Doctor Foster (2015, Netflix)

Kimberly and Jane talk about how they, as women, see a woman professional, wife, and mom challenged by her husband’s betrayal, suffer a break down in a difficult, realistic portrayal of personal fragmentation in the BBC One Drama series, Doctor Foster.  They comment on the painful ring of truth aroused by the female protagonist that they would like to turn away from even as they understand its transformative value.    

Show Summary: Suranne Jones stars as Dr. Gemma Foster in this mystery-drama series that leads the female protagonist down a dark path. Dr. Foster seems to have a perfect life; she is a trusted doctor, has many friends and a settled family — until her husband starts acting suspiciously. The doctor begins to think her husband is having an affair and decides to investigate, but the secrets she uncovers tear her world apart. Gemma’s life goes into turmoil as she gets closer to discovering the truth, with her family and patients all suffering as a result of the shocking events that unfold.

  It all started with a blonde hair.

 Yes, a blonde hair on her husband Simon’s scarf that he so generously offers her because she had misplaced her own. That sets the tone.

 The blonde hair becomes a line of lightning, foreshadowing the crack in Gemma’s life that is about to break open, a schism in a woman’s built up veneer.

 I love your word, lightning! I was, as I think I was supposed to be, surprised by her reaction to its presence. Gemma and Simon’s marriage and their family life with their son is imaged as solid and loving and I wasn’t sure where this intrusive strand of hair was going to take us.

 Right, because Gemma is presented as a competent doctor and happily married family breadwinner so well that I was shocked by her leap into such a consuming suspicion. I mean, a blonde hair could fall upon a scarf in any number of circumstances.

 Yes, really unexpected, and led me to believe I was going to see a story not merely about betrayal by a husband, but perhaps, about a betrayal by Gemma of herself; a self-betrayal, turning against herself. When she starts to go against her own conscience, her own principles, I felt the show going past relationship betrayal to explore a personal, inner betrayal. And I was worried. I thought this might turn out to be another ‘woman is her own worst enemy’ message. Fortunately, not.

 Gemma immediately heeds her suspicions instead of giving the benefit of doubt to Simon. She starts to follow him, spy, investigate, and the whole time I find myself wondering why is this so easy for her to cave into? Is this life she has built so flimsy of a façade? Are there things deep down she has been ignoring all along?

 Good questions. And revealing. We begin to see her as a woman who was so invested in having an orderly life and in the way things looked that when the chips start to fall, she feels shaken to her core.

 It was uncomfortable to watch, to feel. We women all know the feeling of wanting that perfect love and life. The feeling of putting so much hope and effort into achieving the ideal, of investing time and energy into maintaining appearances.

 Taps into a universal wish fulfillment. Marion Woodman wrote a great book about this, The Pregnant Virgin, in which she says, wisely I believe, “If we have lived behind a mask all our lives, sooner or later – if we’re lucky – that mask will be smashed.”  As devastating as the break in Gemma’s life feels, it’s an opportunity to turn her addiction to perfection around. 

 By the time she discovers Simon’s second phone in the trunk of his car, and her suspicions are confirmed, I almost felt a sigh of relief. Like, now that the cat’s out of the bag, she can get busy doing some real inner work. As her façade starts to crumble we see her struggle with integrating the truth. Yet, even though she learns that her co-worker friend, her mother-in-law and others know, and have known, about Simon’s affair, we continue to see her struggle with accepting it. Simon denies it, until the end, and his denial keeps her on that ledge between letting the façade go and accepting the truth. Throughout the series, she has a tic where she is constantly picking at her nails, scraping at her skin, making her fingers bleed. It is a sign of her body trying to gnaw the truth out of the pocket where she has kept her fears locked in, perhaps forever. Her absolute need for control.

 Yes, she keeps going against any expectation of being as integrated as she appears as we see her insecurities make her do these aggressive, outrageous, professionally unethical things. She meets a male patient in a bar and when he admits to Gemma that he has been keeping his diagnosis of a brain tumor from his wife, she calls his wife and reveals it to her. When a young woman patient is beaten by her boyfriend, Gemma visits him in their apartment and threatens to burn him with a cigarette if he touches her patient again. Then she manipulates an appointment with her husband’s mistress, daughter of another patient, and delivers her medical results revealing she is pregnant. Uh oh, I thought, this film is going down the road of playing up the dark side of a professional woman. I admit that I was still hesitant to believe I was going to get a show about the depth of disruption wrought upon a woman by betrayal, that these breaches of ethical practices weren’t going to be the focus rather than the symptoms of abuse. Ha, yes, ready for another modern woman as the victim turned predator story.

