Industry gets a grim diagnosis
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 8, 2012
“Pink Ribbons, Inc.” was made long before the scandal involving Susan G. Komen for the Cure and its off-then-on support of Planned Parenthood, which makes Lea Pool’s information-packed documentary about the malign nexus of breast cancer research and corporate marketing uncannily prescient and enduringly timely.
Opening with familiar shots of pink-clad women descending on the Mall for Komen’s annual Race for the Cure, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” proceeds to examine just how a disease that takes nearly 60,000 women’s lives a year came to be swathed in rose-tinted euphemisms and corporate tie-ins as varied as Avon, Ford and KFC.
What’s more, Pool and her interview subjects argue, the rhetoric surrounding the disease has become one of enforced cheerfulness, with patients converted into “survivors” and “warriors” -- the implication being that anyone who dies from it just wasn’t fighting hard enough.
It was just that punitively optimistic worldview that led author Barbara Ehrenreich to ask, “What’s going on here?” when she developed breast cancer. One of the most articulate taking heads in “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” Ehrenreich notes that the pink-ribbon movement that took hold in the 1990s constituted an effort to make a dreadful, messy and often fatal illness “pretty and feminine and normal. It’s not normal.”
Although Pool also interviews Nancy Brinker of the Komen Foundation, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” is clearly not meant to be a balanced, she-said, she-said portrait of a contested issue.
Rather, it’s a well-argued polemic that, despite being one-sided, has loads of useful information to share, if only to begin a crucial argument about health care, allocation and coordination of research dollars, consumerism and the privatization of philanthropy.
Among the many contradictions “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” explores is why so little of the resources that Komen, Avon and others put toward cancer research goes toward treatment and a “cure” rather than prevention. That question leads naturally -- and unsettlingly -- to the paradox of companies whose products contain suspected carcinogens going to lengths to “pink-wash” their reputations by sponsoring feel-good breast cancer awareness campaigns.
Pool interviews other smart women as well, including physician and activist Susan Love (who questions the “slash, burn and poison” response to the disease that the breast cancer establishment buys into) and author Samantha King, on whose book much of “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” is based.
But the most persuasive interviewees by far are a group of stage IV breast cancer patients who bear articulate, dignified witness to why those mylar balloons, silly hats and you-go-girl slogans are so insulting to the fatal reality they face every day.
Everyone needs to see “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” if only to hear these women’s voices, see their faces and remember them the next time we’re asked to Think Pink.
Contains mature themes.