On Tuesday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece about breast cancer, written by one of the most famous, and famously beautiful women in the world.
If you haven't read the article, I highly recommend that you do. It can be found here.
If you have read the article, try reading it again.
Try reading the article (for the first time or for the second or third time) as if you don't recognize the name of the authour. Try to imagine that it was written by your girlfriend or your mother. Or your sister, your aunt, a coworker.
Chances are when you read it you already had an opinion in your head about who the authour is. I bet some or all of the following words flutter through your head when you hear the name Angelina Jolie...
That's what happens in our celebrity-obsessed culture. We immediately picture a photo or a movie scene of Angelina Jolie, the actress, style icon and movie star. This reaction may have led you to read the article with more sympathy or with more detachment. Maybe both. But would you have read it at all if it been written by someone whose name or face you didn't recognize? If it had been written by some other woman, some other mother, partner, daughter, friend, colleague?
Since the news broke Tuesday morning that one of the most famous women in the world had undergone a double mastectomy to minimize the substantial risk she was in to develop cancer, the disease that had taken her mother a few years ago, I've heard lots of discussion about it. Coworkers reacting with shock, strangers on public transit talking about what they would do if they discovered they had an 87% chance of developing cancer. Many people are praising Jolie for speaking out, but there are some, mostly online who are reacting with great deal of blasé and some with callousness and some with criticism.
The criticism that I've seen is mostly that she is speaking from a place of privilege and that encouraging women to do what she did - give themselves options by being checked for the rare gene she carries that makes her at higher risk of developing cancer - is ignorant since many women in the U.S. cannot afford to pay for this screening or even have access to it. There is relevance to this criticism - it is true she's speaking from a place of great privilege - but she does acknowledge this in her article:
"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, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women."
More awareness means that more people will speak out and that can spark change. Let's hope that it does.
Some have also criticized Jolie for not doing more than just writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times, suggesting that what she has done, opening up about her decision, honestly and bravely, was not enough. That her article has sparked as much discussion as it has is powerful. Like it or not, her status as a celebrity means more people will listen and talk about it than most anyone else. It's so easy to criticize, especially online, where there's a level of anonymity and reaction is easy to deflect.
Others have criticized her in a manner that suggests that her body is not her own to do with as she chooses. That her decision to share her story was narcissistic. This incredibly offensive and ignorant suggestion is understandably partly because she is a public figure and her body belongs to the public, at least on a visual level. Which would explain the ignorant comments from men who lament that they never will get to touch Angelina's breasts now.
The first reaction to the New York Times piece sadly was from a female radio DJ who tweeted the link to the story along with "Angelina's double mastectomy/secret boob job". To suggest that Jolie had gotten a boob job and is crying "breast cancer" and "double mastectomy". This is appalling. APPALLING.
This woman. This beautiful woman, who is photographed everywhere she goes, whose appearance is scrutinized and analyzed at every moment, opted to have her breasts removed and reconstructed. She has told the world about it. Because this went beyond vanity, this was about using her power as a celebrity to create awareness.
Let's talk about having a mastectomy or a double mastectomy. Let's talk about breasts. Breasts are the symbol of feminine sexuality, femininity, motherhood. Breasts have power, they get attention. Breasts on the red carpet are currency. For Jolie to chose to have her breasts removed was not a discussion she took lightly. For her, a symbol of sexuality and femininity, this was most definitely not an easy decision.
It's not easy to not criticize a celebrity. It's easy to forget that they're not real people.
Writing that article was not necessary for her to do. She did that not to get publicity for herself, though certainly there are now paparazzi clamouring to get the first photos of her new chest. She wanted to talk about her situation, share her story, in the hopes it might help others. And despite the nasty talk, I think it will.