 I agree, we typically see a woman scorned who either goes wildly crazy or who ignores her hurt and tries to hold it all together. This series is unexpected because it shows us a combination of the two, which to me is a more genuine rendition. When she crosses the professional lines you speak of, I saw it as an act of subconscious aggression. It was as if her inner self was compelling her to stand up for what she felt was right outside professional restraints, even as she couldn’t manage to do this within her own marriage.

 I like it. Interesting issue.

 Perhaps they are practice runs, forerunners for what she will have to claim for herself in her own personal life through rebellious action in opposition to her carefully manicured image. Even when she crosses these lines, she remains a sympathetic character.

 True, true. I was with her, curious and intrigued by her conflict. How she sees herself and how others see her are really two different things. She is a woman who thinks she can turn her husband’s life around. He needs a lot of help and she is deep into financial debt on his account. Even though, she seems surprised when friends reflect that he was always a sort of playboy, telling her that when she came into the picture they were pleasantly surprised at how he seemed to be changing his life around with her influence. We as women feel, she had to know, deep down, his true character.

 We always “know” whether we choose to heed our intuition or not. She gave him all her money. She became the benefactor for their union with all the best intentions.

 She was going to turn his life around. She was going to be “the one” who was that important to him. In spite of her professional accomplishments, she derives her sense of value from being with him and fulfilling his dreams. So many women are vulnerable to this pattern. And this turns out to be what the series is about. Turning this pattern around. The ending will still come as a surprise to all who watch so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Gemma comes to find that her value is really inside her. It’s how she wakes up to that fact that makes the series a compelling watch.

 She has to step off that pedestal she has created for herself. We come to learn that her parents died in a car crash as a child. It makes sense that she would go on to live a life where she can remain the one in control so that she can be the one who decides whether she gets hurt or not, that she can be the good doctor who has a hand in saving lives. That’s a pretty strong wound to bear, and a childhood agenda fated to fail because life is not that controllable in all respects.

 I’m smiling at ‘not that controllable in all respects’, thinking about how a child who loses her parents wants to grow up and hold her finger in the dike against death. Striving for control went a long way as she aimed to be a doctor but gets seriously challenged as a wife, mom, and all the other million things she becomes mid-life. Even as a doctor, she is constantly choosing to keep within professional boundaries while feeling a pull from feminine instincts to support and nurture, care, and do what she feels is emotionally right. Very interesting portrayal of something I can identify with.

 Yes, the ethical dilemmas she faces are almost like little jabs from her soul letting her know that this life she has constructed so carefully for herself needs further examination. The affair and her husband’s betrayal are simply the keys that unlock this strand of discovery. It’s almost as if she has placed herself in a cage while constantly beckoning self-sabotage to shake her out of an inner denial of who she truly is at her core.

 Wow. First, let me say, I like that you bring the soul into this. That invisible reality that makes itself known internally through felt or sensed impulses and which this series manages to show externally. But you’re also bringing up something else. Is she a woman who, on an unconscious level, is breaking out of a cage imposed on her by a childhood trauma, actually inviting its break down by letting the strand of blonde hair take her into a maelstrom of self-doubt that propels her into a new, strengthened identity? It sure brings up that viewpoint.

I went in a slightly different direction thinking about how the series challenges cultural perceptions of how helping and caring puts someone, especially a woman, in conflict and danger. These are not qualities that are viewed as strengths but as signs of weakness. A helping person in our society – teachers, nurses, service providers of all sorts – are not seen or rewarded as the top but bottom, lesser types. Often the feminine bears a stigma of lesser and being feminine seen as vulnerable to harm by others.

 Yes, the idea of not taking care of ourselves in lieu of caring for others.

 Like in The Silence of the Lambs, when we see a young girl becoming victim to the serial killer when she is merely trying to help a man with a bad arm get a couch into with his van. I think women struggle regularly with that line between their nature to help and becoming vulnerable. By the way, the victim in the movie was rescued by a woman who, like you’re talking about, relied on her inner feminine core for strength, kept her wits about her in the most threatening of situations and prevailed.

 And what I love in the series, is how at the end, after Gemma does go through this intensely personal journey, she comes to find that perfect boundary for herself. And even though she’s revealed many tempestuous emotions and behaviors to her own son throughout this process, they emerge together on new ground where he can view her as a strong woman with a solid vocation, and respect her for such.

