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Breast Cancer Has Become the Consummate “Free Market Feminist” Cause

Health Communication, 25: 286–289, 2010

An excerpt of the paper Pink Diplomacy: On the Uses and Abuses of Breast Cancer Awareness

By Dr. Samantha King [Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Health Studies | Cross appointed to the Department of Gender Studies and the Cultural Studies Program]

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In the past two decades, breast cancer has become an unparalleled philanthropic cause. During this period, corporate marketing strategies, government policies, and the agendas of large foundations have worked in concert to construct the disease as an individual challenge that can be overcome by shopping, exercising, and what Ellen Leopold(1999) calls a “tidal waves” approach to research funding(p. 19). Closely linked to this history is the transformation, since the 1970s, of the meaning of breast cancer from a stigmatized disease and individual tragedy best dealt with privately and in isolation, to a neglected epidemic worthy of public debate and political organizing, to an enriching and affirming experience during which women with breast cancer are rarely “patients” and mostly “survivors.”In the latter of these three configurations, the breast cancer survivor has emerged as an archetypal hero who through her courage and vitality has elicited an outpouring of individual and corporate generosity—a continued supply of which, we are led to believe, will ensure that the fight against the disease remains an unqualified success. In the latter of these three configurations, the breast cancer survivor has emerged as an archetypal hero who through her courage and vitality has elicited an outpouring of individual and corporate generosity—a continued supply of which, we are led to believe, will ensure that the fight against the disease remains an unqualified success. Moreover, the new image of the woman with breast cancer that has emerged with the pink ribbon industry—youthful, ultra feminine, slim, light-skinned if not white, radiant with health, joyful, and proud—leaves little room for recognition that people still die of the disease(that, in fact, roughly the same number of people die as they did before the pink ribbon juggernaut took hold), that some women are not in a position to live the all-to-familiar restitution narrative, or that happiness and individual striving, in the words of Audre Lorde (1980), cannot “protect us from the results of profit madness” (p. 74). Lorde was referring here to what she viewed as the deleterious effects of the capitalist system, in general, on women’s breast health and the well-being of the population more broadly. She could probably not have envisaged that three decades after she penned these words, corporations large and small would be clamoring to tie their names to the disease, taking advantage of the destigmatizing work of early breast cancer activists and newly enthralled with cause-related marketing as a way to sell products to women. Nor would she likely have imagined that they would spend millions of dollars identifying and packaging the next product to be stamped with a pink ribbon and sold to consumers with the promise that a percentage of the sale price will be donated to what is often referred to, vaguely, as “the cause.” Nor, given Lorde’s concerns about the links between environmental contaminants and breast cancer, might she have foreseen that it is often the corporations responsible for selling products most closely linked to deaths from cancer that have been most successful in linking their brand image to the disease. Moreover, the new image of the woman with breast cancer that has emerged with the pink ribbon industry—youthful, ultra feminine, slim, light-skinned if not white, radiant with health, joyful, and proud—leaves little room for recognition that people still die of the disease… The profit madness seemed to reach new heights just a few weeks ago, when I came across an advertisement for a breast cancer gun: a black Smith and Wesson 9mm pistol with an awareness ribbon engraved on its slide and an inter-changeable bubble-gum pink grip. The gun is part of the Julie Goloski Championship Series and sold with the claim that a portion of the proceeds will be donated to “a breast cancer awareness charity” (http://www.juliegolob.com).

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The Tyranny of Cheerfulness

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The “saving lives by taking lives” logic of the pink ribbon pistol that critics quickly seized upon seems only slightly less mind-boggling when one considers that over the past two decades millions of women have become enthusiastic consumers of a slew of potentially harmful pink ribbon products ranging from automobiles to cosmetics to house-hold cleaning products. Under what I call the “tyranny of cheerfulness” that infuses the marketing of these items, it has become increasingly hard to think of the disease as an injustice to rally against rather than an enriching and affirming experience. Indeed, breast cancer has become the consummate “free market feminist” cause, to use Chandra Mohanty’s (2003) term.Under what I call the “tyranny of cheerfulness” that infuses the marketing of these items, it has become increasingly hard to think of the disease as an injustice to rally against rather than an enriching and affirming experience. Indeed, breast cancer has become the consummate “free market feminist” cause, to use Chandra Mohanty’s (2003) term. Like all good practitioners of free market principles, state agencies, foundations, and large corporations have recently begun to pursue breast cancer fundraising initiatives in new geographic locales, as they seek to expand their markets for breast cancer treatments, the fruits of pharmaceutical research, and pink ribbon products. Major players are involved: Astra Zeneca, the maker of the chemotherapy drug tamoxifen and the creator of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, launched its first transnational campaign in 2004 with the goal of “reaching previously inaccessible audiences across the globe.” The Komen For the Cure Foundation now has overseas chapters and an office devoted to international affairs. And since 1999, Estée Lauder has pursued its Global Landmarks Illumination Initiative for which buildings and monuments are bathed in pink lights during the month of October. To date these sights have included the Taj Palace in Mumbai, India; City Hall in Sulas, Honduras; the Taipei Tower in Taiwan; the Burj Al Arab in Dubai; and the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. Like all good practitioners of free market principles, state agencies, foundations, and large corporations have recently begun to pursue breast cancer fundraising initiatives in new geographic locales, as they seek to expand their markets for breast cancer treatments, the fruits of pharmaceutical research, and pink ribbon products. The U.S.–Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness was created in 2006 and marked the U.S. government’s first foray into international breast cancer policy. By 2008, the partnership included the Komen Foundation, the Avon corporation, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins University, and a variety of cancer care and business organizations in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Palestine. The campaign is a subproject of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), launched on December 12, 2002 by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The official mandate of the MEPI, which operates out of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, is to “advance democratic reform and vibrant, prosperous societies in the Middle East and North Africa” (http://mepi.state.gov/mission/index.htm). To date, the MEPI has focused on encouraging the development of public–private partnerships in providing “greater opportunities” in the region (http://mepi.state.gov).

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Read the full text:

Pink Diplomacy-On the Uses and Abuses of Breast Cancer Awareness

PINK RIBBONS, INC. – A CONVERSATION WITH RAVIDA DIN:

One Comment

  • TutiFruti on Feb 05, 2014

    Insightful piece by King. Much of what women have been told about breast cancer and mammography by the medical industry, the pink ribbon charities, and the mass media is disinformation and propaganda, instead of sound data (see “The Mammogram Myth” by Rolf Hefti), representing largely “the results of profit madness.”

    That’s why, for instance, the latest revised mammogram guidelines in Canada, having the test every other year as opposed to annually, are a surprise to breast cancer survivors and women in general. On the other hand, many women who have knowledge about the real facts on breast cancer and mammograms would stop getting them.