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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

women’s bodies as public property (on Angelina Jolie’s medical care)

Angelina JolieI 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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  • singlestick

    Celebrities are different. And not all celebrities are created equal. Actress Christina Applegate had a double mastectomy because of similar medical considerations that influenced Ms Jolie, but did not generate nearly the same amount of publicity, let alone an op-ed piece in the New York Times. But with Angelina Jolie, it is much as if Helen of Troy spoke out about the importance of mammograms. And the impact of Ms Jolie’s announcement supposedly spurred the co-anchor of CNN’s show “Early Start,” Zoraida Sambolin, to similarly announce “on her Facebook page Tuesday morning that she’ll be taking time off from the show to have a double mastectomy.”

    Had Brad Pitt made an announcement about getting treatment for colon cancer or prostate cancer, there would be a similar disturbance in the heavens. And, here is Southern California, the talk radio stations were scrambling this morning to get experts who could talk about breast cancer diagnosis and treatment options, and fortunately most of this discussion was accurate, informative, and even touched on the political, social and economic health care ramifications. It took a celebrity, and a woman celebrity of Ms Jolie’s stature to increase, even if for a short term, international awareness about this issue (I first saw something about this story on the BBC news page early this morning).

    I agree with much of what you have written here, and the reductive nonsense about whether Ms Jolie still registers as sexy is disgusting. But this story is not just about women’s bodies as public property. To some degree this is true for the most dazzling celebrities. And this is also why celebrities such as Jolie, Prince Harry, Audrey Hepburn, Betty Ford, and others can often be effective spokespersons for humanitarian causes.

  • If this encourages more women to get regular screenings (as opposed to double mastectomies)… wouldn’t that be a good thing? I understand where you’re coming from, but it can’t be a bad thing if she’s raising awareness about breast cancer.

  • Arthur

    Coming at this from another angle: While the gender issues are infuriating, in another sense this is no different from an NFL player who blew out his knee, ending his career. A large part of an actress’ value in the box office are her physical attributes. Which is why actresses tend to have a short career in Hollywood. We can condemn this, but we can’t ignore this reality, nor should we be surprised.

  • It *is* different. If Jolie had been able to keep this secret and it was guaranteed that no one would blab, it would not have impacted her work as an actress and professional beautiful person. No one would have been the wiser.

    But now we have to deal with the fact that there are idiot loser boys lamenting the loss of her breasts because it impacts *their* enjoyment of her body.

    Also: a blown-out knee is not life-threatening, and no one is having preventative knee replacements.

  • Did I say that wasn’t a bad thing? Did I say Jolie shouldn’t have said anything at all?

    I didn’t. Of course it’s good to raise awareness. But that’s a political issue, too. Why aren’t women better informed about their bodies? Why don’t they take better care of themselves? As Jolie herself says in her op-ed, not everyone will have access to the screening she got… and if they do have access, not everyone will be able to afford the treatment she’s had should they decide to take that route.

  • As I noted in a comment below, the need for awareness-raising is a political issue, too. Why aren’t women more aware of their own health needs? And if/when they are aware, how do they act on that if they don’t have the same resources Jolie does?

    Apparently the NHS covers the screening Jolie had and the same treatment. Which is fab if true. I imagine most women in the U.S. would have to fight to get such screening and treatment covered even if they have insurance.

  • Isobel_A

    I read about 20 and then had to stop before I lost my temper. Just a load of crud about her using subterfuge to have plastic surgery, and then the anti-‘Western’ medicine brigade, going on about Big Pharma, which is just as bad.

  • I know I’m cynical, and I know my editorial here is cynical, but even I’m appalled at the tone some of the reaction of Jolie’s news is taking. It’s far worse that I was expecting, and I was expecting bad.

  • And more horrors:


    People are so much more awful than I ever imagined.

  • I read some of them, and I had to stop when a comment talking about “mutilating the body is not the way to prevent cancer” and that it was inevitable. Or that other one saying “people are replacing their body parts before they even go bad.”

    This kind of uninformed stupidity astounds me.

  • b.lynch black

    a perfect example of the intersection of cost and difficulty is in this letter To the Editor in today’s NYTimes:

    I admire Angelina Jolie, and think it’s great that she’s encouraging other women to get the test. But let’s not forget that about 50 million people don’t have health insurance, and the BRCA test costs about $3,000. Even those with health insurance have to prove they really, really need to get the test.

