St Angelina, save us from ourselves!
The beatification of Angelina Jolie for writing about her mastectomy confirms that celebrity culture has reached new and hysterical heights.
Was I dreaming, or yesterday did Angelina Jolie’s breasts really knock every other world event off the top news spot? Perusing my inbox this morning, it seems it was no dream. There’s that email from CNN: ‘BREAKING NEWS: Angelina Jolie reveals she’s had double mastectomy.’ There’s that alert from Fox News, too. And Ms Jolie is staring out at me from the front page of every British newspaper this morning, most prominently The Times’s, which is Britain’s newspaper of record. Which makes it official. It really happened. The decision by an actress to have an operation that millions of women have had kicked to the curb everything from the savagery in Syria to the tussle over the future of the EU. What are such trifling matters compared with the contents of Angelina’s bra?
The bizarre global Angelina breastravaganza confirms that celebrity culture is no longer just a thing – it’s the thing, the key prism through which modern morality is forged and through which politics is increasingly conducted. Too often, the term ‘celebrity culture’ is used only to refer to certain people’s love of tittle tattle, to slam the tastes of vulgar little folk who read heat or are hooked on the right-hand bar on the Daily Mail website. But yesterday’s frenzied fawning at the feet of an actress who had an operation and then wrote an article about it confirms that there’s so much more to celebrity culture than watercooler gossip among TOWIE fans. This is a culture that seeks to provide a moral framework for a world seriously lacking in one, and which creates new secular saints like Ms Jolie to dispense that morality, and which is promoted most vociferously, not by idiotic tabloid readers, but by what now passes for the intellectual classes.
One of the main claims being made for Ms Jolie’s article on her preventive mastectomy, which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times, is that it represents a blow against celebrity culture. Apparently, in being so open about having dramatic surgery, Ms Jolie is rebelling against the ‘bizarre values’ of the ‘celebrity industry’, which instructs women to have perfect bodies and to never talk about their physical ailments or defects. This is spectacularly wrongheaded. For far from undermining celebrity culture, Ms Jolie’s tell-all article conforms to it. Yesterday’s unofficial beatification of the suffering Angelina didn’t remotely challenge celebrity culture, but rather took it to a new and genuinely mad level.
The idea that it was ‘incredibly brave’ and anti-celeb of Ms Jolie to talk openly about a physical problem she has is particularly weird, given that one of the main themes of modern celebrity culture is that it’s good to make a public display of one’s sicknesses and woes. Flick through Hello! magazine or browse the Daily Mail website and you’ll see article after article about celebs’ cancer scares or battles with bipolar. Whether it’s the late Jade Goody being diagnosed with cancer on an actual TV show, or Kerry Katona being interviewed about her bipolar disorder, or Stephen Fry making documentaries about his depression, all celebs, both low-brow and high, now make public spectacles of their private struggles. One of the main contributions of celebrity culture to modern life has been to energise the erosion of the line between private life and public life, and to elevate the idea that it’s unhealthy to bottle things up and good to get them off your chest, ideally on Oprah’s couch or, failing that, in the pages of the NYT. Ms Jolie’s article is totally of a piece with today’s emotionally promiscuous, victimhood-celebrating celebrity culture.
Of course, snooty observers make a distinction between, say, a Bermondsey bruiser like the late Ms Goody talking openly about her cancer and the more beautiful, refined Ms Jolie talking about hers. So where Ms Goody’s cancer talk was denounced by commentators as ‘the lowest publicity stunt ever’, Ms Jolie’s nicely written NYT piece about her personal battle to stave off cancer has been hailed as brave and magnificent. But is there really that much difference between Goody and Jolie? Both complied to the big, borderline medieval idea of our era: that what you have suffered is more significant than what you have achieved, and that a good person speaks publicly about his or her troubles rather than keeping them ‘secret’ (or what we used to call ‘private’).
Of course, one big difference between Goody and Jolie is that the latter used the magic phrase ‘raising awareness’. What makes Ms Jolie’s article radical, we’re told, putting its author ‘light years beyond celebrity culture’, is that it’s designed to raise awareness about breast cancer and the genes that can cause it. Yet here, too, Ms Jolie is conforming to a key aspect of celebrity culture. Modern celebs are forever seeking to raise the awareness of the presumed-to-be unaware great unwashed. They’re deployed by politicians, NGOs and charities effectively to enlighten the dumb public, about everything from the dangers of stuffing your face with food (Jamie Oliver), to how unpleasant grinding poverty can be (Bono), to how important it is to check one’s breasts or testicles for signs of disease (Ms Jolie; every male actor who has ever appeared in Hollyoaks).
‘Raising awareness’ is one of the most striking phrases of our time. It is tellingly distinct from ‘having a public debate’ or ‘discussing ideas’, since it comes with the very loaded assumption that huge swathes of people are unaware of something really important, and if they aren’t made aware of it by some figure of authority, ideally a celeb, then they will stew and potentially even die in ignorance. The political and charity classes’ use of celebs to ‘raise awareness’ reveals a great deal about modern politics. It exposes the elite’s powerful sensation that it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and thus must push forward those who do still enjoy some social cachet – celebs – to communicate apparently important messages to us; and it suggests the elite, and its growing harem of celebrity campaign-fronters, view the public as an ignorant blob that must be injected with the right way of thinking in order to be ‘made aware’ that disease exists, war is bad, and if you eat nothing but McDonald’s food you’ll probably get fat.
What is really great about Ms Jolie’s article, her massive fanclub says, is that it will encourage more women to check their breasts for lumps or to have themselves tested for the genes that can cause breast cancer. Numerous doctors and health groups have hailed Ms Jolie for potentially helping to improve public health. Let’s leave to one side the fact that, actually, it’s potentially dangerous to encourage women to panic even more about breast cancer, given that many experts now believe that the modern breast-cancer self-check obsession is leading freaked-out women to have surgical interventions they don’t really need. The more striking thing in the Jolie case is the way actual medical authorities are praising the actress for helping them do their work.
This, too, is a core aspect of modern celebrity culture: the effective outsourcing of authority to celebs. In an era when our rulers and betters feel they lack the authority to push forward campaigns and ideas, they frequently outsource that authority to celebrities. Indeed, the affix ‘celebrity’ – as in celebrity doctor, celebrity campaigner, celebrity chef – has replaced the old affixes ‘royal’ or ‘expert’ to denote seriousness and clout. Having already been a ‘celebrity diplomat’, through her various interventions in African warzones, Ms Jolie now looks set to be crowned ‘celebrity saver of women’s lives’.
Indeed, it is remarkable how much Ms Jolie is being hailed as a saviour of womankind, almost as a modern-day Madonna (the Virgin Mother, not the singer), who, having suffered herself, might now help alleviate the suffering of others. The Guardian says ‘her bravery will save lives’; she will ‘save other women from dying’, says Hollywood Life. Such slavish fawning over a celeb by supposedly level-headed commentators and campaigners is so embarrassing. It makes the screeching of Justin Bieber fans or Twilight obsessives seem rational in comparison: at least they’re only driven by lust and longing, rather than by a belief that their favourite celebs have all the answers to modern moral and political problems and can save human beings from themselves, disease and war. The investment of Ms Jolie with the moral authority to combat disease, to enlighten the dark-minded global hordes, and to renew the battle for public health reveals how unhinged celebrity culture has become, and also what is fuelling it: the inability of society itself, and its elected rulers, to do politics and morality in the old-fashioned direct and rational way.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.