Tuesday, May 14, 2013

If Thy Breasts Offend Thee ...

At a time when it is no longer controversial for the media to publicly display body parts, it takes a public display of the absence of body parts to get our attention.

The big news today is that Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy in order to avoid the 87 percent chance of contracting breast cancer. Now I would normally have no public comment on the body parts of a famous actress. In fact, I’m trying to think of what my reaction would have been if someone had told me when I started this blog eight years ago that I would one day be writing about the cultural consequences of the loss of Angelina Jolie’s breasts.

But, since we have now all been made aware of this fact about Jolie—by Jolie herself, magnified past all measure by the media—it’s kind of hard not to say something about it.

In fact, I’m sure Angelina Jolie’s body parts will be the chief topic tonight on all the talk shows. Anderson Cooper, Piers Morgan and Erin Burnett will all be asking people how they feel about their removal. Sanjay Gupta will give us his medical opinion about whether it was wise, and perhaps even Gloria Borger will be brought in to wax eloquent on its political ramifications.

So I guess the first question to ask is why were we made aware of this? Is there some particular reason we all needed to know about it?

Jolie made her announcement in the New York Times (And let’s admit it: How many of us have found ourselves announcing our own sensitive medical information in a major newspaper?). And there's nothing like major news about a famous actresses breasts to push the media into action (But not for the reasons you might think).

One woman interviewed on NPR this morning went on and on about how glad she was that Jolie announced this to the world because it let other people know that they too could lop off body parts to avoid disease.

Of course, that’s not exactly how she put it.

But clearly there is the sense that Jolie’s announcement was in some sense salutary. Jolie clearly thinks so: “… I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience,” she says in her Times article.

Of all the things about which we formerly thought our consciousnesses needed to be raised, Angelina Jolie’s breasts probably would not have made the list. Just yesterday, when she still possessed them (or so we thought, if we were thinking about it, which we weren't), it would not have been self-evident to most of us that we needed to know a terrible lot about them. But apparently now that she has had them removed, it is not only necessary, but imperative.

Since health is now our culture’s religion (the other, real religions having been relegated to a sideline status), acts such as these take on a sacramental status. Smoking bans constituted the First Crusade, eliminating trans fats the Second. Banning soft drinks was the chief aim of the Third Crusade, and now the removal of glands takes its place in the litany of salvific acts. What’s next? Actual bodily organs?

They can pry my kidneys from my cold, dead hands.

In fact, Jolie says her doctor told her she also had a 50 percent chance of contracting ovarian cancer. I guess those have to go too—and surely their removal will be accompanied by a high profile public announcement.

There are a lot of trends that can be traced to Tinseltown, but so far they have been limited to things like what you wear and how you do your hair. But now gland removal has joined Botox on the list of celebrity fashions. Christina Applegate and Sharon Osbourne had the same preventative procedure as Jolie.

Breast removal. It’s all the rage.

St. Angelina is now the subject of hagiographic treatment for her double mastectomy. “Angelina Jolie’s brave message,” read a CNN headline. “Angelina Jolie,” blared Wonkette, “got her ****s chopped off. Yay Angelina!” It was “absolutely heroic,” said parnter Brad Pitt (an expedient thing to say for someone vying for higher marital office).

But even if removing body parts was really necessary and health inducing in this case, in what sense is having surgery to avoid potential harm for yourself “heroic”? Last time I checked, heroism was what we called acts that saved other people’s lives, not our own. But this is Hollywood, where playing a heroic role counts as heroism.

What was I thinking?

Since the traditional version of heroism—which involved doing things for the benefit of others—has no more attraction for our individualistic culture, heroism now consists of doing things for your own benefit and then telling other people you did them so they can better do things for their own benefit so that you can feel better about doing it for your own benefit.

Angelina did it for us. Sort of.

Jolie also makes a point to tell us that she is no less a woman because she had a double mastectomy: “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

Again, is this something we have a burning need to know? We live in a country in which in many places you can get married to someone of the same sex or be “transgender” and be applauded for it. I mean, heck, we live in a culture that tells us that we don’t have to be female to be feminine.

On a personal note, I don’t feel any less of a woman. Having XY chromosomes in no way diminishes my femininity.

Not everyone is so adulatory about Jolie’s surgery. In fact, medical professionals are coming out of the woodwork pointing out that that new medical technology most likely makes a decision like Jolie’s unnecessary—if it was, in fact, necessary without the new medical technology.

But let’s not dwell on that. It might mean that Jolie’s action—and her high profile public revelation of it—might actually drive other women to remove their body parts for no good reason.

And what would be heroic about that?


Steve E said...

A brave commentary, Martin. And what a wonderful chain of matrimonial conversations will no doubt ensue...

Anonymous said...

Very funny, Martin. We enjoyed it.

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Anonymous said...

I agree, Martin my friend. I think women should cover themselves head to toe, so we don't even know whether they have breasts. The Muslims are on to something about only allowing the eyes to be seen. Very sexy.