Angelina Jolie (Reaffirming Patriarchal Beauty) vs. Kelly Davidson (Redefining Beauty)

Kelly Davidson

Kelly Davidson

Kelly Davidson is a cancer survivor.  A double mastectomy was required in order for her to survive.  To celebrate, Davidson got a tattoo across her chest.  This is not unique; another survivor did the same and saw Facebook remove photos of her tattoo because it was deemed to have violated Facebook’s rules on nudity.  Far from being celebrated, these women faced condemnation for sharing their story of survival and expressing their new found beauty.  This is why it is hard for me to see Angelina Jolie as a hero for her recent operation, though many are describing her as such.  That is not to say I don’t see Jolie as a hero, just that I don’t see her as a hero for having the operation.  She has done a number of other commendable things, such as using her celebrity to raise awareness for a number of important social issues.

The chest tattoo of another cancer survivor who had a double mastectomy

The chest tattoo of another cancer survivor who had a double mastectomy

Jolie received tragic news that no woman should ever have to receive.  She discovered that she had the BRCA1 gene, a genetic condition that increases the likelihood of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer.  Jolie opted to get preventative surgery. This means a double mastectomy. Jolie will, according to reports, also be getting her ovaries removed as well.  The disease had already taken her mother at age 56 and her grandmother at age 45, so the risk is real.  Having one’s breasts removed can be a challenging process, especially considering how women are often defined in patriarchal society by their appearance.  Jolie has made a career that is based largely on her beauty.  For the public, her beauty is part of her identity.  To have her breasts removed would be terrifying and life-changing.  Indeed, many crude men took to twitter to share objectionable comments on the operation (I will not dignify these comments by reprinting them).  At the end of the day, though, Jolie does not have to face these problems (though the health risk is still present even if it is reduced).  Jolie had the operation done in private and did not announce it until she had already undergone reconstructive surgery that included both breast implants and allografts.

 

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie

I do not mean to marginalize Jolie’s experience.  It is no doubt a difficult one and one that requires a great deal of courage and perseverance, but Jolie’s experience, though no doubt similar in many ways to other women’s experiences with this, is still very different.  She has the luxury of being able to afford reconstructive surgery so that she can maintain her appearance.  The voluntary surgery is one that is about self-preservation, as the reconstructive surgery was about preserving her beauty.  This is understandable and human, but there is a degree of vanity as well and this is not a process that I would call heroic.  It is commendable of her that she would go public with this to help raise awareness of the condition, but breast cancer is among the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer, as well as one of the most highly recognizable forms.  The press, though good for the cause, is not likely to change much.

 

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie

Ultimately, women who learn that they have the BRCA1 gene will have to face the same decision Jolie had to face, but for most of them there will be a very big difference.  They will not be able to afford the reconstructive surgery required to maintain their appearance.  If Jolie had to make a choice between health and conventional beauty and chose health, that could serve as an inspiration for women who face the same choice.  Instead though, and this is not meant as a detriment to Jolie, she chose to address her health issue and maintain her appearance.  The question then is: Would Jolie have gone through with the double mastectomy is she were unable to get reconstructive surgery afterward?  By getting the reconstructive surgery afterward, Jolie demonstrated that what the surgery does to a woman’s physical appearance does matter, that it is a concern.  Jolie was able to maintain the conventional form of beauty that she has been praised for in the past, and address her health concern, but both are not an option for all women who face this.

 

Angelina Jolie with cigarette in mouth.  Breast cancer? Bad.  Ovarian cancer? Bad.  Lung cancer?  Oh the irony.

Angelina Jolie with cigarette in mouth. Breast cancer? Bad. Ovarian cancer? Bad. Lung cancer? Oh the irony.

For me, Jolie is to be commended for going public with her health issues.  Health issues are private and to share something that personal to raise awareness is admirable, but I don’t know that the proceedure is heroic.  For me, women like Kelly Davidson who embrace their new beauty and define their own beauty by challenging what is seen as conventionally attractive, and then proudly show their new found beauty are the real heroes.  Davidson did not get reconstructive surgery, instead, rather than kowtowing to the patriarchal view of what beautiful is, she looked within herself and found her own idea of beauty and showed it to the world, where as Jolie kept up with the status quo.  I do not judge her for that and realize that she did what most women would do, and her coming forward, as I said, is commendable.  Using her celebrity to highlight issues is heroic in many ways.  For me though, the real heroes are women, like Davidson, who suffer through this horrible disease and don’t have the same option as women of independent means and must redefine what beauty is.  The fact that Jolie is celebrated in the media while women like Davidson have their images deleted by Facebook demonstrates that the media in general is still not supportive of working class women who must go through ordeals like this and instead celebrate women like Jolie who can overcome the disease while also maintaining and supporting traditional views of what beauty is.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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