Yesterday, in an op-ed piece for the New York Times Angelina Jolie wrote a moving and courageous account of her decision to have a double mastectomy due to a very high risk of developing breast cancer given her genetic background and family history. It was intimate and objective at the same time, and it could do a world of good for women who are at similar risk but are afraid to undergo a life altering operation or afraid of the stigmas they will be attached with after. It also put a well needed light on preventative medicine and how much more in control we are when it comes to fighting illness. Science has been making great progress towards predicting future disease, it’s about time our social norms caught up with the medical advancements. It’s no longer enough to simply “wait and see” when it comes to our health. Angelina Jolie, always on the cutting edge, boldly and unflinchingly went where many will soon follow and took control of her health.
I was surprised to see that so far most of the response from social media has been overwhelmingly positive. Her article was having the desired effect, as the conversation about breast cancer, predictive science, and preventative measures began emerging in the wake of her announcement. Many people tweeted well wishes, or that they were inspired by her courage, or spoke of their own experiences with cancer. It was enough to make your spirits soar. But I couldn’t get too excited because I haven’t forgotten Jason Collins. He became the first openly gay major sports figure in America, and in similar fashion, the initial response was one of overwhelming support and positivity, and then it turned kind of ugly. And then it turned really ugly:
Soon, the dialogue became less about Jason Collins’ groundbreaking and courageous act and instead turned into a character assassination targeting Jason himself, but also – inexplicably – Obama, the media, our “politically correct” society, and, of course, Tim Tebow. If I’ve learned anything from that sad affair it’s that if we give this thing a day or two, terrible people will come out of the woodwork to say terrible things. Angelina Jolie probably doesn’t care because Angelina Jolie rocks (and if you bring up Billy Bob Thorton or her brother and ignore the last decade of her rocking in every way imaginable then I get to bring up that time in college where you did that idiotic thing that was really embarrassing and you hoped would never be remembered).
Here are the two prongs of what we can expect, illustrated by two harbingers of poisonous vitriol:
1. “She’s rich, therefore what she did wasn’t brave at all.”
As seen by:
Yes, Angelina Jolie has a ton of money. Obviously. But that doesn’t somehow prevent her from being at risk for breast cancer. In her article, she explains why this is a deeply personal decision that she made with her children in mind and her future at stake. And while she can afford the best treatment, she also can expect the most scrutiny. As a public figure, she has, in the eyes of many, become public domain. She knows this. That’s why she wrote an article about it, explaining her decision and that’s why it’s news worthy. (Bonus eye roll if the person saying this respected Mitt Romney for his wealth but hate celebrities for theirs. It’s almost like capitalism can afford some people “unfair” advantages huh guys?)
2. “Those glorious breasts! What a tragedy!”
As seen by:
Yes, shed a tear, Andy. The breasts that were never yours are now gone. How will you ever cope with this terrible, terrible news. This is objectification at its finest. A glorious cesspool of entitlement and creepy misplaced adoration. It blows my mind that people can feel so attached to something that they have never actually seen except in movies and of which they have zero chance of ever interacting with (Brad Pitt withstanding, of course). But, going back to this idea that her body is public domain, we find that people feel, in a very real way, that they’ve lost something. Nevermind that her choice gives her a better chance of being around a lot longer to do real and lasting good work in the world, or what it means to her family to know they don’t have to worry, or the sheer importance of her own commitment to staying alive as long as she can, because you know, boobs. (Bonus eye roll to the many people who have joked about buying her removed breasts. You guys are a real treat.)
This is the “new normal”, a phrase I fully intend on running directly into the ground until it’s completely meaningless. We HAVE to provide two perspectives on any event. No matter how ridiculous one side is, they need to be given equal footing in a discussion. We saw this with Jason Collins and the ESPN Chris Broussard debacle. We see it when creationists sit alongside scientists to discuss evolution. We see it in every political story that flares up. Freedom of speech has somehow turned into “every voice is equally valid”, which just isn’t true. We have become a culture of point-counterpoint mentality, when in many cases none should exist. Somethings are just wrong. We need to be brave enough to say that.