Against the 'tyranny of cheerfulness': A review of Pink Ribbons, Inc.

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While it was probably a coincidence that the press screening for Pink Ribbons, Inc, was on January 25: National Wear It Pink Day — a day to build awareness and recruit participants for the Shopper's Drug Mart Weekend to End Women's Cancers — the significance wasn't lost on me.

As I sank into the theatre seat and pulled back my sleeve to check my watch, I realized that I was also wearing a pink shirt. Although I must admit that my passive participation in Wear It Pink Day was more the result of said shirt being freshly laundered (and free of child-inflicted peanut butter breakfast stains) than of a deliberate decision on my part to engage in an act of what some would call slacktivism, defined by Wikipedia as a "feel-good measure, in support of an issue or social cause, that has little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction."

While I'll refrain from diving into the debate on the merits of cause marketing, I will credit the film (directed by Léa Pool and adapted from Samantha King's 2006 book of the same title) for setting up a compelling argument that breast cancer has become the "poster child for cause marketing." That the commodification of breast cancer — complete with corporate sponsorships, merchandise and splashy celebrity-laced marketing campaigns — has shifted the focus from the disease itself to a perpetual and prettied-up cause that everyone can feel good about supporting.

The film alternates between video footage of a number of cancer awareness and fundraising events across North America (in cities like Washington D.C., San Francisco, Ottawa and New York) and interviews with researchers, medical professionals and breast cancer 'survivors' — a term with which many of the women take umbrage. Pool builds a case against the alleged "Tyranny of Cheerfulness" one interview at a time to the point where, as you watch footage from a parade of breast-cancer supporters and survivors towards the end of the film, the carnivalesque atmosphere leaves you wondering is it Mardi Gras in New Orleans?

Pool presents the history of the pink ribbon movement, and reveals a number of interesting details, like how cosmetics manufacturer Estée Lauder approached the woman who came up with the ribbon campaign (originally salmon in colour) and decided to go ahead with their own pink version after she turned them down. Or how Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which promotes screening through mammography, was conceptualized and promoted by the company that manufactures Tamoxifen, a drug that is often prescribed for the prevention of breast cancer in women at high risk of developing the disease. And how the language we use to characterize our experience with cancer emerged from a post-war psyche that positioned the disease as an outside enemy, against whom battles are waged, and are either won or lost.

The film is critical of corporations that sell products that contain carcinogens that have been linked to cancer and then use this 'dream-cause' to pink-wash their reputations. It doesn't deny the fact that cause marketing increases awareness of breast cancer or that massive amounts of money are raised and millions of people are engaged in support of the cause through runs, walks and corporate campaigns each year. It does however, challenge you to consider if that awareness, those efforts and all that money are focused and channeled where they ought to be.

The most convincing arguments in favour of Pool's premise emerge in conversations with a support group for women diagnosed with stage four cancers. One of the women states bluntly "there is no stage five." Confronted with their own mortality, these women's accounts of their experiences with cancer leave you questioning the perception that somehow they aren't going to win the battle against cancer because they didn't try hard enough.

While the argument in Pink Ribbons, Inc. is compelling and well-constructed, the film falls short of a total knock out. In interviews with PR-types from Estée Lauder, Avon Cosmetics and the Ford Motor Company — all companies that the film accuses of pink-washing by supporting 'the cause' while selling products that contain or produce known carcinogens — the corporate representatives pretty much stick to script and their positions are left unchallenged, resulting in a missed opportunity to bolster the film's argument even without Michael Moore style badgering.

In short, the film challenges you to take off your rose-coloured glasses and question the merits and motivations of cause marketing. If nothing else, it should incite debate and conversation amongst fundraisers, charities, donors and the general public. This reviewer recommends it with a word of advice: leave the pink shirt at home.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. opens February 3 in cities across Canada. Check your local listings for showtimes.


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