Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a 2011 National Film Board of Canada documentary that asks a series of tough questions to try to uncover the truth about what that well known pink ribbon actually represents. The film, which is based on the 2006 book “Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy” by Samantha King, was filmed over a series of four years and was first screened for the public at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. It opened in theaters in Canada on February 3rd, 2012, right at the height of the controversy surrounding Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood. It has since been screened throughout the United States. I can’t remember when I first became aware of it, but as a (fairly outspoken) breast cancer advocate, I knew that I wanted to see it. Luckily for me, the local independent theater just up the street from me screened it for a week at the end of July. I found the film to be incredibly thought-provoking and it has taken me a few weeks to really wrap my brain around those thoughts before I felt ready to write this review.
Before I go any further, here’s a brief synopsis of the film, as described in the press release:
Pink Ribbons, Inc. reveals how breast cancer fundraising may boost corporate profits and brand awareness more than it benefits people with the disease. After all, despite the millions of dollars raised each year for the cause, breast cancer rates are rising, prevention is vastly underfunded and, over the decades, we’ve seen only incremental improvements in chemotherapy and surgery treatments. Even worse, the film suggests that some of same companies profiting from pink marketing campaigns may actually be contributing to the breast cancer epidemic by selling known carcinogens.
The film is inspired by the book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy by Dr. Samantha King, who is interviewed in the film along with activists and medical experts like Barbara A. Brenner, Dr. Charlene Elliott, Barbara Ehrenreich and Dr. Susan Love. Also featured are candid personal discussions among women living with breast cancer, as well as interviews with the leading players in breast cancer fundraising, including the director of the recently embattled Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Nancy Goodman Brinker.
Director Léa Pool hopes the film will encourage people “to be more critical and more politically conscious about our actions and to stop thinking that by buying pink toilet paper we’re doing what needs to be done.” She adds, “I don’t want to say that we absolutely shouldn’t be raising money. We are just saying, ‘Think before you pink.'”
Given a lot of the recent criticisms being lobbied at Susan G. Komen for the Cure in recent months (including some from me!), and having read some of the articles and blogs written by women interviewed for this film, I expected this documentary to put me on the defensive. I expected it to be accusatory and for it to cast blame on some organizations and individuals while excusing (and potentially even celebrating) others. I really thought that it would make me angry.
And ya know what? It did make me angry. But not in the way that I expected. Instead, I found Pink Ribbons, Inc. to be a truly fair and balanced look at the ongoing, underlying issues that have, whether maliciously or not, infiltrated the breast cancer movement. No one organization is exempted from critique but no specific organization is thrown under the bus either. In fact, the director, Lea Pool, goes to significant effort to portray breast cancer activists and the movement in general with respect. As she said in the press release:
“I wanted to make sure we showed the difference between the participants, their courage, and will, to do something positive, and the businesses that use these events to promote their products to make money. What was really important was to show that, at heart, each woman sincerely wanted to do something. They want to feel like they can have some power over their own lives and the lives of those close to them and we didn’t want to attack that. I was more interested in being critical of those who profit from breast cancer.”
I would even go so far as to say that the film doesn’t even accuse the various breast cancer organizations it references of malicious intent. Instead, the film takes more of a position of recognizing the intent of organizations to do good and to evoke positive change, even if some of their methods for doing so are questionable at best and hypocritical at worse. It was a surprising tone for this documentary to take and one that I very much appreciated.
The film itself was comprised of interviews with oncologists and cancer researchers, activists, various leaders in the cancer movement and a handful of survivors intercut with footage from four separate breast cancer awareness/fundraising events: the Revlon Run/Walk for Women in New York City, the Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure in Washington DC, the two day long Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in San Francisco, and the Pharmaprix Weekend to End Women’s Cancers in Montreal. I found that some of the most powerful scenes in the film feature members of the IV League breast cancer support group for women with metastatic breast cancer in Austin, Texas. Much of what those women talked about rang especially true for me in light of recent (and ongoing) conversations that I’ve been having with my mom, who is also living with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. In fact, I felt as if she could have been sitting on the couch alongside these women.
As the documentary moved along, it touched on a wide ranging number of topics, almost all of which could be blog posts in of themselves. In fact, seeing this documentary reignited my desire to start blogging on a regular, focused basis just so that I could weigh on many of the things covered in this film (with this blog post serving as just the beginning!). Just to give you an idea, here are some of the topics touched on in this film that I am planning to write more about in the future:
- Why are we still treating cancer the same way we were 60 years ago if we’ve spent all this money on it?
- Why aren’t the survivorship numbers overall improving?
- The use of the color pink – an attempt to “pretty” up an ugly disease?
- The “warfare” based language that we use when discussing cancer.
- The glorifying of survivors and the insensitivity inherent in that towards those with terminal cancer.
- The focus on mammography and early detection at the expense of research on causes/prevention.
