What if you could buy social justice? (Part 9: Think Pink: Cancer Profiteering)

The pinking of cancer is arguably one of the most well-known examples of the cultural misconception that we can buy social justice. Starting out with the pink ribbon, this consumerized think-pinking has, as Ayelet Waldman details in her Salon.com article, made us “awash in a sea of pink”:

“Pink ribbons, pink wristbands, pink Cartier watches, pink makeup kits, pink Tic Tacs, a pink Delta airplane, pink nail polish, a pink Montegrappa Micra Pen, pink bouquets, pink tweezers, pink candles, pink jeweled key fobs, pink totes, pink shower gel, pink tea, pink moisturizer, pink Lean Cuisines, pink teddy bears, pink Waterford crystal, pink Post-its, pink M&Ms, pink sneakers, pink umbrellas, pink yogurt, pink golf balls, pink pencil sharpeners, and even pink toilet paper. That’s right, wipe for the cure.”

Wipe for the cure?!? Ha! I wonder, are there pink condoms so we can also fuck for the cure?

While this pinking of cancer began with the pink ribbon, the history behind how the ribbon became pink is worth considering in more detail. In fact, the cancer awareness ribbon was originally PEACH. This peach ribbon was part of a GRASSSROOTS ACTIVISM campaign, not a corporate profiteering label. As Sandy M. Fernandez details in her excellent article “Pretty in Pink” (read it in full here):

The woman was 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, the granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer. Her peach-colored loops were handmade in her dining room. Each set of five came with a card saying: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”

Haley was strictly grassroots, handing the cards out at the local supermarket and writing prominent women, everyone from former First Ladies to Dear Abby. Her message spread by word of mouth. By the time Liz Smith printed her phone number, Haley had distributed thousands.

Then Self magazine called.

“We said, ‘We want to go in with you on this, we’ll give you national attention, there’s nothing in it for us,” Penney says. Even five years later, her voice still sounds startled by Haley’s answer. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial.”

At the end of September 1992, Liz Smith printed a follow-up to Haley’s story. She reported that Estee Lauder had experienced “problems” trying to work with Haley, and quoted the activist claiming that Self had asked her to relinquish the concept of the ribbon. “We didn’t want to crowd her,” Penney says. “But we really wanted to do a ribbon. We asked our lawyers and they said, ‘Come up with another color.”

They chose pink.

So, the real history is that pink was chosen as a way of STEALING and PROFITING from one woman’s idea. Holy pink crap! (And, if you need more proof that Wikipedia is NOT a reliable source, their entry on the history of the pink ribbon does NOT cover this information.)

As Fernandez writes,

“…because of Haley’s ribbon, Self and Estée Lauder had traded in a color that was merely peachy for one that was an icon, a semiotic superstar. “Pink is the quintessential female color,” says Margaret Welch, director of the Color Association of the United States. “The profile on pink is playful, life-affirming. We have studies as to its calming effect, its quieting effect, its lessening of stress. [Pastel pink] is a shade known to be health-giving; that’s why we have expressions like ‘in the pink.’ You can’t say a bad thing about it.” Pink is, in other words, everything cancer notably is not.”

While peach would have been problematic too, given its false associations with being skin color or “flesh” (thanks for nothing Crayola!), it might have been preferable to the bubble-gum faux-female-empowering and infantilizing pink.

Further, the shift from peach to pink, or from somewhat natural to neon, symbolically echoes the shift in cancer activism. As David Bollier notes in his article “The Pink Ribbon Juggernaut”:

“At one time, activists focused on the environmental causes of breast cancer and the importance of prevention. But as corporate marketers came to recognize that breast cancer awareness offers a great way to position one’s company as a champion of women, the ‘social meaning’ of the disease changed. The ‘pink ribbon’ branding of breast cancer has made the disease an upbeat, emotional celebration of ‘survivors,’ women’s fitness, civic voluntarism – and selling.”

Thus, when peach went pink, an activist movement became a consumerist movement. Yet, as noted by Barbara Brenner, executive director of BCA (Breast Cancer Action),  “If shopping for pink ribbon products was truly the path to a cure, we’d have solved the breast cancer problem by now.”  Yeah, and if SHOPPING was a CURE for anything, we would have also saved the environment, the economy, and eradicated poverty!

However, instead of “shopping for the cure,” we are ironically “shopping for the spread.” Or, as Ayalet Waldman points out:

“There is a particular irony in this corporate sponsorship. Many cosmetics contain parabens, estrogenic chemical preservatives that can disrupt normal hormone functions, and exposure to such external estrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.

The link between environmental pollutants and breast cancer is also becoming clearer. When absorbed into the body, certain pesticides, plastics additives, and chemicals present in foods, household dust and air act like estrogen, possibly increasing the risk of breast cancer.”

Even more ironic, as pointed out by Professor Julia Mason, is that “The largest drug companies who make cures also make carcinogenic products, which cause cancer.” Wow, talk about lining your own pockets!!! Give em cancer, then sell em ‘cures,’ and THEN sell em PINK products that show just what a caring corporation you are!

