This October, Beware the Pink Spectacle

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By Katie M. Kanagawa, BCAction Volunteer

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.

12 Comments

  1. judith pollack
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, thank you for being a sane voice in the midst of this annual October insanity, making light of a viciious and horrible disease. Here in southern Florida, the American Cancer Society sponsers its Making Strides walk, encouraging participants to wear gross pink bras over their shirts, making everyone, big and small, wide and narrow, look like freaks who have breast fetishes. That can-never-get-enough attention celebrity, Giuliana Rancic, who does everything but go to the bathroom on TV, is featured at a Pink Party and poses half naked to promote it (with her resurrected breasts hanging out of her (very) short dress. Fun! Fun! Fun! Oh yeah, & there’s the high heeled walk to raise funds…What happened to good taste & the need to settle down seriously to FIND A CURE???????????????Yeah, I’ve got a sense of humor. But there’s nothing fun or funny about breast cancer (had it 2x). Yes! I’m for meaningful action!

  2. Katie Kanagawa
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your supportive response to my post, Judith. I love what you say about there not being anything fun or funny about breast cancer. You are absolutely right. It is truly disturbing to see how often mainstream media depicts breast cancer as something cute, funny, or sexy. Like breast cancer is a party and we are all invited to attend. It is SO easy to forget that it is a real disease with real consequences for men and women all over the world and that we have to act if we want anything to change.

  3. Jose
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Excellently stated. When I read this article I’m immediately reminded of Lance Armstrong’s ‘livestrong’ campaign and how trendy it became afterwards.

    My grandmother is a breast cancer survivor and though she supports fundraisers and relays aimed at funding research, she also knows how hard it is to be in that position. As her grandson, I also know how other things (read: not ribbons) can be more valuable than a fabric symbol on my shirt. One of those things was simply being present.

    Hopefully we’ll be able to find a cure soon, but it most likely won’t be with that attitude of complacency that various media outlets currently inspire.

  4. Posted October 10, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Katie, for a great article. I have several friends who are currently suffering from breast cancer and the epidemic is growing exponentially. We need to stop glamorizing it with pink stuff and concentrate on finding a cure. There is nothing pretty about breast cancer and wearing a cute little pink ribbon doesn’t help find a cure.

  5. Jane
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I agree there is nothing fun or funny about cancer. I am not against fundraising as it does great things if it is done right. Stayed away from our local mall this weekend. They were running a BC event encouraging people to wear pink and cheer for BC! I don’t feel like cheering for BC – it has not been a positive experience in my life. Our local drugstore had a raffle going to raise money directly for our new breast assessment centre at the local hospital – I participated in this. All the money goes, no overhead, no coporate salaries, etc. Think before you pink. Not pimp the pink!

  6. Ms A
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Of two opinions: One, I also kept a friend in check who wanted us to “turn Facebook pink” this month. Wondering what this meant, my alternative-methods radar went off. Basically, that it does feel gimmick-y to see all the pink hullaballoo and I wonder if indeed, the attention and $$ are going to the most helpful sources.
    Two: your article and some of the above ideas seem ascerbic and sour, bitter and misdirected. PInk isn’t my favorite color, either, but I embrace it as the color of the Goddess of Love, for in that sweet and loving vibration of pink, we are lightened and healed. There can be a great deal of good in raising awareness and *having fun*!! Having fun is an antidote to bitterness, n’est pas?
    So, I would suggest, that instead of just ranting, suggest a few ways in which readers of your article can help prevent it in the first place. Healthy living, breast massage, self breast exams, breast-healthy herb teas, less caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and dairy, and early mammograms are all good.
    You are headed in the right direction, I would just suggest you wield your message’s power with a positive endnote. Peace.

  7. BlondeAmbition
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this Katie. As a 3.5 year survivor (<– a word that I loathe) I have found this Pinktober particularly appalling — from the NFL shilling for the cure to Pornhub's sleazy campaign in an attempt to bolster their image. And let's not forget Lucy Activewear that promoted a line of pink workout clothing without affiliating to any BC organization until they were called out on social media. I've had enough and it's completely demoralizing … especially knowing several women who have metastatic disease and one that is weeks away from losing her life.

