You’ll Never Look at Pink Ribbons the Same


Written by Danielle Roderick

Pink Ribbons, Inc., a documentary based on the 2008 book by Samantha King, looks at the effects of “pinkwashing” (when companies use the ubiquitous breast cancer-related pink ribbon to promote a product while also selling products linked to the disease), damns the ribbon as contaminated by profit.

At first, the ominous soundtrack feels heavy-handed as it plays over footage of dedicated, well-meaning masses of women in hot pink t-shirts, walking, skydiving, dancing, hugging, crying and shopping for the cause of breast cancer awareness. But as the documentary dissects the pink-ribbon marketing, it suggests the wasted potential of so many dedicated women. They’re not sinister in any way: It’s the machine that has co-opted their energy. Pink Ribbons, Inc. suggests that the greatest pinkwash of all isn’t KFC’s pink buckets of chicken or Yoplait’s former use of rBGH dairy, but instead the demilitarization of the women’s health movement by changing a message of outrage and protest about an epidemic with an unknown cause to a profitable sea of pink: a nice, cuddly and traditionally feminine color.

Between interviews with activists, women with breast cancer, researchers and fundraisers, the film focuses on various pink ribbon fundraisers throughout the country, highlighting the sunny optimism and the immense energy (and money) that they generate. The corporate stakes in this movement are exposed in the origins of the ribbon and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, two alarming histories based more in profit than idealism.

The film also scrutinizes the pink ribbon as a public relations magic bullet–from redeeming the NFL after a slew of bad press, to being used as a sly form of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. And as we watch the film, the idea of finding a cure or racing for a cure seems much less significant than finding a cause for the disease. According to the film, the marriage between corporate interests and fundraising has heavily shaped research directions, funneling money toward the quest for “the cure” rather than investigations of, say, possible environmental causes of the cancer. The narrative of the disease has also been shaped by corporate messaging that shows breast cancer most often as affecting white middle-class women–the target shoppers for corporate sellers.

Barbara A. Brenner of Breast Cancer Action stands out as a clear voice of reason, while Nancy Brinker of Susan G. Komen for the Cure represents the gloss and misdirection of such a powerful movement. Always on message, the only time Brinker looks away from the camera is when she explains the foundation’s decision to partner with KFC.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. is worth watching even if you think you are familiar with pinkwashing and the recent scandals surrounding it. The film honors the complexity of breast cancer without pandering to those who have it, or even knocking those who find support in the pink ribbon world. Instead, it calls out the mismanagement of our energy and dollars.

Says activist Judy Brady in the film,

For people to finally rise up and object, people have to know. They have to be aware of the magnitude of the lies they’re being fed. And the lies are comforting lies … Breast Cancer Awareness Month is comforting, because you’re doing something about something that scares you.

Pink was chosen as the color of the movement after a focus group of women were asked what colors they found the most reassuring and non-threatening. This film is not pink. It’s a request for anger and a different kind of breast cancer awareness than the one we’ve been fed so far.

This post was originally published by Ms. Magazine.


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Photo from DavidDMuir via flickr


ERIKA S6 months ago


Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin5 years ago

After Komen stopped supporting Planned Parenthood I stopped clicking Komen's link at Care2. There are other and better ways to promote health in women.

Deborah D.
Deborah D5 years ago

I can name a number of causes and organizations that I have lost faith in, each for doing things that are outrageous, outside their core purposemission or totally counter to anything I can support. Fortunately there are many other organizations that are trying to do the same work - so I can breathe a sigh of relief -

Komen - PETA - Greenpeace - HSUS are just a few.

Julianna D.
Juliana D5 years ago

Same as "Natural"

Allen Pierce
Allen Pierce5 years ago

At the risk of sounding like one of those conspiracy nuts I will once again say that most of the things that trouble our country today can be traced back to large corporations and their having been given pro forma personhood by the government and the courts. In Our 21st century, everything must make a profit for someone, and if it doesn't, it doesn't happen. If a person starts something and makes something happen, somecorp, somewhere will find a way to make a profit from it. In America today, that's ALL that matters, and it's all that will matter until we find a way to limit "Incorporated People".

Obsess much? Who, me? Only on the weekend.

Pamela H.
Pamela H5 years ago

Reminds me of Greenpeace. They just got too big. They get millions in donations yet most of it goes into their paid staff and administration. They do nothing to prevent the Japanese from killing whales every December and January in the 'whale sanctuaries'. They leave the smaller organisation, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to have to take all the risks for them. All Greenpeace used to do was hold up signs. The Sea Shepherd actually risk their lives doing the hard work and actually saving the lives of whales on the frontline. Yet the Sea Shepherd get demonised for having to do the job that governments should be doing.
I always donate to the smaller groups because they're the ones that really need it.

Nancy Black
Nancy Black5 years ago

Since the Susan G Koman incident with Planned Parenthood, I haven't look at the pink riboon as a symbol of hope, unity, and determination for people to work to find a cure for breast cancer. They stole my innocence; reading this just reinforced my opinion.

Kelly Rogers5 years ago

Thank-You, for exposing these lies. I read something on the Care2 site about the breast click on the click to donate. I think it said it supported the Susan G. Komen fund.

Barbara S.

I also read not long ago that the dyes used to create the color pink is, in and of itself, a carcinogen. Every time you wear pink against your skin, or handle a pink ribbon, we can be absorbing these carcinogens into our bodies, especially when we sweat. But I also gree that I will never give another red cent to the Komen Foundation. Mine is now all going to Planned Parenthood where it can be used to help uninsured women get mammograms, Pap smears, breast cancer testing, and many other things they otherwise cannot afford.

Edith B.
Edith B5 years ago

I will not vote or click for anything that benefits Susan B Komen foundation again. Their stance against planned parenthood told me all that I need to know about them.