Starting a Conversation to Recalibrate the Pink Ribbon System

Writing to you from the Texas Book Festival.

Pink Ribbon Blues has been doing its job of expanding the discussion about breast cancer in the United States. Every time I present the book, the Q&A is vibrant and tends to go past the allotted time. These sessions always illustrate how complicated the world of breast cancer is. They bring the message home that finding a sense of clarity about how to recalibrate the pink machine will require open and honest dialogue.

There are already many social spaces where this kind of discussion is happening, such as listservs, blogs, websites, support groups, and grass roots meetings of many varieties. Yet from my research, and from responses to the book’s message so far, it is clear that there has been a suppression of what can be discussed when it comes to breast cancer. When given the opportunity to think critically about pink ribbon culture and articulate one’s concerns, the discussion takes off.

There were many vital questions from yesterday’s presentation, but I want to highlight one in particular. A woman in the audience confided that she was wearing pink ribbon earrings. She seemed concerned about what to make of the fact that they were meaningful to her and yet allegedly part of this big commercialization problem. Then she asked if we should look to what has been working in pink ribbon culture too.

I answered first that if her earrings are meaningful to her then she should wear them. We all have objects that provide comfort, remembrance, or joy. Some keepsakes remind us of what is important to us and our greater intentions. If ribbons are among them, I say, keep them and wear them with confidence. The more we surround ourselves with meaningful things and people, the better off we will all be. What concerns me is when the “stuff” loses its meaning or distracts us from seeing the bigger picture.

As I write in Pink Ribbon Blues the commercialization of the illness and the festivities surrounding it do not lend themselves to critical questioning.

“Pink consumers are supposed to feel good about consumptive virtue, not ask inconvenient questions about how, when, where, or to what end all of the money is used. Nor are consumers to ask whether society is getting any closer to achieving the pink ribbon culture’s vision of a world without breast cancer.”

The pink ribbon effect assures everyone that we can trust that pink ribbon culture (especially consumption) is all good, and that it will inevitably lead to good outcomes. If consumers make this assumption, there is no discussion to be had.

To the question about whether we ought to look also at what is working in pink ribbon culture, I answered yes. There are elements of pink culture that are working well. Breast cancer is no longer hidden. Federal, state, and local programs provide support services and education to the diagnosed. Diagnosed women have access to other breast cancer survivors. Some of the money raised goes to research. The general public has rallied in support of the cause. We can, and should, look to the successes and keep what is worth keeping.

In addition to the positives though, there are hidden costs built in to the current system and some of these are damaging. Scientific controversies that could inform medical practices and research agendas tend to be avoided or simplified for the eyes of the public. Profit motives largely define pink ribbon culture within the context of a multi-billion-dollar cancer industry, which itself has many profit centers. Cause marketing programs may benefit more from pinking than does the cause. The widely distributed imagery in pink ribbon culture isolates and marginalizes the diagnosed who do not fit the model, including those with other diseases. Commercialization of the cause lends itself to trivialization of the illness as well as the sexualization and infantalization of women, and the exclusion of men.

The take home message of Pink Ribbon Blues is that,

“We need to know about the consequences (intended and unintended) of pink ribbon culture’s, and hence society’s, mechanisms for dealing with breast cancer, and work toward minimizing the damages and building on the successes.”

To accomplish this, we need diverse groups of people to continue the discussion openly, honestly, and with evidence. We’re off to a good start.

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2 comments to Starting a Conversation

  • Gayle, you say that “Breast cancer is no longer hidden”. I agree with you on this point to some extent. However, I think the reality is that despite the pink ribbon movement and all of the “awareness” it has generated, many, many people still do not really comprehend what a breast cancer (or any other cancer) diagnosis actually means for the person going through it. Nor do I think the majority of people really understand the complexities of this disease and how almost impossible a proposition of a “cure” really is. I think the pink ribbon culture has bought us more ways to get diagnosed, more ways to get treated and more ways to get supported, but I don’t think it has bought us deeper understanding of what it will take to eradicate this disease. If it had, then we would know unequivocally that pink ribbon culture isn’t the answer.

  • Yes, I agree. Awareness has become “visibility” of pink.

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest

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