Cool, calm nature of Angelina Jolie’s choice of words is impressive
Column: The actor’s words are in keeping with the late Susan Sontag’s argument that physical illness is best approached with clarity and precision of thought
Angelina Jolie: “clear and clean – almost clinical, even, in her matter-of-fact description of the rather grisly operation”. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Sometimes I feel like a really fastidious single man. You know, the cerebral kind whose bathroom is so clean and pristine that it seems like a subtle form of desecration to use it (God forbid a drop of menstrual blood should ever sully that shining floor). The kind who, whether he admits it or not, has a lurking revulsion for the fleshier side of femininity: the hothouse intimacy, the lurid confessions, the endless tear-streaked emoting. Occasionally, such chilliness seems like a healthy corrective to female excess.
So what brought on this most unsisterly attack of disgust? Well, last week I had the misfortune to read a review copy of Eve Ensler’s new memoir , In the Body of the World , which describes the veteran activist’s encounter with uterine cancer, as well as her evangelical drive to expose the ongoing epidemic of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ensler is best known for The Vagina Monologues , an internationally popular performance piece designed to empower women through personal testimony, and her latest work shares the same compulsive fascination with the female body’s nether regions. No one doubts Ensler’s courage, or her passionate commitment to worthwhile causes – for example, she is the founder of the V-Day campaign, a global movement to end violence against women and girls – but there is an awful incontinence in her writing, a narcissistic tendency to (almost literally) spill her guts in an outpouring of magical, metaphorical thinking.
In one of the weirdest and most cringe-inducing passages, she appears to conflate the cancer affecting her own reproductive organs with the horrific abuses perpetrated on African women, a mysterious phenomenon that she describes (without irony) as “Congo Stigmata”. “Essentially,” she says, “the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo. I ended up having the same surgery as many of them.”
Of course, it’s of no consequence to anyone but Ensler if she chooses to lay herself bare in this way; indeed, if the process of writing the memoir proved cathartic or healing for her then she may consider it a job well done. I’m sure her legions of fans will love it.
But the problem is that Ensler’s overripe prose is not an isolated occurrence; it’s symptomatic of a growing cultural tendency to use “feminised” language: overheated, emotionally saturated and hopelessly illogical. “I think” is regularly replaced by “I feel” or, even worse, “I personally feel”, delivered in earnest, complacent tones, often with a hand on the heart as if to underscore the force of the emotion. Reason is redundant, because you can’t debate with feeling: it’s a complete, self-sufficient state that renders further argument null and void. Indeed, attempting to argue back against this fluff is regarded as borderline offensive, a gross invasion of personal boundaries.
Such behaviour – associated with women, but increasingly adopted by men – is all part of a wider suspicion of intellectualism, where perceptions consistently trump facts. (If my perceptions are “genuine” enough, if I believe them hard enough, then miraculously they attain the same status as reality – a transformation that politicians, in particular, have exploited). This may sound all warm and bosomy and open-minded, but the appearance of empathy is bogus – all it fosters is lazy solipsism and ignorance.
That’s why I was so delighted to see the way Angelina Jolie announced she had a preventative double mastectomy to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer.
In an article in the New York Times , entitled simply “My medical choice”, Jolie explains that she has a defective gene, BRCA1, which raised the likelihood of developing breast cancer to 87 per cent. The surgery has now reduced the risk to 5 per cent. What is most striking, however, is the cool, calm, dispassionate nature of Jolie’s tone. You might expect her to do an Ensler and kick up a storm of emotive metaphors and self-help speak, liberally laced with references to mystical connections and spiritual journeys. After all, before her current incarnation as a UN ambassador and mother of six, this was a woman who once kept a vial of her then husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood on a chain around her neck. But no, Jolie keeps it clear and clean – almost clinical, even, in her matter-of -fact description of the rather grisly operation. Besides, as she briskly points out, “days after the surgery you can be back to a normal life”.
Jolie’s bracing words are in keeping with the late Susan Sontag’s argument that bodily illness is best approached with clarity and precision of thought, not swathed about with superstitious, magical thinking. And while there is enormous symbolic power – given that her body is globally fetishised – in Jolie’s decision to remove her breasts, there is another kind of empowerment, equally significant, in the words she uses to describe her choice. This is a woman who knows that “I think” will always serve her better than “I feel”.