Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Film examines breast cancer 'culture'

NEWS


Participants at the 2012 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in San Francisco, as seen in Pink Ribbons Inc. (Photo: Lea Pool)
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As Lea Pool's new, decidedly controversial documentary opens, thousands of women are lining up in San Francisco to Walk For the Cure. Some of them dance to "Celebration," Kool and the Gang's classic disco anthem. An announcer welcomes them to the Susan G. Komen Walk For the Cure as though he were inviting them to open door #2 on The Price is Right .

Pink Ribbons Inc. (First Run Releasing) is a no holds barred look at what writer and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, interviewed in Pool's film, calls the "breast cancer culture." The film will be shown in San Francisco later this month.

The film raises many powerful and disturbing questions about the nature of nonprofit organizations, and how they spend the huge amounts of money they raise. Most importantly, the film specifically wonders if the Komen for the Cure Foundation is actually spending its operating budget on women's health care.

Komen for the Cure, of course, made headlines in February when it abruptly announced it was defunding Planned Parenthood, which had used its funding from the foundation to offer breast health services to its clients, mostly low-income women. The decision set off a firestorm of criticism that quickly led to a reversal of the decision and the resignation of a top Komen official.

The Komen controversy transpired after Pink Ribbons was shot. But the episode led some to conclude that Komen is a puppet organization for right-wing evangelical groups. Whether or not those conclusions are true remains unclear. But a few things do become very clear in the film: Komen embraces sponsorship from corporations whose commitment to women's health issues is highly suspect.

As supermodel Elizabeth Hurley poses in a glamorous pink gown, Evelyn Lauder of the famed Estee Lauder cosmetics company grandly announces all the pink monuments across the U.S. and Canada that she says are "raising awareness." She does not explain how shining pink klieg lights on the Empire State Building or across Niagara Falls will benefit women's lives.

Barbara Brenner, former executive director of the Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco, spoke eloquently on camera of "cause marketing." According to Brenner, companies will latch onto a cause as a means to market their product – footage shot at a 2010 Komen Walk For the Cure reveals a young man announcing the latest flavors of Fuse brand teas. He comes across like a carnival barker.

And it's not just Komen that is holding breast cancer fundraisers. Avon also has an annual walk in San Francisco and cosmetics giant Revlon has sponsored similar walk-a-thons.

The Bay Area Reporter attempted to contact Brenner at BCA's Montgomery Street office. Brenner has since retired from the organization, but current Executive Director Karuna Jaggar praised the film.

"Pink Ribbons Inc. pulls back the pink curtain on why we aren't making progress in ending this epidemic," Jaggar said. "Breast Cancer Action has been working to dismantle this culture of pink washing through our Think Before You Pink Campaign, in which we encourage people to ask critical questions about breast cancer fundraising."

Jaggar said that corporate contributions are a long-standing issue in health activism, particularly breast cancer.

"Corporate money has long played a tremendous role in shaping the agendas of pink fund-raising. My hope is that people will be outraged when they see this, as they should be. I hope they take that rage and put it to work changing the focus of breast cancer advocacy in a very simple way: Think before you purchase pink. This movie is a potential game changer, showing just how much the shiny pink status quo has cost us, and how little we've gained from it."

For its part, Komen stands by its work.

"We haven't seen the film," Komen spokeswoman Andrea Rader said. "From everything we've seen and read it covers material that we've seen before. Facts are: Susan G. Komen funds more breast cancer research than any other nonprofit. We commit more to community health programs than any other breast cancer organization. We donated $93 million to community health programs around the country in 2011. Our San Francisco affiliate has given $13 million to Bay Area breast cancer programs since 1987."

Rader noted that some of the local agencies Komen funded last year include the Breast Cancer Emergency Fund, Lyon-Martin Health Services, the Women's Cancer Resource Center, and Shanti.

Jaggar's words resonate quite powerfully in a sequence shot at an Austin, Texas support group for Stage 4 (terminal) breast cancer patients. One of them speaks of the "tyranny of cheerfulness" in the Komen organization, how they're not allowed to be depressed or have a bad day.

"We're the elephant in the room," says another.

Others shown in the film express outrage that the Komen foundation puts no effort into cancer prevention. They speak of all the money Komen raises (reportedly $450 million per year) for "research," yet never explain how the money is spent.

Still others are offended by attempts to make cancer seem "pretty and feminine." Ehrenreich recalls reading a magazine in the middle of a chemotherapy treatment. She was outraged by an ad she saw from Komen, offering pink teddy bears for sale.

"Here I am, facing the most serious health crisis of my life, and they're offering me teddy bears," says Ehrenreich. "Excuse me, but I'm not 6 years old."

"Breast cancer has become a big business," said BCA's Jaggar. "Corporations look good by associating themselves with breast cancer, but the bottom line is that these corporations are in the business of making money, and not women's health care, so it is critical to ask how much their involvement really helps women."

Pink Ribbons Inc. screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, on Thursday, March 29. The 7 p.m. show is sold out; tickets are available for the 9 p.m. screening ($8 regular, $6 for children, teachers, seniors, and YBCA members). To order, call (415) 978-2787.






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