Over the past week, the media have been afire with a surprising, unwarranted and unfair “controversy” over Angelina Jolie’s announcement of her preventive double mastectomy, undertaken because without it she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer.
My She the People colleague Melinda Henneberger has already delivered an authoritative and moving rebuttal to the uproar, citing not only her own experience, but also her mother’s preventive surgery 37 years ago, when Angelina was a baby, as proof that such a procedure is not, as some are making it out to be, a trendy, celebrity-worship-stoked, rich-person’s, mutilation-loving, decadent, frivolous thing.
But something’s been nagging at me, and I’m wondering if others have noticed it, too. And that is: double-mastectomy double standard and double talk.
Let me explain: Some people on the left have been decrying this procedure all week as much for its celebrity spokeswoman and its cost (frankly acknowledged by Jolie and in fact unfair in our still-unfair society), as well as for what they claim is its optional nature.
This groundswell — on blogs, on FB posts, on NPR — has apparently been so strong that the New York Times, in line with its sometimes nervous-Nellie style, felt compelled to publish today a brief and hurried editorial response that nevertheless qualifies as a disclaimer to its own proudly published op-ed by Jolie.
But here’s what I don’t get. This same publication, and those criticizing Jolie for her supposedly elitist and feckless self-mutilation, wouldn’t dare criticize a 21-year-old celebrity offspring (Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s undeniably charming and smart and voluble and hip-as-all-get-out transgendered son) for insisting on having “top surgery”: a medically unnecessary double mastectomy.
I’m not talking about people who have painfully known from childhood that they are living in the wrong body (and that may or may not be the case with Stephen Ira Beatty); I’m talking about the cheerfully Times-blessed phenomenon of groovily gender-fluid college students such as Beatty and others profiled here along with him.
For these young people, a kind of winsome, playful gender bending is a liberating political act. Fine. But, for some of them, the desire to have an irreversible double mastectomy, at an age before they can vote, is part of that.
The Times’ very long, entirely approving piece, published four months ago with no “but on the other hand…” sentence, presented not earnest, lifelong body dysmorphics but “Richard, a garrulous freshman” who changed her/his name “on a whim” and is bugged by the dreary unhipness of the University of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Center and is part of a “vibrant” scene merrily adding letters — LGBTQIA — that are “a mouthful but [are] catching on, especially on liberal-arts campuses” — to denote “non-cisgender,” “intersex, “ally” or “‘asexual.”
Richard’s discovery that the university’s medical program also covered sexual reassignment surgery “heavily influenced [his] decision to probably go under the Penn insurance plan next year.”
“Whim.” “Vibrant.” “Garrulous.” “Probably.” “Catching on.” “Freshman.” If all this jauntiness and transitoriness don’t bespeak an unnecessary and questionably permanent aspect to the decision to have a double mastectomy by people young enough to later change their minds, I don’t know what does.
Yet you can’t express worry, much less doubt or judgment, about “top surgery” — or the direr “bottom surgery” for male to female transgenders (including those with young children, who might be confused, if not dismayed, by a parent’s change of gender) — without being labeled reactionary and cruel. Actually, I’m already ducking.
Call me an old fogey. To girls of my generation, risking a 20-year jail sentence by sneaking across the border from Morocco to Spain with a kilo of product (obtained from Jimi Hendrix’s and the Stones’ delightfully wacky, Medina-dwelling kif-meister) packed into a “pregnancy girdle” was a fabulous goof. And it was positively rude — worse, “uptight” — to meet a sweaty, shoulder-length-haired stranger’s eyes across a crowded Fillmore dance space over Cream’s “White Room” and not, within a half an hour, get to know him biblically.
But large visible tattoos are shocking. And a non-urgently-needed mastectomy? Worrisome and, at the very least, worth more thoughtful conversation. But you can’t say that out loud. You are, however, allowed to trash Angelina Jolie and women like her for that same operation, performed for genuine medical reasons.
As I said, that’s what I call a double standard — whether you have double mammaries, reconstructed mammaries or no mammaries at all.
Sheila Weller is an award-winning magazine journalist and the author of six books, including 2008′s New York Times bestseller, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — And the Journey of a Generation. She is currently working on The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour — and the Triumph of Women in TV News.