Angelina Jolie Controls the Narrative


The Basics:

Late last night, an editorial by Angelina Jolie, entitled “My Medical Choice,” went live on the New York Times.  In the editorial, Jolie revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy as a preemptive protection from breast and ovarian cancer.  Jolie, whose mother died of breast cancer at 57, also revealed that she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene and, in her words, “My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.”

In the editorial, Jolie vividly describes the specifics of the procedure:

My own process began on Feb. 2 with a procedure known as a “nipple delay,” which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple.

Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.

Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.

She also explicitly encourages women to explore their options and closes with an explanation of her decision to publicize her own surgery:

I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.

What It Means:

Just to be clear, analyzing the release of this news — and its effect on Jolie’s star image — does not take away from the actual, lived experience of a mastectomy, the difficulty of Jolie’s decision, or the power of her decision to write about it.  I am in now way attempting to trivialize Jolie or her decision.

But as star scholar Richard Dyer explains, actors becomes stars when their images “act out” what matters to broad swaths of people.  For many years, Jolie acted out deviance and rebellion; for many years after, she acted out motherhood, multiculturalism, and philanthropic engagement.  Those valences are all still very much a part of Jolie’s image, but today they’re emboldened by a very conscious decision to publicize a procedure that literally removed a primary locus of her star power.  And that decision — the very fearlessness of it — is actually very much in line with her image up to this point.

The first thing to note about the op-ed is just how surprising it was.  This wasn’t the culmination of weeks of rumors of hospitalization.  Rather, the entire procedure was kept under wraps, even though it was performed at a clinic in Los Angeles.  We’ll likely never know how they leveraged that level of silence — most likely a combination of non-disclosure agreements and capital — but what matters is that the secret held.  As a result, Jolie could release the story completely on her terms.  She set the narrative and the tone and, in so doing, the way people would talk about her today and for years to come.  In publicist’s terms, she was able to “own” the story from the very beginning.

Because of that ownership, the announcement isn’t of an action star losing her breasts, but of a woman gaining courage and acting on the desire to watch her children grow.  It’s not a tragedy, but a triumph.

If you’ve followed the history of Pitt and Jolie, then you know that this type of control is nothing new — ever since the photos of the pair playing with Zahara [EDIT: MADDOX] on the beach first hit the cover of People, they’ve controlled the narrative of their romance and their family.  Whether or not you’re Team Brangelina, the fact remains that they leverage publicity better than any other high-profile star today.

When the gossip magazines pitted them against Jennifer Aniston, they sold those same magazines — well, specifically, People — photos of them with their children…and then donated the millions to charity.  But those photos of companionship and familial bliss spoke the language the minivan majority wanted to hear, and helped placate any remaining resentment of the couple that supposedly broke the heart of the girl next door.  They sell art photos to W; Pitt talks about architecture to Architectural Digest and industry to Vanity Fair.  They know where certain narratives belong and to whom they speak.

Which is why it’s no accident that this announcement appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times.  The Times screams “last bastion of serious journalism” — and, of all the mainstream news publications, it’s the least enervated by celebrity news.  (Clearly there’s some, but far less than, say, the Los Angeles Times or Time).  Most celebrity health stories / triumphs make the cover of People, replete with photos of the star looking resilient and surrounded by family.  They are, in most cases, publicity: a means of keeping the star in the public eye during his/her absence….or, more tragically, a paycheck to leave behind to surviving family.

Choosing the Times has myriad benefits, publicity-wise. The audience dwarfs that of People or the audience of, say, the Today show.  But it also de-feminizes the story: People, Us, and the morning shows are all primarily directed at women.  They are “feminized” media products which, in our contemporary media environment, means they’re considered fluffier, less legitimate, more trivial.  (I’m not saying I like this distinction, but so it is).  But for Jolie, a double mastectomy – and this decision in general — isn’t just a woman’s issue.  It’s a family issue, and one that requires societal support.

Because the implicit message of the op-ed is stunning: Jolie is one of the most beautiful women in the world.  Her breasts, in no small part, made her a star.  But she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom.  Women have been hearing this message for years, but with this editorial, Jolie not only makes it available to men, but proves it through the very existence of her resilient, still sexual body.

And this is no tell-all interview, no banal celebrity profile.  There’s no fawning description of Jolie’s children surrounding her, or how peaceful she looks in her bed.  It’s a narrative in her voice, with her story, her decision, her description.  Because of the length constraints of the op-ed, it’s unembroidered, to the point and, well, persuasive.  There’s no glossy photos attached, nothing to distract you from Jolie’s words.  It’s short enough that few will skim.  The lede might still be “Star Famous For Boobs Has Double Mastectomy,” but because of the brevity of the piece — and the sheer desire to read more about the procedure – millions are actually reading her words, rather than simply seeing the announcement on the cover of a magazine.

