Angeline Jolie made headlines this week and it wasn’t for the typical celebrity-type reasons. Yesterday, The New York Times published her op-ed piece titled, My Medical Choice. If you haven’t read it, she discusses her decision to have a preventative mastectomy. After genetic testing, she learned that there was an 87% chance she would get breast cancer in her lifetime. Since her own mother died from the disease, she decided to take matters into her own hands. In her piece, she describes the decision as empowering and wishes that genetic testing was more available to the average person.
Her op-ed offers everything you would expect from a Celebrity Champion.
As I discussed in my analysis of Clint Eastwood’s appearance during the Republican National Convention, celebrities help and hurt causes. For some, Jolie’s story is a personal and financial boon. Cancer survivors feel emboldened, physicians encouraged by the prospect of more women getting mammograms (and doing self-examinations at home), research foundations thrilled by the influx of individual contributions, and genetic testing companies flooded with appointment requests. These are not bad outcomes. However, as is often the case when a celebrity is involved, the opportunity to connect an individual issue to a larger social problem (here, the woes of the health care industry and huge population of individuals who cannot afford insurance let alone pay for such testing) is lost.
There are good reasons for Jolie not to make these connections. She is, after all, a celebrity and hopes to make money doing so for years to come. If she becomes a polarizing figure (like Sean Penn), she could decrease her box office value and take home pay. Jolie is not the first to play it safe in this regard. And, again, her decision to share her story can have positive effects – at least in the short term (see The Guardian for additional examples).
What makes her op-ed frustrating is that she points to (and then drops) the political ball several times. Jolie notes that the high costs of genetic testing (she says it is approximately $3,000) is out of reach for most women and recognizes that many women will die from the disease. Instead of taking on the hard issues, she crafts a tale of female empowerment and the importance of a supportive partner. If she didn’t want to take on health care, she could have at least urged Myriad Genetics, which owns the patent on genetic testing for breast cancer, to reduce its hold on the market. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the company; the case was heard in April by the Supreme Court.
She also reinforces cultural notions about acceptable (read desirable) and unacceptable (read undesirable) breasts. She describes a (presumably expensive) procedure in which her nipples were retained. By her account, her breasts look “normal” after the reconstruction and, consequently, her children will not see anything that makes them “uncomfortable.” The latter undercuts goodwill. Women who have survived breast cancer and who either have no breasts or abnormal ones, by Jolie’s account, are likely to take issue with this point. In fact, this may become an issue (at least in the blogosphere) over the coming days – which would further bury the point about the lack of affordable health care in America.
It makes me wonder if she is a celebrity champion after all.