• Cancer as empowerment for women?

    By Aeron Haynie August 18, 2011 12:49 am UTC

    Last Sunday’s NYT profiled Kris Carr, whose film (“Crazy, Sexy, Cancer”), best-selling book series, and blog celebrate the author’s transformation from a 31-year old woman diagnosed with stage 4 cancer to self-proclaimed “wellness warrior” and celebrity. Carr’s website promises not just survival but “explosive energy, joy & vitality” and asks a pertinent question: “Why, when we are challenged to survive, do we give ourselves permission to truly live?”

    Similarly, one of the most compelling televisions shows I have watched lately is Laura Linney's excellent series, The Big C, on Showtime (we do not have cable and have been watching old episodes on Netflix, so please do not tell me if she dies in Season 2!). I am not a cancer survivor myself, and neither are most of the viewers of the show. So why would anyone watch a show about a middle-aged woman who receives a diagnosis of advanced, inoperable cancer? Well, because the show is funny, moving, and wonderfully done.

    Certainly, Carr’s personal journey is compelling and heroic. And if she’s able to provide comfort and inspiration to women facing severe illness, hats off to her. But I wonder about the mass appeal of these narratives to women who are not ill.

    I think there’s a deeper meaning to the popularity of both The Big C and Carr’s blog/books/movie: many of us would probably like to shrug off our often crushing responsibilities and live in the moment. We would like to be gloriously, beautifully alive (both Carr and Linney are radiant blondes). Linney’s character leads a charmed life, post-diagnosis: she is effortlessly beautiful, lives in a gorgeous sun-drenched house, and although she's shown teaching, her job is represented as magically without consequences or stress. But most important, since she's dying, she be selfish and irresponsible: she empties her 401K to buy a red sports car; puts in a swimming pool; kicks out her hapless husband; flirts with her handsome oncologist; has an affair with a charming black artist; liberates herself from conventional niceties with what my aunt called “cancer rudeness.” The whole first season shows a seemingly healthy woman doing whatever she wants.

    As Barbara Ehrenreich points out (with her usual brilliance), we have a cultural fascination with the power of positive thinking. However, I’m struck by the poignancy of our collective desires to imagine ourselves as cancer patients, at once the center of the universe and magically alive.


Comments on Cancer as empowerment for women?

  • Permission granted
  • Posted by Mica on August 18, 2011 at 4:45pm UTC
  • I'm relatively unapologetic about pursuing what's pleasurable or lazy or tasty or unorthodox. But I notice that I struggle with what feels like a thin veil between giving myself permission to transgress and garden variety middle class entitlement. I think the appeal of this type of story is that something catastrophic makes that line either very clear, or immaterial. There's no feeling foolish or selfish when the meaning of your acts is simply "now".

    My reaction is that this is about class (and consumption) as much as gender, and that we long to want what we want without feeling greedy. That's the real trick - having a reliable compass that tells you when a giant latte is great or just training you to want a super-giant latte. For me, a story like this is a vacation from the inner haggling over choices about desire and consumption - way more so than fear of being judged for flouting social moires.
  • Posted by jyam on August 18, 2011 at 4:45pm UTC
  • I am a cancer survivor, but have not seen either the Big C or the books/blog of Ms. Carr. That's because I'm too busy taking care of the responsibilities of my daily life -- work and family. My experience with cancer leaves me disturbed that the illness has been glamorized, sentimentalized, and the effects of it glossed over, dressed up by the marketing machine (pink ribbons stamped on my eggs??!!),and even those well-meaning folk who stage all the walks/races/runs for the cure. These things have their place. But let's not fool ourselves -- it is an ugly disease that, even if cured, leaves a shadow over your life. I cannot imagine why anyone, male or female, would want to imagine themselves in this position. The images of the smiling survivors reinforce the idea that women, especially, are supposed to bear all without complaint (and look pretty doing so). But that expectation is unrealistic and very damaging. Illness does not make one the center of the universe, because life goes on beyond and around you while you are ill. And no one should have to need an illness to gain attention.
  • Posted by Jack on August 18, 2011 at 9:00pm UTC
  • I find the characterization of Carr's battle with cancer as "heroic" or "compelling" extremely offensive. It implies that other people battle cancer less heroically or in a less compelling manner. Everybody's battle with cancer is different, but they are all heroic in their own way, regardless of their gender, race, or class. It is a horrid disease and should not be used as a vehicle to empower anybody. I watched my father and other close relatives battle their disease, unsuccessfully, in a brave and dignified manner. Nobody was empowered. Nobody dumped their loving spouse. And nobody went on a spending binge. And what would happen if Carr was a man who while battling cancer dumped his wife and bought a fancy new sports car? Would his story be compelling and heroic? NO. I suspect we would just call him a jerk. What a bunch of crap.
  • what she said
  • Posted by pamenglish on August 18, 2011 at 9:00pm UTC
  • I'd just like to add to jyam's very apt comments that cancer is not a glamorous, sexy romp through one's post-childhood fantasies. Or sexy, or liberating or even inspiring. My diagnosis five years ago is still with me every day, long after the doctors and nurses and therapists have gone. Any "last wish" thoughts I may have had then have been consumed by bills and worry and more bills.
  • Hope or control
  • Posted by Margie on August 18, 2011 at 11:45pm UTC
  • I wonder if maybe Big C and Carr show that a cancer diagnosis does not have to be the end of one's life and give people hope? Or maybe they show that one can still have exert control in uncontrollable situations, in this case control over happiness?
    For me the stories of survivors, and the stories of people who passed away dignified and in peace are reminders to set aside the troubles of everyday life occasionally and enjoy the things that are good.