    UnitedHealthcare, for instance, requires that patients provide “the patient’s ancestry, personal history and three-generation history of breast and/or ovarian cancer.” Fortunately, I don’t have a history of breast or ovarian cancer in my family. But if I did, I could never prove with documentation that my grandmother, and certainly not her mother, who never left remote mountains in Italy, had cancer.


  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Anecdotally from comments around the internet, it seems that majority of US health care providers will cover the preventative procedure (up to and including reconstruction) for patients who have the genetic markers. The screening, as Ms. Black notes, is sketchier. But, there also seems to be promising work underway that could dramatically reduce the cost of the screening, from a few thousand to a few hundred dollars, or less. Edit: Sorry, I’m confusing issues here. There are some potential new cancer screenings being developed, but not with regards to the BRCA genes, as those tests are under patent to Myriad Genetics at the moment. Until those patents expire, no one else can work on the BRCA genes. And that, of course, is a whole other issue.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Yeah, I hadn’t even thought about that until I saw it. I’m sure Mike Adams is wringing his hands with glee over this story as well.

    ETA: Also, that “Roger Bird” fellow. He’s a winner.

  • singlestick

    For men and women, there is always ignorance, inertia, uncertainty and fear. In the UK, Jane Goody’s illness led to more women getting cervical screenings. Personal example, especially with respect to celebrities and other notable persons, helps tremendously even when health and medical services are available. Along with all the stupid reactions to Angelina Jolie’s illness, there has also been some amazing accurate reporting about risk assessment, when screening should be done, and also (especially in the US) some increased discussion about health insurance.

  • He makes me froth at the mouth. Like following a non-‘Frankenfood’ diet regimen will significantly reduce your chances of getting cancer and chronic illnesses. Some cancer is genetically inherited, but apparently he didn’t get the memo.

  • singlestick

    Great points. One of the many things that I admire about Ms Jolie’s announcement and her op-ed piece is that it pulled the rug out from under the tabloid jackals who likely would have uncovered her health issues and turned it into sensationalistic, scandalous nonsense (which they are trying to do anyway).

    One of the mixed blessing of the old studio system was the way that the movie moguls consistently presented their top stars as being physically and mentally perfect. Herbert Marshall could be a romantic lead, and his fans never knew that he had lost a leg in World War I. On the other hand, Elizabeth Taylor had a long career despite her many illnesses and operations.

    Sadly, not much can be done about the idiot losers who might lose Ms Jolie as an object of their fantasies.

  • AA

    Angelina is just so impressive in any number of ways. Not only that she is a dedicated humanitarian, a talented actress/director/writer, but that she continuously shows herself to be a thoughtful leader. Her path through motherhood is one example of that leadership, this wonderful op-ed piece is yet another.

    And major kudos to her for putting these two lines so clearly:
    “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.
    I am fortunate to have a partner […] who is so loving and supportive.”

    This is what everyone needs to realize about feminism and leadership in general: you AND YOUR TEAM have to make the choice.

  • singlestick

    I think it a bit premature to speculate on whether Ms Jolie’s illness might end her career. Besides, we are talking more about perception and stupidity than anything real. Apparently, Ms Jolie had reconstructive surgery, and until now no one knew about it, or looked at her differently (aside from some dumb jibes about her weight loss, which might have been related to some of her medical issues). And on a practical level, what is the difference in breast implants for medical vs breast implants for purely cosmetic purposes? There is a sad truth to the joke that in a few years, no one will ever have seen a young American actress who has not had work done on her face and breasts.

  • Arthur

    Good responses from both of you. My analogy was slipshod and inexact. I had not intended to make a comment either on her career prospects or her health history. My basic point was that the commidification of physical qualities make changes in those qualities newsworthy. There: that should be abstract enough to cover my posterior. ;-)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    According to Mr. Bird, all it takes to never ever get any form of cancer is “research”. So…. reading cures cancer?

  • David N-T

    To paraphrase Tim Minchin: There is no Western medecine, or Eastern medicine, for that matter. There is only medicine: things that have been proved to work. The rest has either not been shown to work or been shown not to work.

  • David N-T

    “Raising awareness” is one of those empty buzz phrases that’s actually a cover for making a heap of money off of people’s good intentions (cue pink ribbon campaign, Livestrong Nike tote bags, etc.). People are already aware of breast cancer, thank you very much. I mean, do you actually know anyone living in your country that hasn’t heard of breast cancer, mammograms, or mastectomy.The problem isn’t lack of awareness. Fact of the matter is that awareness isn’t going to do a woman any good if she and her family can’t afford the expensive genetic screening tests that Angelina Jolie went through or the top of the line medical procedure that she underwent, to say nothing of the reconstructive surgery. There is a reason that the corporate sector jumped on the awareness campaign, you know: you make a ton of money, you look good in the process, it requires very little effort and you don’t actually have to do anything tangible to actually cure or prevent the disease.



