I caught Ellen last Monday afternoon rather accidentally. I was immediately struck by how the entire episode had been doused in the baby pink popularly associated with Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I am not being exceptionally observant here. If you had your head in the sand and you were living under a rock, you could not miss it! If you visit the show’s website this month, you will see the ribbon encircling the brand name, equating Ellen with awareness. If you tune into the show, you will also see the pink-themed activities designed to raise money for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s “research.” [Note: information regarding how much of the show’s proceeds will go to Komen and exactly how they will use these funds is not readily available on the show or its website]. One such activity consists of a glass dunk tank decorated with a pink background and a huge Shutterfly logo where Ellen will convince various celebrity guests to be soaked in order to raise money for breast cancer research.
In this particular episode, veteran actor-turned-action-star Liam Neeson was asked to be the first celebrity to enter the tank. The set-up was priceless. Ellen offered Neeson a pink set of boxers or briefs to wear. At first, he feigned modesty and gestured toward the boxers but then decided to leave it to the audience to decide. Predictably, the (mostly female) audience voted, through their screams, for the pink briefs. Later in the episode, Neeson walked on stage wearing a pink robe, which he immediately stripped off, leaving only his pink briefs. He gamely offered to take them off and enter the tank in the buff. Ellen politely declined.
What does this sexy pink spectacle have to do with breast cancer? Not a whole hell of a lot, I’m afraid. Speaking as someone who has been volunteering with Breast Cancer Action throughout the 2012 “Think Before You Pink” campaign and Breast Cancer Industry Month, this episode strikes me as yet another example of the ways in which pink media culture turns a profit by commercializing breast cancer and selling it to the public. The ribbon is such a successful marketing tool precisely because it turns something terrifying and complex into something simple, shiny, and consumable. It makes us feel good about ourselves by giving us the vague impression that, by partaking in the spectacle, we are doing “something good” for society. At the same time, it gives corporations like NBC Studios and Shutterfly a brand boost through their association with a “good cause.”
However, pink spectacles, like the one on last week’s Ellen, distract us from the ugly truths about breast cancer. As BCAction informs us, the reality is: breast cancer is a public health crisis that has reached epidemic proportions. To confirm this statement, we just have to look at the numbers: 1 in 8 women who live to age 85 will get breast cancer and more than 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year. What’s more, 30 years of awareness campaigning and 20 years of pink ribbon marketing have not brought us closer to ending this epidemic and they will not do so in the future. As consumers–and as human beings!—we must realize that we cannot watch or consume or buy our way out of this crisis.
Pink ribbon culture spectacles convince viewers that enough is already being done in the fight against breast cancer and they mask the significant amount of work (in research and treatments) that still needs to be done. Look, we tell ourselves, if Ellen is fighting the good fight, then I don’t have to. We’re all covered. If Liam Neeson is having a great time in the dunk tank, surely breast cancer is under control. As an avid fan of all things pop culture, I am not recommending that you abandon your favorite TV pastimes or feel ashamed because you enjoy them. But I am entreating you to approach pink ribbon media with an active, critical mind. Don’t confuse the spectacle for meaningful action and don’t allow it to lull you into a false sense of complacency.
If you would like a place to start taking action to help address and end the breast cancer epidemic, follow this link to our 2012 Think Before You Pink campaign materials.