Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Let's Talk About Angelina Jolie's Breasts

Early this morning, the New York Times published an op-ed from actress Angelina Jolie in which she announced that she had undergone a double mastectomy, the surgical removal of both breasts. Those people who might joke that Jolie is best known to male moviegoers of the Internet generation for her breasts have a good point, and they get right to why her op-ed offers a welcome gesture.

Even as we mature as a society and try to de-stigmatize mastectomy, it is still often—at least tacitly—seen as the unwomaning of woman, a defacement of our vision of womanhood, somehow more unavoidably profound than hysterectomy. If we still, in some retrograde and shorthand way, define women by shape, then that "object" necessarily becomes something else when it is "misshapen." Mastectomy has always been the ontological death of women in a shallow culture. Seeing someone who has been a celebrity of that same shallow culture attempt to reject that objectionable definition is a step in the right direction.

People still won't get it. When it comes to woman and femininity, there is so much so many people want to not get. Even in the short 60 minutes following its publication, Twitter commentary found several things wanting with Jolie's op-ed, most of them misguided. Let's look at them.

1. "It feels like a Sunday Styles piece and/or there is no original reporting."
It's easy when celebrities write editorials to spot the absence of lots of hard data, which is something most people don't do with editorials from people like David Brooks. Journalism, for most people who don't spend a lot of time thinking about it, always looks like journalism if journalists are the ones with the bylines, even when they just offer opinion. Despite the fact that Brooks makes shit up three times a week for a seven-figure salary, we expect more from foreigners and interlopers. If they're going to show up and shoot their mouths off, they better bring facts and figures. It's the guys who are supposed to be here who don't need to prove their points.

Obviously, this is silly. Jolie published an op-ed in the op-ed section of the paper. She wrote a first-person narrative, for the purposes of advocacy, in the part of the newspaper specifically set aside for it. Readers who want hard science about mastectomy and genetic predispositions toward breast and ovarian cancer can find it at any point in the last decade in the national, health or science sections of the paper they weren't reading in the first place.

As for slights like "Sunday Styles" or any other knocks tending toward "this is opportunistic editorial frippery," again: This was an op-ed. This is what the part of the paper is for. If the New York Times wanted to write a style-oriented feature piece on successful women who have mastectomies, they could have done it at any time, using one of their reporters, which is what happens with style pieces in a city filled with successful women. To explore that point further:

2. "This is the NYT—and a brand—cashing in on 'advancing causes.'"
It's certainly possible that Jolie enjoys seeming like a crusader and getting plaudits for the same. I don't know what occurs in Angelina Jolie's brain and, being fond of my own most of the time, I'm glad not to make the exchange. It's also certainly possible that the Times saw a way to garner attention for something thin on meaning and content.

That said, I am happy to assume that Jolie is sincere—if for nothing more than the fact that I assume, were the genders turned, almost any man would have strong and potentially societally important feelings about health care if he had to amputate both of his balls. One can find avenues for social glibness in adopting children from politically or socially "relevant" parts of the globe. It's a lot tougher to assume someone is being glib about literally losing parts.

Further, it's easy to mock the Times for its clumsy earnestness about trends and the disingenuous shitpiles it gathers on its op-ed pages in pursuit of "political balance." People like Brooks and, formerly, Bill Kristol, appear in its pages not out of carelessness but out of a kind of blinkered scrupulousness. More often than not, when the Times does something stupid, it's because it's trying too hard, not because it doesn't give a damn.

If Jolie's statement were valuelessly self-promotional or mercenary—which it is manifestly not—the Times might well have skipped it. If famous people want to pimp quackery or fringe issues, there's always the Huffington Post, eager to hump pageloads from here into a vaccine-free, homeopathic eternity. If Jolie's statement were really that terrible, the Times wouldn't have lost much from rejecting it, then sending two health or science reporters to crunch together an explainer or a think-piece on the topic, timed to run whenever Jolie's op-ed appeared anywhere else. The paper would then appear to possess integrity and the journalistic wherewithal to respond immediately to any topical trend.

3. "Jolie didn't say enough about our broken healthcare system."
With 957 words about herself, her surgeries, her mother's death and her family, it's easy to think that Jolie passed up the opportunity to speak more expansively about how women carrying a gene for breast and ovarian cancer fare in the American healthcare system. But, before quibbling, give a little credit.

One, Jolie points out that her genetic screening cost $3,000. It's by no means accidental that she includes this figure. Many—if not most—insurance plans do not cover genetic screening. (For one thing, the results lead to medical imperatives insurance companies prefer not to fund.) Being able to detect susceptibility to a fatal disease before making significant choices about surgeries like mastectomy is simply far beyond the capability of most middle-class Americans. Indeed, for them, an outlay of $3,000 for any medical care can mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy.

Two, Jolie describes the multi-part surgical care she got during her mastectomy, which only highlights the inaccessibility of her choices for most women. She underwent a procedure to draw blood to her nipples so that they might be preserved, before her breasts were reconstructed around implants, with minimal scarring. Again, God only knows how many women aren't able to avail themselves of these cosmetic options. Jolie might well have personally paid exorbitant sums for them. That she declined to disclose those sums seems like a judgment call. Admitting to the cost for her new breasts and preserved nipples might have shifted the discussion to the luxuries enjoyed by Angelina Jolie and away from how much medical care is entailed in preserving a "womanly" shape. Omitting the cost also draws attention. Goodness knows which course was better, but neither signals any indecency.

Three, at nearly 1,000 words, Jolie's op-ed hit a kind of sweet spot. It was long enough to be explanatory without going on long enough to let people become bored or distracted. That last note is the most important.

Had Jolie written even an additional 500 words about America's healthcare system and the struggles average women face, she would have opened a discussion in which her points could easily be marginalized. The distractions and detractions would have overwhelmed a salient and needed point.

Not only could hacky right-wing commentators have spun an easy story about how a wealthy "elite" woman deigned to tell "regular" women how to treat their bodies (as if wealth somehow confers a different biology), but they could have made it about her. Here, then, would be a Hollywood liberal peddling socialism in the guise of breast cancer treatments. Here, then, would be a member of the "loony" left demanding genetic screenings (death panels!) for everyone. Here, then, would be a bunch of easy jokes about how we're all supposed to take lessons about medical care from a woman who used to go everywhere with a vial of her husband's blood around her neck.

Angelina Jolie isn't perfect—I saw Salt—but she did a good thing here. She used the celebrity pulpit to help de-stigmatize a medical procedure that many men still loathe and women dread. She used the power of being a sex symbol to stand up for procedures and options sometimes necessary for her sex. Better still, she spoke openly about family and her decisions, in a concise and honest manner that let the topic take precedence instead of her.

By not advocating for a concrete policy or running down a list of statistics that could be fact-checked and hurled at her, she avoided becoming a crusader for a specific solution, while still emphasizing the need for one. She gave an issue a face and an emotional connection and then left the discussion open—for others to defend and advance, to make it a matter not about Angelina Jolie but about policy, and life, and death.