    I was pretty appalled by Ellen's month of pink — but even more taken aback that it was benefiting Komen — an organization that has caved to right-wing politics. It's hard to believe that Ellen would agree to be behind this and I'm wondering why someone doesn't interview her about it. And of course, there is the 'dumbing down' aspect of it all and making it sexy. Because as we all know, BC is one giant celebration.

  8. Posted October 15, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    I feel that turning this month into a celebration for Breast Cancer is like having someone come up to you and say “happy condolences”. It is a double negative to spend an October day in a partying mood. I have nothing against reminders of it (pink ribbons), they are appropriate symbols. What is essential is what people choose to do to help bring breast cancer research and cure closer to those in remission and those who have cancer genes.

    Whatever color you prefer, as long as you bring a group of friends to get a mammography. Visit patients and share cookies with them- make it memorable.

    Before you go to a pink themed party, ask yourself “What help does it do for Breast Cancer patients all over the world?”

    Choose to make a Breast Cancer Awareness month pleasant and filled with hope.

    Wish you all the best and @BlondeAmbition, I am glad you have overcome. Pleasant day to you all…

  9. Robin
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Directed to Ms. A – I’m so happy to see the ranting. The Pinktober is out of control. While prevention is essential, the other really essential thing is to acknowledge and help those women who have metastatic disease. With all the rah rah stuff this month, it can’t be easy for them. I’m an ovarian cancer survivor and I founded and and president of an ovarian cancer advocacy organization. We know how those women feel because the survival rate for ovarian cancer is very similar to metastatic breast cancer, and both are terribly underfunded with regard to research. Let’s start putting the money and attention on actually saving women’s lives instead of a bunch of product promotion which is mostly padding the pockets of those companies – not breast cancer research.

  10. Pamela Hope Levin
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    I am horrified and saddened by all this fluffy, silly, immature over the top “pink” stuff going on. In our local paper there was
    a picture of a doctor dressed up (male) a oncology nurse in pink boa doing a silly dance and other Breast Cancer organizaations including American Cancer Society doing those dehumanizing pink bra “things.” And at times I want to weep over all that.
    I held my sisters hand as she slowly passed away from cancer. I have had breast cancer twice, colon cancer once. It is a long hard journey. I made it through and survived. My neighbor in her early 50’s is struggling through the early stage of treatment and is frightened and yet so open and hones about it all. How horrible for her to see our newpspapers this month with all the frivolous pink silliness going on.
    Isn’t there some way to write theses organizations and tell them to “stop?” Are they so ignorant to feel this type of representation is appropriate. I am so glad I didn’t see that Ellen episode with Liam.

  11. Lucie
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Obviously I’m arriving a bit late to this discussion, but for some reason I was just thinking (again) about the pink bras over clothing issue the other night. And feeling the same slight unease and not-so-slight irritation over same.

    I know five women personally who’ve had breast cancer, and I in no way consider myself as uncaring about women who suffer with it. I want to see a cure as much as anyone. But I feel like I can say here what would probably sound politically incorrect in most other places – I’m tired of all the pink! And wonder what it’s really accomplishing. How much further do we really need to “raise awareness”?

    But the pink bras I saw in public at a restaurant a couple of months ago – well, the word that finally came to me was “immodest.” I don’t want to sound prudish here, but I couldn’t help thinking that for all the times I’ve heard references to women being tired of men focusing on their chests, what else would you expect them – or women and children, for that matter – to do? I don’t think I’d want to try to explain to a young child why that lady is wearing her underwear in public like that – and no, it isn’t right in general to do so. (Grin.)

    Seriously, have you ever seen a man afflicted with testicular cancer wearing a whatever-color thong on the outside of his jeans in order to proclaim that he is (thankfully) a survivor?

    I hope posters here will not take offense at my words and understand that they have my heartfelt sympathy and respect for their battles. But there’s a better way….

  12. Carmella
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Thank you everyone! I bite my tongue, lips, inner cheeks with this PINK stuff!!

    love the visual of the guy wearing a – fuschia? – thong outside his jeans .. .what ARE we thinking?

    omy gosh I may be alone but I am grateful . . .I don’t hate pink – I think I loathe it – – all my life I was associated with PINK – women in my family tried so . . .also with ruffles and lace and all the little ways GIRLS should be . . .

    AND IT HATED IT . . . so . . thanks.

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