By Naomi Wolf
Who are our female film legends these days? Rare are the sultry, dangerous, and highly individualistic Hollywood goddesses who were so prevalent in the 1930s and 1940s.
Of these few exceptions, one thinks right away of Ms. Angelina Jolie. Ever since about 2004 — when she started crafting a new and revolutionary persona out of her prior story line as an eccentric ingenue, a story line that had been erratic and filled with missteps — she has resonated in a way no other modern female star has managed.
Yes, she is conventionally beautiful: Bosomy and wasp-waisted, with that curtain of hair and those crazy pillowy lips, she is an obvious male sex fantasy. But more suggestively, polls show that her appeal and magnetism play at least as powerfully in the fantasy life of females.
Women admire Angelina Jolie, but that would hardly stop the presses. Polls also show that if women — not just lesbian and bisexual women but straight women — had to choose a female lover, they would want to sleep with Angelina Jolie. In other words, women both identify with her and desire her.
There's something more than a simply physical response. Her persona hits an unprecedented level of global resonance — and makes women want to be with her and be her at the same time — because she has created a life narrative that is not just personal. Rather, it is archetypal. And the archetype is one that really, for the first time in modern culture, brings together almost every aspect of female empowerment and liberation.
Consider how patriarchal civilization has managed to keep women in hand for all these millennia. Among other methods of social control, women are almost always given a series of either-or choices. The deal is usually that they may realize one aspect of their personality but at the expense of many others. And the deal is usually that if they choose "too much," a terrible punishment one way or another awaits them.
So you can be respected as a symbol of goodness (Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa) but not, obviously, be seen as sexual. You can have a hot sex life (Marlene Dietrich) but not at the same time be seen as a symbol of goodness. You can't get away with it. (Somehow, when an icon who was at once both a sexual being and engaged in good deeds died in a violent accident — Princess Di, of course — the story had a kind of terrible narrative inevitability.) You can take a lover — and even be a home wrecker — but not claim the hope of being seen as a good mom (Madame Bovary, Elizabeth Taylor). You can't get away with it. You can have money, fame, and a dazzling career, but you must surely be depressed, drug addicted, lonely, or self-destructive (Jacqueline Susann, Marilyn Monroe). You can't get away with it.
The magic of Jolie's self-presentation? She makes the claim, with her life and actions, that, indeed, you can get away with it. All of it. Against every Western convention, she has managed to draw together all of these kinds of female liberation and empowerment. And her gestures determinedly transgress social boundaries — boundaries of convention, race, class, and gender — giving many of us a vicarious thrill.
Remember how, for the first few years of Jolie's debut in the media spotlight, she kept hitting off-key notes? She emerged as an edgy starlet in such films as Girl, Interrupted and Hackers, then broke through into mass-market consciousness with her turn as cartoony superheroine Lara Croft. And with her success in that role, she previewed aspects of the persona that would take her to global icon: sexy and daring, confrontational and independent.
But in her personal interactions with the media, her gestures at transgression seemed girlishly eccentric. There was the slightly icky presentation of then-husband Billy Bob Thornton's blood in a vial, and then the oddly intimate kiss on the lips with her brother at an awards ceremony. ("I am so in love with my brother!") At that point, Jolie seemed to be simply an attention-seeking, slightly Goth upstart.
But there was a turning point not long after she adopted Maddox — her second marriage over, now a single mom — and began to immerse herself in her work as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Suddenly, she seemed more mature, more beautiful, and more serious. Single moms had been cast as society's pathetic cases, but with more than a quarter of U.S. households with children headed by such moms, this was long overdue for a rebranding. When Maddox appeared — this adorable, brush-cut tyke photographed by Annie Leibovitz in his early romance with his mom — Jolie revealed a new, and fairly radical, vision of single motherhood that made the relationship seem tender, glamorous, and complete, father figure or no father figure in the picture.
When the megascandal took place — Jolie's alleged seduction of a married man, Brad Pitt, on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith — it could have been the end of Jolie as a role model. But she managed the almost unheard-of task of turning the home-wrecker label into a wholesome, family-friendly triumph. There was little Maddox, who was growing up and clearly enjoying tossing footballs with his mother's new boyfriend. Jolie had managed to head off the scarlet letter by giving a boy an ideal masculine counterpoint.
About that time, Jolie's persona suddenly kicked into megadrive. Her intense work on behalf of stricken women and children worldwide solidified her status as unconventional role model, and the rapid adoption of additional children turned the Jolie-Pitt story into one of family devotion and global idealism, which certainly stood out in a raft of narratives of stars who simply shop, tan, and go into rehab.
It isn't so much her accomplished, but not always transcendent, performances. Her icon status now has to do more with our dream life as women than it does with her career choices solely as a film star.
Then there is the plane. Women are so used to being dependent on others (certainly on men) for where they go, metaphorically, and how they get there. Flying a private plane is the classic metaphor for choosing your own direction; usually, that is a guy thing to do, yet there was Jolie, with her aviator glasses on, taking flying lessons so she could blow the mind of her four-year-old son. That is the ultimate in single-mom chic: 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.
Then she insisted on being a mother to not just one but many — actually, with a gesture of maternal extravagance, an übermom, ostentatiously mothering on a global scale (Maddox ... and Zahara! ... and ... Shiloh! And ...). The clearly well-thought-out multiethnicity of her family is a delicious in-your-face countermove against conventions about who we are to one another and what "family" is expected to look like. She seems, without breaking stride, to care for half a football team of children while the rest of us tread water with our own biological offspring.
Equally ostentatiously in her role as lover, she took for her own pleasure the male seen as the most desired of the tribe, Brad Pitt, who is always ranked at the top of indexes of male beauty and virility. As for the constraints of social convention — ahem, he was still married? You can have a variety of feelings about this, but Jolie's evident disdain of that social constraint certainly, for better or worse, put her in the same self-entitled category as those men who have traditionally taken what they wanted and let the emotional chips fall where they may.
Finally, she blurs the conventional boundary of what female stars are supposed to do — look pretty, emote, wear designer clothes — by picking up Princess Di's fallen torch and wrapping her elegant bone structure in a shalwar kameez to attend to the suffering of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and putting on jeans to help rebuild the housing of low-income U.S. citizens wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.
She insists on claiming every role on an operatic scale, making the symbolism as transgressive as possible — and saying, implicitly, "See? It can be done." And if she can get away with it, presumably there is a decent chance that, someday, so might all women get away with our own most cherished secret dares, self-gratifications, and even transgressions.
So she becomes what psychoanalysts call an "ego ideal" for women — a kind of dream figure that allows women to access, through fantasies of their own, possibilities for their own heightened empowerment and liberation.
What's next for Jolie? No way to tell, but I am certain, given the knack she has shown for tapping into this female collective unconscious, that we will watch with more than ordinary interest. Can the matriarchal tribe sustain itself? What will happen when the youthful beauty changes? Can such a sexually pluralistic woman stay satisfied in a conventional monogamous relationship — even with the most beautiful boy — for life, as Brad Pitt becomes a solidly middle-aged man? Will truly nothing break in this have-it-all-all-the-time exceptional drama?
I for one will keep watching, since Jolie's image is not just a mirror of one woman but also a looking glass for female fantasy life writ large.