“Almost all of the eye-level space has been filled with photocopied bits of cuteness and sentimentality: pink ribbons, a cartoon about a woman with iatrogenically flattened breasts, an “Ode to a Mammogram,” a list of the “Top Ten Things Only Women Understand” (“Fat Clothes” and “Eyelash Curlers” among them), and, inescapably, right next to the door, the poem “I Said a Prayer for You Today,” illustrated with pink roses.”
Barbara Ehrenreich, Welcome to Cancerland
Having been diagnosed with breast cancer, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a thought provoking article for Harper’s Magazine in 2001 that described her personal introduction to that world of breast cancer. The culture that Ehrenreich described as she waited in a changing room to have a mammogram was far more complex and omnipresent than I had realized: the ultra-feminine pink kitsch of the breast cancer marketplace, the infantilizing trope of teddy bears and tote bags, the mainstreaming of support as united sentimentality, the battle cry of survivorship coupled with the tyranny of cheerfulness, disease and its treatment as a rite of passage and chance for creative self-transformation, the promise of medical technology, the cancer–industrial complex, and the denigration of death and the dying. This vivid account described a new American religion just for women, replete with traditionally feminine symbolism, ritual, and doctrine.
Ehrenreich’s critical observation of breast cancer sparked a public discussion of the corporate interest in breast cancer, the dilution of feminist ideals within the breast cancer movement, the feminine aesthetic of mainstream breast cancer culture, and mass obedience to medical protocols. Although the discussion provoked outrage, concern, and critical evaluation on the part of some, a culture of breast cancer survivorship continued to gain social, economic, and political force.
The pink ribbon culture that exists today is a unique cultural system. With roots in the women’s health movement of the 1970s and the breast cancer movement of the 1980s and 1990s, pink ribbon culture flourishes as a new dimension of American culture with its own symbols, beliefs, values, norms, and practices. Support groups, educational programs, community events, and breast cancer related services convey elements of pink ribbon culture. At the same time, breast cancer holds a prominent position in mass media, the cancer industry, and corporate cause-marketing. Pink ribbon paraphernalia saturate shopping malls, billboards, magazines, television, and other entertainment venues. Having gone mainstream, pink ribbon culture is now widely available to a virtual community of breast cancer survivors, would-be supporters, and the general public. The identity of the warrior who fights courageously against breast cancer is open to anyone who buys, displays, or thinks pink.
Prior to 2001, my knowledge about breast cancer was slight. When I was in high school in the 1980s, the 28-year-old sister of one of my friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died about a year later. I didn’t know much of what went on, and I didn’t ask. It was just a strange, quiet mystery. After I went to college, my childhood piano teacher, who had been a weekly part of my life for about 8 years as I stumbled around the keyboard until I could one day play Chopin’s Fantasy in C Sharp Minor, was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I went to see her on my break, she had already been in treatment for several months. I remembered her as a kindhearted taskmaster. We never talked much about anything besides the music, but I felt close to her. When I saw her laying on a cot in the front room of her house, barely able to move, with a thin face and a bandana on her head, I didn’t know what to say, how to feel, or how to respond. In all those years, I had never even been in that room. There was no piano. There was no music. She died several weeks after my visit.