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By Bill Patrick
Straight, white guys often seem to think that we know what’s best for everyone else. We love to go around telling people of other groups –women of all races, men of color, and people who are sexual and gender minorities what to do and how to live.
This white, straight, male entitlement, our propensity to take up the historic racist and sexist “white man’s burden” of liberating the other peoples of the world from their benighted situation typically transcends even social class. Most white, straight men, no matter our economic position, still consider ourselves to be the lord of all that we survey, even if our domain is relatively small.
It was with a deepening awareness of this pattern that I watched the events surrounding Angelina Jolie’s public announcement that she opted to have her breasts removed because she carries the gene that for her makes breast cancer nearly inevitable. And what I saw troubled me.
Jolie had a double mastectomy. And, bravely, she chose to discuss her decision – and the procedure – in an op-ed piece she wrote for the New York Times.
Now, when it comes to regular human beings – to regular women – Angelina Jolie is hardly representative. Her stratospheric wealth means that she lives an existence far, far removed from the vast majority of humanity. Her access to the finest medical care and facilities in the world – regardless of cost – puts her in what is probably the smallest of all possible segments of humanity. And some of her prior actions related to that immense wealth have been troubling, such as her choice in 2006 to deliver a baby in Namibia, where child mortality rates for local women remain terrifying high. As Andrea Lynch wrote at the time:
“[T]he birth of Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt on May 27 does seem a fitting monument to the world of women’s health in which we currently live: where a woman with the right connections can turn an entire country into her own personal maternity ward, while meanwhile, over half a million women still die from largely avoidable complications from pregnancy and childbirth every year, 99 percent of them in developing countries.”
Similarly, Jolie’s practice of adopting children of differing ethnicities from around the world also raises troubling questions about global disparities in wealth and the “baby saving” behaviors of wealthy, white North Americans eager to “rescue” individual children while at the same time doing nothing to lessen the harsh systemic inequalities of a neo-colonial economic system that guarantees continued economic privation in much of the world. And in the case of at least one of her adoptions, Jolie’s wealth and prominence again seem to have played a key role. As Kristi Brian points out, “Angelina Jolie’s 2002 adoption of a baby boy from Cambodia was completed amid the U.S. Department of State’s ban on adoptions from Cambodia resulting from allegations of visa fraud and baby brokering.”
Clearly, when you have the sort of money that Jolie does, the rules just don’t apply to you.
Except, of course, when it comes to having a genetic predisposition to illness. No amount of money can change that…at least not yet. Jolie has a genetic mutation that, according to her doctors, almost certainly means that had she kept her breasts, she would have developed cancer – a disease that she watched her mother succumb to after ten years of struggle.
But despite Jolie’s sometimes questionable choices, and her truly rarified existence as an extremely wealthy woman, her decision to publish the story of her medical decision and subsequent treatment in The New York Times was applauded by many. It quickly flew around the internet and on social media, and many every-day women seemed to resonate deeply with her story.
Of her children and partner, Jolie wrote:
“It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can. On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity. I am fortunate to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive. So to anyone who has a wife or girlfriend going through this, know that you are a very important part of the transition.”
That’s pretty powerful stuff – the desire to stay alive for one’s children, to know that they are comfortable. Continuing to feel feminine despite the loss of one’s breasts. The importance of having support. Those are things that a lot of women seemed to relate to.
But it did not take long for a privileged, white, straight guy to come galloping in like some modern-day John Wayne to set us all straight. To chime in with his correction to Jolie’s statements in a very public way. In an opinion piece on CNN.com that was patronizingly entitled “What Angelina Jolie Forgot to Mention,” Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, felt the need to offer his little “improvement” to the Jolie piece, writing:
“If American women saw themselves in Angelina Jolie – then that would be a problem. Because the logical next question is: Should I get a preventive mastectomy? Then I realized something was missing in her piece; something that should have been printed in big black letters: NOTE: This story is not relevant to more than 99% of American women.”
Now, when it comes to the medical realities of most cases of breast cancer, Welch is right. And this same point has been made by others as well. For example, see articles by Gayle Sulik and Cheryl Lemus. Where the piece by Welch differs from the work by Sulik and Lemus, however, is that the women writers took a far more respectful tone on the whole issue. They did not write their essays with the same sort of scolding, corrective tone. Lemus, for instance, writes of Jolie: “Like most people, I was awestruck by her bravery, her straightforwardness, and her honesty.”
