Context is Everything — Framing the Film Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Today on Pink Ribbon Blues, Barbara Brenner shares a speech she gave at Smith College about the new film, Pink Ribbons, Inc. Barbara Brenner, former executive director of Breast Cancer Action, spent the last 15 years of her life as a breast cancer activist and now faces a different illness, ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). A leader in the breast cancer movement, Barbara Brenner recently received a Smith College Medal for her exceptional professional accomplishments and outstanding contributions to the breast cancer community, which, in the words of the college, exemplify the value of a liberal arts eduction. She is highly sought after by the national media, and has appeared in the New York TimesUSA Today, the Washington Post, ABC News, and CBS Evening News. She is co-author of the chapter, “Cancers,” in Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause (The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 2006). She is also the author of the chapter, “Sister Support: Women Create a Breast Cancer Movement,” in Breast Cancer: Society Shapes an Epidemic (Palgrave, 2000). You can read more of Barbara’s thought-provoking writing on her blog, Healthy Barbs, which is intended to encourage people to learn to think in new ways about illness and health, and to prompt them to be critical of the mainstream coverage of health issues.

I’ve been following Barbara’s work for many years, and I’m honored to share her insights about the context of breast cancer, and the importance of a film that is sure to leave audiences thinking twice about the meaning of pink.

On Friday, February 24 there was screening of the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. at Smith College. As the recipient of the Smith College Medal for my work as a breast cancer activist, I gave a talk introducing the film. That speech is presented here as I gave it. Imagine a hall with 150 or so souls on a cold, wet Friday night in Northampton, Massachusetts . . .

Hello, and thank you for being here this evening.

I want to start with a question: will you please raise your hand if you know someone who has or has had breast cancer?

Good news: patients in pink make a ribbon

As you will see in the film, if you raised your hand, you are certainly not alone. Almost everyone knows someone with breast cancer. But the other thing you will see in this film is that breast cancer has somehow become good news. Something to celebrate, sing about, dance about, and certainly walk for.

When I had breast cancer at the age of 42, I didn’t feel like celebrating. What’s to celebrate about a life-threatening disease whose treatments amount to — as Susan Love puts it — slash, burn and poison?

Breast cancer hasn’t changed, and its treatments haven’t changed that much since I was 42, 18 years ago. And they hadn’t changed much for many years prior to my diagnosis either. There’s been some progress on the treatment side, but certainly not enough to jump up and down about. And there’s been little if any movement toward true prevention — keeping people from getting breast cancer in the first place — by identifying and eradicating its causes.

What does the general public know about breast cancer? I would argue not much. They know, or think they do, that getting mammograms is the key to beating breast cancer. Some people think mammograms prevent breast cancer, but that can’t be true because, when they work, they find cancer that is already there. Mammograms are a detection device, and a far from perfect one. Detection and prevention are different. Very different.

The public also knows, or thinks it does, that early detection is the key to survival. But early detection works only for the women whose cancer is both life-threatening when found and treatable with currently available therapies. It isn’t necessary for women whose cancer, when found, is not life threatening, and it doesn’t work for women whose cancer, though very small, is so aggressive that it cannot be effectively treated.

And, of course, the public knows that the pink ribbon is the symbol of breast cancer. You’ll learn from the film how that came to be, so I won’t ruin that story.

Wipe for the cure

Maybe these folks aren't aware of breast cancer yet

People say to me that the pink ribbon — on lapels, on products as varied as toilet paper and hand guns — helps raise awareness of breast cancer. My argument is that, thanks in part to the pink ribbon, everyone is now aware of breast cancer, unless they are living under a rock. Isn’t it time to move beyond awareness to activism to change the course of the epidemic?

If you think doing a walk for breast cancer, or a run, or a mountain climb is the way to end the breast cancer epidemic, the film you are about to see will, I hope, convince you otherwise.

And if buying a product with a pink ribbon on it would help end the epidemic, it should be over by now, given all the breast cancer shopping that people do. After all, if shopping could cure breast cancer, it would be cured by now.

There is also that “click-on-this-link” kind of activity for funding things like mammograms for poor women. Sounds like a simple and good idea. It is simple, but, like many simple things, it’s not so good. It turns out that in 2007, for example, it took 5 million clicks to fund a total of 129 mammograms. There has to be a better way to provide health care.

As Susan Love says in the film you are about to see, if this is the way we approach breast cancer, we’re missing something big. The kind of activism we need is concerned with the larger context, the notion that we should evaluate the messages we get about breast cancer and breast cancer awareness in light of the issue of how we approach research and provide health care. It means challenging the corporations and organizations that stand in the way of better lives for women.

One way to do raise those challenges is to Think Before You Pink. This is a campaign that was started in 2002 by Breast Cancer Action, the kick-ass organization I had the privilege of leading for 15 years. It focuses on cause marketing: the practice of companies putting a pink ribbon on products to try to increase sales of their products. It provides 5 questions to guide you as you think about these promotions:

  1. How much money from your purchase actually goes toward breast cancer? Is the amount clearly stated on the package?
  2. What is the maximum amount that will be donated?
  3. How are the funds being raised?
  4. To what breast cancer organization does the money go, and what types of programs does it support?
  5. What is the company doing to assure that its products are not actually contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?

I couldn't make this up

Let me give you a cause marketing example that’s mentioned in the film. It’s about KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken. A couple of years ago, KFC partnered with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. For every pink bucket of fried chicken that KFC sold, they promised to give 50 cents to Komen. Here’s the hitch. In case you didn’t know, KFC food is really not good for you. And it’s sold mostly in economically poor neighborhoods where better food options are hard to find. A lot of nutritionists pointed out this problem and threw up their hands about what could be done about it.

