This rhetorical critique on the topic of social change was written by my daughter Michaela, for her communications class at George Washington University.
On March 24, 2015 Angelina Jolie published an op-ed in the NY Times called Diary of a Surgery. Her op-ed shared with the world an update since her double mastectomy two years ago. This time, she shared her thoughts and medical opinion on her laparoscopic bilateral salpingooophorectomy: the removal of the ovaries. News outlets picked up her story like rapid fire; news stations, other papers, and radio hosts alike were all talking about it. The dialogue surrounding her op-ed continues to be mixed. One audience recognizes the social change that she is trying to bring about. For decades, talking about cancer, especially breast cancer, was taboo. Jolie, in my opinion, is attempting to break down this stigma and bring about social change so that women can speak freely about their bodies to bring about body positivity. However, another audience, often times those who are directly affected by cancer, has a hard time swallowing her words. This audience is living with cancer, living with someone who has cancer, or has BRCA gene mutations like Jolie. It is this audience that does not get the recognition, the fame, or the sympathy that Jolie does. Throughout this paper, I argue that although Jolie does encourage a transformation regarding talking about body positivity, choice, and knowledge about cancer, she fails to recognize the reality of what millions of women are enduring and instead puts herself on a pedestal.
First, I would like to address how Jolie encourages a transformation regarding the ongoing discussion about cancer. The conversation about cancer, in my opinion, tends to be hush-hush, stigmatized, and taboo. It appears this way because up until several years ago, a diagnosis of “cancer” was synonymous with “death.” I applaud the way that Jolie responds to this climate. She makes it clear, that given her high risk of developing cancer due to a BRCA1 mutation, she must empower herself with knowledge and encourage other women to do so. For that reason alone she exceeds the stereotypical response to a genetic testing with an unfortunate result. I would like to note however, that although she exceeded those expectations there are thousands of women around the world who receive worse news regarding cancer and exceed expectations even more.
Jolie encourages this transformation of knowledge about cancer through her use of diction in Diary of a Surgery. Her very first line is, “Two years ago I wrote about my choice to have a preventive double mastectomy.” I would like to focus on the word “choice.” “Choice” has emerged as a feminist coined term during the third-wave of feminism and continues on into what some now call the current fourth-wave of feminism. “Choice” connotes freedom, knowledge, liberty, and independence. Essentially, Jolie is writing from a feminist perspective. She is encouraging women to take full ownership over their bodies and make knowledgeable choices about their medical care. I agree. This theme and perspective continue throughout her paper. She says that she wants women to “choose what is right” for them “personally.” She even at one point says, “I feel feminine,” which emphasizes the womanly, feminist perspective that she comes from. For that, I applaud Jolie.
That is where the positive, transformation ends. Jolie opened up a conversation about breast and ovarian cancer and female health to a large audience. She distances herself from the women that are in her shoes or have been in her shoes. She fails to give credit where credit is due: to those who are battling this disease that she is attempting to prevent. This op-ed created divisiveness in a way that I think Jolie could not have imagined. I will continue this paper by arguing that Jolie created this divisiveness by providing inaccurate statistics, distancing herself from other women affected by cancer, and alienating those who do not have options.
Jolie provides some inaccurate information. According to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, one of the top cancer research facilities in the United States, having a BRCA1 gene mutation increases your risk of developing breast cancer by 50%-85% and your risk of developing ovarian cancer by 20%-40%. Jolie said that her tests “estimated 87 percent risk of breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.” I would have liked to gain more information as to where these numbers are coming from. If they are inaccurate, they create a wave of fear from women. For a woman, such as myself who knows that there is a gene mutation in the family, her words can have a negative effect. Rather than empowering women, these statistics can scare them. Not only that, but Jolie boasts herself on a pedestal as beating the odds. It is not fair to women that have taken preventative measures and they still develop cancer or their cancer returns.
Thereby, she distances herself from women who are facing Cancer. Jolie writes, “I went through what I imagine thousands of women have felt.” Here, Jolie tries to make her relatable, but she fails to do so. Saying, “what I imagine” distances her from these women. She went through something that many, many women go through. Including my mother and one of my aunts. Due to her fame she is acting as a voice of all of those who have been told that they have a BRCA gene mutation. It is when she says things such as, “what I imagine” that she differentiates herself from her sisters in this journey and she is no longer the voice of many women, but only herself. She talks about entering into forced menopause, not being able to hug her children when she had radioactive tracer in her, and lifestyle choices that she must make. During these statements, she never says that she feels sorry for the women that are going through this with her. Or, that all of these sisters are brave and strong too. In that way, she distances herself from the voices that echo hers.
Finally, I think one of the worst things that Jolie can do is alienate those who do not have the options as she does. She alienates those who do not have family support whereas her “husband in France [was] on a plane within hours” when she told him that she needed her surgery sooner rather than later. The worst line that she wrote, in my opinion, is “I know my children will never have to say, “Mom died of ovarian cancer”.” I believe that she makes women feel guilty if they have stage IV cancer. She makes it seem as though every single cancer is preventable and if you do not take those measures then you are hurting your children and family. I believe that this alienates women who have advanced cancers because it is just not fair. My mom, after being diagnosed with stage IIIC breast cancer and finishing treatment for that, took all the correct preventative measures for a reoccurrence. Her BRCAII gene mutation generated such aggressive tumors that her cancer returned and metastasized. There was nothing she could do. There is nothing that many other women can do. Jolie makes them feel guilty in this piece. As a vocal advocate for knowledge about cancer, she should realize what she is doing to the women who are facing the worst that cancer has to offer.
In some ways, I have a lot in common with Angelina Jolie. I understand her fears and the unknown and the worry. I question what my genes have in store for me. I really do applaud her for speaking out about this and getting traction about these types of conversations. That is why you, my reader, are reading this blog. But, I agree Angelina Jolie, “knowledge is power.” So, here’s my bit of knowledge to you: put yourself in my mom’s shoes. I think you need to be careful on how much you place yourself on a pedestal and not women like my mom. I think you need to look at some of the words you wrote and see how they have the potential to be interpreted as distancing yourself and reprimanding those women who have advanced cancer diagnoses. So, that’s my knowledge on this matter.