Pink Ribbons, Inc.
So I finally finished my Christmas present from my parents. It only took me 4 months, not because the book was bad, but rather because it was rather dense, and even though it’s only 124 pages long, I couldn’t bring myself to finish a page without taking extensive notes on it. Pink Ribbons, Inc. is really a fascinating look at a phenomenon that has become so normal to those of us who have grown up in the era of the breast cancer movement. In her book, Samantha King examines in particular the work of the Susan B. Komen Foundation, why it has become so popular, and why it is so problematic.
She starts her analysis detailing the shift in U.S. government policies that caused the overwhelming privatization of social welfare programs. This left a large gap, which began to be filled by non-profits and NGOs, generating an opportunity for private corporations to get involved, taking advantage of a chance to attract more customers. And thus, cause-related marketing was born, leading to “major, long-term commitments to an issue through an alliance that links the company or brand name with the issue in the consumer’s mind” (9 King). King explains how we moved into an era in which corporations asked us to believe that through consumption, or small monetary contributions, we could tackle large and complex issues like cancer, that we could make significant headway in preventing and curing it. We were asked to have “faith in the power of positive thinking, the promotion of research into finding a cure for cancer above research focusing on prevention, and the belief that large infusions of money into research can conquer anything have been remarkably durable features of the various manifestations of the alliance against cancer in the twentieth century” (38 King).
But why did breast cancer rise above other diseases the way it did, garnering such overwhelming support from government agencies and private corporations? In answer to this, King brings attention to the way in which the movement was framed as an effort to protect American motherhood and family “from a disease that threatens not just individual lives but also the normalized socioeconomic identities and relationships that constitute the nuclear family” (45 King). In other words, breast cancer threatened to hurt one of our favorite body parts, one that represents ideals of feminine sexuality, and women’s main contribution to society and citizenship: motherhood. King argues that breast cancer is not in itself naturally uncontroversial, but rather that it has been “constructed over the past two decades as a unifying issue that is somehow beyond the realm of politics, conflict, or power relations” (112). The movement has made little effort to address what King refers to as “burdens and barriers,” such as the harmful chemicals that may cause the disease, or the disproportionate rate at which African-American women die of breast cancer compared to white women.
Perhaps my favorite chapter is called “The Culture of Survivorship and the Tyranny of Cheerfulness,” in which she talks about the belief within the breast cancer movement that a positive attitude is all that is needed to cure oneself. She discusses how a lot of the work that the Komen Foundation does is around raising awareness about early detection but does little to support women once they are diagnosed, instead using rhetoric that instills them with the individual responsibility to–through cheerfulness and endurance–heal oneself. She suggests that women who do not survive the disease are seen as not having tried hard enough.
These are just a few tidbits of parts of the book that grabbed my attention. It was well worth the careful reading, and left me with an increasingly skeptical view of the Komen Foundation, and the consumerist activism that our society has come to foster. I certainly believe that we need to stop breast cancer, but I would encourage Komen and other such foundations to increase their focus on access, and addressing the reasons that certain women have such higher rates than others, instead of pouring all their money into research for a cure that we may not find for decades to come.