Over the last weeks, the work and finances of Pink Ribbon, the international breast cancer charity, have been much discussed in the Dutch media. As most people know, the discussion got stirred up by the documentary ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’ that was screened at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. In this documentary the practices of Pink Ribbon receive critical scrutiny on many different levels: their campaign with fast food chain KFC, not enough money going into research, their potentially hurtful discourse of cancer ‘survivors’ etc.
Breast Cancer as a political issue?
I watched this insightful and challenging documentary last week. One of the issues that struck me most in the film, namely the fact that the charity Pink Ribbon had the effect of depoliticising the issue of breast cancer, got a bit snowed under in the ensuing media discussion. So I think Pink Ribbons, Inc. is worth yet another blog...
The depoliticising effect of the pink ribbon can be well explained with the story of how a peach ribbon turned pink. So, colour does matter! In 1992, 68 year old Charlotte Haley, inspired by the red HIV AIDS ribbon, started making peach-coloured ribbons in her dining room. She distributed cards with 5 ribbons which stated: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us awake our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” Charlotte Haley was approached by Self magazine together with cosmetics brand Estée Lauder, for permission to use her peach ribbon. When Haley said no, as she was afraid the sign would become too commercial, lawyers advised Estée Lauder to just change the colour of the ribbon! They organised focus groups with women and asked them which colour gave them a comfortable and hopeful feeling. This is how the PINK ribbon was born…
From marching to buying
As we know the pink ribbon soon conquered the world. Breast cancer advocacy used to be sending letters to politicians to tell them to spend more money on breast cancer research. Or, as the film shows, it meant marching in protest with banners asking factories to stop using toxics. Now ‘doing your bit’ against breast cancer means buying a Estée Lauder lipstick with the pink ribbon on it. Or buying pink hoovers, pink scarfs, or running a marathon in pink fancy dress. By the way, this lipstick might even contain a toxic ingredient associated with cancer! So, isn’t it high time to change breast cancer campaigns back into something political, even feminist, rather than just consumerist?
The book or the film?
Without daring to go into the discussion whether the film is better than the book or vice versa, I do want to recommend the book on which the film Pink Ribbons Inc. is based: Pink Ribbons., Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. Of course it is available from the Aletta library. At least, after I will have returned it...
Sara de Jong is researcher at Aletta, institute for women's history.