Running for Pink Ribbons, Inc.

A new documentary takes a hard look at the comforting pink haze surrounding breast cancer research

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Alex Brandon/AP

Director Léa Pool couldn’t have asked for a more propitious day for her important documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. to roll out in theatres across Canada. The thought-provoking—and occasionally rage-producing—National Film Board-produced film takes a hard look at how the comforting pink haze marketing surrounding breast cancer research funding has created a culture of complacency that discourages activism and blurs lack of actual progress.

So there’s a nice, if discomfiting, symmetry in today’s events: the film, based on Samantha King’s 2006 book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, opened on the very day that the major focus of the documentary, Susan G. Komen For the Cure, the world’s biggest breast cancer funding charity, was forced to amend a PR disaster of its own making. It’s a reversal, ironically, that illustrates an animating theme of the movie: the power and importance of public activism. Earlier this week, the Dallas-based foundation, which has raised more than US $1.9 billion for “The Cure” since 1982, announced it was cutting its funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides breast screening for low-income women. The reason, it claimed, was that Planned Parenthood is under investigation by the U.S. Congress, an inquiry incited by anti-abortion advocacy groups and deemed a “Republican witch hunt” by Democratic senator Barbara Boxer. (Planned Parenthood provides abortion in some of its locations, but most of its work is directed to women’s health screening and education.)

Outrage over Komen’s move swept across social media. Donations to Planned Parenthood swelled. Californian senators Boxer and Jackie Speier revoked their support for Komen. The foundation’s own affiliates broke ranks: its Connecticut division pledged to continue funding the New England Planned Parenthood. Komen was pilloried for politicizing women’s health. On Thursday, Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker defended the decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, saying it was due to policy changes intended to improve how grantees are selected—and had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood’s position as an abortion provider. On Friday, Komen’s embattled board reversed its decision. In a statement, Brinker said the foundation did not aim to “specifically penalize Planned Parenthood” and would continue to fund “existing grants.”

Brinker, a former U.S. ambassador who founded Komen in memory of her sister, is a recurring character in Pink Ribbons, Inc. Her voice represents the profit-driven status quo the powerful foundation has been instrumental in creating: a feel-good climate surrounding pink-ribbon “cause marketing” and community-building events like Run for The Cure and the Estee Lauder-sponsored bathing of public monuments (like the Parliament Buildings) in pretty-pink lights every October.

Pool handles the complex, combustible subject masterfully—and subtlely. Without ever denigrating the dignity or intentions of those who participate in fundraising events for The Cure, she adroitly contrasts what Samantha King calls the “tyranny of cheerfulness” required to sell pink-ribbon products with the percolating anger and frustration among doctors, activists, environmental researchers, and breast-cancer patients themselves. “Where is the research money going?” asks writer and social activist, Eleanor Leopold, who points out that the focus is always on how much money is being poured into research, not what is coming out. The lack of coordination amongst researchers globally is another source of frustration, as is the focus of that research, as well as the fact that Komen only spends 24 per cent of income on research. So too is the seeming lack of interest in breast cancer prevention or work with environmental justice groups—which stands in direct opposition to the sources of much of Komen’s funding.

This week’s Planned Parenthood debacle is far from Komen’s first PR misfire. It’s been criticized for allying itself with purveyors of goods that are harmful to women’s heath and the environment, including cosmetics, food products, gasoline. There are even rumours it endorsed a pink handgun. The documentary zooms in on Komen’s alliance with automaker Ford, pointing out that car manufacturing is associated with a higher incidence of breast cancer amongst workers. The foundation’s absurd alliance with  KFC’s “Bucket for the Cure” is also blasted. King suggests that the partnership proves Komen has “lost sight of its vision, which is to see a world without breast cancer”: “the bottom line has become the priority,” she says.  (The documentary didn’t include a more recent Komen misfire: its 2011 launch of a perfume, Promise Me, found to contain a suspected hormone disruptor, a known neurotoxin and an anticoagulant banned for use in human food, and later removed from the market.)

Pink Ribbons, Inc. is both engaging and educative. It’s also a call to arms—to lose the infantilizing, reassuring miasma of pink and become politically active by asking questions and challenging the status quo. Anger can be useful, notes activist Barbara Brener of Breast Cancer Action, if you know how to direct it. It certainly appears an apt response to the growing globalization of “pink,” as Komen expands into new markets  to sell products and “further medicalize women,” as Dr. Susan Love puts it.

Brinker, unsurprisingly, sees no place for anger: “Are we putting a pretty pink face on this? Absolutely, categorically not. When you lead from only anger you do not include or incent people to be part of a mission. If people feel there is no hope, they will not participate long-term.” Or buy pink teddy bears and vacuum cleaners. But, as the film makes clear, Brinker’s hope for the “long term” entails  “managing” breast cancer rather than curing it: “Until we in the breast cancer community have the equivalent of retroviral drugs, until we have ability to treat disease much like diabetes is treated, until we have those evolutions in this disease, there’s not enough pink,” she says.

What we have now is a perfect storm; a situation that is making women see red, not pink. Pool’s movie shows just how much energy—and commitment—both women and men have to marshal into sky-diving, running, walking and even horse-jumping for The Cure. The effectiveness of the campaign protesting Komen’s Planned Parenting announcement funding showed what such energy channeled into activism can achieve.  Expect focus—and pressure—on Komen as a result. Canadians can also direct questions to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, which organizes CIBC Run for the Cure and has raised close to $200 million since its inception in 1986. In 2010, the charity announced an agreement with Komen to “raise funds and explore possibilities to partner in research, education, advocacy and awareness programs.” The exact terms of that arrangement are unclear. The organization has been silent on the Komen’s Planned Parenthood flap and did not respond to Maclean’s phone calls.  And Pink Ribbons, Inc. has only been out a day.

Watch the trailer for Pink Ribbons, Inc. here.

UPDATE: The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation posted a comment about its relationship with the Susan G. Komen foundation on its Facebook page: “In 2009, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation formalized our process for sharing corporate fundraising partners cross-border. For example, if a U.S.-based corporate partner of Komen’s was interested in supporting CBCF in Canada, or vice versa, the agreement outlines how those connections would be made. We in Canada make our own assessment of whether a potential partnership makes sense for us. That is the extent of our formal agreement.” The post makes no mention of its 2010 partnership agreement, which raises the question: If the relationship is an informal one, why send out a press release?