Breast cancer hard-sell has really gone beyond the pink

By Karen Brooks
The Courier Mail
October 13, 2013
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OCTOBER is Breast Cancer Awareness month, where the country and, indeed, the globe is pink-washed.

From brooches to bracelets, keyrings, balls, socks, water bottles, sportswear, foodstuffs, races, walks, dinners, auctions, raffles, hair dye and even special deals in Westfield shopping centres, pink products abound. Invited to show support for those with breast cancer and their families, we drape ourselves in pink, attend functions, watch be-pinked sporting activities, go to work in pinkified environments, donate money, eat, drink and be suitably respectful, merry and moved, and thus do our bit for what’s a horrible scourge that takes away peace of mind, health, dignity and all too often those we love.

There’s lots of money being raised and that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it? After all, we’re told this conspicuous consumption of all things pink funds research, better care and the search for a cure, and, in the case of the very worthy McGrath Foundation, currently 55 breast care nurses across Australia.

So why are critics of this annual pinking of the month emerging? There have been very legitimate concerns raised about the way in which this “pinking” of a serious disease also sexualises, trivialises and, through some of the products such as teddy bears, infantilises sufferers. It also conveniently ignores what Barbara Enhrenreich, author, social commentator and former breast cancer patient, calls the “Cancer Industrial Complex: the multinational corporate enterprise that with the one hand doles out carcinogens and disease and, with the other, offers expensive, semi-toxic pharmaceutical treatments.”

Despite all these legitimate worries, as comedian Jennifer Saunders (herself a former cancer sufferer) recently discovered, it’s difficult to criticise anything attached to something so serious, terrifying and demoralising as cancer, let alone question the original intentions behind such a worthy cause as the breast cancer awareness movement and all the other ones it’s spawned. If you do, you’re read as ill-willed, uncaring, deliberately misunderstanding corporate and individual motivation and made a social pariah. Yet if we can’t examine this now, during a month dedicated to all things breast cancer, when can we?

Come October we immerse ourselves in “cancer culture” (as it has been termed) and drape ourselves in pink the same way one might use garlic to ward off vampires.

In and of itself, this is a terrific and clever movement. But how prolific and, at times, far removed from its origins this “pinking”- the numerous products being sold and corporations that become involved – has become.

And all this raises awareness, and in a lovely, feel-good way, which in turn, according to reports and statements, leads to financial and other kinds of help, but hasn’t the cause succeeded in its intentions?

The importance of self-examination, screening through mammograms and discussing concerns with doctors are ingrained in women (and their partners to encourage) from an early age. We’re aware and alarmed.

As a cancer patient myself, while I appreciate the sentiment behind the giving, buying and general inclusivity, I also understand the growth of what’s been termed “pink ribbon fatigue”.

There is too much and it’s everywhere.

There are now so many products and so many businesses keen to link their brand to the positive connotations and female-centric nature of breast cancer awareness that it borders on being exploitative.

It exploits people’s hope, relief, guilt (that they were overlooked by the disease or “survived”, an overused and highly problematic cancer trope as if those who died somehow gave up the “fight”, or didn’t hope or try hard enough) and above all fear. Awareness, through consumption isn’t limited to October but like a continuous sale, occurs throughout the year.

Academic Lauren Rosewarne wrote an acerbic piece on the launch, in the US, of a pink pepper spray gun. She concludes that, “… $1 going to breast cancer research is better than none. But is there not such a thing as brand soiling? That attaching the pink ribbon to goods like dog clothes and cleaning products positions the whole thing as less about charity and more about merchandising?”

When we don pink and help the “fight” (another overused and awful word), we also need to be mindful that we’re not exchanging support for sentimentality, or trivialising someone’s ordeal through brand association.

There’s nothing wrong with buying pink ribbons and other products. It’s important to show our support and care, but there’s also nothing wrong with thinking critically about why we’re doing it and what the products actually signify – to the cause and the business promoting them. Above all, We need to remember that behind the pretty pink facade lies suffering humans – frightened, hoping, angry, grateful, sick and forever changed – and they’re the “lucky” ones.