Why CounterPunch owes women an apology

May 16, 2013

Sharon Smith argues that Angelina Jolie deserves better than derisive and sexist "humor" for making public a health decision that all women dread being faced with.

BREAST CANCER is no laughing matter--certainly not for the roughly 232,340 U.S. women who will be diagnosed with it this year, or the 39,620 women expected to die from it.

Yet the editors over at the CounterPunch website were apparently guffawing over Angelina Jolie's recent decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. Their e-mail promo for an article posted on the site on May 14 reads: "Ruth Fowler unsnaps Angelina Jolie's bra and exposes privilege, health care and tits." Presto! A double mastectomy morphs into locker room fodder.

Fowler's article never actually mentions the word "tits." But like smirking adolescents, the editors insert it yet again in their contemptuous title: "Angelina Jolie Under the Knife: Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits." One can almost hear them howling with laughter at their own perceived cleverness. Presumably they also laughed their way through Seth McFarlane's sophomoric "We saw your boobs" spoof at the Academy Awards, while millions of women cringed.

Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie

But 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.

Like so many Hollywood actresses, the sexual objectification of Jolie's own face and body has been a key component of her fame. Jolie should certainly be commended for her courage in choosing to make her double mastectomy public--in order to help reassure other women confronting the possibility or reality of mastectomy to understand that losing one or both of their breasts does not mean losing their sexuality. In her May 14 op-ed piece in the New York Times, she wrote, "On a personal note, 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."

In a society as sexist as ours, in which women are so often judged in relation to the perceived desirability of their individual body parts--as if in suspended animation from the rest of their personhood--this message could not be more timely.

The essence of this message is entirely lost on the CounterPunch gang. They seem blissfully unconcerned that their own use of the degrading term "tits" is yet more evidence of the damaging impact of the sexual objectification of women. The fact that they do so under the guise of left-wing commentary only compounds this damage.

FOWLER'S ARTICLE is devoid of boob jokes, but is also teeming with contempt toward Jolie.

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.

But Angelina Jolie made the decision to undergo a double mastectomy because she heard the news that every woman dreads: She tested positive for a faulty BRCA1 gene, which gave her an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. The fact that her mother died of ovarian cancer after a nearly 10-year struggle at the age of 56 is a further indication of what the future would likely hold.

One might reasonably ask why Jolie has been singled out for such scorn. Fowler's article uses reverse (some might even say reactionary) logic: She disparages those who do have access to quality medical care instead of demanding that all women gain access to the same standard of care. Thus, Fowler dismisses the option of genetic testing in asking: "[W]hat good is knowing that there's a test out there only privileged rich people can get?" This is bad advice for women facing the possibility that they carry a defective gene.

Jolie is far from silent on the issue of access. As she argued in her op-ed piece:

Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.

Fowler dismisses Jolie's comments above as offering merely "a trifling nod" to class inequality, asking, "Why don't you raise our awareness of your own overpriced, privileged medical treatment a little more, and continue to NOT raise awareness of any actual fact?" Yet since Jolie's op-ed was published, the Internet has been abuzz with debate and discussion about this important subject, demonstrating that Jolie has indeed opened a much-needed conversation.

Fowler's resentment is misplaced. Hollywood actors neither created nor can resolve the health care crisis. That responsibility lies squarely with the medical-industrial complex, including its government lackeys, who sustain the class disparities of the for-profit health care system. The conditions are ripe for a movement that demands health care for all, but it must take aim at the appropriate targets to be effective.

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.

And I strongly suggest that those who find her struggle amusing lift their snouts out of the trough long enough to discover why so many women are not laughing. An ounce of empathy for women's health and dignity would go a long way.

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