Pink Ribbons Inc, book review

King, Samantha. Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. University of Minnesota Press 2006.

Samantha King’s primary goal in writing Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy is stated as; “I have sought to offer a genealogy account and critique of the place of organized giving under neoliberalism.” (pg117) King’s book is written in an easily read style and length creating access to an entire population surrounding breast cancer from the men and women who experience it, their family, friends and any interested in the culture surrounding breast cancer for multiple motivations through the sharing of issues that could and do affect over a quarter million new patients yearly and their extended networks. She brings a complex and controversial subject into the management of common sense through the exposure of finances, taking a culturally acceptable and societal fashionable cause to an intended dichotomy between philanthropy and capitalism. Critiquing industrial profit from increased exposure of a stigmatized disease transitioned to a popular charity and the industry that has grown up around it and because of it. King is an associate professor of physical and health education and women’s studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She received grants and awards supporting this writing from Illinois University, Arizona University and Queen’s University.

The book begins with a strong foundation for the rest of the book in the: Introduction: Breast Cancer and the Culture of Giving. Her first three pages visually demand attention utilizing photographs from cover of The New York Times Magazine. The first photo is from 1996 of a common model persona type, from any popular magazine cover, draping her left arm over her apparently healthy breasts and body representing the accepted ideology of beauty through embodiment mediated by commercialization. She conforms to cultural expectations of beauty and femininity answering the subtitle ‘How Breast Cancer Became This Year’s Hot Charity’. The next visual on the opposing page is from the same magazine three years earlier. The photography artist Matuscha’s self portrait is raw and exposing, it is not sexy, answering it’s subtitle ‘You Can’t Look Away Anymore,’ it is arresting and the subtitle is provocative and accurate. Matuscha’s mastectomy scar is front, center and provocative to a society with a breast fetish focus. Dichototic photos provoke emotions of pain and suffering and the mirage of feminine ideals shattered by breast cancer. King utilizes these dichotic photos to focus her point of illusional ideology versus the harsh reality that surrounds a ‘disease’ that kills. King’s point is direct and compelling, she has few visuals interlaced in her type, none of them are superficial each has a unique voice strengthening King’s goals. King frequently speaks of a ‘tyranny of cheerfulness’ that covers up the culturally perceived ugliness of Matuscha naked and exposed scar where a breast should be. King’s marks her audience with her unspoken message of how things have changed in just three years. King does not use negative or derogatory statements towards any involved in this transition yet she subtly successfully. She acknowledges the difficulty of going against the grain of popular ideals with financial backing yet she logically proceeds convincing you along the way. The path takes you from a stigmatized disease to neglected epidemic that results in an enriching and affirming process that leads to the ‘tyranny of cheerfulness’ silencing the unpleasant deaths of over 40,000 women and over 400 men yearly.

She theorizes that the greatest strength of the causes for breast cancer has also become its weakness. This is explored in; Chapter 1: A Dream Cause: Breast Cancer, Corporate Philanthropy, and the Market for Generosity. “In the practice of corporate philanthropy and marketing over the past two decades, a broad cultural preoccupation with philanthropic solutions to social problems, the discourse of efficiency and cost-cutting in business practice, changing psychological conceptions of the consumer, and invigorated consumer demands for a more ethical form of capitalism have converged to produce the transformation of corporate philanthropy from a relatively random, eclectic, and unscientific activity to a highly calculated and measured strategy that is integral to a business’s profit-making function.” (pg. 2)  The NFL and Avon are examples of this. The NFL utilizing ‘pinking’ as a means to absorb innocence from the breast cancer culture defusing rowdy and occasionally incarcerated players through association. Surmising that someone who supports the ‘cure’ for breast cancer cannot be capable of criminal activities thus sanitizing public opinion of rich playboys gone wrong to players that women will root for. It brings to mind the Sears commercial campaign “The Softer Side of Sears” that targeted the growing consumer population of women to expand their business. Big burly men wearing pink ribbons create champions for ‘survivors.’ Women wearing their favorite player’s jersey in pink represented a new avenue of consumer productivity and participation. “Consumers are yearning to connect to people and things that will give meaning to their lives.” (pg. 11)  Generosity is advocated here by finding the ‘cure’ through pink purchase participation. King balances this overwhelming generosity by presenting actual amounts donated being capped by corporations upfront regardless of profits incurred by corporations. Corporations are also charged with supporting breast cancer while ‘causing’ or contributing to it, attaching the pink ribbon to products that are carcinogenic or emit carcinogens, using the cosmetic industry and later the automotive industry as proven examples of this strategy.

