Pink Ribbons, Inc. (First Run Features, NR)

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pinkribbon 75It calls out the pink ribbon industry so I don’t have to.


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Cause marketing has always given me the creeps. There’s something inherently ridiculous about the contrast between the worthiness of the cause (usually) and the absurdity of showing sympathy and support by buying a product or participating in an activity (almost always) that makes me want to run for the hills. More importantly, there’s always a small voice in the back of my mind that wants to know just how much of the money spent or contributed in this fashion actually gets to the cause in question, and why it wouldn’t be a better idea just to make a direct donation to the cause.

The poster child for cause marketing is breast cancer. Between the ubiquitous pink ribbons (and pink nearly everything else) and the walks and runs and bikes for a cure, it’s hard to think of a cause that has more completely saturated our consciousness. I bet if you quizzed a class of kindergartners, most of them would know the association between the color pink and breast cancer. It’s virtually impossible to say anything against this explosion of pinkness, because that would leave you open to attack on the grounds that you are not sufficiently sympathetic to those who have suffered and are suffering from breast cancer, as well as the need for more research into and better treatment of this disease.

That’s why I’m glad Lea Pool’s documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., exists, along with Samantha King’s book of the same name. They call out the pink ribbon industry so I don’t have to. It’s not just that an industry is selling tons of pink stuff to people, an undetermined amount of which ends up where it could actually do some good; it’s also that the message of the movement is simple-minded and misleading.

The dominant message of the pink ribbon industry is that early detection is the key to defeating breast cancer—ignoring the fact that, although early detection makes the all-important five-year survival rate look better, it appears to have little effect on saving lives. The military metaphors so popular with regard to cancer (“the war on cancer,” “battling cancer,” “cancer survivors”) may help to raise money, but (as Susan Sondheim pointed out some years ago) do very little to help those dealing with the reality of cancer, and may in fact be insulting. When someone dies, does that mean they didn’t fight hard enough? Finally, the insistence on cheerfulness and hope over anger and reality minimizes the seriousness of the disease, and ignores the feelings of people who are struggling with it. If they aren’t always smiling and cheerful, should they be condemned or hidden from view?

Pink Ribbons, Inc. amasses a wide array of pink-tinted footage, balanced by the testimony of women with Stage 4 cancer and experts who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid, pink or otherwise. It’s not a perfect film—viewing one fundraiser after another quickly becomes repetitive; the cuts between talking heads threatens to turn the film into a he-said/she-said presentation; and the scattershot approach to identifying hypocrisies and inefficiencies is less effective than it could be. Still it’s a film worth seeing, but one that leaves me with regrets for what it could have been. | Sarah Boslaugh

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