From envy to empathy

I’m not a fan. Which made it even more surprising, that whump in the stomach when I heard Kylie Minogue had postponed the Australian leg of her world tour after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

There’s something disingenuous about feeling terribly distressed when an attractive, 37-year-old celebrity has breast cancer.
One in nine women will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime. Some, including my mother, survive it. Others do not. Minogue’s cancer appears to have been caught at an early stage—she would have been checked regularly while touring for insurance purposes—and survival rates have never been higher.

So there are no obituaries to be written, other than for the myth that celebrity inoculates against life’s everyday dramas.

Minogue’s celebrated bottom may be just as pert, but she is no longer an object of envy. She may lose all her hair during chemotherapy.

The diagnosis is a jolting reminder that Minogue is as much blood and bone as the rest of us. She never seemed to have something so mundane as cells. As her different incarnations multiplied—Club Minogue, Sex-kitten Minogue, Indie Minogue, Avant Garde Minogue—so her image became more and more highly confected, until she looked airbrushed. But now the plastic has deferred to the corporeal.

For all her perfect proportions, there is something curiously sexless about Minogue. She is sexualised, rather than erotic. Even those notorious gold hotpants had a cabaret feel about them, a cheeky wink rather than a full-frontal come-on. This may explain why the whole world has taken to her, from the lad-mag readers to the pre-teen shriekers to her massive gay fan base.

As someone who spent school discos attempting the Locomotion, I nurse a particular fondness for this woman who began her rocketing trajectory at a point when celebrity had not yet begun to eat its own tail. Some celebrities, diagnosed with gallstones, would gladly have the surgery live on air and then auction the scalpel to the highest bidder. Minogue has retained a certain freshness, a lack of cynicism and an accessibility.

Her never-quite-grown quality also seemed evident in her relationships—often brief and blazing, never quite reaching steady longevity (though her current romance with actor Olivier Martinez may be heading towards it). It is notable that she is still singing about love at first sight.

Despite her wealth, her financial wit, her international status, the public discourse on Minogue has increasingly surrounded her romantic disappointments. Each interviewer puts the same questions, and she bats back her heartfelt desire to settle down, have children and dust shelves. The notion of the professionally stellar but romantically defunct woman is an appealing template for habitual hounders of Modern Misses. Women are expected to crave husbands and babies. And when they do not—or are seen not to—they are punished for it. There’s still a sense that women can get away with their public successes only for so long.

After turning 30 myself, a childless woman who loves her job, I know what the statistics have in store for me. I’m likely to find my ovaries shrivelled to the size of raisins by the time I realise child-rearing is a woman’s ultimate fulfilment, and so on.

But one piece of information is difficult to sweep aside with all the anti-women cant: early childbearing and prolonged breastfeeding lower the risk of breast cancer. Although 80% of breast cancers are diagnosed in women over 50, those diagnosed in women under 40 tend to be more aggressive. It follows that women who pursue their careers into their 30s, enjoying economic independence and professional fulfilment while controlling their fertility, are more at risk.

It seems the worst kind of practical joke that women should be punished with cancer, and the most frequent gender-specific cancer, simply because they have breasts. And even worse that, for younger women, cancer should puncture the bubble of possibility in the crudest of ways.

Feminism is often branded a movement against nature, and here is the backlash at its most basic. I hope no one will suggest Minogue’s cancer is a punishment for making her own choices, but I suspect it will be implied everywhere.

It would be miserable if Minogue’s illness were taken as further evidence of why careers don’t make women happy (or healthy), and why public and private lives are impossible to juggle. Even the cheerleaders of progress seem confounded by the weary ping-pong over how much satisfaction a woman deserves to fit into her life. Life is not all about choices—when to work, when to fall in love, when to procreate. Much of our time is spent on the things we don’t—or can’t—choose, like breast cancer. And it is how we cope with those events that can be the hardest, and most meaningful, choices of all. — Â

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