In publicly discussing her double mastectomy, the actor has challenged the celebrity industry to rethink its bizarre values – and she has done all women a huge service
Of course, Angelina Jolie is not the first actress to have had a mastectomy, that most medical of terms referring to the removal of at least one of the anatomical attributes that actresses are expected to hoik up for the sake of their career. In fact, off the top of my head, I can name four: Christina Applegate, Olivia Newton John, Lynn Redgrave and Kathy Bates have all publicly discussed their mastectomies.
Nor is she the first to have a preventive double mastectomy: Sharon Osbourne (not an actress but very much a woman in the public eye) announced only last year that she had one after discovering, as she told Hello! magazine, that she had “the breast-cancer gene”.
Yet while Jolie may not be the first, she has done something that is – by any standards – pretty extraordinary and brave, even on top of having a preventive double mastectomy. She is certainly the highest-profile woman to make such an announcement in a long time, and she is arguably one with the most at stake. For a young, beautiful actress to announce that she has had her breasts removed is, as career moves go, somewhat akin to a handsome leading man announcing he is gay, and that is disgusting and ridiculous on both counts. Ultimately, she has challenged not just her own public image but also the wearisome cliche of what makes a woman sexy, and how a woman considered to be sexy talks about her body.
Judging from her clear, calm and plain-speaking article in the New York Times discussing why she elected to undergo a double mastectomy, Jolie views publicising her decision as simply a matter of public service:
“I chose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know they have strong options,” she writes, while acknowledging the issues of financial access that prevent too many women from getting tested and treated.
Jolie is by now surely used to having certain parts of her body scrutinised by the media – more than most other female celebrities, in fact, and that is truly saying something. Her body shape is often watched for signs of an incipient eating disorder. Her leg got its own Twitter feed after the 2012 Academy Awards. The most personal elements of her life have long been part of the pop-cultural discourse, from her troubled relationship with her difficult father, to her children, to her marriages, to the eternal hoo-hah over the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie triangle that, one suspects, has fascinated the tabloids far longer than it has the participants.
Yet Jolie herself has always maintained the kind of personal privacy that now only the most A-list of actresses can afford. She rarely gives interviews and she doesn’t pose next to naked on the cover of men’s magazines. Even as Lara Croft, her most obviously sexy role, she generally wore a bodysuit as opposed to a bikini. For a woman who has routinely won in those most crucial of elections – the Sexiest Woman in the World – Jolie has, really, never shown much interest in sharing herself or her body with the public. This makes her decision to do so now in the most personal of ways more powerful, but also, to a certain degree, more understandable.
For almost a decade now, she has been very determinedly trying to move away from the kind of sexualised films that made her famous, such as Tomb Raider and the eminently forgettable Original Sin with Antonio Banderas, in favour of movies such as A Mighty Heart and Changeling, in which she played, respectively, a grief-struck widow and a grief-struck mother, arguably at the cost of her career. For all her much-vaunted sexiness, Jolie has not relied on her body for acting roles for a long time (and at times, it has looked like she wasn’t even that interested in acting, full stop, preferring instead to focus on her UN work and motherhood). As such, for her then to announce how she has altered it is not quite as potentially career-altering for her as it would be for those who have been led to believe that their breasts are the only currency they have to offer.
Jolie ends her New York Times article discussing the “challenges” of life, but this is a rare instance of her opting for euphemisms. In earlier paragraphs, with the kind of forthrightness one rarely sees from any member of the entertainment industry, she proffers descriptions of her “nipple delay”, the removal of her breast tissue, temporary fillers, expanders, tubes, blood, scarring and bruising. “I do not feel any less of a woman,” she writes. “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
That breasts do not exist just to turn on other people will not come as a surprise to any sentient adult human being. Nor, it should go without saying but sadly does not, do breasts make the woman. But brutal, mature reality does not generally have much of a place in the fantasy land where the myths of celebrities and public perception intermix. In fact, in this fantasy land of celebrity puffery and tabloid nonsense, Angelina Jolie was, only 24 hours ago, still, in the eyes of the media, the sex-crazed, blood-drinking, man-stealing seductress (albeit one with six children) that she has been pretty much since she came to the public eye decades ago. Only last weekend I read an article – and I’m using that term in the loosest sense – claiming that Jolie was so adamant to have her wedding before Jennifer Aniston’s that she and Brad Pitt had already booked a “romantic getaway honeymoon” for themselves. Now we know that, contrary to looking up “sexxxxxy hotels” on the internet while having mind-blowing sexy sex, Pitt and Jolie have actually been otherwise engaged at the Pink Lotus Breast Center, while Jolie was being treated for her double mastectomy. Rarely has the disjunct between celebrity gossip rubbish and the actual truth looked so ridiculously exposed.
Earlier this week, Bret Easton Ellis also wrote a powerful, albeit very different, piece in Out magazine about how gay figures in the public eye are expected to be saintly: “Being ‘real’ and ‘human’ (ie flawed) is not necessarily what The Gay Gatekeepers want straight culture to see,” he wrote.
One could make a similar argument about how beautiful young women are presented in the press: they are expected to be perfectly proportioned, always photogenic and with all conventionally sexy attributes in their proper place. But part of being a “real” and “human” woman is facing the possibility of breast cancer and dealing with it accordingly.
Not long ago, discussions of mastectomies at all were taboo (it was – and let us all pay our respects here – Betty Ford who started the fightback against this when she discussed hers openly in 1974). But the truth is that Jolie – and Applegate, Redgrave, and the rest of the public few – are merely the tip of a pragmatic iceberg as there are plenty of other high-profile women – women whose “bikini bodies” are probably being discussed in celebrity magazines today – who have endured similar operations. But they have decided – for the sake of their careers, for the sake of their mental wellbeing – to keep the fact hidden from the press.
And, really, who can blame them? What woman would want to be asked about their mastectomy in every interview they give for their rest of their lives? What woman could endure knowing that every time they are photographed – on a red carpet, in a film, papped on a beach – that strangers around the world are scrutinising their body to see whether and how much their chest has changed? A mastectomy involves more than enough pain – both emotional and physical – without even beginning to think about the prurient and ghoulish interest of millions.
When it comes to celebrities, cynicism is generally the instinctive response. But for Jolie to take all that on, at no benefit to her but simply to draw attention to the illness and ways it can be prevented and treated, should only be applauded. For the celebrity world to begin to grow up and treat its women as adults as opposed to sex objects is still the hope. And for the cost of testing and treatment to get more funding worldwide, thus allowing more women’s lives to be saved, is still the ideal.