‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’ shows how to wisely think pink

In these times when the political correct police are 24/7 and global, you’d think that the cause of finding a cure for breast cancer would be safe. The documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” tells us that 59,000 women die each year from breast cancer but the industry of the Pink Ribbon isn’t really about cancer. It’s about self-promotion.

If you were around in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you might remember women marching in the streets over the lack of funding for breast cancer. Today, that movement has gone more commercial than Christmas. You can walk, run,  party, eat and vacuum in the name of breast cancer.

In 2006, Samantha King wrote a book looking at the breast cancer awareness campaign, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.” This particular King is not the singer, she is an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. She teaches the cultural politics of health, sports and the body at this college in Kingston, Ontario (Canada).

The documentary was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and directed by Léa Pool. Pool intercuts historical black and white film footage of early protests, candid footage at various breast cancer events and an assortment of talking heads. The talking heads includes leaders you might recognize such as Susan G. Komen’s sister, Nancy G. Brinker, the founder and CEO of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, but the documentary is more skewed toward the intellectuals such as King, Barbara Ehrenreich, Barbara Brenner and Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade.

Ehrenreich,although best known for her 2001 book “Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” an expose about her three-month experiment working minimum wage jobs (including a stint at a Wal-Mart), has a Ph.D. from Rockefeller University in cellular immunology. She’s served in various capacities with organizations such as the U.S. National Women’s Health Network and the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Barbara Brenner is a breast cancer activist who currently faces issues with ALS.  She had been until 2010, the executive director of the organization Breast Cancer Action. BCA is behind the Think Before You Pink campaign and persuaded General Mills to stop using milk produced by cows treated with a cancer-linked hormone.

Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade is a hematology oncologist at the University of Chicago Medicine and is considered a leader in breast cancer research.

One problem the Pink Ribbon campaigns face is like some facets of the women’s movement, it targets white upper class women. This isn’t just because they are the only ones getting breast cancer, but because, according to this documentary, they are a valued target audience for ads.

Some of the changes that merged marketing with the medical community was the 1981 National Alliance of Business Conference where then-President Ronald Reagan began the move from health being a national concern to a private industry concern. Of course, certain industry has always been concerned with medical causes–take the pharmaceutical industry and its pill-pushing.

What changed was that other industries such as publications and cosmetics jumped on to a cause and with breast cancer they did it by stealing a good idea and remaking it as their own. Charlotte Haley began a grassroots effort to pressure the National Cancer Institute to make more funds available to breast cancer research and used a peach or salmon colored ribbon. “Self” magazine and Estée Lauder approached Haley about using her idea for their own ribbon campaign, but when she wouldn’t accept the commercialization of her idea, the two companies joined forces, consulted a lawyer and stole her idea simply by changing the color of the ribbon to pink.

The first known usage in connection with breast cancer was by the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 1991 according to the Think Before you Pink article “Pretty in Pink.” While the Komen Foundation raises a great deal of money for breast cancer research, they have shown questionable judgment. In the documentary, the KFC campaign is mentioned, but more recently there was that Planned Parenthood flap.

What the documentary questions is: Has the foundation sold out? Money before full health considerations? It also points out that not everyone wants to be cheerful when faced with a life-threatening disease and that happy, smiling cancer survivor (the terminology of cancer patients is also discussed) facade seems to play into the stereotypical female role of cheerleader or selfless silently-suffering martyr. The documentary intersperses the personal opinions and stories of a stage 4 group of breast cancer patients. For them, don’t worry, be happy isn’t enough.

Another issue is what BCA has dubbed by the portmanteau pinkwashing. In October, the pinkwashing is out in full force because October is Breast Cancer Awareness month but has become a Breast Cancer Industry month where companies offer pink items that have no connection with breast cancer fund-raising or, even worse, are connected or use chemicals or ingredients that have been linked to cancer.

This intelligent documentary is a troubling exposé on how industry has taken a genuine concern and used it for profit. While “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” looks specifically at the breast cancer fund-raising and awareness industry, surely the points raised can be used in evaluating other similar concerns. If you want to Think Pink in the memory of a loved one or just because it’s the right thing to do, see this documentary because it will help you make a better choice on which groups to support.

“Pink Ribbons, Inc.” is currently at the Pasadena Playhouse 7.


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