Aside from Welch’s highly patronizing tone, it is also difficult for me to know just where his sense of alarm comes from. Whence the source of his straight-white-male hyperbole? And what can explain his false allegation that Jolie failed to include in her piece information about how rare her situation is? Because, actually, she did include that very fact, writing:
“Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation.”
She did not “forget to mention” that fact at all.
And, furthermore, Jolie was not urging American women to get mastectomies. She was, however, urging them to get tested for the wonky gene if they thought that they were at risk for it. You know, in order to save their own lives.
But what troubled me the most about Welch’s piece – other than his framing it entirely as a correction to Jolie’s omission – an omission that did not in fact exist – was his sweeping claim that Jolie’s story is not relevant to over 99% of American women. To me this suggests to me that he really missed much of what Jolie was actually saying. He clearly seems to feel that the entire message of Jolie’s essay was solely about her specific genetic condition.
And I think he’s wrong. I think that Jolie’s article was about far more than just the role of her genes in causing breast cancer. It was also about the cultural and social meanings of a woman’s breasts, about being a Hollywood sex symbol who happens to be mortal after all, about women’s self-concept, about the importance of having a supportive partner, and about the desire to stay alive for one’s children. And as such, her story has elements that are no doubt relevant to nearly every woman in America. Welch’s inability to see this fact – his male myopia – speaks directly to why we white, straight guys need to be a lot more humble when it comes to telling other people just how to be and what to do – and what to care about – because often we just don’t get it.
I feel able to comment on the heterosexual, white, male supremacist experience because it is what I was brought up into. It is a way of being that I live – and fight against – every day. I try to ensure that I do not speak in universals. That I base my comments in my lived experience, and not in the ideologies of white, male, or heterosexual supremacy. And that I consider how my social position as a professional, white, heterosexual male influences my actions, my reactions, and even my very perceptions about life itself. But I cannot presume to know just what Angelina Jolie’s experience means for women. I did, however, ask a dear and brilliant female friend of mine about her take on it all – my partner, feminist researcher Dr. Mary Louise Babineau. And here is what she had to say:
“Women are not about to go rushing out and cutting off their breasts. We are not so stupid to think that this applies to us in a medical sense. It applies to us in a cultural sense. It’s about being a woman. It’s about how the world values us as women, about how our culture objectifies women. It’s about culture and the overemphasis on women’s appearance. That’s what it’s about. Angelina Jolie has essentially stood up and said: ‘I am more than just my breasts.’ Which is a pretty radical thing for any woman to say, much less a movie star. Of course, we also have to remember that as a movie star, Angelina Jolie has the resources and information available to her to get tested and then to have the procedure. She has the kind of financial and social resources that the most women, poor women, many of them women of color, simply do not have.”
Now, let us compare for a moment the wisdom in this woman’s words with the inaccurate chatter of the straight, white, male doctor, who, like most guys, seems to think that he knows women well enough to predict what they are going to do – and then he takes it upon himself to tell them what they “should” do instead.
In his piece, Welch comes across like so many other straight white guys who attempt to take up the “white man’s burden” of saving the other peoples of the world from themselves. Patronizing. Offensive. Unhelpful. And, in this case, he is even factually wrong in his allegation about what Jolie supposedly “forgot to mention.” Maybe he was just being careless. But he didn’t let that stop him from sounding certain in his convictions.
I take this as a good example of why white, straight guys might want to drop our self-appointed mission of saving “the other,” and focus instead on something that would be more useful: taking a good look at our own lives, and trying to find ways to liberate ourselves from our supremacist ways of thinking and acting.
If we truly do want to help others, then we need to start by doing something that is revolutionary: instead of telling other people what they need, maybe we should ask them.
For over 20 years, Bill Patrick has been working to support feminist community-based organizations that try to help to reduce sexual and domestic violence. As a male ally, he has partnered with shelters for battered women, women’s self defense programs, and rape crisis lines. His Ph.D. dissertation explored how men’s limited emotional repertoire is implicated in their abusive behavior in relationships.
His paid career has been spent moving back and forth between counseling and teaching roles. He has worked with male survivors of childhood sexual abuse, researched and analyzed batterer intervention programs, run a supervised visitation center aimed at serving the needs of battered women who had orders of protection, and has taught several university level courses on men and masculinity.
Throughout his years of working with men and boys in various psychotherapeutic, educational, and social justice contexts, Bill has become increasingly convinced that using a feminist-informed approach is the only truly effective and compassionate way to work with men and boys, and that the struggle for women’s equality will ultimately free us all.
Bill currently lives in Eastern Canada with his partner and their five year-old daughter – both of whom are strong feminists.