A righteously outraged study of how health-related fundraising is circumscribed by the profit motive, Pink Ribbons, Inc. makes illuminating connections between the ubiquitous symbol of breast cancer awareness and the network of corporate entities that sustains—and carefully engineers the priorities of—the cross-marketing of the cause. Based on a book by Samantha King, an on-screen interviewee who posits that the Reagan-era shift of responsibility for public health from government to private interests begat the sprawl of unaccountable philanthropic gatekeepers, Léa Pool’s documentary returns repeatedly to an Avon-sponsored benefit walk up the fog-shrouded hills of San Francisco, a feel-good, seemingly unassailable event drawing together thousands of women and men who have personally been affected by breast cancer, celebrated with pink shirts, wigs, confetti, and parasols. The initial disquieting note of exploitation, as hawkers for a soft-drink company dispense samples of their product as if this were just any mundane street fair, expands inexorably until viewers are apt to share the distaste for camera-friendly skydiving and equestrian fundraising events, all branded pink, expressed by one activist: “We used to march in the streets, now we run for a cure.”
The problem is only partly one of iconography and the emotions behind it. Author Barbara Ehrenreich speaks of being treated for breast cancer while being alienated by “warm and fuzzy” Pink propaganda (teddy bears?), and interpreting the label of “survivor” as “a putdown of those who don’t survive.” That the tenor of the campaigns is no accident comes through in the words of both Breast Cancer Action leader Barbara Brenner, who sees the draining of early militancy from the movement as a step to making corporate funders comfortable, and Nancy Brinker, the CEO of the large and controversial Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, who evenly pronounces that anger alone “will not incent [sic] people to participate” in raising cash for the cause. By pushing the “tyranny of cheerfulness” at the desired demographic of “middle-class, ultra-feminine white women,” in King’s words, questions are elided about why only 15% of research on the disease is concentrated on prevention, whether the interests of Big Pharma in marketing treatments that only slightly extend longevity are being catered to, and the issue of the integrity of sponsorships by cosmetic companies that keep secret their internal assessments of the health risks caused by use of lead and petroleum in their products. “This is how capitalism works,” one advocate sighs, and the branding of everything from KFC buckets to Mustang convertibles and handguns with pink ribbons (accompanied by miniscule donations of revenue, as low as a penny per purchase) is depressingly catalogued.
Pool’s technique is a straightforward, familiar mix of testimony, news clips, and location footage, but she excels in upping the emotional ante in touching sequences with a support group of stage IV breast cancer patients, who give accounts of their diagnosis of recurrence, and their status as “the angel of Death” amid the calculated sunniness of the disease’s fundraising culture. The cynicism on display from the history covered in Pink Ribbons, Inc., even in as small a detail as the filching of the activist-originated, salmon-colored ribbon by Estee Lauder (they market-researched a more comforting hue), is disheartening, and the film’s call for “re-politicizing” the societal approach to this killer—whose primary risk factors remain essentially unknown—seems ominously at odds with the prevailing corporate-medical power structure.