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Gendered Analysis of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

The story of Henrietta is a classical example of how women are portrayed and thought of in the society. The portrayal of women on magazine covers is exemplary done by the author in her book cover. The author views Henrietta as a beautiful black woman. In fact, pundits argue that the face of Henrietta or rather Henrietta Lacks appeared numerous times on magazines, science textbooks and even on laboratory walls.

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In this regard, sexism in the form of gender discrimination, women sexual and abuse can be deciphered from Henrietta Lack’s story.

Feminism plays a role on how Henrietta is portrayed as a mystery figure. An aspect of gender role can be pointed out in the book, despite the fact that the author does not mention it. Historically, women have always been oppressed from a gender perspective. Perhaps it is the reason why Henrietta dies without knowing the value of her cancer cells. Today, she remains a celebrated figure and a great contributor to medical achievements. Medical doctors removed and experimented on Henrietta’s cancer cells without consent. This is an example of how women have been a subject of mistreatment for years. Ironically, this would not have happened to a male patient. Moreover, the fact that Henrietta was a black woman contributed to her mistreatment. Henrietta lived in a time when racism was rife in America. It was assumed “black people cannot question white people’s professional judgment” (63).

The author only tries to take a gender perspective by describing Deborah Lacks as an advocate for her mother recognition. Nonetheless, the frantic efforts by Deborah are perceived to be desperate by the author. The assumption that women are ignorant species is frantically emphasized by the author. The fact that Henrietta does not protest for the mistreatment she gets from the medics at the John Hopkins hospital is still debatable. Henrietta’s mother, sisters, and daughters live for years without knowing what happened to her. Although this may not entirely be ignorance, the author portrays them as unconcerned until Deborah discovers her mother predicament.

Sexual violation against women has been a gender issue for years. The violation of women bodies has always been a subject of discussion whenever gender violence is mentioned. In this context, the author reveals how the medical doctors removed Henrietta’s cervix. This is a disturbing aspect of sexual violation considering that the cervix is part of woman’s reproductive organ. The worst case of sexual violence is removing Henrietta’s cervix while she was unconscious. Such a heinous act only shows how the public alleges ownership of women bodies and their reproductive lives for years.

Another perspective to gender issue in Henrietta’s case is how white males in authority abuse black women. The white male doctors at Johns Hopkins hospital would not have made the decision for Henrietta’s if she were a white woman. However, this perspective considers the historical injustices made against black women from slavery years to segregation of black people at social places. Considering that Henrietta s was a poor black woman, the white doctors thought it better to experiment on her body as a form of payment. History of non-consensual experiments on black patients is a common feature when racism and women discrimination are debated. It is alleged “doctors kidnapped black people for medical research” (165).

Abuse against women and Henrietta’s family is further aggravated when Elsie, one of Henrietta’s daughters is abused. Although Elsie is disabled and cognitively incapacitated, she is abused through draining of her brain and probing of her brain using metals. Such acts were done in a mental asylum, where no one seems to care. Eventually, the suffering and torture subjected on Elsie causes her death. The manner in which Elsie is abused disturbs Henrietta and her family. Henrietta’s family misfortunes are systematically conducted for medical gains that also oversaw torture and abuse of other patients. More tests were conducted against black women patients using Henrietta’s cancer cells that were popularly known as HeLa cells.

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Sexual violence against women becomes rife in the book when the author reveals how Henrietta’s daughter is sexually abused. Henrietta’s relative becomes some of the aggressors against women, when they sexually abuse Henrietta’s daughter.

The author seems like a feminist from an in-depth analysis of her book. The author’s main themes centers around how women and especially from Henrietta’s family are a subject of abuse. On the other hand, the author tries to pass justice on Henrietta Lack’s family predicament by hailing their contribution to medical achievements. The author emphasizes on the sacrifice of Henrietta and her family in developing vaccines and treatment that are now widely used around the world. Moreover, the author asserts that it is the contribution of a woman to the betterment of the world health.

In this regard, the author passes the judgment that the world owes Henrietta’s family tribute and other benefits. According to Skloot (2010), Henrietta’s legacy is immortal. In fact, “her cells lived longer than her memory” (118). The author justifies social justice as compensation to Henrietta’s family. The only way the family can be compensated is through access to health insurance and at no cost. Perhaps this is the reason why the author promises to use the profits from her book as a funding mechanism to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

The author uses poverty to describe how individual and society are affected by such situations. Poverty as a social concept has been depicted as a cause of diseases in the society. In fact, the prevalence of a disease like cancer has been researched to be high among poor people. Racial and gender discrimination are dominantly exemplified throughout the book. Nonetheless, the concepts give an insight on how some historical injustices have been executed under the principles of race and gender. Civility and citizenship are significant concepts that are illuminated in the book. The author takes the initiative of becoming a good citizen by demanding social justice for Henrietta Lack’s family by forming a foundation to help the family descendants. This book is an insightful approach toward medical ethics that have previously been violated.

Sexism has been used as the intersectional concept in Henrietta Lack’s story (Tunc, 2011). In this regard, women are subjected to discrimination, sexual violence and physical abuse through un-consensual medical examinations. The acts of sexism exhibited in the book shape people perception towards social injustices (Tunc, 2011). Moreover, the sexism concept unearths the causes of heinous acts subjected to individuals who have no influence and control over what happens to them. Through sexism, one understands gender stereotyping that existed through other concepts such as racism and illiteracy. It is a fact that sexism in the book is caused by poverty, lack of education among women folks and racism. Henrietta and her family were poor, uneducated and came from the black which was believed to be racially discriminated. The author is an exemplary individual who champions anti-sexism through literature and social activities like funding a Henrietta Lack Foundation.


Skloot, R. (2010). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.

Tunc, T. E. (2011). Review of Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The American Journal of Bioethics, 11(3), 40-41.

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