We live in a society of sexism, misogyny and the non-consensual sexualisation of women’s bodies (or rather, bodies seen as women’s). Sexism is performed, believed and internalised via misogyny, the hatred of women and femininity. This is most obvious when women are treated like lesser people, but the hatred of femininity is less obvious, and includes the concept that girls can and should be masculine but boys can’t and shouldn’t be feminine, and places masculinity as better, more important or most desirable than femininity.
Despite this, women are still expected to be feminine, and often nothing more than something for men to look at. This is shown in the lack of diversity in portrayals of women; the skimpier clothes, focus on attractiveness rather than skill, and the emphasis on curves. Drawn, photoshopped or otherwise created portrayals of women often take this over the top, with even the women who are powerful heroes possessing tiny costumes and armour, massive, tiny waists and massive, gravity-defying breasts. This isn’t limited to fictional women, or actors playing women, as the options for real women are limited when they take part in media, buy clothes or look for role models. The non-consensual aspect is highlighted by the social interactions forced upon them. Sexual harassment in, catcalling, internet comments and fan groups are too common to be surprising for those harassed.
This is all relevant and topical because it frames the way the recent Angelina Jolie news story has been told. For anyone unaware, Jolie’s family has a history of breast cancer, so she was tested for a gene that would make her susceptible, one that presumably runs in her family. Unfortunately, she found that does indeed possess that gene, making the probability of her developing breast cancer very high. Faced with this difficult news, she was faced with a difficult decision as well, the decision of what to do now.
Bravely, she decided to have a pre-emptive double mastectomy, bringing her chances of developing breast cancer down to practically none. For most people, this is difficult enough choice and a brave enough decision, as all surgery has risks and many women feel their breasts are vital parts of their womanhood. For Jolie, a celebrity and public figure, fully exposed to public opinion and criticism, and an actor whose body is part of her fame (she was the basis for the design of Lara Croft), it becomes an even braver decision.
As expected by the majority of women, the immediate and internet-wide response was to insult Angelina, reduce her worth and existence to her body, ignore the cancer factor, and to only talk about the story in the ways it affects Brad Pitt, apparently owner of her and her body. Twitter was flooded with comments, displaying every possible sexist reaction to a human being’s medical decision.
Tweets accused her of fabricating the story and having the surgery as a publicity stunt, and mentioned her adopted children. Her breasts were mourned like a celebrity who had died, and Jolie’s career and indeed life were deemed over to some. People couldn’t wrap their heads round the reason any women would make the decision to ‘chop off their boobs’, which implies they failed to wrap their heads around mastectomies as well, and some added the fact that ‘she doesn’t even have cancer’ to their confusion. Most tweets, however, were variations on “Poor Brad” – bemoaning her to doing this to him, sympathising on the loss of ‘his’ breasts (or rather ‘funbags’ and other pleasure centres terms), or saying that he ought to leave her, often because there is no logical reason to stay with a breastless woman.
Some people even felt that it would be a better outcome if she kept her breasts and died of breast cancer. Not only were there people who felt this way, they felt safe and justified to share this sentiment in public spaces, with their names and photos attached.
This is what Angelina Jolie inevitably faced for making this decision as a celebrity, but there are countless people who face the same decision and face these comments face to face, from strangers and from supposed friends. Many of them don’t have the choice, as one thing Jolie points out is that she has the privilege of money and good healthcare, to be tested for the gene that increases the chance of breast cancer. Some people are suddenly faced with the fact that have breast cancer, may die, need to have mastectomies, and still may die.
The saddest part is that the sexist reaction is not just the product of sexism in society. The very campaigns raising money and awareness about breast cancer fuel the flames, most obviously with the campaign named Save the Boobies. That’s right, not save the people who may die, or stopping boob cancer, but save the boobies – that is the message taken to heart by the people who would rather Angelina dead.
It isn’t just the campaigns that ignore the actual human beings with possibly fatal diseases by focusing on the sexualised body parts that might be lost that cause problems. Most breast cancer campaigns are all pink, and the slogans, merchandise and other actions match the general sexualisation of women. No other cancer is as sexualised as breast cancer – most are in universal body parts, testicular and prostate cancer campaigns tend to be sport related, and body parts such as the cervix and uterus aren’t seen as sexy, due to their gross involvement with reproduction (the actual purpose of breasts forgotten by sexism).
Whilst breast cancer awareness may be the most widely known, it often does as much to hurt victims of cancer and it does to help them. Not every person at risk for breast cancer is a celebrity and open to widespread scrutiny like Angelina Jolie, but they do not have access to the private medical care she does, nor do many have the love and support she presumably has in her friends and family. If the campaigns focus less on sexualisation and the fact that boobies are at risk, these people could have better cancer support, which is possibly the most important thing to learn from this news story.