No one likes Angelina Jolie. She is a home-wrecker, a greedy pansexual and a blood hobbyist. As Beth Capriotti of The Philly Post wrote last year: “She’s smug, aloof, arrogant and snotty.” Chelsea Handler has said that Jolie would make a lousy friend: “She can’t be trusted.” She is the sharpest, most lacerating point on the Brad-Jen-Angie love triangle that tabloids have propped up for nearly a decade.
But this narrative has suddenly become unstable, now that Jolie has done something that is brave, moving and in a word – nice. In a New York Times editorial on Tuesday, the 37-year-old actress revealed she’d had a preventative double mastectomy, after watching her mother die at age 56 of cancer. She wrote of this decision in relation to her six children: “I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.” With this knowledge, Jolie opted for a double mastectomy, and by doing so, Jolie writes that her chances of getting breast cancer dropped from 87 per cent to less than 5 per cent.
Angelina Jolie owes us nothing. She’s a private citizen who made a most private decision, and yet she’s sharing that intimate experience to serve the very public that has frequently vilified her over the years. She writes: “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.”
Will this generous sentiment change how we see Jolie, or unlikeable women in general? In Lean In, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg examines the “likeability penalty,” pointing to a body of research that finds women are often professionally penalized (i.e. losing jobs or being passed over for promotion) when they behave in ways deemed more “masculine” than “feminine.” The nice, nurturing woman is a social norm, but decisiveness and strong leadership are still considered masculine traits. A woman at work who dares to act “masculine” – does what the hell she wants, popularity be damned – leaves herself open to backlash.
Jolie has always been more George Clooney than Julia Roberts, indifferent to our approval in the way of male stars. She’s unquestionably popular, but it’s a contradictory, complex appeal. The height of her stardom coincided with, and was buoyed by, the Brad Pitt relationship. We can know nothing about his marriage to Jennifer Aniston, yet somehow Pitt is never implicated in its ending; responsibility for the split falls squarely on Jolie – the dark, vampiric devil set upon fair Aniston’s angel.
Even pre-Pitt, Jolie’s persona was decidedly dangerous. Her affinity for knives and tattoos, the quickie marriage to oily Billy-Bob Thornton – all of it was echoed on-screen in a goth, intimidating sexuality. But that fierceness didn’t stop her from being split into pieces by the media and scrutinized like all sex symbols: her lips (too full), her arms (too bony), her breasts (suspiciously perfect). Her left leg even got its own Twitter account after making a notable appearance at the Oscars in 2012.
This media dissection may make Jolie uniquely attuned to the experience of other women confronted with breast-related disease; they, too, may suddenly feel the parts of their sum. So it was particularly powerful that Jolie wrote: “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.” But the public has a different interpretation of a celebrity’s worth. A female star’s pieces are forever there for the feasting, even under these troubling circumstances, at least according to those rising from the Internet gutters to post comments along the lines of: “Why would she mutilate herself? No more nude parts!” But Jolie refuses to fuse her identity to her body, despite constant affirmation that it’s the most important thing about her.
She’s got better things to do than worry about you liking her. Rather than smirking her way through rom-coms, she’s been writing and directing, releasing a film about the Bosnian War, and concentrating on her humanitarian work with the UN. Her breasts did appear on the cover of W in 2008, where they were feeding her baby daughter, a reminder of her other big role as a mother.
Good girls who live in fear of being unlikable, who scramble to say and do the nice thing rather than being true to themselves, lose out on power. Life gets smaller and less thrilling when being liked trumps being real. Jolie shows us, pre-and-post mastectomy, a life lived fully, with no missing pieces.