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Popular culture, and celebrity, have come to this. A well-endowed personality, a figure of celluloid appeal, has to justify to the other-worldliness of an action personal and specific to the person in question. That a woman has to have a mastectomy brings with it pains within and without – not merely the challenges to her body but her family and friendship circle. In the case of celebrity, that procedure assumes the form of confession – after all, the circle in that case is the vaguely defined public.
For Angelina Jolie, a conflict between medical necessity and career comes into play. A personal decision, and one that is costly in various ways, becomes a public platform, a soapbox of encouragement for individuals who, in all truth, do not have the power, let alone the means, to make those decisions. One has to laud Jolie’s decision to have a mastectomy as one would any woman who has to make choices that affect not merely her own life but the lives of others.
The superficial nature of acting, being itself mimetic, demands superficial responses. So, while Jolie cuts her changes of having cancer from 87 percent to under 5 percent, she, goes the speculation, might also be cutting her chances of being perceived as beautiful and appealing. “RIP Angelina’s boobs” is a crass but typical statement of the spectatorship of celebrity. The implication here is how her marketability has been affected.
Often celebrity is seen as a set of variables and pieces of the popular imagination. It comes with its full set of equipment – Marilyn Monroe’s vacuum-styled lips, Greta Garbo’s glacially beautiful face. Tamper with these and one tampers with appeal. Think Jolie, think Lara Croft with weapons holster and, yes, breasts. The sense that she might actually be flesh and blood is simply beside the point – her career choice, as it were, was to mimic life rather than live it.
Actors and actresses pay that ultimate price – they are the sounding boards of life, though some scholars looking at the celebrity phenomenon find celebrity as a space of realisation, the vicarious playground for others. Celebrity is “us”, claims Anne Helen Petersen, who attempts to make celebrity gazing scholarly. “What we talk about when we talk about celebrities is, as ever, ourselves.” One would certainly hope not.
Commentators have rounded up on that cost, not in monetary terms, but aesthetic ones. “Some suggested that her medical emergency was just a tabloid ruse to cover up elective breast implants,” observed Amanda Hess in Slate (May 14). The snark factory had started to churn – she had received a “boob job”; she would never be watched again sans breasts. Among the trolls, Jolie was merely consumable. But the sad reality is that the moment one stands in front of screen and script, one becomes consumable. This is an unpalatable phenomenon, but hard to dispel. Celebrity is its own worst distortion.
Perceiving that to be the case, Jolie’s New York Times confession piece, with the title “My Medical Choice,” asserts that, “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.” She does also admit that breast reconstruction can take place, “and the results can be beautiful.” The point of deprivation, it would seem, is reversible with a full and capacious wallet.
Let us speed to the crunch then, something far more fundamental than the actress as commodity. “For any woman reading this, I hope it helps you know you have options.” We know immediately that the pitch is to a very different audience, one able to “shop” for options, search for the finest procedures, and find the best solutions to prolong life. If you have medical insurance, you will be saved. “I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices.”
Jolie is not ignorant about cost, even if cost for her was not an object. “The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.” What she fails to mention, as Jillian Berman points out in The Huffington Post (May 14) is that a Salt Lake City based biotech company by the name of Myriad Genetics holds patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Little surprise that the same company produces a product – BRACAnalysis – that tests for mutation in those genes that increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Certainly, everyone wants a piece of Jolie (no pun intended). Maureen O’Connor, writing in New York Magazine (May 14), see this as an act of responsibility. Her New York TImes article had to be celebrated. “When the world’s most famous actress advocates for preventive women’s medicine, the message goes too far.” She has also transformed herself “from enfant terrible to responsible mommy.” (She can reassure her children that she will not be lost to breast cancer) Then, the clinching rationale for O’Connor – “former Lara Croft, Tomb Raider refuses to equate breasts with femininity.” The very mention of busty Lara Croft, that the figure should hold sway with O’Connor as a remotely meaningful motif, is itself revealing. Being feminine and being a celebrity are hardly the same thing, even if there is an artificial convergence.
The sum of these parts is simple. No one should decry Jolie her choices. She made them with family and life in mind. You might even say that she did what she had to do. They were “informed” in so far as she had the medical means to obtain that information. But most importantly, she did have those choices. The challenges that should not scare us, claims Jolie, “are the ones we can take on and take control of.” Many simply do not have those means, and any audience receiving her wisdom should realise that it comes with a heavy bank balance, medical insurance and Brad Pitt by your side.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org