she is more intelligent than most in Hollywood (or anywhere). Maybe this speech grabs our attention because, for once, here is a real conflict without a script between vastly different adversaries: the personality-less celebrity we all want to possess and the unhappy and fiercely intelligent consciousness that refuses our labels. We are always shocked when someone disagrees so fundamentally with our desires.

Every time I have seen her on a screen – during an interview, in a film, at an awards show in France (presenting in flawless French, but with an American casualness), she has immensely impressed me. And I think that can easily translate into a desire to learn or know more about a person. If I step back and ask what is this chase really about, the answer would be simple: me. Us. But if we really want to appreciate a spirit like Foster’s, we might do better with the second person. You are out there. You have a (deeply) personal identity. You are in a world vastly different than mine. You speak faster than I can think. For the brief moments where you share your thoughts and presence, I’m glad for that. Let’s leave “us” out of this.

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