Wednesday, October 1, 2014
My Love-Hate Relationship with Pink Ribbons
Ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer last November I’ve been pondering this blog post. Upon diagnosis, I immediately developed a heightened awareness of pink ribbons. They're everywhere. It’s like I was flung full force into a scary 3D version of the game Candyland, only it’s called Cancerland and there are both beautiful and terrifying encounters to be had: Welcome to Cancerland—here’s your pink ribbon! Pertuzemab is your friend, but beware of the Taxol Forest, and steer clear of the Metastases Swamp! Oh, and don’t forget to use your FMLA “get out of work free” card!
I’ve never liked pink much in part because I’ve always been a bit perturbed by its prissy associations. I have never been a girly-girl, and I have always resisted gender stereotypes. So why do I have my current Facebook profile picture set to the following?
Perhaps it is an indication of my love-hate relationship with pink ribbons. Let me explain.
First off, let me just say that I am a direct beneficiary of pink ribbon campaigns. In the last few years, treatments for breast cancer have advanced in leaps and bounds (Jump ahead four spaces and enjoy a bright red chemo cocktail!). These advances are due in large part to the funds raised for breast cancer research, and I am grateful. I believe that if it were not for pink ribbons and breast cancer awareness, I would have likely become mired in the dreaded swamp never to emerge from Cancerland. So, part of my love of pink ribbons is directly tied to money. And those pink ribbons signify more than money and research to me. They have become little beacons—a flash of a pin on a stranger, a pink bumper sticker on a car, or a friend’s Facebook post showing support for breast cancer survivors—that help me locate myself within a new and bizarre terrain.
But while I find a sense of identity and comfort in those pink ribbons, I also have significant concerns regarding the uptake of breast cancer awareness relative to other cancers and diseases. To cut to the chase, I think the public’s embrace of breast cancer awareness is tied to the fact that women have boobs, and most men really like boobs. Boobs are also tied to notions of motherhood and nurturing. Why WOULDN’T we all want to save the ta-tas? Isn’t saving ta-tas the same as saving Mom and Apple Pie? Maybe. At least, I think that’s the intention. But this makes me a bit uncomfortable, because really, when it comes to having cancer, I don’t give a flying rat’s ass about my boobs. I’m more concerned with saving my life, with or without the boobs. I think the save the ta-tas idea is subtly tied to boobs and women’s bodies in general as sites of exploitation. Of course, I don’t think people with a “save the ta-tas” bumper sticker or a pink ribbon are directly exploiting women. However, I think there is a connection between the historical and pervasive tendency to exploit women’s bodies and the breast cancer awareness frenzy. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a cammo ribbon for testicular cancer, or someone wearing a t-shirt that said “save the gonads”? And to my knowledge, every single person in the world has a colon, but you don’t see people walking around with dark brown colored ribbons, running 5Ks with dark brown tutus, or shouting “save the guts!”
So what does it mean that the discursive and symbolic means of generating funds to save women’s lives are part and parcel of a set of discourses and ways of thinking about women’s bodies that are tied to exploitation? Perhaps it’s a form of interest convergence. Derrick Bell (1995) argued that school desegregation and the Brown v. Board of Education decision happened because at that moment in U.S. history, the decision benefitted both white people and black people. (It boosted our credibility abroad amid criticisms that the U.S.'s campaigns for democracy abroad were hypocritical given domestic civil rights abuses.) The notion of interest convergence posits that public policy decisions benefiting black people or other historically marginalized groups will not occur unless those decisions also benefit whites, or those in power. Is it possible that pink ribbon campaigns are taken up so widely and are successful because the interests of women converge with those of men in some way?
I don’t have an answer to that question. As I weave my way through Cancerland (a space that I may always occupy despite the fact that I am now cancer-free), successfully avoiding many of its more frightening elements, I will continue to mull this over. But it is worth noting that as I write this, I’m sitting in the chemo suite at Mills Breast Cancer Institute in Urbana, semi-boobless, getting an infusion of Herceptin (trastuzemab) (once again, thank you to the Gods of Science!), and wearing a pink pin with a ribbon icon on it that says “Fight like a girl!”