Pink ribbons are too easy
by Kelvin Wade
When people started sticking yellow magnetic ribbons on their cars to “support the troops” I resisted it. I made donations to vets organizations but there was something too easy, too low rent about putting a decal on my car and claiming I supported the troops. It was like politicians wearing flag pins on their lapels or the ubiquitous red AIDS ribbons that I always suspected people wore more to be hip than to support AIDS research.
So October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and pink ribbons are ubiquitous as well as pink products on store shelves. And while I’ve went out of my way to purchase pink products and donate money to the Susan G. Komen Foundation in the past, I’ve had this nagging feeling that like those other gestures, how much good do pink ribbons and rubber bracelets saying “I love Boobies!” do?
I’d had these misgivings before I stumbled across the excellent documentary, “Pink Ribbons Inc.” Director Lea Pool takes Samantha King’s 2006 book “Pink Ribbons, Inc. – Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy” and spins a compelling commentary on the business of breast cancer awareness.
We learn things like in 1940 a woman’s lifetime risk of getting breast cancer was 1 in 22. In 2011, it’s 1 in 8. The movie drives home the point that we’re trying to find a cure to something we don’t know the cause of. Also, only 15% of breast cancer research funds go to prevention and only 5% go to environmental causes.
It’s fascinating when the film interviews Charlotte Haley, the woman who lost many loved ones to cancer, who started the ribbon campaign with a salmon colored ribbon trying to make the public aware of how little cancer research is done on prevention. Estee Lauder and Self Magazine approached her to use her ribbons to start a campaign and she refused because she suspected they just wanted to make money off of it. According to the film, the companies consulted their attorneys and focus groups and changed the ribbons to pink and the rest is history.
The documentary raises the Susan G. Komen’s Foundation’s reluctance to emphasize environmental cancer research due to a conflict of interest since they partner with Ford, KFC and other corporations that may be implicated in such research. (The film was made before Komen’s disastrous decision to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood. Komen’s contributions have fallen ever since the flap.)
One of the examples given in the film of how companies exploit the pink ribbons is a campaign by American Express that emphasized “every dollar counts” and pledged to make a donation for every purchase their customers made. The fine print revealed that they donated a penny per purchase. So no matter if you made a $10 or $1000 purchase, they donated a penny.
The film alleges the NFL partnered with Susan G. Komen to soften its image and appeal to female viewers following a spate of negative incidents involving players.
Though not in the film, World Wrestling Entertainment has currently partnered with Susan G. Komen with superstar John Cena wrestling in pink gear. I think WWE CEO Vince McMahon’s move has more to do with gaining credibility for his brand and supporting his wife Linda’s Connecticut Senate campaign than breast cancer.
The most poignant parts of the film to me are the interviews with women with stage 4 breast cancers. They’re honesty is inspiring and haunting.
Beyond all the statistics and interviews with people like the author, writer/activist Barbara Ehrenreich, Komen Founder Nancy Brinker, and doctors, the thing that resonated most with me was something Barbara A. Brenner, Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action said. She said that we’ve delivered the wrong message to women about early detection. For some women, we will find a cancer early that responds to treatment and they will live long lives. For a second group, we’ll find something that never was going to become a problem and they’ll get sick from the treatment. And in the third group, cancer will be found early but the cancer will be so aggressive that there’s nothing doctors can do. And everyone wants to believe they’re in the first group.
That was a sobering message because many people believe if breast cancer is caught early they’ll be okay. That shows you how little we know even with all of this so-called awareness.
When you think of the fact that we’ve spent billions in research, built this culture of pink ribbon awareness and breast cancer is an even larger problem, we’re doing something wrong. Maybe, like the documentary argues, there needs to be better coordination among researchers. We need more research into cause and prevention. We need to be asking more questions and writing more letters to Congress and corporations involved in “cause marketing.”
When you think of the seriousness of this disease then bathing the Empire State Building, Niagara Falls and Christ the Redeemer statue in pink light seems kind of silly. There’s a photo in the documentary of Laura Bush sitting next to a Muslim woman in a head to toe black Burka with a pink ribbon stuck on it that truly seems asinine.
Check out the film out the film on the LOGO channel or Netflix or pick up the book. Or visit thinkbeforeyoupink.org.
I’m not saying folks shouldn’t be involved in corporate-sponsored cancer races and walks. For me, Breast Cancer Awareness Month and pink ribbons almost seem like just a cultural phenomenon that people want to be a part of. It’s like when we put pink ribbons or red ribbons or 9/11 photos for our Facebook statuses. For too many it’s a way of feeling involved without getting involved.