Leftist Sexism

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, “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.”

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 re-cycle 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, is what denies women access to good health care, not Jolie.

Since Jolie’s editorial 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 their 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 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.

Bill Mullen and Tithi Bhattacharya helped in drafting this article.


1. Deepa Kumar, Associate Professor, Media Studies, Rutgers University

2. Tithi Bhattacharya, Associate Professor, History, Purdue University

3. Bill Mullen, Professor, English, Purdue University

4. Janet Staiger, Professor Emeritus, Radio-Television-Film and Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Texas at Austin

5. Janet Afary, Mellichamp Chair in Global Religion and Modernity, Professor, Religious Studies and Feminist Studies, University of California Santa Barbara

6. Radhika Parameswaran, Professor, School of Journalism, Indiana University

7. Deborah Tudor, Associate Dean, College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, Southern Illinois University

8. Lisa McLaughlin, Ph.D., Department of Media, Journalism and Film and Program in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Miami University-Ohio

9. Cynthia Carter, Co-editor Feminist Media Studies, Senior Lecturer, Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University

10. Vicki Mayer, Editor, Television & New Media, Professor, Communication, Tulane University

11. Margot Mifflin, Associate Professor, Lehman College/CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

12. Nirmala Erevelles, Professor, Social and Cultural Studies in Education, University of Alabama

13. Robin R. Means Coleman, Associate Professor, Communication, University of Michigan

14. Radhika Gajjala, Professor, School of Media and Communication and American Culture Studies, Bowling Green State University

15. Helen Scott, Associate Professor, English, University of Vermont

16. Saadia Toor, Associate Professor, Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, College of Staten Island

17. Des Freedman, Reader, Media and Communications, Goldsmiths College, University of London

18. Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, New Delhi, India

19. David McNally, Professor, Political Science, York University

20. Paul Kellogg, Assistant Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Athabasca University, Canada

21. Sue Ferguson, Associate Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, Ontario, Canada

22. Dana Cloud, Associate Professor, University of Texas-Austin

23. Pranav Jani, Associate Professor, English, Ohio State University

24. Pam Tracy, Associate Professor, Communication, Longwood University

25. Regina Marchi, Associate Professor, Media Studies, Rutgers University

26. Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Studies, Ohio State University

27. Basuli Deb, Assistant Professor, English and Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

28. Patrick Jones, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

29. Patrick L. Gallagher, Associate Professor, Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies, Kent State University

30. Jeff Bale, Assistant Professor, Dept of Teacher Education, Michigan State University 

31. Phil Gasper, Philosophy Instructor, Madison College

32. Keith Danner, Lecturer, English, University of California, Irvine

33. Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

34. T.J. Boisseau, Director, Women’s Studies, Associate Professor, History, Purdue University

35. Liesbet Van Zoonen, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University, Professor of Popular Culture, Erasmus University Rotterdam.

36. Abbie Bakan, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire: Empire Abroad and at Home and Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the Ups Strike. She can be reached at: deepa_k276@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Deepa.