A Few Words about Angelina Jolie's Breasts

Angelina Jolie—a woman with some of the world’s most famous breasts—has explained in a thoughtful New York Times op-ed this week why she's had them prophylactically removed and replaced. Jolie’s mother died young, after a decade living with ovarian cancer; when Jolie herself got genetically tested, she learned that she had a BRCA1 genetic mutation that gave her an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer. To protect her children from losing their mother too young, she opted for surgery, which she describes in some detail. That unexpected mash-up—glamorous Hollywood superstar, global ambassador for celebrity humanitarianism, and the sober Gray Lady, the brainstem of the establishment—has sent the issue viral.

And so we have discovered that Angelina Jolie’s breasts are a Rorschach test. Women have written about their own experiences with breast cancer or its specter, and have been variously grateful to or angry at her for announcing her course of action, or hating or loving the way she uses her celebrity. Experts of various stripes have reminded us that very few women will or should face this choice, that most of us should plan to keep our mammaries even if faced with the scary “c” word, noting that breast cancer kills fewer women than heart disease. Others have commented on the culture of celebritizing disease and how the wealthy get a different standard of health care from the rest of us, or on what this means for Obamacare. A surge of women have called their doctors about such testing. Following the commentary over the last couple of days has been like watching a an extended riff on the question: What do you think of when you think of Angelina Jolie’s breasts? It’s all been exhausting, if not exhaustive, a kaleidoscopic and decidedly fractious view of how the world views famous womanhood.

One thing that has been widely noted is the fact that she never laments the loss of anything sexual, dismissing without consideration the implication that there should be extra grief or self-pity about relinquishing a body part often linked with womanhood. Breasts and ovaries are regularly awash in hormones that encourage them to change; their association with new life is deeply linked with their susceptibility to growing the opposite of life. So thank god that one of the world’s most famous sex symbols has effectively rolled her eyes at the idea that breasts = femininity.

Here's what I particularly love about the fact that Jolie published the piece, that she made sure it was written in such a straightforward tone, and that she placed it somewhere so unexpected: It takes at least some of the focus away from “screening” and “awareness.” She says nothing about annual mammograms, whose usefulness has been so thoroughly discredited, most recently by a brilliant piece by Peggy Orenstein in The New York Times Magazine. She never suggests that breast cancer should be a generalized fear, or more important than any other disease. She uses her celebrity to change the conversation, taking it beyond the extremely dated Susan G. Komen pinkfest and talking instead about technical information like risk factors. Komen did some good in its time, destigmatizing the disease, which has been especially urgent among the segment of women who identify especially with their appearance, for whom the loss of their breasts felt particularly personal. But it’s time to move on. I do wish she’d mentioned the fact that the Supreme Court is now considering whether Myriad Genetics can copyright and “own” the genes that make it possible to test for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, making it the only place where you can get the test and thereby putting the cost out of reach for most of us. But you can’t have everything.

Jolie’s placement in The New York Times is simply inspired; had she published this in, say, People magazine, I don’t think she would have given science reporters everywhere the same excuse to bring readers up to date on the latest research and facts on the disease. For some especially thoughtful consideration of the current science of breast cancer prevention and treatment, don’t miss Peggy Orenstein’s blog post, noting:

Meanwhile, Pink ribbon culture, as I wrote in the piece, has stoked our (understandable) fears of breast cancer creating, if unintentionally, an exaggerated perception of risk among the average woman. That’s affecting our health choices and, ironically, deflecting attention from those who truly need it–those with metastatic disease.

I’ve seen a lot of sniping at Jolie for taking this public, and further improving her brand as uber-humanitarian, putting herself above reproach—sniping reminiscent of the attacks on Sheryl Sandberg for trying to use her power to make the work world better for women. I don’t really understand when women so often act like crabs in a barrel, pulling each other down if one seems to aim higher, to get power and try to use it for good. Of course the op-ed improves the Jolie-Pitt image as too good to be real. So what? That’s how power works: If you use it to further yourself and to improve the world at the same time, how can that be bad? Many celebrities turn inward, making only their own lives better. That’s fine; as most of us know from our daily lives, making our way happily through the world without harming others is challenging enough. Jolie has taken her celebrity glamor and decided to do something useful for others with it. God bless her, if you’ll forgive the invocation of a nonspecific deity. As Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker, that’s what celebrity is for.

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