It's not about Angelina Jolie quitting acting

The actress speaks out about rape in Syria, and the media hears only the part about her acting-career plans

Mary Elizabeth Williams
December 7, 2012 1:55AM (UTC)

For a report this week on Britain's Channel 4 about rape in Syria, actress and U.N. special envoy Angelina Jolie spoke out to Cathy Newman about the efforts to aid refugees. So what were the headlines after the interview? USA Today reports that "Angelina Jolie planning to quit acting." E! says, "Angelina Jolie … Plans to Give Up Acting." Access Hollywood asks, "Angelina Jolie to Retire When Her Kids Become Teenagers?" And the Christian Science Monitor says, "Angelina Jolie home with the kids? She's talking about retiring from acting once her brood hits their teen years because of 'too much to manage' at home." If this were the comprehension portion of the SAT, the mainstream entertainment media would have just bombed out mightily.

It was during the final minute of the interview that Jolie, who happened to be sitting next to Foreign Secretary William Hague, responded to the question of whether she ever thinks her humanitarian work is more rewarding than her acting. "I think I'm going to have to give up acting as the kids hit the teenage years anyway, because there's going to be too much to manage at home," she said, adding, "If it went away tomorrow, I'd be very happy to just be home with my children." And that was totally the most significant part of the whole piece. Not William Hague calling the situation in Syria "one of the worst things happening in the world today."


Sure, Jolie is a huge, Oscar-winning star, and her career decisions are entertainment news. But this isn't quite the same thing as when her partner, Brad Pitt, last year said he was giving his acting career "three years" more because "I am really enjoying the producing side and development of stories and putting those pieces together," during an interview that was not about mass rape as a weapon of war.

Similarly, Jolie's acknowledgment that the obligations of parenthood don't end when a kid is toilet trained – a sentiment that became part of the national conversation earlier this year when Anne-Marie Slaughter famously railed about "having it all" — would, in the context of a different discussion, have been a legitimate jumping-off point for another public discourse of work and motherhood. I would like to point out, however, that, gosh, it'd sure be nice if a woman's choices about how to raise her family didn't always seem to come with a big fat wave of A-HA! She can't hack it! By all means, let's focus on making sure women everywhere are reminded that, as the CS Monitor tells us, Jolie and Pitt "can hire whatever help they want. Nannies, housekeepers, tutors, LEGO experts, whatever. But still, parenthood changes things." Thanks, helpy helpertons!

It'd be even nicer if the takeaway from an 11-minute segment about bringing aid to women who've been sexually assaulted could be something other than the big news that Angelina Jolie says she'd be happy staying home with her kids. I swear to God, I can't imagine how emotionally deficient a journalist would have to be to watch a story about harrowing sexual violence and boil it down to a headline about who's quitting acting.


And so, because it seems to have been missed in all the busy chatter about how the movie star is "managing" motherhood, let me tell you what else Jolie told Channel 4. She said, "These years in the field, I continued to meet victims of sexual violence who had seen no justice, and had felt isolated and abused, and abuse upon abuse because they'd been ignored … How dare we not do something? ...  How can we live in a world where people are abused in such fashion? Where young girls and boys are being raped so violently?" Not a sexy, headline-making statement. Definitely not one that affects whether there's a sequel to "Salt." But if you're talking about a woman who's trying to raise awareness of women who've been ignored, it's the one message to not ignore.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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