Iwon’t pretend to be objective on the topic of raising money for breast cancer research and awareness. Having lost loved ones to this disease, I’ve marched and I’ve donated and, yes, I’ve even worn pink. I’ve trusted that the millions of dollars collected in the name of prevention and cure mean that, someday, far fewer people will die.
So, am I a chump?
That’s the question a lot of people will be asking themselves after seeing “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” a documentary inspired by Samantha King’s 2006 book, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.” King, who appears in the film, asserts that the pink-ribbon movement — initially grown from grass-roots activism but now adopted and some would say co-opted by an impressive range of opportunistic corporations — has done more damage than good. Her view, supported by most of the other talking heads assembled on camera by director Léa Pool, is that breast cancer has been dumbed down and prettied up to the point where even the afflicted are expected to beat it back with a smile. King calls it the “tyranny of cheerfulness,” an irresistible dig.
But objections to packaging and presentation are just the beginning. The most unsettling part of “Pink Ribbons” is the time it spends on the money trail. While plenty of consumers already question the plethora of pink-ribbon products and how much of their sales really go to charity, it’s safe to say that few people stop to fully examine the profit equation for companies selling everything from diapers to yogurt to cars. The bottom line is often hard to accept, and it gets even ickier when those same companies are caught contributing carcinogens and pollutants to the lives they claim to be devoted to helping. While the movie could do a more balanced job of presenting the corporate side (the filmmakers couldn’t find a few more intelligent, unbiased voices to defend capitalism and “cause marketing”?), it at least urges that you do your own homework before deciding what causes and products deserve your loyalty.
The false prophets of this film are no challenge to spot, even when they’re not standing behind misleading ad campaigns and big pink buckets of KFC. An expected target is Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, whose scary-smooth face and perky, blush-toned outfits give her the appearance of a talking tube of lipstick. Last seen by most of us as she was doing damage control over her foundation’s decision earlier this year to stop funding Planned Parenthood offices, Brinker’s agenda here is easy to question, particularly next to the less-scripted activists, authors, researchers, physicians, and academics assembled by Pool to support King’s thesis.
Some commentators, including social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and activist Judy Brady, are unapologetically humorless about condemning every aspect of the pink-ribbon culture. They say it’s offensive and demeaning to lob candy-colored teddy bears at a pandemic that should be met with outrage. A group of Stage 4 breast cancer patients offers powerful, heartbreaking testimony that can-do language and “survivor” accolades only add pressure and stigma when one doesn’t win the “battle.” Meanwhile, activist Barbara Brenner weighs in periodically with wise and compelling observations that will make you want to march, not just walk or skip or sky-dive, with whatever militancy it takes to force real changes in medicine and marketing. That’s easier said than done, of course. Everyone knows that prevention is better than a cure, but who gets rich from prevention?
Creatively, “Pink Ribbons” is standard-issue. It asks many important questions and makes a variety of scattered points. It fills its frames with footage of charity events, new and old interviews, facts and figures that both try to do too much and don’t do enough to tell the whole story. The filmmakers can also be accused of engaging in their own brand of dumbed-down messaging (not that I have anything against cartoons and clip art) and exploitation of breast cancer issues. At the very least, though, this documentary will make you question the status quo.
Chump? Pool’s film is honest enough to allow for that, though it’s also careful to paint charitable foot soldiers as well-intentioned, if misguided. It’s the pink-ribbon armies and politics that arguably need to be stopped, or at least redirected.
“When I see a pink ribbon,” Brady says dourly as the end credits roll, “I see evil.”Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.