It is the final day of October. Over the last 31 days, you have likely been inundated by pink.
October, around the world, is ubiquitously known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Just in case you weren’t already aware of breast cancer. Probably long before October, you saw the pink infiltration begin. In department stores. Car and cell phone retailers. In the produce aisle. (Pink Ribbon button mushrooms anyone?)
There are really six reasons everyone should care about the breast cancer/pink ribbon cult(ure) and what it means for our society philanthropically/ethically/environmentally and so on. Queers though, more than anyone feel the most removed from breast cancer culture and the “pinkification of womanly consumption” that is seemingly more and more overwhelming each October. I think, and argue, that the pink ribbon cult of consumption has huge and important ramifications in the realm of gender, and then more specifically in the areas of health and politics. TRUST ME. It is relevant to your interests.
So let’s get edgumacated.
Well for all you queers out there, you might not have realized, but breast cancer culture is using OUR metaphor, claiming that breast cancer has “come out of the closet” in recent years. The pink ribbons and runs for the cure, they say, signal public acceptance of breast cancer, with women no longer feeling shameful of their disease. Sound familiar?
With the exception of Melissa Etheridge and season 3 of The L Word when Dana died of breast cancer, we rarely connect the issue of breast cancer with lesbians – and even more rarely with trans men – which I think, is exactly the issue Chaiken (et al) were trying to combat.
Breast cancer is probably one of the least talked about health issues in lesbian and trans circles, and, if I am right, we are probably the only sector of the female population not targeted – or affected – by marketing campaigns to buy ugly-ass gimmicky pink broaches and lipsticks “for the cure”. And, we probably DIDN’T participate in the horribly inane Facebook game last year asking us to update our statuses to the colour of our bras in order to “raise awareness” (and shame on you if you did). There is a good reason for this I think; breast cancer awareness – and the culture of breast cancer more generally – is a movement premised on and drawing strength from an ultra-femme and ultra-feminine conception of femaleness, fertility, family values, and heterosexuality (read: engaged in reproduction). This is the reason – let me know if I am wrong – that I think queers are not entirely engaged by, and therefore don’t think about, breast cancer as a particularly politically or philosophically engaging topic.
Reason #1: The pink ribbon breast cancer cult prospers at the expense of more politically charged women’s health issues.
Abortion rights were practically effaced in last years passing of the Stupak amendment in the US, with muted outrage. Barbara Ehreneich points out however, that celebrities rose to the occasion, vehemently protesting and lending their star power when the recommended age for mammographies was raised to 50. Abortion, domestic violence, rape, AIDS: these are morally thorny issues that politicians, corporations, and society generally can’t agree to agree on. When everyone gets behind breast cancer, a relatively safe (and lucrative) cause they are excused from acting on other pressing issues related to women’s health. In fact, they get a pat on the back, and a boost in approval ratings from female consumers, for giving a damn about women.
Reason #2: The pink ribbon breast cancer cult is a very sad, but very real, example of 21st century feminism.
Reason # 3: The movement objectifies women’s bodies and pepetuates asexualized straight cis gendered procreative female identity.
The subject of breast cancer in this instance is a straight cis procreating woman. What matters most is saving “boobies”, the eternal symbol of femininity. As this blogger writes, it is not only infantalizing, but itis objectifying and once again reduces a woman’s worth to her anatomy:
” I see the shirts, the bracelets, the witty slogans. ‘I love boobies.’ ‘Grope for the cause.’ ‘If you don’t check them, I will.’ I am reminded by these things that I am not a person, a human being, a whole body. I am a pair of breasts. These campaigns objectify me and narrow in on the very thing about my body I care about the least. The thing that, actually, sometimes, I hate. Loathe. Because of what is buried inside my DNA, because of what is buried inside my brain. This thing that is objectified, it is the thing that will probably kill me.”
Reason #4: The pink ribbon breast cancer cult/cancer-industrial complex is a capitalistic cumfest, the kind of thing marketers masturbate about. For realsies.
Take the pink ribbon for example. The pink ribbon itself was a result of the marketing genius of Estée Lauder and Self magazine. This coincided with the rise of cause marketing in the late 80’s when companies decided that their advertising money would be better spent on a “cause” that would transform consumers opinions and appeal to those consumers’ emotions and concerns. Cause marketing would challenge the perception of corporations as heartless entities. Avon, this theory would suggest, made perhaps the best marketing decision in their entire history, as the company for women, by jumping on, or rather, spearheading the breast cancer movement. What better way to appeal to their female base? But, you might say, aren’t they still doing good in the end? Well, maybe, except that large corporations actually typically SPEND MORE on advertising their pink ribbon do-gooding than they actually raise. Plus, with companies like Avon, it is the independent distributors who take the hit on pink ribbon products, not the company (Pink Ribbon Inc.). Many companies have a pre-determined donation amount regardless of how much they raise from the sale of pink ribbon products, which is again to say, that the companies are the one’s profiting from breast cancer. Perhaps one of the biggest culprits are drug companies; it was the AstraZeneca, the producer of breast cancer treatment drugs, who spearheaded and co-founded Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the first place. Get mad. Get real mad.
Reason #5: The pink ribbon breast cancer cult depends on the spirit of volunteerism.
Reason # 6: Out lesbian and one of THE leading breast-care experts, Dr. Susan Love, recently admitted to the fact that Lesbians are at a disproportianite risk of developing breast cancer than their straight counterparts.
Inequality and discrimination at the level of health care in our country means that many lesbians are getting sub-standard treatment and are far less likely to get regular screenings that straight women, or to even have a regular health practitioner that they trust. Scary. She also points out that poverty, alcohol abuse, a tendancy towards obesity, and the fact that lesbians are less likely to have children (nulliparity) all are contributing factors, but I think this is only compounded by the fact that we are often left out of the conversation and many queers don’t know their risk. Very little research has been done about trans folks’ risk of breast cancer, but we do know that the medical system lacks awareness and resources to assess and deal with them.
I also highly recommend this film which will be screening at Concordia University on October 17th.
You can also read more from my interview with Samantha King (on whose book the film is premised) here.
These are some of the reasons I think you should care. I don’t think that running for the cure is bad, or that you should curtail donations to your favourite charities. But I think a healthy dose of skepticism would be wise. Think before you pink, and encourage others to do the same.
Ok. Your turn. Discuss.