'Pink Ribbons, Inc.': New Movie Explores the Controversy Behind Breast Cancer Charity
Many people were shocked and surprised this week by Susan G. Komen for the Cure's controversial decision to yank a grant to Planned Parenthood, a move that seemed to place priorities other than women's health ahead of the Komen foundation's mission of fighting breast cancer. But perhaps there would have been less shock if people had seen "Pink Ribbons, Inc.," a new Canadian documentary that explores the apparent corporate capture of breast cancer activism, observing that such philanthropic organizations -- and Komen in particular -- seem to place a higher priority on giving positive publicity to their corporate partners than on actually finding a cause and a cure for breast cancer. The movie opens in theaters across Canada on February 3 and is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit in the United States.
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Lea Pool's documentary draws upon Samantha King's 2006 book "Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy" in its study of the phenomenon known as "pinkwashing" -- using a kitschy, smiley-faced, rose-colored ribbon logo to mask the evidence that all the philanthropy has accomplished little other than giving PR cover to corporations that donate to the cause -- corporations that might otherwise be targets of complaints for the allegedly carcinogenic ingredients in their products. (Coming in for criticism, for example, are Yoplait, whose pink-ribbon-labeled yogurt contained milk laced with bovine growth hormone; and Estee Lauder, which was selling cosmetics that may also have contained carcinogens.)
Breast cancer pledge runs sponsored by Komen and others have become familiar spectacles, but Pool's film argues that they've also deflected feminist activism away from more controversial issues, and that the money they've raised has done little "for the Cure." According to the film, breast cancer rates have risen since 1940 from one in 22 women to one in eight, yet very little research has been done to find what environmental or dietary factors may have led to increased cancer rates. The money raised seems to go toward treatment more than toward prevention or discovering a cause and a cure.
Komen founder Nancy G. Brinker (who named the foundation after her late sister) is interviewed in the film. She speaks of her passion for the cause but also of her willingness to cooperate with any corporation that wants to participate in Komen's campaigns.
Such corporate-friendliness and de-emphasis on finding a cure lead "Pink Ribbons, Inc." to suggest that breast cancer charities like Komen have misplaced priorities. That was certainly the charge this week when Komen rescinded a grant to Planned Parenthood targeted toward helping poor women get mammograms. Komen's shfting explanations for the decision helped confirm the sense of many former Komen supporters that the group's actions were motivated more by politics (specifically, objections to Planned Parenthood's involvement in abortion services) than by concern for women's health.
On Friday, Komen issued an apology (well, sort of) and suggested it would take politics out of future funding decisions, but its actions this week have forced many who think they're fighting breast cancer by buying pink-ribbon merchandise and running in Komen's pledge races to question the organization's motives. Whether or not you find the arguments made in "Pink Ribbons, Inc." to be valid, its release on Canadian screens couldn't be timelier.
In the United States, First Run Features owns the theatrical and DVD rights to "Pink Ribbons, Inc." and is currently showing the documentary at film festivals around the country. (This week, it played at the Spokane Film Festival; later this month, it'll screen at the Boulder Film Festival.) A representative for the distributor told Moviefone that it plans to release the movie theatrically in America later this spring and on DVD in late 2012.