Back in 1998, I tested positive for the same genetic mutations that led Angelina Jolie to have a double mastectomy. When I talked with my doctor about the surgery to remove my healthy breasts and ovaries, I asked her what would be left of my femininity. “You still have your brain,” she told me.
I’ve thought about that exchange as I’ve read commentaries weighing in this week on the meaning of Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo prophylactic mastectomies and to go public with the details. Most have focused on the impact of Jolie’s decisions on her film career and on women’s assessment of cancer risks. They have missed an important point: Jolie’s revelation is ultimately as much about her brain as her body.
There’s a reason Jolie has been the highest paid actress in Hollywood, earning up to $30 million a year. Sure, she’s got bee-stung lips, big boobs, a tiny waist and comely hips. But she’s not just beautiful. She’s brainy. Jolie has cannily put her physical assets to work in roles that have allowed her to link sex and power: as video-game heroine Lara Croft, a super spy in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and as a daring CIA agent in the film Salt. Jolie has taken her body to the bank by choosing to be seen as active and able.
Jolie consciously continues in her role as action/adventure hero in the way she shapes her decisions to undergo genetic testing and surgery.
• She remains powerful because she controls the flow of information. She managed to keep her mastectomies private until she was ready to share. And when she chose to share, she “bared all” on the opinion page of what is arguably the most respected newspaper in the world.
• Jolie holds onto her brawn and brain by controlling her own ending. By electing to have her breasts removed, she won’t let her enemy — in this case, cancer — get the best of her.
• She exercises power and brains by advocating for the most vulnerable. In the past, she’s brought attention to the plight of orphaned refugees as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Now, for the first time, she is announcing her own vulnerability and taking steps on her own behalf.
Jolie may now have a harder time selling herself as a sex symbol onscreen with the revelation of her surgeries. I hope not. In any case, I hope she’ll continue to use her best asset — her brain — off screen to fulfill my own personal fantasy.
I’d love to see brilliant Angelina Jolie gobbling up stock in Myriad Pharmaceuticals, the Utah-based company currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court as to whether it may continue to claim ownership of the BRCA genes – the mutations that put Jolie and the rest of us BRCA carriers at such a high risk of developing reproductive cancers.
Myriad is the reason the tests of the BRCA genes can cost over $3,000, and it refuses to let other companies or labs test for or perform research on the mutations. In a move worthy of one of her action/adventure heroines, Jolie would do an end-run around Myriad, becoming majority stockholder and policy director. She’d fight off the enemy, steal the treasure and escape (in a tight outfit) as the walls of the business came down around her. Then she would be Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, indeed.
[Posted by Rachel Zimmerman]
This program aired on May 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.