The phrase “Lifetime Movie” has come to be a little bit of a put-down; we expect something slightly sappy, treacly or simply full of bathos. “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy,” based on the autobiographical Geralyn Lucas book by the same name—which debuted in October on Lifetime—not only makes fun of the stereotype in a self-referential comment, but may be on its way to remaking the genre of the “breast cancer movie.”
Perhaps because the intended and expected audience is and has always been women, perhaps because the topic at hand is so dire a reality for so many, many breast cancer narratives have been relegated to tones of desolation and depression or monotone heroism. “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy” demonstrates that creators of television movies are catching on to the idea already sweeping “edgier” art forms such as graphic novels—that narratives about cancer can be multi-dimensional, and sometimes even funny. (The film opens with Geralyn in a strip club, seriously trying to unlock the secrets of why breasts are so central to men’s conception of women.)
Maybe it’s just about putting breast cancer into the larger context of women’s lives. In “Mastectomy,” Geralyn (played by actress Sarah Chalke) doesn’t fit clearly into any stereotype; although a determined list-maker and goal-achiever, Geralyn is more comfortable seeing herself as a “gloss girl” than a red-lipstick go-getter. The movie traces Geralyn’s journey from her discovery of three lumps in her breast and treatment (including the mastectomy of the title) through her physical—and true emotional—recovery. The extended cast of characters (which includes Geralyn’s husband, friends and immediate family, the last of whom seem strongly coded as Jewish) allows for any number of issues— cancer-related and otherwise—to be explored dynamically and engagingly.
The movie stands on its own as a good film, even a “girlfriends” film. In addition, educators will find this movie an excellent resource, showing-without-telling valuable lessons about everything from how to communicate during grave illness to how to cope when medical treatments interfere with your body image. It is a pleasure to realize that filmmakers are finally catching on to what women want to see: characters who are smart, ironic, self-aware, fearful, irrational, ever-evolving people—just like us.