I read an article today highlighting how betrayed Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt felt after hearing their friend Melissa Etheridge speak out against Angelina’s recent decision to have a double mastectomy. Apparently she stated that it was ‘ the most fearful choice you can make when confronting anything with cancer. That choice is way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do.’
This probably isn’t the kind of thing that, at least on the surface, I would normally blog about, however I think what it actually highlights is something that I am seeing more and more, especially in relation to the internet and it is something that I actually feel very strongly about.
First up I will admit this was a light hearted gossip magazine, and the story was mostly ‘sources’ close to the couple. As such I really have no idea how Angelina and Brad either feel or have reacted, and this is really much more about the tone of the article, which seemed sadly disappointed if not downright horrified on their behalf. Why?
Angelina made a very personal decision, which she then chose to make public, presumably, from everything she has said, to put a spotlight on a deadly disease and thus encourage women to take steps to ensure their own continuing health. I am presuming she didn’t do it to make herself look like a brave survivor of a terrible ordeal and have the world rush to tell her what a selfless and noble soul she is. As such, why would anyone object to another woman, a cancer survivor let’s not forget, speaking out about her own views and experience, even if it is ideologically different from your own? This is debate, which is surely the very best outcome we can hope for and one Angelina, rather than feeling attacked, should be encouraging.
If I am honest brave is not the first word that came to my mind when I heard her decision; it struck me quite simply as both practical and wise. And it is the decision, if I had been in her shoes, that I believe I would have made. But I am not in her shoes and neither are the countless others who may find themselves facing this decision. In her late thirties she has six children, a long term partner who by her own words ‘she is incredibly blessed to have by her side’, a thriving career, and the money to ensure not only the best medical care in the world but to engage the best reconstructive surgeon. While it is not a situation anyone would wish to find themselves in and surgery is not a desirable experience, she had little to lose, and I can imagine what followed was relief that she could now get on with enjoying all her blessings without the shadow of ‘what if’ hanging over her head.
Few are likely to be so blessed, either financially or otherwise. Many young women will still be looking for partners, their sense of self wrapped tightly in their appearance and thinking while it is fine for Angelina, sex symbol to millions and with a nice new pert pair paid for by her own millions, it is not quite so easy for them. Knowing that there are other options, hearing of them from women who have gone through cancer and are still alive to speak out, can only reassure them. It reminds them cancer is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was, that there is more than one answer and whatever they do is their choice, and choice is always empowering. It also keeps the spotlight on an issue which sadly stood a very good chance, and still does, of being outshone by the star power of Ms Jolie.
This is the power of debate and it is sadly under threat at the moment in a world of knee jerk reactions and the homogenizing power of the internet. Twitter has taken peer pressure global. Anyone who hears anything they don’t like instantly cries troll and runs to the keyboard to rally the mob. On a platform which is, simply put, chit chat made public, celebrities have chosen to invite their fans into their most intimate thoughts and yet when they are confronted by anything except universal acclaim and adoration they cry foul. Too many accept the mantel of role model yet seem unwilling to accept what that actually means. It means your decisions are subject to scrutiny; whatever you put out there to the world at large is open to scrutiny. If you constantly tweet pics of your bikini body – me after a workout, me after missing the gym for three weeks, me two minutes after a jaffa cake – you are handing the right to comment over to the public. And yes, that means they can tell you to step away from the biscuit tin. If you build a career and profile on the back of your charitable roles, then tax dodge in your own country, people have a right to comment, and yes, call you a stingy hypocrite.
Much of what happens on twitter seems inconsequential and superficial, but it can carry weight and is often indicative of what is occurring across society in general. There are very few public figures who are not on there and who do not have considerable followings. I have spoken before about the nastiness that I have seen online, and obviously I am not a fan, but opinion, dissenting views, even criticism, however painful, is not trolling. And more, every nasty comment is not bullying; anyone who has been subject to that will tell you, it is the isolation, powerlessness and systematic qualities of the abuse that make it so devastating. Most stars have so many fans that no random few naysayers could possibly undermine their self-esteem, and any ego-pricking achieved is likely the result of their narcissistic unwillingness to deal with any slight or, importantly, their inability to realise that most of the time it has nothing to do with them at all.
This was not, lets be clear, an article about cancer; it was a dissemination of why someone would want to hurt Ms Jolie, ending in a declarative, she must be team Aniston. One day we will walk on Mars and they will ask the astronaut if they are team Jen or Ange. But I would wager that given she has been dealing with cancer for nearly ten years now, this was a woman who was simply Team Life, and it was this that prompted her to speak out and share. And surely she has earnt the right to be heard, no matter how much brighter Angelina’s star shines. Melissa went on to talk about how much she feels diet and lifestyle affected her, both in terms of developing her illness in the first place and how she is now keeping herself healthy. Again, given the high links obesity, smoking and stress have with cancer this should be welcomed by anyone genuinely interested in putting a spotlight on the disease and helping others fight it.
I applaud both women for speaking out, but in this mixed up world of rabid fans and sanctified lynchings, I almost feel the true act of bravery was speaking against an idol, even if only by default. I would applaud Angelina even more if she is to respond to this without any veiled notion of ‘disappointment or betrayal’ but rather with encouragement, inviting others to share their experience and keeps the focus where it needs to be, away from ego and firmly on cancer.