Angelina Jolie and the reinvention conundrum – what it means for female leadership.

Katy Brand’s article “It’s time to take Angelina Jolie seriously” for the Telegraph: asks why people do not take Angelina Jolie seriously in her humanitarian role. The answer lies in leadership and this article explains why.

Folk will accept quite a bit from an actress: they will for the most part accept such oddities as wearing blood-filled vials and snogging your own brother as being, well, just a bit odd.  However,  when you do it on the red carpet it is seen for what it is: attention-seeking and your card is marked.  Still it’s not really a problem if you stick to marketing yourself as a performer because it is generally accepted that actors and actresses by their very nature need to seek the limelight and after all acting is attention-seeking, albeit in a controlled manner and at the behest of the film-making machine of directors, producers, consumer demand etc.   Indeed we completely forgive them this weakness so long as they come up with the performance as we sit down to escape the hum-drum of normal life by watching a fab film.  We also accept there is a need to show a bit of eccentricity to distinguish over the competition.  It gets your face in the Hollywood mags,  your name on a list even if not the A-list, and as long as your antics are on everyone’s lips you have the public interest which helps keep the work coming in and along it with the dosh.

You can reinvent yourself as a performer – repeatedly – without issue Madonna has done this ad infinitum and the huge commercial success of her Reinvention Tour shows we clearly ‘approve’  provided it’s all about the performance and there is no pretension that it is anything deeper.   You can also reinvent yourself as a brand image à la Cole: Perfectly acceptable even if it is nothing more than hiking up the sales of a mega corporation.

What you cannot get away with, it seems, is any suggestion that there has been some reinvention of the person;  you are not allowed to ‘reinvent’ yourself as a humanitarian because this is something you either already are or not.  It is about your innate self and not something that you can become or that you or your PR team can create.  The vitriolic response to Angelina’s humanitarian efforts is peppered by assertions that she is basically a ‘bad person’ and therefore the humanitarian bit is a construct and therefore insincere.  But its easy to be distracted by quite frankly baseless allegations about someone’s character  – there is something else behind the anger, and like most things it all boils down to power.

The real problem for Angelina is the suggestion that she is reinventing herself as a female leader and in doing so she is res judicata: usurping her rightful i.e. low position in society.  In the big scheme of things, in our global tribe,  an actress is viewed as psychologically weak because of the need (albeit assumed) for the audience’s attention.  They can try to counter this by wearing geek-specs, only accepting “serious” acting jobs and brandishing The Portable Nietzsche but this doesn’t seem to bring in the dosh. On the other hand, if you are especially attention-seeking to the point of freakish antics, you are even further down low the pecking order.   That ranking then does not, it seems, sit well with the leadership role of humanitarian campaigner and UNHCR spokesperson.  Do not be fooled by the pseudo-leadership position achieved by Ms Jolie arising from her on-screen performance or her massive earnings: these only count under the floodlights and they are not viewed as true leadership facets.    So, whilst it is perfectly appropriate for Jolie to strut her stuff at a movie premiere, once she walks off the red carpet and into the wider arena she is ranked low: a moth-to-flame, glory-seeker.  Any attempt to assert leadership from this position is frowned on heavily by the media and public alike.   This is why her role as as spokesperson for the UNHCR has met with derision – because it is seen as a claim to a leadership role to which her critics feel she is not entitled.

However, the response has not itself been awash with leadership moments or humanitarian content for that matter.  Regardless of whether you agree her critics, it has not been pretty with the snipes and sneers more typically the behaviour of the runts of the pack than great leaders.  At a time when Sheryl Sandberg is asking us to Lean In what do some women do?  Engage in dominant, overly aggressive and quite frankly unpleasant jibes about some women we do not know.  In this sense, the bitchy comments made about Angelina say more about the authors than they do about her.

So remember, if you hurl insults this does not put you in a leadership position – it relegates you to the rank and file.   Lampooning is not what leadership is about.  And yes, if you out there on the front line getting involved in public debate be it a blog, forum or front page article, you really are putting yourself up as a kind of leader, like it or not.  Asking people to listen and follow your opinion IS leadership.  And whilst its a good thing that so many of us aspire to be leaders, let us succeed and not flounder at this.  Our quest should our own inner confidence, our own ability to be extraordinary woman and accepting and encouraging others around us to be likewise – not slagging off the latest sensation.   Our own leadership starts with cultivating our inner confidence instead of trying to cut someone else down.


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