Breasts and boosterism

More fun from the feminist-o-sphere, which has emerged briefly from the disturbing recesses of rape culture to discuss a matter of even greater importance – Angelina Jolie’s tits.

Jolie, as readers of either insert-scandal-sheet-of-choice or the Guardian cannot fail to have noticed, has gone public after having a preventative double mastectomy, when it turned out she carried a gene which gives her a frankly terrifying chance of contracting breast cancer. The decision to have the surgery is hardly more than ‘human interest’ grade news; a bit of a no-brainer for anyone in the same situation who values, you know, continuing to be alive and stuff. No, it was the decision to go public, for the purposes of (what else?) ‘raising awareness’, that caused everyone able to stifle a yawn to plunge into boosterism about the run of the mill actress’s ‘courage’.

Almost everyone, that is. There’s always something a little fishy about sleb advocacy, which is often as narrow and blundering as it is well-meaning; and sometimes, when an individual utterly misses the point from a position of invulnerable saintliness, then somebody else will see their temper snap. Enter Ruth Fowler, writing for CounterPunch.

What exactly has she done that deserves praise? She wrote about an invasive, often brutal medically (un?)necessary procedure which 56% of women with breast cancer in the US choose to undergo. Hands up everyone in the US who hasn’t heard of breast cancer and mastectomy! Anyone? Umm, anyone….?

OK. So now, thanks to Jolie, we’re MORE aware. And guess what? There are really, really expensive tests you can get which tell you beforehand how likely you are to get cancer and die! Hands up who knew about that one? Oh, quite a few of you? Mainly the ones who can afford it, am I right? The ones who can’t afford it – well what good is knowing that there’s a test out there only privileged rich people can get?

Ouch. Fowler’s piece is guilty of the distasteful habit of privilege-baiting (although Angelina Jolie is a better fit for privilege than many), and on the whole probably a little bit more obnoxious than it needs to be (yes, yes, pot kettle black); but the core message is absolutely on the money, or rather lack of money. The problem is not that people are ‘unaware’ of breast cancer, or common treatments for cancer (which traditionally involve cutting the affected bit off), but that (in the US, at least – and give Jeremy Hunt a couple more months…) there is no public healthcare; that making a big deal about what is possibly not the right solution for all women in a similar situation will lead to unnecessary surgeries and treatment (a lot of women end up corralled into unnecessary breast surgery).

Unfortunately, Fowler dared to break the sacred circle of sentimental boosterism. In particular, her piece has received a reply from Sharon Smith in the US version of Socialist Worker. And if you thought Fowler was obnoxious…oh boy! One of my pet peeves with feminism (pretty much all sub-schools suffer from this particular syndrome) is that it tends to interpret all critical commentary as ‘patronising to women’, which is of course itself patronising to women, who are perfectly well capable of deciding their own allegiances without some professional ideological caste to speak for them. So I will say no more than that, if I were Ruth Fowler, I would find Smith’s article patronising to the point of inciting homicidal rage. In any case, it is diversionary, schoolmarmish and intellectually moribund.

Smith’s first complaint is that the CounterPunch strapline – “Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits” – is sexist, because it contains the word ‘tits’. Fowler is oh so graciously absolved of guilt on this particular point:

Fowler’s article never actually mentions the word “tits.” But like smirking adolescents, the editors insert it … in their contemptuous title.

It is a little disturbing that the very idea that a woman would use the word “tits” is considered so exceptionally unsisterly that it is safer to assume that some sniggering oaf on the editorial team put it in for a laugh. Really? How divorced from actual womankind are some of these people? And while Fowler’s article does, indeed, not use the word ‘tits’, it is sarcastic and venomous in tone, and far more aggressive than the strapline – be it hers or the ghost of Alexander Cockburn’s.

“Using boob jokes to introduce an article about undergoing a double mastectomy to prevent a potentially deadly disease constitutes a descent from sexism to misogyny,” hectors Smith; but the boot is on the other foot. Calling boob jokes ipso facto sexist, and off colour jokes about fatal diseases ipso facto worse, is merely devaluing the words sexist and misogynist – especially as the ‘boob joke’ in question appears to be, er, the use of the word “tits”. If that alone is enough to prompt a giggle from comrade Smith – before the humourlessness bulkheads slam shut, at any rate – then that is her problem, not those of us who are no longer school age. (I note in passing that “boob” occurs frequently in Smith’s article, sometimes in a pseudo-humorous context, from which I deduce that it is not a sexist word for a mammary gland, unlike the T-bomb. Perhaps there is a helpful chart us mere mortals could consult?)

As far as Fowler goes, there is a lot of diversionary huffing and puffing:

Fowler ridicules Jolie for “your elaborately reconstructed chest and your incredible bravery in submitting to top-end, essential preventive treatments in order to avoid a painful and abhorrent death,” as if Jolie endured multiple surgeries over a period of months as a colossal act of narcissism.

Had Smith actually bothered to read the article – rather than stared at it just long enough to find a couple of ‘scandalous’ quotes to rip out of context – then she might have noticed that Fowler’s whole point was not that having surgery was narcissistic, but that making an empty and grandstanding gesture out of it was. As it happens, I would disagree (far be it from me to impugn the motives of Lara Croft!), but there is a real point here, which Smith misses: in making a public stand on her mastectomies, Jolie makes her mastectomies public property. She wants them to ‘mean something’, but that something is fatuous. Fowler objects: she says the main issue is lack of access to healthcare, and she is not prepared to let the saintly aura of Jolie’s gesture get in the way of making the point. All to the good.

Smith is caught in no man’s land – on the one hand, this supposed r-r-revolutionary socialist believes, of course, in equal access to healthcare, free at the point of use. On the other, her hopeless entanglement in bureaucratic-sentimentalist moral reflexes means she has to advocate it via defending a vacuous philanthropic gesture on the part of a grandstanding sleb. “It should not be difficult to understand why millions of women who, facing an epidemic of breast cancer, breathed a sigh of relief on May 14 upon reading Jolie’s honest and eloquent account of removing her breasts to save her life,” runs by far the funniest line in the whole piece. Which millions of women would these be, who are relieved to hear a distressing story about pre-emptive cancer surgery? Presumably they are the same ones who find the word “tits” mortally offensive.

There is a bigger problem here than what we make of Angeline Jolie’s tits: we have on one side a liberal writer for a left-liberal website, and on the other, Ruth Fowler for CounterPunch. Just kidding! On the other, a Marxist writer for a Marxist paper. Yet it is clear which of the two is more credulous, more restricted to Guardianista ideology (the Graun is on the sharp end of another of Fowler’s put-downs), more trapped by the fear of offending anyone or slaying a sacred cow – and that is the Marxist. It’s a sorry state of affairs. Why this particular sort of Marxist ends up being that particular sort of degraded liberal is a question that will have to wait for another day.

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