Along with capitalizing on disease, the think-pink paradigm also works to “pink-wash” products. Akin to “green-washing,” pink-washing presents products and the corporations that make them as caring about women in general and preventing/curing breast cancer specifically.

Further, even people, it seems, can be pink-washed. As David Bollier reports, “after a series of prominent NFL players were involved in serious crimes such as rape, domestic violence and DUI, the NFL launched a “Real Men Wear Pink” campaign. This PR effort enabled the NFL to showcase its players as community-minded volunteers who care about women and children.”

As this example reveals, there is a serious lack of social critique accompanying the think pink movement. When rape and violence can be pink-washed away, we must question if the pinking of cancer is ultimately doing more harm than good…

In addition to allowing corporations to plaster their image with a pink happy face, pinking also obfuscates critical analysis in favor of feel-good consumerism.

Got cancer due to that toxic waste dump you live near? Forget about it! Put on some Avon pink lip-gloss, some pink tennies, and walk your way to feel good oblivion! Forget that you no longer have the time or energy (and never did have the money) to examine how poverty, racial inequality, and a rabidly unequal healthcare system contribute to unequal rates of breast cancer among different race/class groups. Forget about the economic injustice that translates into you living next to the toxic waste dump and put on your pink happy face already! If the pink ribbon people don’t advocate for federal budgets/laws to prevent cancer, and it they are not pressuring corporations to research and then stop using cancer-causing chemicals, who are you to complain? (A disclaimer – there are campaigns and groups that step away from unexamined pinking – notably Think Before You Pink launched by Breast Cancer Action).

So, while Kristin McDonald argues that the pink ribbon is “a symbol of the new spirit of activism that is changing the way we face breast cancer,” I disagree. I think instead it is a symbol of the new spirit of commodification that is consumerizing the way we face not only breast cancer, but ALL social issues and injustices.

Pinkwashing will not bring the cure let alone bring about prevention. What it will bring about is “healthier industry,” as noted by Penni Marshall in her piece “Pink to Green.” As Marshall indicates, this cancer profiteering is not about saving the planet nor the women who live on it, but about allowing industry to continue to use cancerous toxins as it claims to be working towards a cure. As Marshall argues, “Above all else, the bottom line on breast cancer has to be what’s healthy for the environment and for women’s bodies, not what’s healthy for industry.”

Perhaps next October, when we are inundated with pink products, we can reflect on the peach history that has been forgotten, or on the ways in which cancer harms the flesh of individual bodies (and disproportionately harms bodies of color due to systematic poverty/unequal healthcare) and DOES not harm, but BENEFITS corporations – the very same corporations that have put on pink happy faces while their products and manufacturing practices rely on known cancer causing toxins…

The final post in this series will be up next, “Avoiding the ATM: Breaking the Consumerist Mindset.”

(and, for a related post, see my earlier piece “What if we cared about boot health as much as we cared about boob size and boob induced profits?” here.)

10 thoughts on “What if you could buy social justice? (Part 9: Think Pink: Cancer Profiteering)”

  1. This was a really interesting read. I did not know about the history of the peach ribbon.

    “Give em cancer, then sell em ‘cures,’ and THEN sell em PINK products that show just what a caring corporation you are!”

    Yes – this is exactly why I’ve shunned all the pink products! Because I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion its all the same people making money out of all of this. Thanks for confirming my suspicions.

  2. I also didn’t know about the peach ribbon!

    Even disregarding the stealing of the ribbon idea, and the commodification of the cure-search, the plain choice of pink in the first place was offensive. ONE, pink is historically a color used by advertisers to market to women because they (advertizers) seem to think that women aren’t smart enough to judge a product on its own merits are are more likely to buy it because it’s pink, and so hey, it must be suitable for women, and I’m a woman. . . (I have a toolset that’s pink and says “her tools” on it–don’t ask). TWO, if we allow for a moment that pink is a “female” color, then when it’s applied to the breast cancer movement, how does that impact all the men who have breast cancer? I imagine they will be less likely to seek out support, examinations, battle health insurers–perhaps being embarrassed to have a “woman’s” (read: pink!) disease.
    –CC at Onely

  3. Seriously excellent post. I knew the pink-washing was a huge problem and I almost hate to see October coming because of it. But I did not know the history or the origin of the PEACH ribbon, nor of the integrity of the woman behind it. Thank you so much for posting this. I am loving this series.

    1. Thanks HD!
      So glad you are liking the series. I find it discouraging that my readership drops when I write more “meaty” pieces like the social justice series. Thus, it’s nice to hear there are readers that appreciate longer research-based posts like these!

  4. I was writing a blog entry/article about buying/selling social justice… and you wrote it for me! I hope you don’t mind that I link here! Thank you! Someone – intelligent – working the angle of the people!

    *sigh. remember when social justice meant not going home a little more smug.

  5. You are doing a superb service to your readers by opening the remarks area, it is a great way to communicate with them. There are numerous resources here and we appreciate you being so kind to publish them.

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