The Common Good

Celebrity, Identity, and Angelina Jolie's Medical Choice

On Tuesday, Angelina Jolie went public with the news that she had a preventative mastectomy and we can’t stop talking about her. It’s nothing new – talking about Angelina is an American pastime. We have opinions – strong opinions – about Brad and Jennifer and Billy Bob, about her international adoptions, her humanitarian causes, and sometimes we even talk about her movies. We enjoy loving and hating her in equal measure. She is a role model and an inspiration – or a seductress, home-wrecker, and self-serving bleeding heart. But it doesn’t matter which side of the great Angelina divide you inhabit, because Angelina lovers and haters are bound to her in the same way – as a focal point for identity.

Angelina Jolie in 2012, cinemafestival / Shutterstock.com
Angelina Jolie in 2012, cinemafestival / Shutterstock.com

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Okay, not the only focal point. But enthusiastic gossip and passionate opinions are signs that something powerful is happening at the level of identity. When you applaud Angelina as a good person or fine actress, you are literally identifying with her. By being her fan, you can help yourself to a serving of her identity, boosting your sense of being good and valuable. Maybe you even get a tattoo or have your lips plumped or consider adoption or become involved with refugee campaigns. She helps you become “someone” – not as big a “someone” as Angelina, of course, but someone, nevertheless, who is Good like her.

The same effect happens in reverse. When you condemn Angelina, you get an identity boost. By distancing yourself from her wickedness, you affirm your own goodness. You refuse to wear vials of blood around your neck, have an affair with someone else’s husband, or fake caring about humanitarian causes to boost your popularity. Why? Because you are a good person! And you know you are good because you are not like Angelina. So you see, whether you are an Angelina fan or an Angelina hater, your sense of yourself as good is achieved, at least in part, in relationship with her. That’s what explains the pleasure we feel when she gives us something really meaty to gossip about. Nothing thrills more than a good scandal because it provides a booster shot to our insecure sense of goodness.

So when Angelina went public with her decision to have a mastectomy, what she called “My Medical Choice,” we couldn’t stop relating to her as a source of identity. Everyone is taking sides, as is our custom. Whether we applaud or condemn her decision, either way we are not seriously discussing the issue. Because when it comes to Angelina the celebrity, our major issue is always getting an identity boost from her. It was probably a bit naïve for her to think that we would react in any other way. She is not our friend, after all, not a “person” in any real sense. She is a “personage,” a distant but tantalizing figure who captures our imagination and invades our identities.

Many people are wondering if Angelina did the right thing. I’ve been asked it a few times in the last 24 hours and my family and friends know I don’t traffic in celebrity gossip very often! Yet they want to know what I think, and because I have not been either an Angelina fan or a hater, my reaction is subdued. I have nothing to win or lose by praising her or by trashing her, for that matter. I don’t feel scandalized or in a position to judge. She made a personal decision and because she’s a personage she went public with it; it’s as simple as that.

But if you are a woman facing the difficult medical decision to have a preventative mastectomy, and you are wondering what to think about Angelina’s decision, here’s what I’d suggest:

  • If you are a fan or a detractor, please seek advice elsewhere because the impact of her revelation on you is too problematic. You may over-identify and think that what’s good for Angelina is good for you. Or you may rebel and insist that you would never do what Angelina did just because she did it. Either way, you are not thinking clearly about what is right for YOU.
  • If Angelina gossip doesn’t do anything for you, then you can take her experience as a data point. You will be able to detect some hints of Angelina’s personality in her letter: that the death of her mother was a terrible loss, that her children are more important to her than her own body, and that she is the type of person who cannot bear to feel out of control. You will be able to see that all those factors influenced her decision and that different issues will influence yours.

Facing difficult medical conditions is never easy. If we can see through our Angelina love/hate daze, perhaps we can hear her words of advice without it being tainted by her celebrity:

“I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices.”

She recognizes that her choice is not for everyone. She hopes that all women at risk for breast or ovarian cancer get good advice and make their own informed choices. Not necessarily Angelina’s choices, but options that work for them. So do I, Angelina. So do we all.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

Image: Angelina Jolie in 2012, cinemafestival / Shutterstock.com

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