Volunteerism is the focus in; Chapter 2: Doing Good by Running Well: The Race for the Cure and the Politics of Civic Fitness. Irony is exhibited here by the financial gain of cosmetic corporations sponsoring multiple day walk-a-‘thons’, highlighting exercise and the production of proper citizenship through activity, action and association. You are expected to feel ‘good” about volunteering your time and money and as an additional bonus you can feel ‘good” about an exercise program facilitated by participating in helping the ‘cause.’ Nationalism is satisfied here by inhabiting ‘good’ citizenship space. This absolves you of any selfish purpose in fitness through altruist conduits. Altruism hazes the financial motives presented for multiple corporations presented by King. The Komen foundations participation is described as “committed to the state as a crucial vehicle in the ‘elusive search for a cure,’ and for creating and maintaining the conditions in which free enterprise and the market for breast cancer can flourish.” (pg. 46)    Komen’s assets were tripled from $109.3 million in 2003 to $316.9 million in 2007.

King describes the lack of knowledge and assumptive nature of pink advocacy as an act of doing ‘good” can also be interpreted as, “to be innocent is also to refuse to know.” (pg. 43)  The ‘thons’ advocate early detection thus opening another opportunity for financial gain for corporation supporters. Companies producing ‘detection’ devices are noted in sponsorship commercialization mutually inhabiting the altruistic haze. ‘Thons’ become a space of physical, moral and civic participation producing ‘proper’ citizens nationalizing a feminine ideal.

The ‘cause’ not only produces proper citizens but proper bipartisan politics. Utilizing the power of pink properly and creating the very first ever postal stamp to provide proceeds for any ‘cause’ is analyzed in; Chapter 3: Stamping Out Breast Cancer: The Neoliberal State and the Volunteer Citizen. Congress excited by an issue that could rally bipartisan support  “claimed it was an effective way to enlist grassroots participation in the fight against breast cancer and a means by which to inject consumption with ethical value and meaning, it is an ideal vehicle through which the state could enable the public to demonstrate their spirit of volunteerism and generosity, and it was a vital tool in preservation of the nation’s mothers and, by extension, nuclear families.” (pg. 71)  Breast Cancer now encompasses proper patients, citizens and government. Hillary Clinton is even observed by King to experience a chameleon like change through breast cancer akin to the NFL player’s ugly caterpillar transformation to beautiful butterfly. Hillary’s masculine, domineering and independent persona is pinked into ‘good” mother, sympathetic wife and compassionate mother, (pg. 76)

Breast Cancer ‘Cause’ goes global in; Chapter 4: Imperial Charity: Women’s Health, Cause-Related Marketing, and Global Capitalism. Pharmaceutical corporation participation is noted here by their promotion and production expansion of Breast Cancer Awareness Month to a global market by sponsoring chapters in Germany, Greece and Italy in 2000. European skepticism has kept the pinking from reaching epidemic proportions in the ‘global’ breast cancer world as it has been targeted for scrutiny through the fact that other diseases are real epidemics in other countries and breast cancer does not have the numbers or social presence to surpass other global issues growing from poverty. “The greatest risk factor facing women living in third world poor countries [is] living in third world countries.” (pg. 96) Breasts are not a focus globally; the ‘American’ fetish has not spread far enough to pink the world. The altruist haze is penetrated by the fact that early detection is not in the global budget. The marketing ploy of philanthropy, ‘early detection’, has not been able to gain ‘proper’ citizen cooperation abroad. “Businesses that are seeking to produce and sell goods in an ever-expanding number of locations, has increasingly deployed philanthropy not merely to further some social ‘good’, but as a technique for market penetration and retention.” (pg. 98)

