Ever since the world's largest and most visible breast cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, made one of the philanthropy world's biggest public relations blunders by cutting its grants for Planned Parenthood to provide mammograms to low-income women, the organization that made pink ribbons an internationally recognized symbol for the fight against breast cancer has received a lot of scrutiny. Why would such a respected organization dedicated to helping women make such a politically-motivated move that would so clearly damage women's health? Why would Komen hire Karen Handel, a vocal abortion foe, to be their vice president of public affairs and allow her to drive such a damaging decision purely on ideological grounds? Did people know that the founder and CEO of Komen for the Cure, Nancy Brinker, was made an ambassador to Hungary by the George W. Bush administration and that Bush Jr.'s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, helped pick Handel for her position?
Suddenly, Komen for the Cure, despite its successful efforts to raise breast cancer awareness, wasn't looking so rosy. The new documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. was in the works before the Planned Parenthood controversy and doesn't address it, but it provides new evidence that Komen for the Cure -- with their myriad corporate partnerships, focus on a cure instead of causes and prevention, and the upbeat, celebratory breast cancer culture they've created -- may have ulterior motives or, at the very least, some unintended negative consequences. Watch my ReThink Review of Pink Ribbons, Inc. below (transcript following).
In early 2012, the world's largest and most visible breast cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, got a lot of bad publicity over its politically-motivated decision to end grants to Planned Parenthood to give breast exams to low-income women, which Komen later reversed after an avalanche of criticism. For many, this was the first time they'd ever questioned the motives of Komen, whose ubiquitous pink ribbon symbol has become synonymous with the fight against breast cancer. The important new documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., takes a much-needed look at Komen, their corporate partnerships, and whether the relentless pink-swathed positivity that has become breast cancer culture is taking the fight against this deadly epidemic in the wrong direction.
Without a doubt, Komen should be applauded for increasing awareness about breast cancer, which they've achieved through partnerships with corporations, organizations and governments, press outreach and their Race for the Cure events in cities across the nation. The film follows a race in DC, as well as one in San Francisco sponsored by Avon, which runs its own charity and isn't affiliated with Komen. The atmosphere at both events is incredibly festive, positive and almost celebratory, with upbeat music, inspirational speakers, funny outfits, lots of cheering and smiles and, of course, tons of corporate sponsors.
But the film smartly juxtaposes this with images of breast cancer protests of the early 90s, which were fueled by anger at the growing epidemic, not optimism for a cure, targeting governments for not devoting more money to research and prevention and, more importantly, going after corporations whose products and pollution may be responsible for the rise in incidents.
This raises one of the film's most powerful claims, which is explained in the film by author and breast cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich: that the pink ribbon movement and the culture around it has "drained and deflected" the anger and militancy of the original breast cancer protests and replaced it with something cute, positive and toothless that lets those who may be responsible for this epidemic off the hook, right down to the use of the color pink, which female focus groups said was the friendliest, most feminine, least threatening color.
The film's other major focus is the questionable motives of the companies that partner with Komen, which seems to have much more to do with good PR than actually helping women, especially since a lot of the donations the companies give are pretty paltry in comparison to the profits they stand to make from women who're more likely to buy a pink-branded product. And, in some cases, partnering with Komen provides cover for the fact that some of these companies with pink ribbons of approval use cancer-causing chemicals in their products or while manufacturing them.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. takes a look at some possible causes of breast cancer and how little is still known about this disease that afflicts one in eight women. And by spending time with a support group for women with stage four breast cancer, where stage five is death, the film examines the effect that the breast cancer movement's positive yet often militaristic language has on some women, with its implication that those who feel sad, angry or depressed about their condition, or even worse die from it, somehow have themselves to blame for not being a "warrior" and not fighting hard enough.
While one can argue that there are a lot of worse organizations to go after than a breast cancer charity, the most important thing that Pink Ribbons, Inc. accomplishes is to urge us to look hard at what charities like Komen for the Cure are really saying about breast cancer, those who have it and the companies trying to "pinkwash" themselves for profit or to insulate themselves from criticism. Because when looked at all together, the message seems to be that instead of demanding safeguards and accountability from corporations and governments that allow known cancer-causing chemicals into the products we use, the food we eat and the environment we live in, women should smile, put on a pink ribbon, donate to Komen and place the responsibility for both avoiding or surviving breast cancer on themselves.
To find out if Pink Ribbons, Inc. is playing near you, go here.