  • Before this I always sort of just considered Angelina Jolie a joke — a pretty girl who makes movies and tries to seem “important”.

    After this week I realize how wrong I was. She’s a brave, intelligent lady; I cannot even begin to imagine the sort of courage it must have taken to make this announcement. Not because of the operation, but because of what the reaction to it will be… she’s never been a private person, and probably not by her own choice, but I never guessed she’d be so willing to emotionally martyr herself like this. It’s inspiring.

  • dwa4

    “Like following a non-‘Frankenfood’ diet regimen will significantly reduce your chances of getting cancer and chronic illnesses.”

    Unless I’m completely missing a sarcastic tone here, perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss such a foundational concept as appropriate dietary choices in cancer and most definitively in chronic illnesses. I would propose that such a blunt and frothy response reinforces the need for educational efforts and understanding regarding what one could less than constructively characterize as “Frankenfoods”

    While I am not adept at linking sites, a fundamental googling of the subject at such reputable sites as the mayo clinic and the American Cancer Society shows that the Mediterranean diet (if you’ve ever seen what a high cholesterol high fat diet actually physically does to the lining of your arteries, you may actually consider it an “anti-frankenfood” diet) “was associated with a reduced risk of overall and cardiovascular mortality, a reduced incidence of cancer and cancer mortality,” (Mayo Clinic site). The Lyon diet heart study published in Circulation 1999(6):779-85 showed a 55% reduction in risk of death and 50-70% reduction in risk of recurrent cardiac event. Dietary changes have also been shown to lower your risk of colon cancer. While the evidence for diet affecting breast cancer seems to be equivicol, it should be noted that only 5-10% is genetically inherited and less than 15% of women with breast cancer have a family history of breast cancer leaving the remaining 20-25%..error..should be 75-80%.. to non genetic tendencies. The impressive stats for importance of dietary management and prevention of chronic diseases could go on indefinitely.

    While I suspect my outlook and presentation of the totality of one’s healthcare differs significantly from Bird’s and may not be directly relatable to AJ’s situation, he does have a point, I think we do ourselves a huge disservice by dismissing and ignoring the primary importance of diet in the context of our health. If I have missed the sarcasm of your comment, in the immortal words of Gilda Radner / Emily Litella, ……..”never mind”. I loved that bit.

  • dwa4

    There often is a rather substantial “equivocal” section between the work / not work ends of the spectrum.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Based on Roger Bird’s Disqus profile, and on reading innumerable posts written be people just like him, Bird is a victim of binary thinking. Cancer treatments either “work” or “do not work”. In his mind, dietary changes “work”, with 100% success, for all cancers. Everything else does not work.
    Serious people understand that diet can have a significant impact in the prevention of certain cancers, and that others are largely unaffected by diet. Such people also understand what is meant by “effective treatment”, what genetic predisposition really means, that cancer is not one but many related diseases, and that the primary cause of cancer is simple age.
    Roger Bird believes that “cancer”, singular, is the result of poor diet. Roger Bird thinks you can prevent or cure all cancer with changes to diet. Roger Bird is not a serious person.

  • dwa4

    You’re probably correct which is why I indicated my views probably differ from his significantly. That still does not mean that the valid portions of his part of the spectrum should be dismissed as….binarily??… Unless, again, I am missing the sarcasm of or meaning behind the referenced post.

  • jackiep

    What’s horrifying is the number of people (mostly male) who believe that because they enjoy looking at her breasts, she had no right to remove them from their gazes without permission. She’s had to make a difficult decision due to a genetic factor, her breasts are her concern, not the concern of onlookers!

  • mortadella

    Wait…was she suffering from an illness? She didn’t have cancer, she had a genetic test confirming that she would most likely get cancer in the future. She was doing the preventive thing.

  • Whats going on with Angelina Jolie these days?face turning so old

  • Danielm80

    And on July 12, 2013, we entered the post-post-ironic age.

  • Post-Post ironic age means?

  • Danielm80

    MaryAnn wrote:

    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

    And now Angelina Jolie’s body will come under all new public scrutiny.

    And you wrote:

    Whats going on with Angelina Jolie these days?face turning so old

    Post-post ironic means that you don’t see anything strange about posting that comment here, in response to MaryAnn’s essay. It means that, in our society, you don’t have to.

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