Skip navigation

I woke up last Tuesday morning, as many did, to Angelina Jolie’s New York Times op-ed, which got to me first via @IMKristenBell.

I do, as most seem to, believe that both undergoing the preventive surgery and making the announcement took a lot of courage on Jolie’s part. It was undoubtedly painful, plus probably scary to have currently healthy tissue removed.

There’s also the factor of, as Anne Helen Petersen put it, “Star Famous For Boobs Has Double Mastectomy” (which I got via @bertha_c). Jolie’s breasts were somewhat necessary for her job in a way that they aren’t for most people. (I wonder: Did she have them insured, like Tina Turner’s legs?)

But, while not disputing the personal difficulty involved, I want to look at this structurally, as is my wont.

Alongside that personal difficulty, that is, Jolie has some significant advantages. She is definitely aware of some of the privilege she has, noting that “The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.” (Others have noted this awareness: Shakesville, via @kouredios; the Guardian, via @bertha_c again; Gina Neff over at Culture Digitally)

But Jolie’s statement that “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” pointed to some other forms of privilege she didn’t discuss, and of which she may not be aware.

Biology declared that Jolie’s breasts were “time bombs” (I saw this phrase in a headline about someone else’s breast cancer decision-making but I can’t find it again now to give credit). Medicine had the capacity to remove them. And cosmetic surgery to make her body look the way she felt it should was available to her.

Jolie had access to those procedures because she’s very wealthy, obviously, but what’s important to me here is a less tangible form of access. She had access to these procedures because it makes sense that a ciswoman would be able to access surgically-produced breasts.

A transwoman who had the same conviction that her body looked correct with breasts would, even today, be considered somewhere between mentally ill (still in the DSM 5) and dangerous (the “transwomen are men pretending to be women so they can be sexual predators in locker rooms” narrative; see, when it’s out, Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt‘s forthcoming piece “Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System,” a followup to their award-winning 2009 article Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: Gender Normals, Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality).

In both cases, there are medico-biological-scientific-y reasons for why one’s body is out of alignment with one’s sense of self. But one set of reasons is seen as more valid than the other. The exact same body-shaping procedures that for transfolks are often framed as “messing with nature” are readily available to people who have a different gender identity—we can think also here about the treatment of gynecomastia in bioboys being considered perfectly legitimate as a way to prevent mental distress, but the desire for the same breast tissue removal in transmen is a sign of mental distress.

What does this say, then, about the rules of embodiment? We believe that bodies “naturally” do two (and only two) things, and never the twain, and we’re prepared to surgically intervene to make sure it happens. That’s not exactly a new insight—it matches what Anne Fausto-Sterling has argued about intersex babies. However, I don’t  know that it has been extended to questions of breasts rather than just genitals before, and I’d add that we’re also prepared to deny surgical intervention, depending.

But I want to push a little harder on it.

Jolie’s comments that she doesn’t “feel any less of a woman” and that it “in no way diminishes my femininity” are surely for the benefit of those who feel like substandard women after losing one or both breasts to cancer.  That is a real experience that is powerful to the people who have it. But I want to ask where such a feeling of inadequacy comes from.

Time after time, the commentators have marveled that Jolie resisted the dictates of beauty and sex appeal:

It’s remarkable because Angelina Jolie is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful women in a world that profoundly values beauty and defines women’s worth by their sex appeal, and she is telling women to value their health. (Shakesville)

That breasts do not exist just to turn on other people will not come as a surprise to any sentient adult human being. Nor, it should go without saying but sadly does not, do breasts make the woman. But brutal, mature reality does not generally have much of a place in the fantasy land where the myths of celebrities and public perception intermix. (The Guardian)

But she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom.  Women have been hearing this message for years, but with this editorial, Jolie not only makes it available to men, but proves it through the very existence of her resilient, still sexual body. (Petersen)

But what all of these comments about rejecting beauty standards miss is that Jolie got her breasts back.

Maybe not “hers” in the traditional sense, but visually, which is all anyone cared about in the first place (as problematic as that is, and in which she surely intervened by emphasizing health). The full trajectory does not suggest that “she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom” or refute the logic “that profoundly values beauty and defines women’s worth by their sex appeal.”

She did not go on with her career as a breast-less woman. If anything, this event actually suggests that the breasts do make the woman, however it is that one comes by them, much like breast removal is so key to making “proper” men. (Also here, the challenges with talking about breast cancer in men.)

This is not to say that I think she shouldn’t have had reconstruction, not least because I’m not in the habit of prescribing what other people do with their own bodies. Also, it falls under “sane response to an insane system.” But I will wager it never occurred to anyone to even consider not doing reconstruction. A breast-less woman is virtually incomprehensible to us. And certainly not eligible to be sexy.

And that rule of embodiment, the tight equation of “breasts” and “woman,” is one that we really need to take a hard look at.

It points to a situation in which we have loaded a whole lot of meaning onto bodies. The general belief, that is, is that if you feel X way, you must be Y thing, and your body must look like Z.

Now, I am probably the most anti-identitarian person on the planet. I am deeply suspicious of the move from X to Y in the above formulation, and generally think identity is a trap. But I think we can leave that aside in this case, because we’re talking about embodiment in relation to already-established identities—Jolie as woman and our hypothetical transfolks (who are themselves a subset of all the ways one might identify as trans).

Ultimately, I really don’t think that Jolie’s case and the conversations occurring around it are cause for celebration that we’ve thrown off the yoke of oppressive standards of embodiment and the reduction of people to their bodies. In fact, I think it is more firmly settled on our collective shoulders than ever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *