By Mary K. Valle
The traditional Western narrative of women and their bodies revolves around quiet suffering. It’s a woman’s fate to pay, in pain, for Eve’s nervy quest for knowledge. Myriad female saints were elevated for their insistence on not having sex to the tune of torture, dismemberment and death. St. Agatha, who is frequently pictured with her breasts on a plate, is said to have refused the advances of a high ranking man, Quintius, because of her stated commitment to Christianity. He had her put in a brothel where she was repeatedly assaulted. When that experience didn’t change her mind regarding him, he had her tortured to death. Legend says she had her breasts cut off and was rolled in glass.
Which was all pretty much OK with God since she wasn’t voluntarily having sex or amputating her own breasts to survive.
We all know by now that Angelina Jolie had her breasts removed in order to reduce her risk of getting breast cancer. Her late mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died a protacted death from ovarian cancer. Jolie has tested positive for BRCA1, one of two known “breast cancer genes,” a gene also carried by Bertrand.
Jolie has six children and is a visible and active humanitarian. However, she was swiftly and vociferously attacked on the internet, mostly because of other items in her personal history. Jolie’s prophylactic mastectomies have ignited a firestorm of hatred in her direction, most of it having to do with her status as a woman who “stole” another woman’s husband and remains unmarried to him. The perception seems to be that she, an unrepentantly scarlet woman, might even possibly deserve to get cancer of the homewrecking “ta-tas” and die as punishment.
Jolie’s preemptive strike against what might be called in manful terms a “clear and present danger” violates norms against women controlling their own bodies, and is tied to her nonconforming behavior in other areas.
I’m not sure what this has to do with cancer, but BioEdge’s Michael Cook chose to upbraid Jolie for her personal behavior:
Jolie has had a very difficult personal history with a number of partners, including a lesbian relationship, estrangement from her father, adopting as a single parent, global fame as the world’s most beautiful woman, and intense scrutiny of her personal life by the media. Her case is obviously unique. While it is clear that she is brave and determined, it is far from clear that other women should take her as a role model.
Mothering and good works aside, Jolie can never escape the scarlet E — Eve again, with her unnerving refusal to submit and obey. Eve’s flipside, Mary, is renowned for her enthusiastic “yes” to God’s demands, which included supernatural virginal pregnancy, attendant shaming, and, as a bonus, witnessing the execution of her offspring. It is strange, that while people fixate on Jolie’s currently unmarried status, her relationship or lack thereof with her father and her past partners, her motherhood is barely remarked upon, an omission that seems particularly glaring considering that she has six children. Motherhood is venerated to the point that famous women’s pregnancies are covered in great detail on the covers of checkstand magazines. But Jolie’s motherhood doesn’t count. The popular imagination doesn’t accept that a woman contains multitudes: that privilege is still reserved for men.
She stands accused of merely wanting a “shiny new rack” and sending up a huge smokescreen in order to shroud her vanity. If Jolie wanted nothing more than a “shiny new rack,” she would have bought it, and maybe already did, and said “rack” would be of such good quality no one would know the difference. Reconstructed breasts are nothing like implants in healthy tissue.
Another point of contention: Jolie’s unwillingness to “wait and see” and rely solely upon regular “screening” which will surely pick up any cancer that appears, which can be “detected early” and “cured.” But said medical magic is not reliable: tumors go unseen by machines. Treatment is also no guarantee of anything: think Jolie’s mother. Also, there is no cure for breast cancer. “She can get breast cancer anyway,” they wail, which is also true. But really, a good woman wouldn’t “mutilate herself” and “play God.” She would let it be done unto her. Jolie, ever-brazen, stands defiantly, Eve picking her own apples, unrepentant to the last.
Fury is also directed at Jolie for having excellent insurance and being able to afford expensive genetic tests and multiple surgeries. Some Americans are apoplectic at what it might cost if women who are actually currently insured seek out these tests and possible surgeries. Be warned: the United States will collapse under the weight of frivolous gene-testing and recreational mastectomies, and millions of men will cry themselves to sleep because they won’t have natural titties to suckle as they drift off. Civilization: if this nonsense catches on, your days are numbered.
“I hope she gets cancer and it metastasizes” noted one fellow human on a message board. Dear friend, I am sorry that a stranger’s prophylactic surgery has angered you to the point of wishing her a gruesome death — but you are not alone. An invisible tribunal wishes for Jolie to suffer and die publicly, because that is the natural order of things: in other words, we can’t actually stone her to death, but cancer could be the next best thing. Transfigured by suffering and death, she would then be allowed, as a mother and advocate, to claim her sainthood.
Mary K. Valle lives in Baltimore where she writes about religion and other topics. She is a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha.