Excerpted from "Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World" by Lisa Bloom. Available from Vanguard Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011
What do you know about Angelina Jolie?
That she is movie-star beautiful? That has to come to mind first. We are only human, and we all get a little stupid around stunningly lovely people. Fair enough.
But on my way to the NYC subway every morning for the last half of the first decade of the 21st century, I walked by my corner newsstand. Brad and Angelina and Jen -- there they were, week after week, in the screaming yellow two-inch block letters: They break up! They make up! They break their silence! Adoptions! Twins! Seasons changed, years passed, but the story raged on, somehow timeless.
If you live in America and have glanced at supermarket checkout racks in the last decade, you know that Brad and Angelina fell in love during the shooting of a film together, that Brad then left his wife Jennifer Aniston, that Brad and Angelina made a few babies together and adopted a few more.
If you are ambulatory and breathe air, you know this. In fact, forget ambulatory. If you are paralyzed but have a television in front of you, you still know it. You can't not know it. I picked a random day last week and Googled the members of America's favorite love triangle.
Here's what was being reported as "news" on that day:
Secret Wedding in France!
Jennifer Aniston is "going public" with her new boyfriend.
Brad thinks Angelina should sport a shorter hairdo. Angie is resistant.
While the public laps up this mind-numbing drivel, the real Angelina Jolie forges on. Perhaps you are vaguely aware that she is somehow involved with helping poor people in faraway places. The truth is that she has devoted a huge portion of the last eight years of her life to educating herself and then doing everything within her power to raise consciousness about and directly aid those who Franz Fanon called "the wretched of the earth."
The contrast between Jolie's extraordinary devotion to humanitarian work on behalf of dispossessed people and our shallow fixation on her looks and personal life could not be more jarring. What is a throwaway line at the end of some stories about her -- "Jolie also does some humanitarian work" -- is the main event of her life. This work started when she was making the film Tomb Raider in Cambodia in 2000. Jolie says that while there, her eyes opened about third world refugees.
In February 2001 Jolie embarked on an 18-day mission to Sierra Leone and Tanzania. Next she traveled to Pakistan, where she donated $1 million for Afghan refugees in response to an UNHCR emergency appeal. She insisted on covering all costs related to her missions herself, and she shared the same rudimentary working and living conditions as UN field staff.
On August 27, 2001, at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Jolie was named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. Since 2001 Jolie has devoted herself to the issue, going on field missions and meeting with refugees in more than 20 countries.
Back at home, our media mostly ignored Jolie's refugee work, zeroing in instead on the urgent question of whether her breasts were real and how she got them large enough to resemble those of the video game heroine Lara Croft for her film. That year -- 2001 -- Rolling Stone magazine featured Angelina Jolie on its cover, leading with her then-marriage to actor Billy Bob Thornton.
In 2002 Jolie personally visited the Tham Hin refugee camp in Thailand, where tens of thousands of people had fled the repressive regime in Myanmar. Jolie also met with Colombian refugees in Ecuador and Angolan refugees in Namibia, and she toured UNHCR facilities in Kosovo and a Sudanese refugee camp in Kenya.
Back home, the possible reasons for her 2002 divorce from Billy Bob Thornton filled the media with breathless speculation. Did one or both of them cheat? Were those amulets of each other's blood they wore around their necks?
In 2003 Jolie took a six-day mission to Tanzania. This trip was followed by a weeklong visit to Sri Lanka and a four-day mission to North Caucasus, Russia. That year, she published Notes from My Travels, a collection of journal entries that chronicle her early field missions. During a private stay in Jordan in December 2003, she asked to visit Iraqi refugees in Jordan's eastern desert, and later that month she went to Egypt to meet Sudanese refugees.
Guess what our media gave us that year in Jolie news? Details of Angelina's complicated relationship with her father, cover stories reminding us that she was "hot and single," reports on her new tattoos, and more "investigations" into the reasons for her divorce.
In 2004 Jolie went to Arizona to visit detained asylum seekers in deplorable conditions at four facilities right here in the United States, including one for children. She flew to the African nation of Chad, paying a visit to border camps for refugees who had fled fighting in western Sudan's desiccated Darfur region. Later that year Jolie met with Afghan refugees in Thailand. She finished the year by visiting UNHCR's regional office in Beirut over her Christmas holiday, also taking the time to visit some young refugees and cancer patients in the Lebanese capital.
Back at home we had next to no coverage of third world poor, refugees, wars not involving the United States, or Jolie's UNHCR work. In 2004 Vogue magazine did feature Jolie posing in some beautiful gowns, the kind of spread typical of what we asked of her: to smile for the camera and not talk too much about her humanitarian work. That year Jolie made the film Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt, and the media saturated us with speculation into whether or not Jolie and Pitt had hooked up.
