What happens with activism becomes big business? This movie takes a look.
Dir. Léa Pool, 2012, 97 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
In the late 80’s / early 90’s, a woman named Charlotte Haley wanted to urge the National Cancer Institute to increase its funding for research into breast cancer prevention, which was extremely low compared to its other areas of study. To do this, she started a campaign passing out beige-colored ribbons in order to raise awareness of the issue. Estée Lauder liked the idea so much that they offered to buy the idea from her. She refused, finding the idea of commercializing activism repugnant. Estée Lauder shrugged, checked in with its lawyers, and used it anyway. They just made the ribbon pink. And thus was born the most profitable social action campaign ever.
Can something born out of evil eventually become something good? Perhaps, but the story of the pink ribbon sure doesn’t make a case for that. Pink Ribbons, Inc. is about the commodification of disease and what one talking head calls “the tyranny of cheerfulness.” Organizations like Estée Lauder, Sugan G. Komen for the Cure, and Avon have created a cause that seemingly anyone can get behind. After all, who doesn’t want a cure found for breast cancer? And yet their cheerful exteriors cloak a much more sinister side. Corporations are sociopaths, and these are no exceptions.
This documentary is a case study in what happens when advancement is left to the free market. Corporatism and progress are natural enemies, because innovation is a costly endeavor, and unfettered business cares only for the bottom line. What incentive do these companies actually have to push for a cure to cancer, when they make ever so much money selling pink-colored products like toilet paper, hair dryers, blenders, or handguns (yes, really)? If these corporate citizens really care so much about fighting cancer, then why do they sell products that contain known and possible carcinogens? If any of them want to stop this frighteningly prevalent disease (1 in 8 women in America are at risk, up from 1 in 22 decades ago, and 59,000 will die from it this year), then why is so little funding sent to prevention, or figuring out what causes it?
Pink Ribbons, Inc. is an incredibly uncomfortable doc. A few chinks in its armor aside (such as the kerfuffle over Planned Parenthood earlier this year), Susan G. Komen for the Cure has been shown through polling as one of the most trusted organizations in America. They’ve perfected the inspirational image so much that to question them seems almost blasphemous. And as you hear doctors and sociologists and other generally smart people unraveling this squeaky-clean façade, the footage of races and rallies “for the cure” seem increasingly unnerving, a portrait of an Orwellian world of suffocating pink.
It gets even worse when we meet the “IV League,” an Austin support group for women with Stage IV breast cancer. Any fighting they attempt only delays the inevitable by minute fractions. These women will die, and soon. They do not fit into the happy shiny pink box put out by Susan G. Komen and their ilk. According to the pink ribbon doctrine, which speaks of attempts to remove cancer as a “battle,” these women simply haven’t fought hard enough. And that’s not fair to them.
That’s what’s most brilliant about this movie. It goes beyond exposing corporate misdeeds to dissecting the nature of the terminology being tossed around in this sphere, and what those words suggest. It demonstrates that the pink ribbon movement as a whole is in fact a massive distraction. People prefer a simple narrative, where breast cancer can someday be “cured.” They don’t like to think about more complex realities, such as the fact that what we call “breast cancer” is actually five, six, or more separate diseases. Or that prevention might be a better avenue, meaning that actions beyond simply buying a pink product, and actively changing lifestyles and demanding more from institutions, are required for true change.
For taking such a critical look at such a sacrosanct subject, Pink Ribbons, Inc. might be one of the bravest documentaries of the year. It’s stylistically unadventurous, but who cares when the content is this meaty? I know this review probably reads as more of a book report than a proper review, but I can’t help it. This is a true-blue (true-pink?) eye-opener.