‘Pink Ribbons’ Campaign Draws Questions


The Pink Ribbon. It brings millions of women and men on the streets. It makes thousands more open their wallets to support the cause: Raising funds for breast cancer. What started out as a small campaign has, over the years, become a high profile success story of cause marketing with corporations jumping into the fray and mobilising millions of dollars.

Whilst most focus their attention on the carnival and cheery atmosphere the campaign presents, there is a small group of activists – including those who have battled breast cancer – who have been raising some hard-hitting questions: On the involvement of big corporations; on the lack of transparency in the use of the funds; and on the fact that the Pink Ribbon campaign has actually softened and, to use an activist’s phrase, “drain[ed] the militancy” out of the movement.

It is these voices that star in a new, hard-hitting documentary ‘Pink Ribbons Inc’, which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). So gripping are the voices and women associated with the film that most first-time viewers become very emotionally charged. Just like Deborah Flemming, a breast cancer survivor. She says, “Every year, for the last five years now I have participated in marathons and bought products – most of which I did not need – because a part of the proceeds went for breast cancer. However, now that I see the bigger picture, the questions that have occasionally nagged me have surfaced again: While it is important to celebrate the fact that some of us have completed a treatment successfully, why is it that we do not see images of cancer victims? And what happens to all the money we raised? Why are we not hearing of any new significant research?”

It’s exactly these kinds of questions that director Lea Pool and Ravida Din of the National Film Board of Canada – the producer of ‘Pink Ribbons Inc’ – want people to ask. Din, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, says it was an article by the noted academic-activist and author Barbara Ehrenreich, titled ‘Welcome to Cancerland’, that inspired her greatly. In the article – and she has reiterated her views in the film as well – which gives detailed accounts of her diagnosis and subsequent treatment for breast cancer, Ehrenreich has combined her academic insights, feminist perspective and journalistic skills to lambaste the sentimentalism (a pink teddy bear for cancer patients is an example) that underlines the pink ribbon campaign. She also reflects on the irony of pharmaceutical companies fostering the pink ribbon power movement – with the ribbons, the teddy bears, the marathons – even as they continue to manufacture the expensive poisons that seem to have cancerous side effects.

Ehrenreich also abhors the “survivor” label, because, she argues, it implies that those who succumbed to the disease were lacking in will or strength to fight it. And there are also a host of other arguments that highlight how in the process of becoming the poster child of corporate America, this disease has had to shed its scary and ugly facet, and assume a perky optimistic facade. In fact, so “pervasive is the perkiness of the breast cancer world that unhappiness requires a kind of apology”, she writes.

Says Din, “Ehrenreich’s article gave me a language, it allowed me to express what I was feeling. It led to other writings and to Dr Samatha King’s book.” It’s King’s book, ‘Pink Ribbons Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy’ that triggered the idea of making a film. The book casts a critical eye on fund-raising and challenges the corporatisation of the search for a cure. King shows how a personalised and hitherto stigmatised disease became a cause celebre for corporations with everyone jumping into the breast cancer market. Locating the shift of philanthropy in North America from the government to the private sector in the Reagan era, King argues that the corporates’ cause marketing has dwarfed public health efforts and stifled the calls for investigation into why and how breast cancer affects such a vast number of people.

It was a determined Din who approached Pool to helm ‘Pink Ribbons Inc.’. She says, “I know Lea’s work and especially the stories she does on women’s lives. I had a theoretical framework – an academic book – but when I thought about the kind of approach Lea takes to films, I knew she would bring the cinema to it.”

The award-winning filmmaker warmed to the project instantly. “I could see there was a strong subject that would open a lot of areas and it was a very important voice that hadn’t been heard before, but the cinematic part was tough. There were two big challenges – one, to make a film that could have a theatrical release and second, to try and find the right balance because it is an emotional subject. I wanted to be critical (of Pink Ribbon campaign) but I also wanted to respect the women who are doing it and those who are suffering, even dying of this terrible disease,” she elaborates.

The film unravels the big money and business that corporations net by jumping on the Pink Ribbon bandwagon. Everyone’s on it, from cosmetic giants like Avon and Estee Lauder to car manufacturers like Ford, fast food chains like KFC, companies selling diary products like Yoplait and pharmaceutical giants. The reason why corporations are embracing this cause is simple: Breast cancer affects women and women constitute their largest consumer group.

Unfortunately, research shows that a very small percentage of the support sale is actually forwarded to the cause. Supporters of the campaign argue that it has done a lot to raise awareness, but as Barbara Brenner, activist and executive director of Breast Cancer Action (BCA) in San Francisco questions: “There is a value to awareness, but awareness of what, and to what end? We need changes in the direction the research is going; we need access to care beyond mammograms; we need to know what is causing the disease; and we need a cure. The pink ribbon is not indicative of any of that.”

In the cheery almost carnival like atmosphere, there are some women who cannot see themselves fitting in. “We are the elephants in the room,” says a woman who is battling stage 4 (terminal stage) breast cancer. For such women cannot be paraded in the celebratory mood of these walks and marathons or get up on the podium to talk about how they “survived”. Also, getting them in would burst the bubble of campaign’s “get regular mammograms, make lifestyle changes and beat the cancer” tone.

The whole image of campaign, according to Din, “is carefully cultivated in what Dr King calls the tyranny of cheerfulness, in a way you can’t participate in those events unless you buy into this mythology. You go in to celebrate. If women were given other options, they would have looked at other options.”

And that is what the film aspires to do. Says Pool, “This little ribbon hides so many big secrets. I hope the film will raise questions and begin a new conversation about breast cancer.”

In an interview Dr King has said, “Things aren’t going to change overnight, they don’t. But if we can start thinking about how we fund raise for the disease and where that money goes differently, I think that’ll be a great beginning.”

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