Talking about gender, says Sociologist Judith Lorber, is for most people the equivalent of fish talking about water. It is so common, routine, pervasive, and normal– that “questioning its taken-for-granted assumptions…is like wondering whether the sun will come up.” It seems natural and predictable. The same is true for pink. Pink ribbons are so commonplace that we’ve just gotten used to them.
Pink is supposed to signify awareness. But how much awareness can there be when people casually swim through the pink without noticing its texture, intent, presuppositions, or consequences. “Doing pink” without contemplating whether pink means what advertisers and organizers tell us it means, renders invisible its underlying assumptions and resulting consequences. Unless we look, we will never know whether the pink brand of awareness produces the results we hope for and expect.
The positive results of pink ribbon culture are well known. Advocacy and awareness activities have increased the visibility of the breast cancer cause, promoted significant fundraising, and encouraged solidarity among some groups of survivors and supporters. The disease is no longer stigmatized to be a death sentence. Politicians, mass media, and corporations openly support the cause. Breast cancer survivors influence some research agendas, and some of the funds raised in pink culture do help to finance it. Pink ribbon culture encourages women to take control of their health in specific ways, and it offers avenues for people to support the cause of breast cancer.
Because of the positives, there is no reason to throw out the entire system. However, there are unintended effects that undermine the cause and its capacity to achieve the ultimate goal of eradicating breast cancer while supporting the diagnosed in the meantime. Some of these consequences have already been discussed on this blog.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Sells Out the Pink to Get the Green discusses Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s questionable trademark and marketing activities and the organization’s official statement about its financial stewardship.
2020: NBCC’s Breast Cancer Deadline examines how hope for an eventual medical miracle has fueled the fund-raising of billions of dollars but that the eradication of the disease has never been realized.
Feeling Good About Cause Marketing discusses how the $6 billion raised from industry and the philanthropic community toward the war on breast cancer is supposed to make people feel good about consumption and cause marketing. In reality, corporations may be benefiting more from consumers’ good intentions than the cause of breast cancer.
Look Out for Pinktober outlines some of the harmful effects of pink cause marketing such as: spreading misinformation about breast cancer, using fear mongering to sell products and ideas, abuse of the cause for public relations and revenue production, trivialization of the disease, and use of health promotion projects to divert attention from environmental health risks posed by the companies themselves.
“1 in 8″ – Fear Mongering and the Probability of Developing Breast Cancer examines how the “1 in 8” ratio that is commonly used in breast cancer advertisements creates so much fear around women’s risk that it diverts attention from other pressing health issues. It also begets stress, increased surveillance, and unnecessary procedures including unnecessary biopsies, treatments, and prophylactic mastectomies.
What’s In A Color? shows how pink ribbon imagery and discourse mesh with popular culture to exploit feminine stereotypes related to women’s traditional roles, bodies, and lifestyles.
The She-ro, the woman hero in pink, is the protagonist of the epic survivor story in pink culture. Her stylized femininity and approach to survivorship prevails in pink culture. While empowering to some, she-roic stories marginalize those who do not, or cannot, fit the model.
Go Pink, or Go Home! reveals the us/them scenario that is so prevalent in pink ribbon culture. The “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality has marginalized and silenced many survivors and others who have different experiences of breast cancer and different ideas about how to eradicate it.
If we want to build on the positives and lessen the negatives, we need to rethink our approach to breast cancer. The first step is to notice that we are swimming in a sea of pink.