Audre Lorde is a voice utilized by King to sound discord in; Chapter 5: The Culture of Survivorship and the Tyranny of Cheerfulness. Lorde is used throughout the book but her arguments are poignant in this chapter. “Lorde’s warning that to look on the bright side of things is to obscure realities that might prove threatening to the dominant order is more relevant now than ever before.” (pg. 102) King’s central argument is stated here, “breast cancer became a philanthropic because of an informal alliance of large corporations (particularly pharmaceutical companies, mammography equipment manufacturers, and cosmetics producers), major cancer charities, the state, and the media that emerged around the same time and was able to capitalize on growing public interest in the disease.” (pg. 111)  The veil of ‘awareness’, volunteerism and goodness protects the ‘pink’ from logical analytical discourse by involving and heightening over-emotional response. ‘Pink’ critics are not popular, they are stigmatized, ironic isn’t it. “The culture of breast cancer survivorship does not, in other words, embrace patient-empowerment as a way to mobilize critical engagement with biomedical research, anger at governmental inaction, or resistance to social discrimination and inequality, even if its history is bound up with attempts to do just this.” (pg. 105) The survivor discourse has eliminated the patient just as it eliminated the victim creating a health illusion for only the tyranny of cheerful survivors to remain. This tyranny has no tolerance for criticism.

The reality of breast cancer is reached in the; Conclusion: Beyond Pink Ribbons. “The fact remains that women diagnosed with breast cancer today face essentially the same treatment options; surgery, radiation and chemotherapy that were offered when the War on Cancer was first declared thirty years ago. And when it comes to prevention, the only options we are given are powerful pills with dangerous side effects, and surgery more drastic than that often prescribed for women with the disease.” (pg. 119)  While this conclusion is grim King does follow up with: “[Needed is] a coordinated, adequately funded approach to breast cancer research, with the ultimate goals of understanding the causes of breast cancer and the reasons for different incidence and mortality rates among different racial and ethnic groups, and discovering more effective, less toxic treatments. Outcome-driven research, in which the researchers look for answers to these types of questions of most concern to the affected community, is necessary to achieve our goals. As a new approach to the standard scientific model, outcome-driven research frames the hypothesis to get the answers we need to important public health questions.” (pg. 119)

King hypothesizes and proves a darker side to the tyranny of cheerfulness. Yet King has missed a movement towards alternative medicine that is gaining momentum and a record of ‘successful’ cancer treatments that have existed in the United States possibly as early as the 1930’s. Options are available and are being used. Alternative medicine is gaining ground as demonstrated by the Pills, Potions and Poison seminar held at the University of Wyoming this fall. Attendance to the seminar was higher than expected and subject matter ranged from lobbying against the FDA to a speaker from the FDA.

The goals stated by King are met however. She sketches a landscape and history of a pink ribbon culture and how even the best intentions of philanthropy can be corrupted and manipulated for profit. King is cited in peer type research and in books along similar research lines like Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health by Gayle A. Sulik. King’s analysis is practical, convincing and moving. She is passionate about her subject and kind to her ‘adversaries.’

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4 thoughts on “Pink Ribbons Inc, book review

  1. The documentary based on the book is great, features Dr. King herself, as well as Dr. Love and B. Ehrenreich, my fave. What I got from the film and not from the book is a picture of the sort of “pink madness” present in those rallies or races. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    • I have seen it and like everyone else who has ever read a book before seeing the ‘movie’, the documentary was a bit disappointing. I was a amazed that Nancy Brinker made an appearance. The Documentary is Lea Pool’s take and while King is in it, I wouldn’t be surprised if she is disappointed too, this is the culmination of her work for her PhD. The first half of the documentary is just to fluffy pink, the book is not, the book lays it all out on the line. King is not rude about it she just presents it as ‘this is wrong’ on every page, instead trying to lure a viewer in that thinks pinkwashing is great. I understand that just getting people to watch it is a win, but it would be great if people would then read the book, to get the whole picture. The book is better, King didn’t write it to appease the masses, which is where Pool took it.

    • I have seen it and like everyone else who has ever read a book before seeing the ‘movie’, the documentary was a bit disappointing. I was a amazed that Nancy Brinker made an appearance. The Documentary is Lea Pool’s take and while King is in it, I wouldn’t be surprised if she is disappointed too, this is the culmination of her work for her PhD. The first half of the documentary is just to fluffy pink, the book is not, the book lays it all out on the line. King is not rude about it she just presents it as ‘this is wrong’ on every page, instead trying to lure a viewer in that thinks pinkwashing is great.

    • I understand that just getting people to watch it is a win, but it would be great if people would then read the book, to get the whole picture. The book is better, King didn’t write it to appease the masses, which is where Pool took it.

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