women’s bodies as public property (on Angelina Jolie’s medical care)
I woke up to the news this morning that Angelina Jolie had announced that she’d undergone a preventative double mastectomy. And the first thing I thought was, Well, isn’t this interesting…
I’m speaking pop-culturally, that is, separate from Jolie’s experience as a person of what must have been a difficult decision. I’m sorry anyone ever has to face invasive medical procedures or cope with devastating illnesses, and I would never say that that sort of hell is “interesting.” And I don’t think it’s my place to speak about Jolie’s decision on a personal level. I don’t know her, and even if I did, who am I to second-guess her? Who would I be to second-guess a friend or even an acquaintance publicly? Or even privately? It’s her body. She’s not stupid. I’m sure she made what she thought was the best decision for herself. And even if she didn’t… what’s that to me?
No, what’s interesting is all the stuff inherent in this story that revolves around celebrity, women’s body issues, women’s health and health care as these things all exist as public phenomena.
Jolie made her announcement via an op-ed in The New York Times. Astonishingly, she reveals that:
On April 27, I finished the three months of medical procedures that the mastectomies involved. During that time I have been able to keep this private and to carry on with my work.
That there was no leak of the news that one of the world’s most famous people was shuttling in and out of a hospital for ongoing major medical treatment is amazing. Heartening, for sure — maybe not everyone is awful and out for the quick payday a phone call to a gossip rag or Web site could have garnered — but still amazing.
The flip side of that is that there’s probably no way that this could have remained secret forever, so revealing the news herself gives Jolie a measure of control that celebs do not always have when it comes to their personal lives. Though this could be a case of damned-if-she-did, damned-if-she-didn’t, too: Jolie didn’t get her news out in, say, a press release or in a softball interview in People; she published an op-ed in the U.S. paper of record, and you can bet there are going to be people who will accuse of her becoming her own humanitarian cause, of politicizing something that should be private. (Never mind that there was no way she was going to keep this private.)
Except… this is a political issue. Not Jolie’s health per se, but every woman’s health — every person’s health, for that matter — in the United States and elsewhere. Jolie writes:
Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 [the gene that put Jolie at extremely high risk of developing early breast cancer, which killed her mother at age 56], at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.
Jolie is perfectly well aware that the level of care she had — which she details in her op-ed, including her reconstructive surgery that cannot have come cheap even as high-end medical care goes — is not something that will be available to most women anywhere, and certainly not in the U.S., where even people with “good” health insurance have to fight battles to get the care they need.
(And then there’s the matter of environmental issues that are the likely cause of many cancers today. Jolie doesn’t go into this; it’s tangential to her own personal cancer concerns, which arise from genetic issues that cause relatively few breast cancers. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that they should be ignored, either.)
Most “interestingly,” though, is this small note in Jolie’s op-ed:
On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.
Of course she’s no less of a woman! There’s so many reasons why it’s sad that this needed to be said. A woman is not a collection of body parts that becomes less womanly if those parts are damaged or removed… except that is how women are treated in our culture. Our bodies are not considered our own: They belong to men in the street, who think it reasonable to comment out loud to our faces regarding whether our bodies meet their standards of attractiveness or not. They belong to magazine editors, who consider it acceptable to Photoshop them until they reflect an “ideal” that is often physically impossible to achieve. They belong to filmmakers, who consider it necessary to have women parade around onscreen completely naked for the approval and amusement of the audience.
And now Angelina Jolie’s body will come under all new public scrutiny. She has, after all, been deemed
the world’s “most beautiful” or “sexiest” woman by various media outlets, including Vogue in 2002, Esquire in 2004, American FHM and British Harper’s Bazaar in 2005, People and Hello! in 2006, Empire in 2007, and Vanity Fair in 2009.
Now, mark my words, we will see all new photo spreads — some, perhaps most, created without any participation by Jolie — setting out to determine whether she’s still beautiful and sexy. The usual red-carpet crap of analyzing whether famous actresses are dressed “appropriately” for their own bodies will now feature the extra element of debating how Jolie’s surgery has impacted her figure. When it is unanimously decided that yes, Jolie is still beautiful and still sexy, the idea that a woman’s body is public property will only have been reinforced.
Women’s bodies are public, too, because women’s health care is considered a matter for public debate, at least in the U.S. And that’s already happening in this case, too, if some of the comments I’m seeing around the Web are any guide. People who don’t know Jolie consider it their right to opine on whether she made the right decision about her own body.
There’s a reason why she titled her op-ed “My Medical Choice.” She knew the shitstorm that was coming.
I’d really rather talk about whatever new movie she’s got in the pipeline that what goes on between her and her doctor.
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