The primary focus of Pink Ribbons, Inc, though, is on the explosion of cause marketing surrounding breast cancer. As the film notes, women buy 80% of consumer products and make most of the major buying decisions for their households. Given that the top two risk factors for getting breast cancer are being a woman and getting older, it makes sense that women want to be involved in the fight against breast cancer. But we’re busy. We’re all busy. Not everyone has time to train for a marathon or organize huge fundraisers. We also don’t have the financial resources to just cut a big check. And so, we buy things that purport to give money back to cancer charities that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to support without giving another thought to the potential harm that might be inherent in this “pink washing”.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. does a remarkable job of spotlighting the inherent hypocrisy in a great many of the cause marketing campaigns. Namely, many, many of these companies that claim to want to help put an end to breast cancer are the same companies producing goods that contain KNOWN CARCINOGENS. In particular, the film emphasizes four industries where this is particularly rampant:
- The automotive industry, both through the toxic fumes that their workers are exposed to in their factories and through the production of carcinogens by the cars themselves. Interestingly, one of the strongest voices in this film was Dr. Susan Love whose own foundation is one of the beneficiaries of the Ford Warriors in Pink program.
- Alcohol, the consumption of which is known to increase risk of breast cancer. Among others, we’re talking about you, One Hope Wine.
- Food, especially dairy. The film spent a good amount of time clucking about the infamous Kentucky Fried Chicken “Pink Buckets” campaign benefitting Susan G. Komen, especially given that maintaining a healthy weight is known to reduce risk of breast cancer. They also questioned the long running Yoplait Pink Lids campaign, noting that the yogurt company used dairy products containing hormones that could act as estrogen mimics, a practice they halted in response to growing pressure from cancer activists.
- Personal Care Items, especially those produced by Estee Lauder and AVON, two cosmetics organizations that also have their own associated breast cancer foundations (the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the AVON Foundation for Women, respectively).
While the extent of this “we’re simultaneously causing AND curing breast cancer” hypocrisy was pretty eye-opening for me, I found the resulting discussion around it to be fascinating. The film asks important questions: Who’s responsibility is it to protect people from these carcinogens? The manufacturers? The government? The consumers themselves? And if these products truly do raise money for breast cancer research/awareness/patient support programs, is right of us to expect breast cancer not-for-profits to turn down those funds? Pink Ribbons, Inc. asks all of these questions and more. And in the end, they don’t have an answer to them, and honestly, neither do I. But it’s certainly worth having discussions about, something I intend to do here on this blog much more often.
While I generally feel that Pink Ribbons, Inc was a very good documentary that everyone involved in the breast cancer community should see, there was one aspect to the film that made me uncomfortable, and it’s something that’s increasingly come to my attention: the inadvertent conflation of how we expect individuals fighting the disease of breast cancer to act and how we act/brand the larger activist movement to end cancer. In the film, almost all of the survivors of the disease (including, most movingly, the women in the IV League) expressed dismay that they were expected to embrace and inhabit the role of upbeat, hopeful, pink-bedecked activist when the reality is that their experiences with the disease itself were ugly, cold, frustrating, and oftentimes disheartening. As they said, to paraphrase, the pink ribbon is pretty and hopeful and I don’t feel that way so I don’t feel like the pink represents me at all.
Fair enough. But the reality is that the pink ribbon doesn’t represent survivors or their individual battle against cancer, which can and should take on any form that it needs to help each person as they go through it. The pink ribbon (and the upbeat music and pink feather boas and all of that nonsense) represents and is part of the larger fight against breast cancer. And to my mind, it’s not just ok, but it’s admirable that this movement is a positive one. That doesn’t make it any less serious of a cause. But it makes more fun to be a part of and that gets more people involved. We unfairly expect survivors (including those who are newly diagnosed, those in remission, and those fighting daily against terminal cancer) to be the face of the disease and the leaders of this larger breast cancer movement, and thus, we expect that how they comport themselves in their individual fight is the same way we should be conducting the larger movement. Generally, this takes the form of a subconscious message to survivors of “you have to be optimistic about your chances of survival, because we’re optimistic about finding a cure”. Pink Ribbons, Inc. rightly criticizes that as an unfair expectation to place on survivors. But then the film turns around and says that because the actual reality of a cancer diagnosis and the treatment thereof is painful, ugly, etc, that we need to have a similarly harsh and serious tone to our movement to reflect that. I think that is equally unfair. I think that all of us should be careful and measured in our expectations. The mobilization of a large group of people to evoke change is not and should not be talked about or held to the same expectations as an individual’s fight against breast cancer and vice versa.
In the end, I truly feel that Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a great documentary and is well worth spending 98 minutes to watch it. In fact, when it comes out on DVD, I intend to watch it again. The film does a great job of spotlighting some the major issues surrounding the breast cancer movement as a whole and it asks tough questions that we should all be working to answer. Ultimately, the film makers aren’t trying to undermine the cancer movement or even to dissuade people from getting involved in this cause. Rather, their take home message is this (to paraphrase director Lea Pool again): “We need to be more critical and more politically conscious about our actions.” In other words: Think Before You Pink.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. is still being shown at a handful of locations across the country in September and October. You find the list of dates and locations where you can see this documentary on the film’s website, here. The Facebook page for the film is here. I also highly recommend that you check out the website Think Before You Pink which is not officially associated with Pink Ribbons, Inc. but which directly addresses many of the pink-washing concerns raised by the film.
Disclaimer: I am not a movie critic and my goal here really wasn’t to talk about the quality of Pink Ribbons, Inc, as a movie or documentary. I wanted to focus on the content instead. For more of a film critic’s take on the documentary, I recommend checking out the film’s page on Rotten Tomatoes. Also, I certainly wasn’t paid to review or invited to a screening of this film. I paid for my own ticket and my opinions are fully my own.