While not exactly a straight-up expose of the breast-cancer “industry,” Lea Pool’s documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. takes a sobering look at a financially, politically, and emotionally complicated social phenomenon. Born from the desperate attempt to find a cure for the disease that kills 59,000 North American women yearly and will affect one in eight women during their lifetimes, organizations like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and the Avon Foundation for Women have burgeoned into multimillion-dollar philanthropic powerhouses that have spawned high-profile celebrity-spokesperson opportunities, worldwide attention to and participation in increasingly elaborate fundraising events, and endless products in the marketplace sporting the ubiquitous pink-ribbon motif.
The film’s opening credits roll amidst shots of various charity events throughout the U.S. and Canada. The focus is intentionally on the almost party-like atmosphere of the gatherings (Row for the Cause, Jump for the Cause, Jump for Hope, etc.), before giving way to interviews with noted breast-cancer experts and activists. The two main threads of the film are gradually introduced -- the “cause marketing” phenomenon, in which more and more huge corporations have entered the breast-cancer-research-fundraising playing field, and the disturbing reality of how little progress has been made on finding a cure (or even a definitive cause ) for the disease.
One of the most compelling moments in the film comes during a clip from Ronald Reagan’s speech during the National Alliance of Business Conference in 1981: “Excessive government spending, taxing, and regulating, no matter how well-intended, is a formula for disaster. Volunteer activities and philanthropy play a role, as well as economic incentives and investment opportunities. We’re talking about America’s deep spirit of generosity, but we’re also talking about a buck for business if it helps to solve our social ills. With the same energy that Franklin Roosevelt sought government solutions to problems, we will seek private solutions.” Dr. Samantha King, whose 2006 book inspired the film, sees this as the moment when the tide turned -- essentially giving birth to the movement that over 20 years later doesn’t have a whole lot to show for it other than exponential increases in money raised, and, at least ostensibly, contributed to research.
It would have given the film’s thesis more direction and bite if Pool had focused more on this aspect of the dilemma. With the government conveniently long “out of the business” of finding a cure for this pervasive disease, what choice do corporations who have found themselves in the business have but to capitalize on the side benefits they are able to glean from participating? The film really could, and maybe should, be split into two documentaries -- corporate vs. government support (where is the money really coming from and where is it ending up?) and the argument over finding a cure vs. finding a cause. Noted breast-cancer doctor Susan Love talks about the fundamental lack of understanding of the disease as one of the reasons she eventually quit doing breast surgeries. As she puts it, the “slash, burn, and poison” technique is still employed after 20-plus years, because doctors don’t know what else to do. This problem begs for a deeper examination of exactly where and why the research has stalled, even while money continues to pour in. Activist Barbara Brenner posits that the “pinkwashing” movement has created a softness in people by almost making breast cancer an accepted part of our culture, whereas in the early ’80s, women were furious about it -- out on the streets protesting, demanding investigation into environmental risks, and asking why a cure hadn’t been found. Pool effectively shows this dichotomy by interspersing stills of some of these protests with the modern-day weekend gatherings where women wear pink and dance in the streets, hugging and cheering each other on. Yes, this fosters goodwill in the public, generates money for the cause, and provides a sense of camaraderie for the women -- but in the end, are the results (or lack thereof) really any different?
A heartrending thread that recurs throughout the film looks in on a small Stage IV breast-cancer support group, whose members feel alienated and removed from our pinkwashed society -- for them, there is no more hope, and they feel left out of the whole “feel good” aspect of the culture. While this certainly packs an emotional punch, the focus on this group feels a little tacked on. Likewise, the occasional interstitials showing jauntily cartoonish versions of the endless array of pink-ribbon products clash uncomfortably with the otherwise somber tone of the film.
Anyone who has a strong family history of breast cancer, or who has participated in a fundraiser or bought a pink-ribbon-festooned product, may begin watching the film with some trepidation -- will they feel a sense of shame for having contributed to the “machine?” In reality, one almost wishes for a for a bit more condemnation -- while the filmmakers obviously don’t want to alienate the target audience, which is almost certainly the same demographic that is most prone to the disease, it seemed like they played it just a little too safe. On the one hand, it could be looked at as a “let the viewer decide” approach, but anyone who’s made a donation to the multitude of causes out there has already had the nagging “where is the money really going?” thought, even if only subconsciously. The film ends with the feeling that Pool should have worked harder to convince us that radical change is needed. There’s just a bit too much inconclusiveness to the admittedly intertwined, yet ultimately separate threads.
Perhaps a balanced presentation of the facts is the best way to go, though, for such a complicated issue. All of the participants, regardless of position, agree on the basics -- most people involved ultimately have good intentions and truly want to eradicate the disease once and for all. It’s just that getting to that point is the toughest thing to figure out. A short clip during the end credits perhaps best sums up the inevitable ambivalence of the situation (and the film) as a woman states after a moment’s thought: “When I see a pink ribbon, I don’t feel anything.” leave a comment --Sarah Block