CM . . . . Volume XX Number 8 . . . . October 25, 2013
Pink ribbons are now synonymous with breast cancer, just as the red ribbon symbolizes support for victims of AIDS. Sweeping pink ribbons brand numerous consumer products and event endorsements, and pink lights illuminate numerous national monuments and landmarks, including Big Ben, Niagara Falls and the Empire State Building. In Canada, during the month of October, it's hard to avoid seeing pink ribbons. E-mail from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation reminds me that the annual Run for the Cure is only days away. I've registered, and on October 6, 2013, I will walk the 5 km route with two friends, one of whom survived breast cancer (17 years ago), and one of whom is the mother of a daughter who was diagnosed with aggressive cancer as a young woman some years ago but has had a successful outcome.
Ehrenreich's stance might offend some, especially those who support and/or work for the cause and feel empowered by participation in such events as the International Dragon Boat Festival (Ontario), Jump for the Cure (a horse-jumping event in Quebec), or sky-diving as a member of an American group called the Aerial Pink Force. In the U. S, the biggest walk/run events are those sponsored under the auspices of the Susan B. Komen Foundation, while in Canada, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation organizes "Run (or Walk) for the Cure" events in more than 50 cities. And, if you can't make it to a run/walk site in your region, there is always the "Virtual Run", allowing you to participate through donation.
But Pink Ribbons, Inc. challenges the viewer to think about more carefully about that little pink ribbon and the powerful market forces behind it. Avon, KitchenAid, Ford Motors – these are but three major corporate players whose products and advertisements have co-opted breast cancer as the "poster child of cause marketing." Certainly, no one will dispute that cancer is a truly horrible disease, and the powerful associations of breasts with femininity may engender particular fear amongst women (although men can develop breast cancer, too, and women are still more likely to die of heart disease and its complications than of breast cancer.) Given that women make a significant portion of household purchasing decisions (this film suggests 80%), corporations have a huge pay-off for selling pink-branded products. Theoretically, purchase of a pink ribboned product is essentially a donation to the cause. But, the amount that corporations actually donate from the sale of each pinked product is minimal; one would be far better off just to write a cheque. In fact, the U. S. Breast Cancer Action Group urges consumers to "think before you pink."
The language of the disease is also put under the microscope. Ehrenreich challenges the constant use of "battle" analogies, and women from a Stage Four breast cancer support group are positively angered by bellicose imagery. It's as if a woman who dies just didn't try hard enough. Even the term "survivor" is viewed negatively by some because, by implication, those who didn't survive have somehow failed. The sad reality is that for some cancers (and not just breast cancer, either), treatment does little but prolong life expectancy; sometimes, there just isn't a cure. Breast cancer also happens to those with none of the risk factors typically cited; one woman in the Stage Four support group tearfully recounts a diet free of sugar, caffeine, alcohol, high intake of red meat, and so on. Apparently, even a "healthy" lifestyle won't necessarily help a person to dodge the bullet.
The pink ribbon focus on "the cure" is also challenged, suggesting that research efforts should re-focus on the cause of cancer, rather than the cure. Perhaps there is nothing in it for the big pharmaceutical companies; it is much easier to market a product that comforts by providing funds for "the cure", rather than researching causes and prevention. Rather ironically, manufacturers of personal care products and cosmetics are hugely invested in marketing "pink", even though such products contain known carcinogens, such as lead, petroleum, and formaldehyde. Even when research is well-funded, who are the subjects of these studies (white, middle-class women, or those who are marginalized and perhaps more exposed to risks)? Nor does there seem to be much interest in funding research into metastaticization – the process that causes cancer to spread to other organs, virtually ensuring progression to Stage Four.
Nevertheless, the film ends with footage from the 2011 Run for the Cure, held in San Francisco. These events always stress the sense of community engendered by participation: there is a powerful sense of solidarity amongst the participants, whatever their age or gender. There are tears, there is laughter, there is a sense of triumph, and, of course, sadness for those who did not walk with their friends and family, because cancer killed them. But, as the credits roll for Pink Ribbons, Inc., each of the women who has voiced widely diverse opinions offers her final comment about what the pink ribbon means to her. Rather surprisingly, for some, it means nothing at all.
Based on the book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy by Samantha King, this is a long film. Showing it in a classroom necessitates finding a way to divide screening time into more manageable segments. It has a place in senior high school sociology or psychology courses, provoking both thought and discussion. But, I offer a caution and a warning; for students with family members who have faced breast cancer, or any other cancers for that matter; the questions that this film raises have the potential to be distressing to them.
A retired high school teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.