Refusing to accept sexism

May 27, 2013

Several articles at the CounterPunch website that criticized Angelina Jolie for her decision to publicize that she underwent a double mastectomy have provoked strong criticism. Here, activists and scholars register their disappointment with CounterPunch for its use of sexist language and its belittling attitudes toward a serious issue.

RUTH FOWLER has used two CounterPunch columns to criticize Angelina Jolie for writing a New York Times essay to discuss her decision to have a double mastectomy, while not recognizing and acknowledging: 1) the economic means she holds to undergo an expensive medical procedure other women can't afford; and 2) that a corporation called Myriad Genetics is generating enormous profits by driving up screening tests for breast cancer. Fowler argues that these contradictions undermine Jolie's credibility to speak for survivors of breast cancer.

We disagree.

First and foremost, all medical patients diagnosed with potentially fatal illnesses deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Jolie deserves respect as someone who spoke out bravely about the difficult decision to have a double mastectomy rather than risk getting breast cancer. Fowler fails to acknowledge this and uses Jolie's celebrity to try to strip her of her fundamental humanity. The title of her first article, "Angelia Jolie: On Privilege, Tits, and Being Dumb," reduces Jolie to a pair of "tits" in a move not that different from the sensationalist media that routinely objectifies women.

As Sharon Smith noted in her critique of Fowler's original piece, which CounterPunch refused to post, "[U]sing boob jokes to introduce an article about undergoing a double mastectomy to prevent a potentially deadly disease constitutes a descent from sexism to misogyny."

Julian Vigo, in her response to Smith, focuses her critique on the use of the term "tit," defending its use by Fowler and responding with what we expect a typical male undergraduate student to say when first introduced to the notion of women's objectification: "CounterPunch also uses titles with 'dick,' 'penis,' and 'cock' in them."

The problem with these articles in CounterPunch is that they use a left cover to recycle sexist tropes while hiding behind class outrage.

Second, Fowler ruthlessly attacks Jolie's apparent ignorance about the sexist machinations of the medical industry without noting that a lack of information under capitalism is fairly common. Information about pharmaceutical companies and the role they play in shaping our health care "choices" are neither easily accessible nor discussed openly in mainstream media. While Jolie surely could have done more "homework" on the health care system before writing her piece, we should acknowledge that Myriad Genetics and the health care industry are what deny women access to good health care, not Jolie.

Since Jolie's article, there has been widespread media coverage of breast cancer as well as preventative measures open to women. Surely, as feminists we should welcome this development. Additionally, the ACLU has taken Myriad to court about its patent monopoly, creating an opening to critique the for-profit health care system.

Third, Fowler ridicules Jolie's wealth and celebrity in a mean-spirited effort to discredit her attempts to educate other women about how to preserve personal dignity in the face of medical trauma.

When women negotiate the health care industry, they face a double jeopardy: the everyday scrutiny of female bodies and sexualities are heightened and pathologized. To this is added the fear and horror of care being solely determined by affordability.

Any attempt to shed light on this difficult process, regardless of the class of the person that it comes from, should be welcomed. When a "celebrity" such as Jolie speaks about double mastectomy not affecting her femininity, she is bringing relief to many women who are caught in this trap of gender and class. And because she is a celebrity (who need not have exposed herself to such scrutiny, we might add), she created a larger space in the mainstream media to reflect on these issues.

To be sure, Angelina Jolie is not a revolutionary. Nor is she, quite probably, what we could agree is a feminist. What we wish to defend in this statement is less Jolie and her politics, but rather her boldness in coming forward and the opening that has created to discuss this painful issue.

We are disappointed that CounterPunch has run three articles on this question, but has refused to spend a second being self-reflexive about the sexism in these articles and their headlines, much less provide a space for those who wish to articulate a different and non-sexist position.

Deepa Kumar, Associate Professor, Media Studies, Rutgers University
Tithi Bhattacharya, Associate Professor, History, Purdue University
Bill Mullen, Professor, English, Purdue University
Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania
T. J. Boisseau, Director, Women's Studies, Associate Professor, History, Purdue University
Janet Staiger, Professor Emeritus, Radio-Television-Film and Women's and Gender Studies, University of Texas-Austin
Janet Afary, Mellichamp Chair in Global Religion and Modernity, Professor, Religious Studies and Feminist Studies, University of California Santa Barbara
Radhika Parameswaran, Professor, School of Journalism, Indiana University
Deborah Tudor, Associate Dean, College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, Southern Illinois University
Lisa McLaughlin, Ph.D., Department of Media, Journalism and Film and Program in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Miami University-Ohio
Cynthia Carter, Co-editor, Feminist Media Studies, Senior Lecturer, Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University
Vicki Mayer, Editor, Television & New Media, Professor, Communication, Tulane University
Liesbet Van Zoonen, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University, Professor of Popular Culture, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
Margot Mifflin, Associate Professor, Lehman College/CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
Nirmala Erevelles, Professor, Social and Cultural Studies in Education, University of Alabama
Robin R. Means Coleman, Associate Professor, Communication, University of Michigan
Radhika Gajjala, Professor, School of Media and Communication and American Culture Studies, Bowling Green State University
Abbie Bakan, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Bill Keach, Professor, Brown University.
Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Professor, Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University.
Helen Scott, Associate Professor, English, University of Vermont
Saadia Toor, Associate Professor, Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, College of Staten Island
Des Freedman, Reader, Media and Communications, Goldsmiths College, University of London
Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, All India Progressive Women's Association, New Delhi, India
David McNally, Professor, Political Science, York University
Paul Kellogg, Assistant Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Athabasca University, Canada
Sue Ferguson, Associate Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, Ontario, Canada
Dana Cloud, Associate Professor, University of Texas-Austin
Pranav Jani, Associate Professor, English, Ohio State University
Pam Tracy, Associate Professor, Communication, Longwood University
Regina Marchi, Associate Professor, Media Studies, Rutgers University
Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Studies, Ohio State University
Basuli Deb, Assistant Professor, English and Women's and Gender Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Patrick Jones, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Patrick L. Gallagher, Associate Professor, Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies, Kent State University
Jeff Bale, Assistant Professor, Dept of Teacher Education, Michigan State University
Phil Gasper, Philosophy Instructor, Madison Area Technical College
Keith Danner, Lecturer, English, University of California Irvine

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