The op-ed persuades readers of the legitimacy of Jolie’s decision.  It also works to persuade others to consider this decision for themselves, effectively legitimizing the option for millions.  But the op-ed also serves a secondary persuasive purpose, and I dont’ think it’s trivial to highlight it.  As I’ve watched thousands react to this story online, I’ve witnesses an outpouring of support, of course, but also respect, especially from women.  Jolie has never been a “girl’s girl.”  She’s that girl who always did her own thing, who hung out with the guys, who never had a ton of female friends.  She’s so beautiful that she alienates; she’s so different that she intimidates.  But this op-ed makes Jolie seem humble, thoughtful, and conscious of the way that publicizing a private decision can benefit more than just her career and image.  Jolie has long been a public advocate for peace and women’s rights on the global level, but for many, that work seemed to exotic, too altruistic, only further contributing to her distant, intimidating exoticism.  Jolie was never “just like us” — her life was nothing like ours.

There are still some elements of that exotic otherness in the op-ed — “my partner Brad Pitt,” for one — but the overall tone is one of warmth and identification.  There’s not even a photo to remind you of the beautiful symmetry of her face, or the eclectic and overwhelming cuteness of her kids.  It’s just a woman talking about her breasts, her family, and her decision to sacrifice one in hopes of holding on to the other.  The two lines of the piece reads “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”  I’ve never seen Jolie use a collective “we.”  But this might be the moment in her star narrative when fans began thinking of themselves and The Jolie in the same sentence.  


14 Responses to “Angelina Jolie Controls the Narrative”

  1. Kristina says:

    Yeah the “my partner Brad Pitt” took me right out of it for a second. Everyone knows who your partner is, lady. At the same time, though, it struck me that it’s another instance of her controlling the narrative – there will be absolutely no conjecture on who she’s talking about.

    In the Slate article you linked to on Facebook, the author talks about how some commenters on the story indicated that it might just be a way of covering up a boob job. But this would be roughly the dumbest possible way to go about doing that (ten to one we hear stories from folks at the clinic now), and Angelina Jolie is definitely not stupid. This was beautifully done, on her part.

  2. Emily says:

    Honestly, I saw the link without any context and I was reading along without knowing who wrote it and it was the “my partner Brad Pitt” that made me go back and look at the byline.

  3. Dennis says:

    I recognize that it may very well have been a carefully plotted choice regarding the mention of her partner, but almost all publications would edit the first mention of a person’s name to include the person’s full name. I highly doubt that this wasn’t copy-edited (granted, she probably had far more power over what choices stayed than most writers). Regardless, it is a very small detail in a very well-composed and effective piece.

    She does an excellent job of ensuring as wide an audience as possible, uses a variety of rhetorical strategies, and owns the narrative not just as a star controlling one’s image.

    • Annie says:

      Totally agree re: rhetorical strategies — if I taught freshman comp, I would totally make them read this piece as an exemplar of various argumentative strategies.

      • Dennis says:

        As someone who teaches comp regularly, I’m sure celebrity image crafting in general would be an excellent way to engage students in a comp class. Great way to expose them to issues of gender, race, class, etc while making it extremely accessible to them.
        I’d also find myself rather sick of all the essays about Lady Gaga, Nicky Minaj, Kanye West etc very quickly.
        I love reading your pieces for the quick dip in your academic waters and intellectual approach to celebrity though!

  4. Dennis says:

    Also notice that she chooses to not identify any of her children or other members of her family by name. She gives the public access only to those individuals who should be publicly pressed regarding this issue.

  5. Lea says:

    Perhaps Ms. Jolie was simply being humble and not presumptuous in identifying her partner by name. Does every single person in the world know who her “partner” is? I’ve met many celebrities in my life that have introduced themselves by their first and last name despite the fact that I knew quite well who they were because they were famous. I attribute that to them not being presumptuous.

    Whatever the case, I learned a lot from her op-ed and firmly believe that the test she had should be as commonplace as mammograms. If this is a preventative measure, it should be available to a woman working days at a factory and nights as a waitress just as easily as it is to a woman of Ms. Jolie’s means.

    As for Ms. Jolie and her family, I wish them continued health and happiness. And I thank her and Mr. Pitt for sharing their story with the world. I, for one, learned a lot from reading it and will be asking my doctor for that test.

    • Lori says:

      I respectfully disagree regarding mentioning her partner’s name; it’s clearly a calculated ploy, because otherwise there is no need to mention the name. The world does not need to know her partner is Brad Pitt, only that her “partner”, whoever that may be, is supportive. Now of course she mentioned the name because specifying it was Mr. Pitt rules out the possibility it was someone else.

      But your last sentence struck me, because there’s both good news and bad news on that front. The good news is that the test is included in the list of preventative services insurers must cover under the Affordable Care Act, which means it will be accessible to the woman working at the factory. The bad news is that it’s probably not necessary for most women to have it. I don’t mean this as an attack against you (obviously I know nothing about your life or medical history) but even if you ask your doctor for it, s/he may not deem it medically necessary. And from a health policy perspective, it’s not good when people go to their doctors and start demanding tests they don’t need.

      Further reading:

  6. Krys says:

    I had this surgery myself, and having her go public with this was huge. Although I’m already tiring of hearing this referred to as “the Angelina gene” or “the Angelina surgery,” it has brought a world of awareness to this stuff. I hope that now that one of the most famous, beautiful women in the world has gone through this, someone will try and get us closer to a better solution than removing body parts.

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