Angelina Jolie Mastectomy: Actress Channeled 'Brave' Character Merida's Courage

Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she has undergone a double mastectomy has already filled the web with articles of surprise, support, and admiration. Both writers and commentators were impressed by her courage to make her decision. While Disney, through the Merida reshaping process, shows little girls what perfect looks are all about, the famous Hollywood actress teaches women femininity is more than appearance. The two cinema stars should make all women think about what they pass onto their children in terms of health and looks.    

Breasts are an important part of feminine identity for most women, a spicy ingredient in sexual attraction and a powerful marketing tool. Jolie’s act hit at the basis of all this and it’s no surprise that most people now see her as a path breaker, opening  the discussions about breast surgery. While breast cancer generally affects one in eight women in the U.S. and more than 39,000 women will die because of it in 2013, the subject still remains a somewhat shameful one. Of course people talk about it, we have lots of survival stories. Nobody likes to chatter about their sickness and its consequences, but when it comes to breast cancer, there is a deeper motivation for which women are embarrassed to share their experience.

Not only that breasts are the most visible body part that differentiate the sexes, but the significance attached to them has always been related to power. Sometimes associated with maternity, breasts have nevertheless had their reputation built on their sexual role. Tamed or let loose, according to different geographical areas and time periods, they satisfied alluring purposes, marked social relations based on gender and even predicted the character of their bearers, as some still think. While the latter has not been scientifically proved, it is without doubt that our bodily existence shapes our identity, therefore losing a part of one’s body may result in a sense of frustration in relation to the self. It shouldn’t be surprising then that a mastectomy is a bigger deal because it deprives women of an important relational element, one that draws the line between men and women and thus manages their relation in society and in private. In a patriarchal world, women have been used to the fact that their body and their beauty are vital ingredients for success, two of the few ways of gaining power.   

The mass-media does too little in order to reconstruct feminine identity independent of or less based on appearance. Breasts, as in fact the whole body, are mere objects that stand for women’s sex appeal and as a consequence for women’s value. “Everybody” knows that big breasts are desirable, and the large number of breast implants stand as proof. In cinema, naturally-gifted stars are labeled sex symbols (Angelina Jolie makes no exception), the porn industry has made a reputation from hiring only big-breasted actresses or digitally enhancing their natural assets. Again and again, women’s sexualized bodies are the only passport to the land of those desirable and worthy of our admiration. Health is too little an issue. The body is to be used and not inhabited.

And now, here’s this one cinema star that escapes the sexualizing process — Merida, the Brave, that has succeeded in making millions worldwide without stepping into the usual sexist traps. This is only one more proof that sex and sexism are not absolutely necessary for getting attention. And then, what does Disney do to this single cartoon princess that build her identity on more than her appearance and a few traditionally feminine traits? It transforms her so that the girls who might take Merida as a role model become aware of their sexual potential. Not only she becomes more like Barbie, but her body becomes more exposed, and although Merida’s new designers do not dare to equip her with a larger bosom or a low-cut neck, they make the first step of showing her shoulders. The cartoon princess no longer fights to win control over her body, but lets herself be devoured by the gazes of others, both men and women. This is only to discover, years on, that losing her youth and/or health leaves her half the woman she could be.

It’s no longer anew that children, and mostly girls, become sexualized at a younger age than they used to. And it is a pity when later in life they find out that society, their family and they themselves have only superficially valued their personalities, capabilities and bodies. Both rebellious Merida (as opposed to Barbie Merida) and Angelina Jolie work as examples for two categories of women: young and adult. It is the responsibility of the latter to teach girls what they're worth, what they can do with the help of their bodies, besides sexually attracting boys and men. Jolie’s most important lesson is that women should not suffer over their identity when faced with challenges that leaves them without the socially demanded physical traits. Brad Pitt put it very well: in the end, what matters is her being there with all she has to give. Most of us would say that she was “Brave”... 

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Alexandra Gruian

I am now a Master's student in Bucharest, doing Gender Studies. I graduated from Communication and Public Relations in Bucharest. I am interested in women's image in society and the media, participation in the public sphere, empowerment through education and new media. More broadly, I like to compare Eastern theory about and practice of gender as opposed to the Western approach. One of my most powerful traits is curiosity.

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