Rationally speaking, Angelina Jolie is clearly a real human being. But sometimes it seems that she is nothing more than a human laboratory for testing – and shattering – the abundant myths about femininity, body image, motherhood, beauty and so on.
- Angelina Jolie visits Baghdad to highlight plight of Iraqi refugees
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- Angelina Jolie's 'Jewish genetic mutation': Breast cancer gene is common in Israel, but few opt for preventive mastectomy
- The Jolie dilemma: 'We live in a world obsessed with breasts'
- U.K. program targets 'Jewish' cancer gene with DNA analysis
She has often been crowned the most beautiful woman in the world. She is the longtime partner of Brad Pitt, widely considered the handsomest of men. Together, they have six children, three of whom were adopted from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam. Pitt and Jolie have been criticized for choosing children of varied backgrounds as if they were choosing exotic furniture items to complement one another in their home.
At any rate, they’re the perfect couple, at least as portrayed in the media. So perfect, and so prominent in the media, that of course we can’t know whether this display has any basis in reality. But it has a very strong presence in contemporary popular culture. They are beautiful, they are devoted parents, they are talented actors, they are stars, they produce some of their own films and they’re also active in human rights the world over. Chuck Norris and Yair Lapid pale in comparison.
Now the most beautiful woman in the world decided to get a preventive double mastectomy because she has a high risk of developing breast cancer. I’m not going to go into the medical argument here. In any case, the most beautiful woman on earth has no breasts – the symbol of womanhood.
Breasts are charged with cultural significance. In her book "A History of the Breast," the historian Marilyn Yalom writes about humanity’s relationship with breasts from the beginning of recorded history to our own time. One of the questions she poses is to whom the breast belongs. Does it belong to the nursing infant? To the man or woman who strokes them? To an artist, a fashion designer, the bra industry, the physician, the pornographer?
Until fairly recently, for most of the history of the Western world, women’s breasts were controlled by men. It didn't matter if it was privately, by husbands or lovers, or publicly by masculine institutions such as the church, the state or the medical industry. Like the attitude toward women, the attitude toward breasts was twofold. On the one hand, they were motherly and nourishing. On the other, they were seductive and sexual. The breast’s significance also varied depending on the place or time period. Yalom writes that, of all things, it is the tragic reality of breast cancer that brings women to full ownership of their breasts as they cope with the disease.
The many responses to the report about Angelina Jolie’s choice to have a preventive double mastectomy included not only semi-medical arguments, but also particularly ugly displays about the perception of femininity. Without getting too much into the filth, they included guesses as to whether Pitt would remain with her or not, and estimates as to how much she was now “worth.”
After all, who or what is a woman without breasts in contemporary culture – a culture in which a woman is “hot or not” and is then treated accordingly?
In a 2009 article for Harper’s Bazaar, feminist author Naomi Wolf described Jolie as a woman who represented feminine power and liberation as no one else had before. Jolie was an object of fantasy not only for men but also for women – and she proved that any woman could have it all, according to Wolf. Wolf’s statements, which drew a great deal of criticism at the time, have now taken on a bitter twist. Jolie is the woman who has it all – all except for breasts.
“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,” Jolie wrote in her op-ed in The New York Times this week, when she recalled her operation.
That is a powerful and important message: A woman is no more or less a woman based on the presence, absence or size of any part of her body. And when this statement is made by Angelina Jolie – and not, Heaven forbid, by some bitter feminist with a mustache – it is all the more powerful.