A rich, powerful celebrity renowned for bad action movies, sex appeal and humanitarian missions in predominantly brown and black developing countries, writes an Op-Ed which reads like a press release in The New York Times. This Op-Ed, written in the first person, informs the public that said celebrity has had a preventive mastectomy in an exclusive, private clinic based upon the results of an expensive genetic screening test. The reason she is writing this press release aka Op-Ed is to “raise awareness” – of breast cancer, of genetic screening tests which can detect your chances of getting breast and ovarian cancer, and of mastectomy.
The world, already sycophantic in its adoration of said celebrity who can do no wrong because of her looks, her hot husband, her high-profile movies, her brood of adopted children from various developing countries, and her “charity work” as a UN ambassador – like Nicholas Kristof, she will often be photographed surrounded by brown and black children gazing at her in a staged position of worship – falls gaga over this astounding news. Because of Angelina Jolie, we are told, women will no longer feel “ashamed” and “disgusted” by their bodies if they have to undergo mastectomies. Angelina Jolie has “normalized” this procedure. Angelina Jolie is brave and courageous to have come forward. Angelina Jolie has empowered other women to make this incredible and amazing decision.
Angelina Jolie’s doctor at the exclusive clinic she attended and mentioned by name in The NYT (now laughing all the way to the bank) writes about her incredible spirit and energy post-op. With tubes still dangling out of her body, Angelina was working on her next film project just days after the op! We are given the impression that Angelina is extraordinary, some kind of super woman. Perhaps a lesser human would have been lying in bed, reveling pathetically in her painful recovery, indulging in disgraceful self-pity – but not Angelina! It is subtly implied that regular women are simply not intelligent enough to have known about these screening tests, that their lack of courage, their fear, their vanity, has thus far been an impediment to them taking the courageous and valiant option – a screening test, and depending on the results, mastectomy. Only superwoman Angelina is brave enough to pay $3,000 to find out if she has inherited the cancer genes of her mother, and then excise them.
But now, thanks to Angelina’s bold and breathtaking honesty, normal, domesticated, ignorant women without Angelina’s resources of spiritual strength and tremendous bravery can find the courage to take the expensive genetic screening tests available at a cost, and submit without a whimper to the removal of their breasts, and their replacement with elaborately reconstructed surgery. Thanks to Angelina, women now have a glimmer of hope. It is not explicitly stated, but we get the impression Angelina might get a Nobel Peace Prize for writing about this act of selflessness. Fuck Barbara Ehrenreich. Cancer sufferers are old news. They should have gotten those screening tests! We must pretend, for the moment, that the 90% of women whose breast cancer is not due to a detectible ‘faulty’ gene can still benefit from Angelina’s story.
This is why Angelina deserves a press release in The New York Times, when lesser women do not.
This is the narrative that Angelina Jolie fed to the world with a poorly researched and poorly written press release posing as an Op-Ed. This is the narrative that the world was only too eager to perpetuate and propound. This is the narrative that, as a woman with a vested interest in this story – I, too, am a possessor of a pair of tits and a pair of ovaries – I took issue with as not only factually incorrect, but disgustingly offensive.
I entitled my article ‘Angelina Jolie: On Privilege, Tits and Being Dumb’, which I believe comprises the main essence of Angelina’s Op-Ed. If the word “tits” makes you squeamish, that’s your problem, not mine. If you’re a woman, you have tits. If you’re a man, you may have them too, in which case a trip to the gym might be in order. Privilege is certainly something which Angelina Jolie reeked of in this article – unconscious privilege, phrases such as “my doctors” and “my choice” and “empowering other women” indicating to me that Angelina simply had no idea that what she was writing about was not some huge act of self sacrifice to inspire lesser women in her wake, but was, simply a sensible decision – as well as being an extremely privileged, elite medical procedure which is unavailable to the vast majority of women in the United States, and in the world. Unless you are from one of the few countries in this world which have a decent healthcare system, you may never, ever have the option to access the kinds of procedures Angelina seems to think are not being sufficiently utilized because of general ignorance. And this is why I called Angelina ‘dumb’. A woman who has built a reputation on charity work and humanitarian missions does not get a free pass to waste an article published in an internationally read newspaper with a self-serving account of her own health problems without adequately comprehending their place in the wider world. A woman who has built a reputation on charity work and humanitarian missions and has the power to demand a NYT Op-Ed in lieu of a press release has an absolute, undeniable responsibility to use that space as best as possible to acknowledge both her own privilege, and the flaws in the US healthcare system, including the ability of corporations to patent human genes.
