Sexiness, surgery and the Jolie factor

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
May 15, 2013 /

Click here to view original /

The last film I saw was the mind-blowingly bizarre Killer Joe. If there’s anything to be taken from that piece of cinematic chaos, it is the very same gift that Hollywood proffers time and time again: the boob thing.

No matter how irrelevant to the script, no matter how cringe-worthily tawdry, lots of films are going to show lots and lots of breasts. Just ask Seth MacFarlane.

The breast-obsession case is, of course, effortlessly made. Equally so the breast double standard: that while penises are as rare as hen’s teeth in cinema, there are boobs aplenty. And unlike penises, women and men are assumed to enjoy an eyeful.

It’s this breast preoccupation that initially piqued my interest in the Angelina Jolie story. Like celebrities such as Giuliana Rancic and Christina Applegate before her, Jolie has had a preventative double mastectomy. And unsurprisingly, it’s getting as much attention as one would expect in our boob-preoccupied culture.

I was alerted to the “brave” frame – invariably afforded to the preventative mastectomy story – a few years ago. It was one of my very first radio interviews and it involved two panellists: myself, talking about my book on infidelity, and another woman, talking about her preventative mastectomy. And if ever I needed a reminder of the well-worn virgin/whore frame, it was that interview.

I was, apparently, some sort of brazen hussy, and my fellow guest the embodiment of class and grace.

Identifiable in that radio interview, and in the slew of articles about Jolie in recent days, is the idea that having such a surgery is brave. That telling the story is brave.

I’m less inclined to debate the usefulness of the word brave in this context – even if the word does bristle a little – and more interested in the idea of media framing, about how this episode in The Jolie Story gets packaged for market.

From her early Billy Bob Thornton/blood vial days to her makeover as a goodwill ambassador, Jolie has undergone a substantial image overhaul in recent years. And yet even as an Über mother she’s maintained her status as a figure of desirability, of sexiness. That she has managed the transition into motherhood while retaining her aesthetic appeal – not an impossible task in our “yummy mummy” fetishising culture but a feat nonetheless – is noteworthy.

So how do we think about Jolie now that she’s undergone a surgery which, quite literally, sliced into the very core of our understandings of physical femininity? How will her status as a public figure of sexiness, of desirability, be impacted? Will her surgery change the roles she’s offered? Skew the questions she’s asked in interviews?

Jolie, like Applegate, like Rancic, had reconstructive surgery. When she appears in public again, therefore, she’ll be back to her booby glory. Does this remedy the situation? Do her new boobs mean Jolie’s physique gets happily lost in the sea of surgically enhanced leading ladies or do they exist as permanent reminders of fabricated femininity?

Does the situation raise questions about femininity as artifice? Of femininity as – God-forbid – something more than just a little T&A?

Yes, of course it feels thoroughly crass writing about her anatomy. But she started it.

I doubt Jolie will have the impact that Kylie Minogue did on the breast cancer landscape: inspiring women to get a mammogram is a substantially different thing to motivating a rise in preventative mastectomies.

I do however think she presents a very interesting opportunity for us to think about sexiness, about the disconcerting preoccupation we have with objectification, and the necessity for the church of desirability to be opened up a little.

© Lauren Rosewarne