 I’d like to interpret her son as a symbolic image of her fledgling animus figure, a projection withdrawn from his father and brought inward where it belongs. Her son seeing her as a doctor rather than an irrational, bleeding heart mom, is a new start for them both.

 Yes, and I got the feeling that she is strong now, that there is no longer a need to punish other people for what her husband did, or herself for how she ignored her inner knowledge for so long. She is choosing the type of woman she wants to be going forward, as painful as the process has been to bring her there. I am reminded of a scene earlier in the series when Gemma visits her male neighbor with whom she had a retaliatory affair and blackmailed in order to get information on her husband’s money and business affairs. This man’s wife confronts Gemma in the kitchen and basically tells her that she’s been aware of her husband’s many affairs and doesn’t care. Gemma realizes that she can’t use people, or act out, or strategize anymore. She simply has to choose to be the woman she needs to be in order to go on. In my mind, this was an empowering moment, the turning point that led her to that final moment alone with her son, helping that stranger on the street. It showed me that she finally knew she would have to boldly choose where she would end up standing with or without personal redemption from her husband’s betrayal. She didn’t want to turn into that neighbor’s wife, resigned to understanding.

 Wow again. I didn’t really think about her seeking personal redemption by taking revenge for the pain her husband caused by causing others pain but there’s a line of connection there. The suggestions of deep inner conflicts and dynamics create a powerful dramatization about an internal transformation that a woman goes through that is complicated, pretty dark and honest. She doesn’t think, oh, I want to go through these changes because I want to be more authentic and whole.

 It was messy and ugly.

 Yep, not elegant. Many people use the metaphor of the butterfly as a symbol of beautiful, winged transformation that gives a woman a new identity for times of change, but if you actually watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly it is pretty gross. It spurts blood all over the place breaking free from the cocoon, an almost violent birth. That is what makes the show special for me, portraying that goals and achievements are important to a woman but they’re not her whole story of accomplishment. A career can be steadying but also challenging on her path toward becoming a whole person. A woman, regardless of how sturdy she is in her work, can be disrupted by a betrayal of trust in her personal life. What Gemma brings to the surface is the importance of staying on one’s own side, not turning against oneself for loving, helping and nurturing when love turns sour.

 That’s what I really liked about this show also. We talk about transformation and today, in our self-help world, everyone’s all about the “secret”, the fascinating belief that what you pay attention to will happen. You can make a choice about what you want in life and practice saying your affirmations to make it happen. You can just walk into a new world! But, really, it is not like that. Transformation requires dipping your feet into the shadow. That’s something I can say for sure.

 Yes, I believe there are times when we grapple with the same line Gemma finds. Interesting, by the way, the blond hair can be seen as a symbol for the line Gemma both follows and crosses. The series shows us, in harrowing detail, how an accomplished mature woman is susceptible to terror when her world threatens to fall apart. Keeping oneself together in the outside world requires an internal split or a series of transformations that lead to an organic connection with one’s deepest sense of self. Getting to a place of choice carries a very real feeling for me.

 For me, it brought up the idea that if one thing can throw your life into such vehement doubt, can wrack you to the point of downward spiraling, that there is always something deeply unconscious that you have been ignoring.

 I think we could say that Gemma, as a woman holding eons of the patriarchal devaluing of women inside without being fully aware and beginning to change, is one of many images of changing women coming into view. Her story has its feet in the myth of Medea. Medea was a “helper maiden” archetype, a woman who, out of love, helps her man on a hero’s quest, only to discover that her esteemed role helping her man realize his full potential is completely toppled by his leaving her. When Jason rose to the top of a hill Medea helped him climb, he betrays her for another hill, another woman! On an unconscious level, Gemma was seeking ways to prove she was special and in control. If we’re on the right track, her loss was a win. She went with a man who caused a jealousy that took her into a fiery hell of emotion, drove her to do things she would never imagine doing and led to a tumultuous transformation. The series of Doctor Foster with Gemma as protagonist creates a new ending of self-affirmation for an old myth. Medea killed her sons and herself rather than let the power of patriarchy raise them and possess their futures. Gemma kept her son to raise herself, released his father to bear his own consequences and claimed her own future.

 Yes, jealousy obliterates her carefully composed coolness. But she does not become Sharon Stone with an ice pick. She goes into the fire and finds a hidden strength.

 It’s a reality of mistakes on the road to awakening I could relate to. Luckily, she came out knowing herself better. I think Doctor Foster is part of a changing view of women and I like that.

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