A Tribute to Jessica Chastain, 2015. Performance lecture, 8 minutes.

A Tribute to Jessica Chastain is a performance-lecture that combines images of the actress’s films with biographical details from her life. Chastain is presented as a figure of admiration and identification; as a self-described feminist, she takes roles in which her agency and autonomy as an actor are foregrounded. But beneath the rhetoric of feminist accomplishment that surrounds her oeuvre, feelings of despair and inadequacy emerge. Depression is reimagined as an avenue of potential resistance to the dominant order, the refusal (or inability) to buy in to a corporatized feminism in which the demand to “lean in” is an extension of neoliberal ideology.   


A Tribute to Jessica Chastain

We are gathered here today to honor and acknowledge Jessica Chastain, fellow artist, sister, and friend. To pay tribute is to pay a compliment, to bestow an accolade, to announce our mutual esteem. It’s in the spirit of tribute that this talk was written, and will be performed today.

We are gathered here today to collect on a debt. To pay tribute is to exact a fee, to levy a toll, to make a demand. The demand is a tax, and Chastain its instrument – the notice of non-payment, the application of pressure, and the assurance of satisfaction are written on her person. Jessica Chastain is an agent.

We watch as Jessica Chastain moves freely through the virtual space of the movie screen, encountering objects and enacting causal relations. My identification with Jessica Chastain affirms my feelings of agency and autonomy. Jessica Chastain gets things done.

Jessica Chastain is a Caucasian female between the ages of 34 and 40. She is a vegan and a feminist. She was born in California, and put herself through college. She is an artist.

In Hollywood film, “the glamorous impersonates the ordinary.”1 

(Jessica Chastain impersonates me.) 

Jessica Chastain is like me but better: more effective, dedicated, charismatic and good looking. Jessica Chastain is a hard worker. Jessica Chastain is an ego ideal.

This relationship has a narcissistic structure, in which an identification is produced between viewer and protagonist. Like Narcissus, as we stare at our beautiful reflection in the mirror, we are fascinated by our own likeness, and we find ourselves fixed to the spot, immobilized. In acting, Jessica Chastain makes it impossible for me to act.

This cinematic identification reinforces my self-image, while simultaneously inducing a temporary loss of ego. In the movies, I am lost, I forget where I am, time stops, space expands and contracts.2 I am subsumed by Jessica Chastain.

According to the DSM, symptoms of depression include feeling “sad or empty, loss of interest or pleasure, loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness, indecisiveness, and recurrent thoughts of death.”3

Jessica Chastain is depressed. In 2003, her sister committed suicide. Chastain herself experienced depression during the filming of Zero Dark 30, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Of this time, she says, “I can honestly say that it was the worst experience of my life.”4

Depression is a feeling, a mood, and an atmosphere. It does not belong to you or me, or to Jessica Chastain, but it connects us through space and time. Depression operates at the boundary between inside and outside. It is a “psychic… poisoning… the transmission of bad feelings across bodies…”5

In 1963, Betty Friedan diagnosed the symptoms of a depressed populace as “the problem that has no name,” the “strange feeling of desperation” that plagues women everywhere.6

Friedan’s contemporary correlate is Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Google and author of Lean In. In the 21st century, consciousness raising groups have been replaced by Lean-In-Circles, leveraging the rhetoric of feminism towards the goal of self-actualization, combatting the forces of passivity, inertia and depression.

Lean In represents an ethic; it offers women the promise of power and autonomy in exchange for hard work. Within this framework, depression can be understood as a reasonable response to a culture that prizes sovereign agency, compelling us to lean inat every turn, while giving its subjects “too much or too little to do.”7

Put another way, if depression can be understood as a structure, we might describe it thus: Depression is the imperative to act, without the means to do so.

I watch Jessica Chastain move across the virtual space of the movie-world, and my identification with her is fundamentally depressive. Just as she embodies forward movement and activity, she fixes me to my seat. In cinema, as in depression, the fantasy of action is mitigated by the reality of inaction.

Jessica Chastain leans in.

I lean into Jessica Chastain.

Thirty days after the death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg posted a letter to her Facebook page, from which I will now read a short excerpt:

“…when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give into the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well… I can’t express the gratitude I feel to my friends and family who have done so much. In the brutal moments when I am overtaken by the void, when the months and years stretch out in front of me endless and empty, only their faces will pull me out of isolation and fear.”8

Within this letter, the dichotomous relationship between action and inaction takes the form of a demand: Sandberg must “make a choice” – between meaning and non-meaning, or life and death. This choice quickly reveals itself to be no choice at all; it is the lived reality of a contradiction. We are caught between a pseudo feminist rhetoric of personal accomplishment and social progress, and the depressing awareness of our own incapacity, the imperative to act without the means to do so.

“The months and years” stretch out in front of us “endless and empty,” filled by the dreary eternity of the Netflix queue, its flow uninterrupted except to occasionally ask if we’re still watching. The answer is always yes.

At the end of Zero Dark 30, having achieved her goal of capturing and killing Osama Bin Laden, Jessica Chastain looks into the camera and weeps. For her work in this role, she will be nominated for an Oscar, she will be launched into international celebrity and acclaim, she will be toasted in the halls of the academy.

In this spirit, I invite you to raise a glass to Jessica Chastain. 

A tribute is a demand wrapped in a compliment. A tribute is a tax disguised as a gift. A tribute is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Sisters, I demand a tribute. 
A Tribute to Jessica Chastain was first performed for Stupid Pills at the Hyperion Tavern, Los Angeles in 2015. 


1. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 836.

2. Laura Mulvey likens the experience of cinematic immersion to the mirror stage. “…the cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego. The sense of forgetting the world as the ego has subsequently come to perceive it (I forgot who I am and where I was) is nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition,” 836.

3. Ann Cvetkovic, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012) 157.

4. Cecelia Walden, “Jessica Chastain Interview for Zero Dark Thirty,” The Telegraph, January 25, 2013, accessed July 6, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/9808463/Jessica-Chastain-interview-for-Zero-Dark-Thirty.html.

5. Cvetkovic, Depression: A Public Feeling, 158.

6. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (Binghamton: Vail-Ballou Press, 1963) 20-21. Friedan wrote, “Just what was this problem that has no name? What were the words women used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say, ‘I feel empty somehow… incomplete.’ Or she would say, ‘I feel as though I don’t exist.’”

7. Cvetkovic, Depression: A Public Feeling, 158.

8. Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebookpage, June 3, 2015, accessed July 6, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/sheryl/posts/10155617891025177:0.