The Martyrdom of Angelina Jolie

Note: This column was written while breastfeeding.

Catching a glimpse of a Facebook discussion this weekend, I noticed that Sharon Smith had written a piece entitled, “Why CounterPunch Owes Women an Apology” in the online weekly SocialistWorker.org regarding Ruth Fowler’s 14 May CounterPunch piece, “Angelina Jolie Under the Knife: Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits”  It was clear from the Facebook discussion that some members of Smith’s Facebook friends and Smith herself took offense at the word “tits.”  Then the focus of ire shifted to the assumption that the editors changed the title from Fowler’s original article which does not even mention the word “tits” (“One can almost hear them howling with laughter at their own perceived cleverness”). Once it was established that the editors did not change the article’s title and that the title was that of Fowler’s creation, the criticism was then directed at CounterPunch Managing Editor Joshua Frank for not having edited out the word ‘tits’ in the title.  The word ‘sexist’ was thrown around quite a bit and by the end of the Facebook thread, I was hooked.

I recalled reading Fowler’s piece with total agreement as this article highlights the way in which celebrity such as Jolie seems to be performing the benefit of ‘public service’ while in truth these enunciations tend to be condescending and hurtful to many.  And for those who really sit down and think about the consequences of such an ‘announcement’ by a celebrity, as Fowler clearly did, this seemingly generous and confessional act is not one that will help other women and men with cancer deal with their illness–to the contrary:  it merely dangles a carrot at millions whose reach falls short financially.  So, I read Sharon Smith’s article and in turn I reread Fowler’s piece.

To be fair, I found Fowler’s piece quite tame for I would have been far harsher.   Jolie–someone who has bought a child from Ethiopia while paradoxically representing UNICEF an organization with which I have had dealings in their cover-up of child trafficking in Haiti– behaves as if the rest of the world really cares about her life to include her medical traumas and misinformation strangely pimped out to us by the The New York Times. And certainly while I would not dispute the existence of readers of People and Hello magazines who take every minute detail of Jolie’s life with incredible weight in their lives, those who actually face imminent mortality haven’t the time for such publications.  Even in the United States where we assume healthcare to be accessible to those with policy coverage, women and men who suffer with cancer must still spend weeks or months looking for the best specialist under their healthcare plan (if they even have one), with few options left to them they then end up googling and reading up on comparative strategies for dealing with their condition, and finally they must spend hundreds of hours in waiting rooms, doctor’s surgeries and hospitals hoping to survive the ravaging of their bodies and personal existences. And let us not even dare mention those who have no healthcare coverage and are at the mercy of systemic leftovers.

Indeed, when Fowler questions what Jolie has done to deserve praise, she is spot on to point out that cancer is in the vernacular of most everyone in the United States.  Simply put, Jolie brought critique on herself by mentioning that she wanted to “bring awareness” to breast cancer without acknowledging her privilege whilst elaborating a choice she made that most people could never afford.

However there is an poignant issue of sexism which Smith elides and which certainly is not to be found within Fowler’s piece.  Sexism is rife within Jolie’s op-ed piece as she equates “femininity” to womanhood.  Since when is being a woman about “femininity”?  As if women who cannot have reconstructive surgery are somehow less women? Clearly, if anyone made this matter about “tits,” it was Jolie who in her own words equates womanhood with femininity with the ability to recuperate the “lost breasts” through a reconstruction to which so many women can never have access for purely financial and/or somatic reasons.  It seems that Smith missed this glaringly obvious point in her misplaced rage over sexism.

In the Facebook discussion as in Smith’s article there seems to be some cultural sensitivity about the word “tit.”  Could it be because Fowler hails from the UK where the word “tit” is not a “dirty word” and where this word occupies various expressions aside from this literal reference to the body?  I recall when I first moved to London hearing a friend mentioning his business going “tits-up” and in response I burst out laughing in admiration of this wonderfully poetic phrase.  Of course, the fact that my friend’s business went under was of no laughing matter to him but he still chose to use an expression that expressed what he meant.  I also still giggle whenever I hear mention of the tube station, Cockfosters.  I come from a prudish country and this is the cultural baggage I brought with me from the USA. Might Smith’s aversion to the word “tit” also originate in a very base reading of the word?   Moreover, while I am aware of sexism in the world today having seen and experienced it in my own life, I do not think that the word “tit” in the title is inappropriate given that Jolie puts gift wrapping and a bow on her experience by discussing the reconstruction of her breasts.   This begs the question, of course, that in a piece addressing breast surgery and reconstruction, how is one to avoid the word “breast,” or any number of it’s synonyms?

In wanting to ensure that CounterPunch allows for other corporeal turns of phrase in its publication I conducted a search of its past articles.  Just for the record, there are plenty of CounterPunch titles with “dick,” “penis,” and “cock” in them, just in case Smith might be interested in developing further her accusations of sexism.   Here are a few of the titles:

“What I Learned About Being a Dickhead”

“Dick the System”

“Penis Envy”

“Penis Politics”

“Cock Chuggers and Cheese Curls”

“Facebook Cock Up” (ironically written by Michael Dickinson)

But let us return to the “tit” and an article written about a cultural icon who exposes her breasts in an ostensible goodwill gesture to our clueless collectivity.  Smith claims that Fowler misses the point that since Jolie’s op-ed piece was published that “the Internet has been abuzz with debate and discussion about this important subject, demonstrating that Jolie has indeed opened a much-needed conversation.”  Oh, I have read these conversations online and open up discussion it has, such as the various conjectures regarding Jolie’s medical  history (“I have not read Jolie’s entire medical history so I don’t know if she’s had not-A-OK mammograms…”) to those who reject claims of self-promotion (“Dude Angelina doesn’t have to “promote” herself”) to some attempting to figure in Jennifer Aniston (“She wanted the majority of women who are still pissed about Aniston to praise her for another reason.”)   This mediatic event has turned every person into Angelina’s BFF  and/or a medical expert with some calling for “biopies.” With such medical “expertise” chiming in on Salon.com and CNN.com message boards why not dismiss our own medical institutions and simply let us all diagnose each other while watching heavy doses of Gray’s Anatomy as we collectively melt into one mass of cyberchondria?  The hard questions about cancer need to be asked and Fowler unveiled Jolie’s performance of martyrdom for the masses because of what it fails to undertake and for the very privilege that it evidences.

What is it about Jolie’s op-ed that necessitates that we speak about cancer at all?  If it is stardom then we have had slews of celebrities in the past twenty years who have struggled with cancer from Audrey Hepburn to Farrah Fawcett.  Perhaps appendiceal and anal cancers are not as appealing to the public?  Regardless, what Jolie’s op-ed piece does signal is the need to question our ethos as a society if indeed our only motivation to speak about cancer is spurred when a Hollywood star tells us to, or when we discover that we have joined the ranks of millions of cancer patients.  For the real problem here is not Fowler’s mention of the word “tit”, but rather it is our inability as a society to embrace the reality of this and other body parts which remain categorically unprotected in a country whose class system decides who can and who cannot have proper screening, treatment and “preservation” of their femininity.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com
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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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