Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Author: Samantha King
Year: 2006
Genre: Cultural studies

The topic of cancer "awareness" has particular personal significance to me: in the spring of 2004, when you couldn't leave your house without seeing a bright yellow Lance Armstrong bracelet, I was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin's lymphoma. (I'm now two and a half years in remission with no sign of recurrence.) The bracelets were problematic for me; I never identified with their upbeat message, was always skeptical of what "awareness" these bracelets represented, and wondered about the active role of a corporation like Nike in such a supposedly altruistic endeavor. When the title Pink Ribbons, Inc. caught my eye in the bookstore, I picked up the book, hoping for a little solidarity in my skepticism.

King's book offered more than solidarity: her feminist critique of corporate breast-cancer philanthropy confirmed much of what I had always cynically suspected. She describes corporations that divide up the breast-cancer market while politicians fight over the breast-cancer vote; marketing campaigns for pink blenders and teddy bears that cost far more than they contribute to research, while at the same time treating women as less than fully adult (nobody makes prostate-cancer Matchbox cars); and the broader issues of environmental carcinogens and health insurance for poor women going unaddressed. Perhaps most important, King deconstructs the image of the ideal "survivor" depicted in all the literature, the beneficiary of all our "awareness". She is white, middle-aged, middle-income; a wife, mother, and nurturer; generally self-sufficient (i.e. insured) and concerned with caring for others. She is emphatically not a "welfare queen," and supporting her cause is supposed to transcend any political affiliation.

In fact, the shadow of welfare reform looms in the background throughout Pink Ribbons, Inc. As King points out, every president since Ronald Reagan has actively encouraged corporations to take a larger role in the public concerns of the country, supposedly freeing individuals from the oppressive influence of a paternalistic welfare state. In reality, corporations are designed above all to make a profit. If they are to do right by their shareholders, they must find a way to make their philanthropic initiatives support their profit-making function. Their solution is the sophisticated variety of cause-related marketing that associates Avon with breast cancer, The Gap with AIDS, and Hot Topic with public-school arts. As a result, activists are silenced or co-opted by corporations, significant but controversial issues (like socialized medicine) are ignored, and real engagement and citizenship are replaced with shopping.

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