Breast Cancer Action knew what to do about it. We started a campaign to get people to contact KFC and Komen and tell them what they thought of the campaign. We called it “What the Cluck?” Thousands of people took action. While Komen raised a lot of money from the KFC campaign, they didn’t come very close to their $8 million goal, and they took a lot of flak from former supporters about the partnership. KFC was not willing to take that kind of heat two years in a row. They are no longer a Komen partner.

From BCA's General Mills Campaign

There are other examples in the film. I’ll let the movie tell those stories, but keep an ear tuned for the rBGH and General Mills tale in the film. It speaks to the power of ordinary people to create meaningful change.

Not covered in the film is the controversy that was in the news for many days a few weeks ago, involving Komen and Planned Parenthood. In case you missed the brouhaha, it involved a decision by Komen to stop funding Planned Parenthood to do breast care services like breast exams and referrals for mammograms. Komen claimed there weren’t politics involved. Instead, they said they had a new policy not to fund any organization that was under investigation. It so happened that Planned Parenthood was the only organization that Komen was funding that fell under this new guideline.

Turns out that Planned Parenthood is under investigation by an anti-abortion Republican Congressman who was encouraged to go after the organization by a pro-life group that is furious that Planned Parenthood does abortions.

When the news of the Komen decision became public, a firestorm of public opinion erupted. People complained that women’s health was being politicized, that Komen was undercutting poor women who get health care at Planned Parenthood, and that Komen had taken sides in the abortion debate, which has nothing to do with its mission.

Komen responded to the public outcry by claiming its move was not political and then reversing its decision, agreeing to continue funding Planned Parenthood this year.

End of story? Not so fast. The move by Komen and the public outcry in response to it revealed some other things about the breast cancer organization that are now under scrutiny. Like the fact that Nancy Brinker, the founder of Komen, told one story and then another explaining the Planned Parenthood decisions, neither of which made sense. Like the connections of the leadership of Komen to Republican political candidates and causes. Like the proportion of money that Komen gives to breast cancer research has been declining (to 15% of its budget) as their revenues have increased.

I couldn't make this up either

Like the support given to Komen by selling pink handguns. Like Komen’s denial of the toxicity of BPA, even though studies have shown that BPA interferes with the effectiveness of some breast cancer treatments. The list is growing.

What surprised me was that people were shocked that women’s health was being politicized by the Komen decision. Women’s health has always been political, because it’s about women struggling to get what they need for their health from a system designed by men for the needs of men.

Breast cancer is no exception. Breast cancer has been political since people noticed years ago that the disease — which primarily affects women — got far less research funding than cancers that primarily affect men. That isn’t the case any longer, but it’s where the politics of breast cancer started.

This is a solar spectrum. Much prettier than the b/c political one

Since then, and in many ways because of that effort to increase funding for breast cancer research, a breast cancer movement has come into existence. Like all movements, the breast cancer movement covers a spectrum — from left to right or right to left, depending on where you want to start.

One way to think about the different ends of the spectrum is to consider the kinds of questions that organizations ask at either end.

Toward the right end of the spectrum, groups ask questions like these:

– How can we get more money into breast cancer research?

– Are there drug companies that we can partner with to advance our mission?

– Are there scientists who are willing to tell us what direction breast cancer research should take?

– Are there corporate partners who will fund our work?

– Is there good news on breast cancer for which we can take credit?

Toward the left end of the spectrum, groups ask questions like these:

– With all the money that has been invested in breast cancer research, shouldn’t we have better treatments and know more about the causes of breast cancer?

– Will individuals fund our work if we refuse to take money from companies that profit from cancer?

– What direction do people affected by breast cancer want the research to take?

– What are the strengths and weaknesses of the latest research study, and what does it really mean for patients?

– What companies are making products that may increase the risk of breast cancer and how can we organize people to get them to stop?

Some of this spectrum is evident in the film you are about to see. If you think critically, as Smith has taught us to do, about the breast cancer issue, you’ll never see a pink ribbon the same way again. Enjoy the film.

To find out where the film maybe showing near you soon, visit the website of First Run Features, the U.S distributor. It’s already in theaters in Canada.

© Barbara A. Brenner 2012



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6 comments to Context is Everything — Framing the Film Pink Ribbons, Inc.

  • Gayle,

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I believe that framing this film is so important, and Barbara’s piece does so exceedingly well. Now for the distribution…so disappointed it’s not yet scheduled for Los Angeles. Maybe NBCC will screen it at the Advocacy Summit??

  • That would be a good recommendation, Lori. Ask NBCC to do that!!!

  • Hi, Laurie,

    I’m sure the film will be on screens in LA sometime relatively soon. You can ask First Run Features about that.

    As for NBCC screening it, I wouldn’t hold my breath about that unless Sue Love pushes for it. NBCC is not mentioned in the film.

  • Thanks for featuring Barbara’s film in this post. I do hope this gets widely distributed. XXO

  • Gayle…. and I hope Barbara… and my two buddies…. Lori AND Jan….

    I had the PLEASURE of seeing the film last night and was given the absolute honor and privilege to speak as a volunteer for Breast Cancer Action. It is one powerful piece of filmmaking and to Barbara, I say your quips were very well received by the audience. I don’t want to spoil the film for the others but your explanation and actual calculation of some of the cause marketing bottom lines…. laughter. And it wasn’t only the message, it was the deadpan delivery. WELL done!

    I shared the stage with Karen Miller at the end of the film for a Q&A. There are enough topics touched upon that you could have a minimum of five break out discussion groups.

    Laughter, tears, cheers and yes, ANGER…. It’s excellent!

  • This is wonderful, Anne Marie! I can’t wait to see it in a theatre.

"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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How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

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The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion?

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today