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Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Through Rose Colored Glasses

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

It is proving impossible to write a review of the film Pink Ribbons, Inc. without setting it against the backdrop of the Chippewa district’s Mardi Gras promotion this year. To raise money for Hospice, bars sold beads—pink beads. And the person who collected the most pink beads by the end of the night won a free breast augmentation surgery. It made me think about a meeting I had recently with a student who was proudly wearing his pink “I heart boobies” rubber bracelet—not because he is worried about cancer, but because it’s a bit of a charge for a 16-year-old boy to get to say “boobies” in front of his teacher. What is going on here? What, exactly, does pink stand for? Who is selling breast cancer, and why?

Pink Ribbons, Inc. screens at 7pm on Thursday, February 23, at the Market Arcade, as part of the International Women’s Film Festival.

You can race in support of breast cancer survivors. You can bike. You can ride horses, or jump out of a plane, or eat breast-cancer-awareness Yoplait or cuddle a pink teddy bear. During October, you almost cannot avoid doing something to spread the pink ribbon message: there are pink Ford Mustangs, pink blenders, pink baseball caps, pink shoelaces on enormous linebackers, a pink Empire State Building. So the message is getting out. But the message, Lea Pool and Samantha King’s new film Pink Ribbons, Inc. suggests, can range from dangerously inadequate to downright misleading.

In conjunction with private corporations, and following the Reagan-era injunction to look for private money rather than public oversight, now-international groups like the Susan G. Komen Foundation have completely reshaped the way we think and talk and act about breast cancer. We need to “connect, communicate, and conquer.” We also need to tone down our militancy, and to replace grassroots politicization with what one patient calls “the tyranny of cheerfulness.” The Breast Cancer Story is no Vagina Monologues.

One of the most significant messages that the pink ribbon juggernaut puts out is that hope is better than anger—but is it? Isn’t anger both appropriate and potentially quite useful? Isn’t anger what ended slavery in this country? It sure wasn’t hope alone. Kicking off a pink ribbon event in New York, the actress Halle Berry fires up the crowd and sends them on their way with the exhortation to “walk as if your life depended on it. Because it does.” But that is a terrifying thought, and one that makes a lot of patients, especially dying ones, angry. As interviewee and breast cancer patient Barbara Ehrenreich laments, “We used to march in the street; now we’re supposed to run for a cure.”

The Susan G. Komen Foundation, now dealing with the aftermath of their decision to stop funding cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, has raised a ton of money for cancer and mammography and awareness programs—$1.9 billion so far. Another big player, Avon, has raised $740 million for the cure. And over the last 60 years, women’s risk of developing breast cancer has gone from one in 22 to …one in eight. It’s not a very promising direction, and it suggests that all this money and effort might not be going in the right direction either. Only about five percent of the money we spend on cancer research goes toward prevention, and an even smaller percentage goes to looking at the possible environmental causes of the disease. What we need to remember, as one after another activist and researcher points out in the film, is that it does not in fact depend on us—or at least not on us walking down Elmwood in a pink bandanna. It depends on a concerted effort to look for what is causing the epidemic of breast cancers, and it depends as well on people demanding that we insist on public funding to address this public health crisis. Breast cancer is a hugely scary and complicated disease—it kills one woman every 69 seconds—and though the average person may be depended on to do many things, curing cancer should not have to be one of them.

Pool and King also take on the way that corporate ties to breast cancer research funding allows for “pinkwashing,” where companies very visibly support pink ribbons while at the same time selling possibly carcinogenic products. The examples are myriad, but one is both illuminating and typical: AstroZeneca, the chemical and pharmaceutical giant, manufactures drugs used to treat cancer and in fact invented Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They also produce and market atrazine, an estrogenic pesticide so clearly linked to cancer that it is banned in Europe. As several of the film’s commentators mention, that makes for an insuperable conflict of interest—one that groups like Komen and the Avon Foundation, dependent on a corporate financing model, don’t and won’t and really can’t address.

This is not to begrudge the genuine feelings and actions of people in pink. Walk through the crowd at a Susan G. Komen event and you would have to be made of stone not to tear up at the sight of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people wearing the names of mothers and daughters and wives who have been lost to breast cancer. You will be moved to see so many people out supporting the women they love and dreaming of a better future. There is nothing artificial or cynical about that. Nor is there anything bad about groups raising billions of dollars to help women’s health. When KFC sells pink tubs of fatty chicken, though, or when vacuum cleaners and soda pop companies plaster pink badges on their labels to move product, or when the National Football League responds to accusations of misogyny with a pink ribbon campaign, we need to think long and hard about what’s being sold, and why.

Watch the trailer for Pink Ribbons, Inc.

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