Pink Ribbons, Inc.
Last week, here in Washington, DC, the Susan G. Komen foundation held their “Global Race for the Cure®”, trademark and all. And surely they raised gobs and gobs of money, along with awareness — whatever that means — and the profile of its brand. But what does the pink-ribbon brand actually stand for? That’s a question that professor Samantha King asked, and which Canadian filmmaker Léa Pool brings to the screen in Pink Ribbons, Inc..
And it’s a question that I’m glad someone is asking. The cheery, relentlessly positive attitude in their advertising — not to mention that of their corporate partners — has always vaguely discomfited me, and not just because I’m a cynical misanthrope. And yet, I’m not a woman and don’t run any notable risk of breast cancer myself, so I generally hold my tongue. But many of the women Pool interviews share some of my misgivings, and on a much more visceral level than I could experience them.
So, what misgivings? Well, this whole positioning of cancer as a “battle” and insistence on staying upbeat has a darker, unspoken flip side: when women die — and women will die — it’s hard not to see it as a failure on their part. Even before they die, women are going to be depressed or even angry about their situation, and they’re being told left and right that they have to stay positive. Breast cancer is made cute and cuddly and pink when, as Barbara Ehrenreich forcefully puts it, it’s horrible and ugly. And don’t even get me started on the “Save the Boobies” offshoot, bizarrely appealing to younger audiences by suggesting that the breasts — rather than the women themselves — are what’s really at risk here.
But let’s put that aside; different approaches work for different people. But what about corporate partnerships? Breast cancer makes for wonderfully good public relations, and for literally pennies on the dollar. American Express, for instance, had a promotion where a portion of each purchase, with the card, at participating retailers, under particular conditions, would go to a breast cancer charity. The portion? one cent per purchase, be it a ten-dollar bauble or a thousand-dollar coat.
And then there’s “pinkwashing”, where companies whose business spreads known or suspected carcinogens use breast cancer charities to improve their public image. It doesn’t take long on the Environmental Working Group’s website to turn up some shockers. Avon, which spun off its very own breast cancer charity, certainly has its share.
But a little more sinister are the pharmaceutical company partners; awareness campaigns generally focus on early detection, which certainly profits a company that can only sell you a drug after you’ve been diagnosed. And, taking a steely-eyed and decidedly un-pink view, the benefits of early detection are far from clean-cut; many cancers will move swiftly no matter how early they’re caught, and many things early detection turns up would have been ultimately innocuous but for the illnesses brought on by the scattershot treatments.
But at least these charities are raising money for cancer research; they love to trumpet the millions that they’ve raised, and the (smaller) millions that have gone to research grants. There’s much less talk about what results this research has turned up. There’s also little hype about what exact research is being done; how little research money goes into prevention, or even understanding what causes breast cancer in the first place, which was Charlotte Haley’s motivation in creating the original, salmon-colored, ribbon before it was subverted by Estée Lauder. There’s simply no money in avoiding cancer the way there is in “curing” it, and big charities like Komen and Avon need to focus on fundraising to justify their continued existence.
So, what do you call it when a once-benign or beneficial entity grows, unchecked, beyond its original boundaries, sucking up resources, even if it acts to the detriment of the system to which it once belonged? No better term can be found than “cancer”.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.