The pink ribbon is now everywhere, but as the contretemps over the Susan G. Komen foundation’s hastily retracted decision to defund breast cancer screenings for Planned Parenthood proves, a spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down, but there’s no promise it’ll stay there. These feelings of disappointment and betrayal inform writer/director Lea Pool’s critical documentary, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” which was released a week ago in Canada.
Of course, the outrage isn’t just about Planned Parenthood, or even Komen, arguably the most high-profile of American breast cancer charities. Like Haley, what the chorus of critics is pushing back against is broader in scope: an emphasis on optics over integrity, crass commercialism and the infantilization of the female experience into something fashionable, cheerful or sexy. As a number of pundits and commentators put it, the events of last week make it clear that for more and more American women, “pink stinks.”
‘Breast cancer culture’
“Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” which will premiere locally at the Washington, D.C., International Film Festival in April, has impeccable timing and a subject ripe for exploration — namely, the normalizing of an agonizing, widespread and often deadly disease and its repackaging as a lifestyle, what critics call “breast cancer culture.” (Emphasis on the “cult.”) The film is also an indictment of the industries that both align themselves against and profit from the disease, which is to say, the pharmaceutical, chemical and consumer-goods companies that manufacture products containing cancer-causing toxins at the same time that they market treatments, palliatives and charity goods in service of finding a “cure.”
Critics of breast cancer culture, including “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” producer Ravida Din, call such hypocrisies “pinkwashing.” Din was inspired to tackle the subject seven years ago, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her sister had forwarded along Barbara Ehrenreich’s prescient November 2001 Harper’s magazine essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” in which the cultural critic detailed her growing disgust with the commercial and medical establishment that she encountered after her diagnosis. (Ehrenreich’s essay was incorporated in her 2009 book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.”)