Angelina Jolie: Feminist icon?

Naomi Wolf argues that the actress represents the female fantasy of having it all

Published June 9, 2009 5:45PM (EDT)

"Have it all" feminism has a new face: Angelina Jolie. That's according to noted feminist author Naomi Wolf in the latest issue of Harper's Bazaar. The actress has success, riches, beauty, sex appeal, love and family, but her major accomplishment by Wolf's measure is that she's escaped the cultural chains that shackle women to the role of either the Madonna or the whore. Instead, Jolie embodies both roles and "makes the claim, with her life and actions, that, indeed, you can get away with it," says Wolf. As a self-made archetype, she "brings together almost every aspect of female empowerment and liberation." 

Wow, and here I thought she was just one of Hollywood's more extreme freak shows, what with past reports of the blood necklace, "Billy Bob" vulva tattoo, extremely kinky fetishes and intimacy with her look-alike brother. 

Wolf, however, says there was a turning point after all that bad press. Jolie adopted Maddox and began working tirelessly as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "Suddenly, she seemed more mature, more beautiful, and more serious," she writes. Then, "she took for her own pleasure the male seen as the most desired of the tribe," Brad Pitt, even though he was already married. She "managed the almost unheard-of task of turning the home-wrecker label into a wholesome, family-friendly triumph" through global adoptions and continued activism. Oh, and "then there is the plane," says Wolf. Jolie took flying lessons, embracing "the classic metaphor for choosing your own direction."

The short of it, in Wolf's words: "Even before she had reconstructed a nuclear (or postnuclear) family with a dad at the head of it, she was reframing single motherhood from a state of lack or insufficiency to a glamorous, unfettered lifestyle choice. Paradoxically, having done so, she makes the choice of a man to help her raise her kids seem like one option among many for a self-directed woman rather than either a completion of a woman or a capitulation." Jolie, she argues, is a beacon of hope for women, proof that we might be able to "get away with it," too.

It's occurred to me before that Jolie is one of the few mainstream female celebrities today who seemingly transcend the wife-whore split. In fact, when I interviewed Jessica Valenti about her book, "The Purity Myth," the example also occurred to her, but she quickly offered a caveat: "She's an oddity," both in the sense that Jolie is rare, but also that she's seen as a bizarre, other-worldly creature. The kind we like to gawk at in the supermarket checkout line. That is why we idolize her -- not because of her great acting skill or impressive humanitarian work. She's a sex symbol with some truly titillating quirks. Is that what "having it all" means?

I don't buy it, and I doubt that Wolf does, either. After all, this is the same woman who penned "The Beauty Myth" and recently railed against lifestyle feminism. I suspect that there is a bit of feminist self-flagellation at play, the kind that follows a judgmental look in the mirror or the unconscious counting of calories. I'm supposed to be more evolved than that, I know it's wrong, but I do it anyway. I'm letting them win! In that sense, I suspect, or hope, that Wolf is simply acknowledging Jolie's place in the female id.

This reminds me of the Lara Croft action figure, modeled after Jolie in "Tomb Raider," that stands on my kitchen cabinet, gun aimed at any who dare enter. I'm not proud of it, but the truth is that the figurine is my pornographic feminist fantasy. All five inches of her are packed with heavy-handed signaling of general kick-assness (e.g., gun, knife, death stare) -- but with a clear allegiance to the straight male world (e.g., boooobs). The truth is that the Jolie archetype taps into the psyche of many women who want sexual and real-world power. As Wolf knows better than anyone, the desire to be desired raises all sorts of conflicts for women, especially those of us who don't want to be merely sex objects. Putting a gun in a sex object's hand might satisfy certain private feminist fantasies, but I'm afraid it comes up far short in reality.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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