A woman who was not “dumb”, a woman who acknowledged both her own privilege and the flaws in the US healthcare system, would have made an important impact on the public consciousness – an impact which was greater than the sycophantic ‘Wow, isn’t she brave’. A woman who was not “dumb” might even have done a little more research and found out, for example, that the genetic screening test she enthusiastically credits with saving her life and suggests other women utilize, is hugely expensive and hence, available only to the economic elite, because a company called Myriad Genetics has patented the mutated BRAC1 and 2 gene which are responsible for causing one type of breast and ovarian cancer. Last year the company earned $500 million, with about 85% of their revenue coming from breast cancer screening tests. This company is being challenged by the ACLU for their deliberate use of this patent to drive up costs for screening tests, and render the mutated gene unavailable to cancer researchers, doctors and scientists searching for a cure.
Myriad Genetic’s patent makes them responsible for the deaths of millions of women worldwide. No, this is not Angelina’s fault, but I am angry both with Angelina for her blithe ignorance of this despite being allowed a major international news outlet to use as a platform, and I am angry with the media for allowing her this platform without sufficient preparation, and then feeding into the inane cult of celebrity for applauding Angelina for doing absolutely nothing brave except prolong her own life for as long as possible. That’s not bravery. That is simply good sense. Both you and I would do exactly the same thing. Bravery is putting one’s life at risk to save someone else. Bravery is speaking truth to power. Bravery is many things, but it is not, to my mind, opting for immediate discomfort with a painful operation performed by an expensive expert, over a protracted and painful death. That is called pragmatism. Whether one submits to the path of immediate discomfort with anger, with despair, with stoicism, or with quiet acceptance, none of these emotions are more or less “brave” than the other, and should not be lauded as such.
Let me be absolutely clear: if I was in Angelina’s position, I would probably have made the same decision. At the age of 34 and a freelancer, I am finally in a financial position to purchase health insurance for the first time in my seven years in America. I would be one of the few women in the US who is privileged enough to have healthcare should I have cancer (though I would not, I believe, be eligible to have Myriad’s genetic screening tests on my insurance). I believe Angelina, given all the information available to her, made the wisest decision. However, I do not respect and admire women who get regular pap smear tests, breast examinations and mammograms, or submit to expensive screening tests. There is nothing ‘admirable’ about this. It is simply sensible behavior. I grieve for those women who do not take preventive care of their health because they are denied access to education and healthcare. I certainly don’t ‘admire’ those of us who are in the privileged position of finding preventive care easy and accessible.
There are many, many women across the world campaigning for breast cancer awareness and advocating for more funds to be channeled into research for prevention and cures. The difference between them and Angelina, is that Angelina chose to write about her condition in the New York Times for the specific (ostensible) purpose of “raising awareness”. The act of “raising awareness” in itself is disturbing. It means nothing. It’s a vacuous phrase which replaces action and intent. “I’m not doing anything, but I’m talking about something, and that’s ‘raising awareness’.” No, I’m afraid that’s bullshit.
Action raises awareness, pundits just like the sound of their own voice. It is the conceit of Angelina’s attempt to “raise awareness” and its ultimate failure that I find both distressing, disturbing and infuriating. My issue is not, and has never been, with Angelina Jolie’s tits. My issue is with her privilege, her failure to see beyond her own tits, and her stupidity – what I call her “dumbness” – in failing to research and acknowledge the issues surrounding healthcare in this country, women’s healthcare in this country, and the specific controversies surrounding treatments she seems to think are available to all besides a contemptible minority, who, unlike the brown people draped around her in staged photo opportunities in developing countries, are not worthy of either her money or her time.
I’ve been around for a while, and I’m pretty used to the amount of “outrage” I provoke from furious people who are personally affronted that a woman can not only have an opinion, a forceful, sometimes profane and blunt way of expressing that opinion, but can do so without apology. Despite various “demands” from furious Angelina fans (or “sad starfuckers” as I prefer to call them) and paternalistic idiots like Sharon whatsit in The Socialist Worker who demands that CounterPunch apologize “to all women” for my views (hello? You’re asking MALE EDITORS to apologize to “all women” for the views of a FEMALE WRITER? Am I not a woman? Does my use of the word “tits” really offend you so much that you need to resort to paternalism?). Despite all these demands for apologies, despite reams of hate mail on my website and twitter informing me that I’m a disgraceful human being that deserves to die, despite all this – I’m not going to apologize. I’m not going to betray all the people who agree with me that Angelina Jolie had no right to waste the space allotted her in an international newspaper to “raise awareness” of the issues surrounding screening tests, genetic patenting, preventive treatments and breast cancer, only to talk about herself.
The only awareness I’ve raised is that Angelina Jolie is not particularly bright, and not particularly concerned with anyone or anything that doesn’t feed into the myth of St. Jolie. And that while women continue to die, she and other people consider a personal story about her tits and her suffering more important than the brutal reality of healthcare and economics.
Ruth Fowler is a journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Girl Undressed. She can be followed on Twitter at @fowlerruth.