Pop culture does not mean celebrity culture; I have perhaps said this more often than anyone you're going to meet. Who dates, who gets a divorce, who has a tantrum, who has surreptitious photos snapped of him by mangy, grim opportunists — these things are not culture of any kind, popular or otherwise, unless there is something else at stake. They are curiosities, and given that we are curious creatures, their pull is not surprising, nor is it new, nor was it invented by the internet, or television, or Americans. If the Lizzie Borden case happened now, we'd read all about how the fascination with her was the product of various elements of whatever we dislike about the last ten years of our history. This would not have happened in 1892! Except it would, and did, and will again.
But celebrity is like any other pollutant: you can fight it, but only while coexisting with it, and with people who are far less concerned with limiting it than you might be. You can close your windows, move away, don't look (I certainly try not to look), but it's part of the messy world anyway. And every now and then, somebody finds an upside.
That's what happened with the op-ed Angelina Jolie published in The New York Times this morning about her decision to undergo a double mastectomy after discovering that an inherited gene mutation put her at extremely high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. (Since she speaks of having "started with" the breast surgery, it seems likely she plans prophylactic removal of her ovaries also, though she doesn't directly say so.) She's been undergoing procedures, including a reconstruction, for several months at a breast center in California, during which time she somehow didn't find her surgery shared with the public.
She writes about making the decision to have prophylactic surgery so that she could reassure her children, so that it wouldn't be a constant source of worry, and so that she could feel confident she'd done what she could to take control over her situation. She writes about the financial obstacles that many women confront in having the genetic testing she had. She writes about feeling no less beautiful, about the importance of a loving partner, and about recovering: "Days after surgery you can be back to a normal life."
Of course, the fact that this is cancer and not a divorce or a drug problem doesn't make it any more important to any of us that it happened to Angelina Jolie, in and of itself. But what does matter is that she is a celebrity whether celebrity is a regrettable phenomenon or not. And if everybody is going to look at you, you might as well do the best you can to be seen doing something helpful.
This will certainly reignite debates over the value of mastectomies in women without cancer but with known and tested genetic mutations – debates that will not consist of her op-ed only, but of other people who will take time out of news broadcasts or in publications to explain what exactly she's talking about, and why some women make this decision, and what the science says about how effective it is.
It's hard not to see it, too, as a reminder of how very invasive and difficult it is for even wealthy people to have any privacy, given that it seems like a near miracle that she was able to undergo surgical procedures for months without it getting out. That shouldn't be shocking, but it is.
And yes, as much as none of us would likely say that we equate breasts with femininity or beauty, it will be powerful to someone at some brutal moment to have heard her say that she did this and feels no less feminine, no less beautiful, and she's still with Brad Pitt. That shouldn't make anybody feel better, rationally, logically, reasonably, it's just a famous person, it shouldn't matter. We should look to our parents as role models! To our teachers, our doctors and nurses, our fighter pilots and scientists! Yes, in a fair world, it wouldn't matter, but in a fair world, we wouldn't look at the same kinds of women and see them held up as ideals all the time anyway. We aren't in a fair world, but in a celebrity-infatuated world. It will be powerful to someone whether it should be or not. Someone will think about having a mastectomy and remember that Angelina Jolie had one, and she wasn't embarrassed, and she still felt pretty, and she told everyone that it can be survived.
Angelina Jolie didn't just get to celebrity-world. She lives there. She knew exactly what would be said: that she's unimportant, that she's self-obsessed, that she's a terrible actress, that she's a dilettante humanitarian, that she's doing everything wrong, that she should have just changed her diet or had a lot of ginger tea, and that nothing she says has any relevance to anyone who isn't as wealthy as she is. She knew the fact that she acknowledged how fortunate she is to be able to afford her course of treatment wouldn't stop people from responding, "BUT WHAT ABOUT WOMEN WHO CAN'T AFFORD IT?"
She knew all this was coming; that's part of what makes this a brave thing to do. Making this decision about her personal life, if in fact it is brave, is brave in a way that has no relevance to anyone, to public life, at all.
But making the decision to talk about it with full knowledge of what would happen, knowing that it would open her up to enormous scrutiny and criticism but it would be powerful to someone – that's where it does, in fact, matter. And where, yes, it is brave.