October 31, 2011

Why I Hate Pink Ribbon Crap and Six Reasons Everyone Oughta Care


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.

That is why I THINK you DON’T care. Now, here is why you should. The breast cancer movement – not the disease, but rather, the philanthropic movement, what some call the cancer-industrial complex – has an ideology and politics that favours and bows down to large corporations and drug companies, is racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and is a potential threat to feminism and to democracy. Barbara Ehrenreich calls this ‘the pink ribbon breast cancer cult’ so I am going to go with that because it has a nice ring to it. Plus, there are a few things you should know about breast cancer if you are queer.
Strong words. I know. Stick with me and then we can discuss your feelings.

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. 

It’s what I call faux-feminism. I don’t believe social activism with corporate sponsorship has any chance of lasting and meaningful social change. I don’t believe that feminism – a once critical, angry, and unapologetic demand for equality – would dress up in pink frills, talk sweet, sleep with congress, and get banged by big business. It is complacent. It is pink, and pretty, and perky. It doesn’t rock anyone’s boat. It embraces rather than questions the ideals of nurturing and of femininity. It idealizes motherhood. It displaces a quest for equality. Races and runs for the cure attract thousands of women each year and yet it is nearly impossible to mobilize the same numbers of women for issues of domestic violence, fair wages, gay and lesbian rights, or abortion. This movement has adopted the concept of female solidarity, and talks the talk of women’s rights and women’s health. As one NYT columnist lamented about the current breast cancer culture this past fall: “rather than truly breaking silences, acceptable narratives of coping emerged, each tied up with a pretty pink bow.”

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. 

This, as such, may not seem like such a bad thing. However, the rise of volunteerism (especially in the US, but there is a similar trend in Canada) coincides with a reduction of the welfare state and government responsibility. Volunteerism, charity, fundraising – it is all a replacement for adequate health care and government CARE. As so many Americans can attest, inequality at the level of health care is one of the most debilitating and severe inequalities of all, especially because often it only compounds existing inequalities of race, class, or gender. Monies raised under the guise of “pink ribbon” fundraising do not ensure health care for women actually diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease which disproportionately affects African American and low-income women. While I believe charity and volunteerism play an important role in society, I am not convinced either should take place of government responsibility, nor should our voices be for sale to corporations, and nor should saving the lives of women – especially poor women – be up to the discretion of non-governmental organizations, regardless of their benevolence.

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.

Want to support some Breast Cancer orgs doing great things? I recommend Breast Cancer Action Montreal in Canada, and the Breast Cancer Fund and Breast Cancer Action in the US.

Ok. Your turn. Discuss.

About the Author

|Executive Editor & Co-Founder| A mostly hippy and always hungry cultural critic, closeted pop-culture lover, and food know-it-all. Half cowgirl, half Ivy leaguer. You will find me writing on the crazy sh*t that happens on my teevee, feminism, philanthropy, religion and politics. I like singing shows, high-waisted skirts, scotch, two-stepping, and all forms of breakfast foods (sweet AND salty).



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  1. Laurie Paxton

    Well done. It is complete nonsense on so many levels.
    I do want to share this with you-as you are making a difference and people are getting the message. I was in a yarn store in Calgary, big surprise, and they had something pink and I said the same thing “this is nonsense”. The woman working said “yes, but there is a group in Montreal who have to right message”. In short, she said that that message should come out west a little harder and that she supports you, your group your message and feels the exact same way. Keep up the amazing work E!!

  2. ottawadave

    I saw a bottle of wine with a pink ribbon the other day… drink for a cure!

    And how much to all these movember posters cost?

    • Ty

      Thanks for the comment ottawadave.

      I was also curious and they’ve seem to answer it here:

      Having been working in fundraising for the last while I have accepted a 12% cost related to fundraising. This seems to be standard across the board but doesn’t include the pink ribbon campaign. I speak more from a foundation point of view such as hospitals, educational instructions etc.

    • skeptical

      I think people are missing a big point here. Corporations are motivated by PROFIT. We all know this. The fact that fundraising campaigns often cost more than they make does not seem an inherent evil to me. Make no mistake that execs are engaging in fundraising campaigns for to increase profits, not (usually) for philanthropic reasons — but that begs the question: is it better to raise a few million dollars under the evil guise of corporate advertising or to raise none at all? As someone whose family has been ROCKED by breast cancer, and whose grandmother was afraid to tell anyone because of the negative stigma attached, I have to feel that I’d chose the former over the latter. Parts of the campaign are contrived, and maybe it is immature and sexist to say things like I like boobies — but the fact of the matter is that people’s lives are being saved by the change in the conversation around the issue. The next step is not to bash the campaign as it stands now but to extend this conversation and this awareness to the lesbian community as well, if it’s true that we are really being excluded from it.

  3. […] taken a stand in the past regarding cancer fundraising. You can read for example my article, “Why I hate Pink Ribbon Crap and Six Reasons Everyone Oughta Care“. How is that different than what Manley did, and why are we supporting a different cause […]

  4. natkat

    Great post. I HAVE BREAST CANCER and I despise that pink ribbon crap. The sad reality is that in spite of all the attention and so-called research, thousands of women routinely get mutilated – oh I mean mastectomies – as the main “cure”. And many of these go on to die b/c the breast amputation doesn’t get the cancer cells which metasticize and kill the patient, anyway. Sad but true. Please save your money from these corporate fund raising hoaxes and do something real like support alternative research or help a woman you know raise money for alternative treatments which aren’t covered by insurance.

  5. Absolutely fantastic article, and yes, very brave. No one wants to ask these questions, but they need to be asked. The Gaily strikes again. Well done.

  6. carol dunphy

    Thank you for putting into words what I emotional could not. Keep writing and challenging the *norm*. Love pats to Boo.

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