5 Things Wrong with the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign

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That little pink ribbon is back for October, Breast Cancer Awareness month. But did it ever go away? Pink is everywhere—pink candles, pink jewelry, pink perfume, pink foods, pink laptops, pink makeup, and even to my horror, pink handguns—all in the name of breast cancer awareness. But is this really beneficial for a cure, or is it just a marketing ploy that we all seem to be buying into? We’ve compiled a list of grievances against the breast cancer awareness logo.

1. It’s Just A Marketing Ploy

Breast cancer awareness distracts us from the root issues. The seeming “benevolence” of the corporations involved is all too often a fraudulent attempt to sell a product. If you buy a product with a pink ribbon on it, you’ll most likely give yourself a little pat on the back for it. (Hey, I’m guilty of it, too. I recently bought some “Help Fight Breast Cancer!” pepper-spray complete with a group of smiling women on the package.) Your attempted act of kindness boosts your good feelings as well as your esteem for the corporation, which in turn boosts the corporation’s profits.

It’s nice when a corporation wants to help a cause, but not when the corporate payoff of “awareness” overshadows the cause itself. The pink ribbon seems now to be less a symbol of breast cancer than of corporate culture.

2. “Pinkwashing”

Breast Cancer Action coined the term “pinkwasher”: a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures, and/or sells products that are linked to the disease. Corporations already use the ubiquitous pink ribbon to promote a false sense of activism in their customers. But it is even worse when they deceptively and hypocritically sell pink products that contribute to the disease they claim to fight against. Many cosmetic companies take part in breast cancer awareness campaigns, for example, and market pink products for their almost exclusively female consumers, but at the same time they manufacture makeup and body care products containing known carcinogens and/or reproductive toxins. Companies exploiting the pink ribbon should make an effort to use safe alternatives, or at the very least include a list of potentially harmful chemicals on their product labels. Corporate conscience should apply just as much to a business’ products as to its advertising.

3. Pretty (and Strong?) in Pink

Pink, of course, is most often considered the most feminine of the colors. But in the campaign for breast cancer awareness, this “girly” hue often comes off as insulting rather than encouraging. Just like the smiling women on my pepper spray, pink ribbons can be seen to downplay the seriousness of the illness. They represent an attempt to “dress up” breast cancer and make it more palatable—to masquerade it as a soft, delicate, ladylike illness. Just like its pink merchandise, this deadly disease has been repackaged and rebranded.

But there is also the simultaneous characterization of breast cancer patients as women warriors or brave survivors. These are strong women, who can take care of themselves and kick cancer to the curb. This in itself is not a bad thing, until one considers the insinuation that anyone who dies just wasn’t fighting hard enough. Cancer patients already have to bear the burdens of fear, pain, and loneliness—so why on top of that must they feel the guilt of contracting cancer or failing to cure it?

Another issue with the pervasiveness of pink is that it often leaves men with breast cancer feeling isolated and ashamed. As long as the image and rhetoric of the breast cancer awareness campaign remains so exclusively feminine, it will continue to victimize the very people it intends to support.

4. “Save Motor Boating.”

It’s sexist enough that breast cancer is seen the “shopping disease” (see points 1 and 2). But it’s even worse that so many of the products created for awareness have been blatantly pornified. First we get shirts covered in idiotic tag lines like “Save the Tatas,” “Don’t let Cancer Steal 2nd Base,” and of course, “Save Motor Boating.” It seems like the leading tactic to gather support is to sexualize women’s suffering. Because why should women’s bodies be valued for anything other than male pleasure? One might argue that these products are meant to be humorous and harmless, but it just doesn’t add up. The people who take part in these campaigns are, in all likelihood, only trying to help. But they belittle the seriousness of breast cancer by trivializing the disease as well as the women who suffer from it.

5. “Awareness”

Although the pink ribbon has been around for over twenty years, it’s done little more than infiltrate advertising campaigns. So many corporations misuse the symbol either by hiding where their funds are going or selling products with known or suspected links to breast cancer. It is far better to donate directly to a breast cancer charity or to advocate for the rights of women with breast cancer. Services like social support, healthcare, or sick leave compensation are just as essential as “awareness” is for these women.

 It’s about time we smoothed out the knots in the pink ribbon. Or maybe just threw it out.

By: Mari LeGagnoux, Blog Editor 

Mari LeGagnoux is a current sophomore studying English. She loves playing harp, watching Doctor Who, wearing black leather boots, and not drying her hair. She also drinks way too much tea.

  1. Instituting the pink ribbon program remains laudatory, as do the motives of most those who continue to participate in the campaign. However, Ms.LeGagnoux is perceptive in recognizing the subtle, yet powerful problems of complacency, profiteering, incongruities (sexualization, single gender focus,etc.), and unintended messages (guilt, weakness, etc.) that have crept into the arena.

    “Smoothing out the knots in the pink ribbon”, is good advice.

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