Given that there’s much more pressure on women to take their clothes off for roles in film, theater, and television than men, I wouldn’t normally go on the record rooting for a female actor to do nude scenes. But following Angelina Jolie’s announcement today that, in response to learning that she has a BRCA1 gene mutation that increases her likelihood of developing breast and ovarian cancer, she had a preventative double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery, I’m hoping that Jolie won’t feel like she can’t do nude scenes in the future, if she feels drawn to roles that include nude or sex scenes.
Jolie is a strong dramatic actress, and is justly recognized for her international humanitarian and human rights work. But she also is also a strikingly good-looking woman whose film career has included a number of emotionally and physically naked sex scenes. And it’s because of that, as Amanda Hess wrote in Slate, that some observers are reacting to the news of her decision to take preventative health measures as if her career is over, or as if it’s a sign of some sort of desperation:
Commenters snarked that Jolie had received a “boob job.” Some suggested that her medical emergency was just a tabloid ruse to cover up elective breast implants. Others morbidly asked after the whereabouts of the breast tissue removed from her body. “RIP Angelina’s boobs” was a typical ignorant comment. Said one commenter on a Jezebel post about the op-ed, “How many guys stopped reading as soon as they realized Angelina Jolie has no breasts—she’s dead to me!”…perversely, some fans feel as if a part of Jolie has been stolen from them. One well-meaning but misguided commenter told me on Twitter yesterday: “Happy to hear she’s giving herself much better odds. As a guy, I will miss her lovely curves though.” (The reconstructive surgery she described presumably restored her curves.)
But as Hess pointed out, and Jolie herself clarified in her New York Times Op-Ed, her children “can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was.”
And I wonder if there might be some social value to mass audiences seeing those scars, too, and seeing that a woman who has them can still be sexual and sexy. It’s not as if pop culture never takes on the issues of women, breast cancer, and sexuality, but they often do so in a way that presents sex as a sign of recovery, or an act of tenderness before death. In Sex and the City, Samantha’s (Kim Cattrall) chemotherapy treatments diminished her famous libido, and when her boyfriend Smith returned from a movie shoot to visit her, they had rather comparatively tender sex to celebrate her recovery and their decision to commit to their relationship. Parenthood followed Kristina Braverman (Monica Potter) through her breast cancer treatments this season, and let her dress up in a hot pink wig for a date with her husband in a sign that her illness may have taken its toll, but it hadn’t robbed her of her of her femininity or her sexuality. And the 2005 romantic comedy The Family Stone included a sex scene between Diane Keaton, playing Sybil Stone, and Craig T. Nelson (who also stars in Parenthood) as her husband Kelly that was one of the few mainstream depictions I can think of a woman with a double mastectomy—but without the kind of reconstructive surgery Jolie experienced—who was treated as sexual and desirable.
Now, if Jolie has decided that she’s done with nude scenes or with sex scenes, that’s entirely her decision, and all of us should respect that. But if she does accept such roles in the future, I hope that she, and the writers and directors she works with, see her scars as a feature of her body, rather that some sort of grotesquerie to be hidden by shot angles or erased in post-production. Mastectomy scars should be treated like a physical characteristic that could inflect characters Jolie plays in the future without requiring major plot alterations or commentary. And it would be good for audiences, particularly of the kind that snarked on Jolie today for her brave revelation, to see that they don’t make her any less stunningly gorgeous.