In 2005 Jolie visited Afghani refugees in Pakistani camps and met with Pakistan's president and prime minister. After the devastating Kashmir earthquake, Jolie spent her Thanksgiving weekend back in Pakistan to see the devastation and to attempt to focus the world's attention on the crisis.
At a National Press Club luncheon in 2005, Jolie announced the founding of an organization that provides free legal aid to asylum-seeking children with no legal representation. Jolie personally funded the center with a $500,000 donation. As always, Jolie's goal was to draw attention to the world's refugees.
She got coverage in 2005 all right, but not the kind she hoped for. That year the media went into overdrive when Pitt left his wife, Jennifer Aniston, for Jolie. Tabloid and mainstream magazines, talk shows, and websites vilified her as a home wrecker and encouraged viewers to choose "Team Angie" or "Team Jen."
Undaunted, Jolie flew to Haiti in 2006 and visited a school for impoverished children. In February, Liberian refugee women sang songs of praise to Jolie and UNHCR as they graduated from refugee camp sewing classes that Jolie funded, each receiving a new sewing machine she purchased for them. The women rejoiced in their newfound skills, confident that they could return home to their war-torn country, Sierra Leone, able to support themselves and their families.
Later in 2006 Jolie then met with Afghan and Burmese refugees in New Delhi. She spent Christmas Day 2006 with Colombian refugees in Costa Rica, where she handed out presents and tried to bring attention to the needs of displaced people in our own hemisphere.
By now you know the result. Didn't happen. That year People magazine named Jolie its most beautiful female star, and Maxim named her hottest woman of the year. Millions of gossip magazines were sold fulminating over the supposed Jolie-Aniston feud. She announced her pregnancy in January 2006, and the story dominated the tabloid media and morning shows throughout the year: How did Jen feel about her ex-husband having a child? When was the baby conceived? Paparazzi photos of pregnant Jolie sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
In 2007 Jolie returned to Chad for a two-day mission to assess the deteriorating security situation for refugees from Darfur. Jolie and Pitt subsequently donated $1 million to three relief organizations in Chad and Darfur. Writing about the Darfur genocide for the Washington Post, Jolie bravely called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice in an international tribunal. Jolie also made her first visit to Syria and twice returned to Iraq to meet with Iraqi refugees as well as multinational forces and U.S. troops.
While she did, our media that year fueled round-the-clock breakup reports: Were Jolie and Pitts calling it quits? Photos of the stars looking away from one another at the moment a paparazzo snapped a shutter were analyzed to determine whether their body language meant the relationship was over. (It wasn't.) In one interview, Aniston called Jolie's public comments about the beginning of Jolie's relationship with Pitt "uncool" -- just that single word. The media went into orbit, proclaiming Aniston's "utter contempt" for her "love rival."
Throughout 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, as Jolie became a member of the prestigious think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, which called her "part of the next generation of foreign policy leaders," she continued to tirelessly circle the globe, visit refugees, lobby and write on their behalf, and personally gift millions of her own money to assist the poorest of the world's poor. Yet the American media continued to deliver an endless feedback loop of the same old stories about Jolie, Pitt, and Aniston.
In the 21st century our media still focuses on the most retro, stereotypically female images. One could entirely forget that women now have careers and, certainly in Jolie's case, tangible, meaningful accomplishments. Women's accomplishments are rarely celebrated in our media unless the "accomplishment" is in one of these five areas: appearance, romance, marriage, pregnancy, or babies.
Jolie must feel as though she lives in an alternate universe, one of daily cognitive dissonance. She soldiers on, focusing on her humanitarian efforts, making films, raising her children. One-third of her income goes to savings, she has said, one-third to supporting herself and her family, and one-third to charity. For an actor commanding over $20 million per film, that is a generous annual donation to assist the world's poor. She poses for provocative covers and has one, and only one, persistent message to the world: Please, please pay attention to the millions who, through no fault of their own, have become refugees or internally displaced persons.
Most of us don't know about any of that. But we all know that in 2008 Jolie gave birth to twins. She made a savvy business decision to auction off the first pictures of herself, Pitt, and the newborns to the highest bidder, which wound up being People magazine, for $14 million. Jolie donated all the money to her foundation to help third world refugees and, especially, displaced children.
Wouldn't it be gratifying to live in a world where what happened to that $14 million was the story that garnered the big headlines in top-selling magazines? How many children got bed nets to save them from malaria? How many tents were purchased to give displaced families even that simple roof over their heads? How many classes were given so that widows could have marketable skills to use when they returned home, giving them the dignity of supporting themselves, paying their children's school fees, and providing their families with adequate nutrition?
If only we had one-tenth the interest in Jolie's life's work as we have in her "beauty secrets;" if only we envied her compassion for the world's forgotten people rather than her appearance. If only ratings soared and websites crashed when the media covered real people with real stories of need and the simple fixes, like sewing classes we can give them to get their lives back on track.