Pink Ribbons, Inc. – Review

Michael Prescott
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After stumbling onto Mansome last week and discovering Pink Ribbons, Inc. this, it looks like we have a trilogy of documentary reviews suddenly on the cards. This one is the study into breast cancer awareness in all of its glory and, as surprising as it might sound, all of its associated shame.

It looks at this issue via those most intimately affected, either during filming or having previously been so. These personal stories are supported by video cutbacks to academics, businesspeople and others, some apparently feminists and some not. All of this comes through an almost-exclusively female viewpoint which is a refreshing relief, as well as being directed by – and (rather uniquely for a documentary) based on the book of – a woman.

The film looks at a number of topics related to breast cancer awareness (rather than breast cancer in and of itself – an important distinction) through a variety of individuals, small groups and representatives of large companies. For anyone out there unaware, the pink ribbon is the identifiable logo to celebrate and raise awareness of the issue of breast cancer (as a rainbow flag does for gay pride). But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops which, given the issue being discussed, should not come as a surprise.

Much of the anger and discord with the nature of breast cancer awareness events appears to stem from these supposed pleasantries. One of the focal interviewees throughout the film describes the details of breast cancer and what a realistic message would be for those diagnosed. She explains that whilst it’s seen in a semi-jovial manner (all things considered) it’s actually often the case where either it’s untreatable or the treatment administered kills you instead.

This, she asserts, all grows out of the fact that so much is yet to be learned about breast cancer and the nature of it. Though not an explicit talking point for here, given a lack of knowledge about it (not just personally, but generally throughout the world), it’s still true that one of the underlying undercurrents throughout the ninety-odd minutes is that there’s still a whole lot of research to do. The truly worrying element of it all is that such a small proportion of the money-raising income goes towards this, especially compared to the other areas that the fundraising supposedly benefits.

But, dishearteningly, this is by no means the solitary disturbing aspect of this phenomenon – an appropriate word given the brand that “breast cancer awareness” has now become, and the profile and ‘rewards’ that come with it – and it’s certainly not the only matter which these women take issue with. The main problems, as they see them, are threefold: the language used in association with breast cancer, the corporations taking advantage of the situation, and the problem with awareness in itself.

Though the documentary doesn’t have the necessary time and space to explore each (or any) of these issues in real depth, they’re still interesting, valuable and provoking introductions to all three. It’s the latter of these that makes the most sense to start with. Though many organisations and individuals support and promote this modern-day brand, the question is whether awareness alone is doing enough. Is it the case that breast cancer is too reliant on awareness whilst not doing enough in other regards, for instance? To paraphrase one of the main contributors: what does lighting up Niagara Falls in pink have to do with anything? Clearly it has done – and continues to do – something, though the level of effectiveness that increased knowledge in isolation provides the cause is a good question to ask. And it’s not the only one.

One of the most surprising aspects of the documentary – that is to say the production and the resulting interviews, rather than the main topic or themes is the forcefulness and yet sheer persuasiveness of those on-screen despite the surprising and somewhat controversial opinions that they hold.

A good example of this is the fault they find with the language used in relation to breast cancer “sufferers”. This section requires and deserves more space than I can afford it here, but a skimming-the-surface explanation is that words with negatives connotations – “battling”, “surviving”, “struggle”, etc. – are not only unnecessary, but also offensive and misrepresentative of the life of a breast cancer victim. After all, it does a disservice to those who have unfortunately died, subconsciously implying that what was required to live was more of a “fight” or “winning attitude”.

This feminist grievance over linguistics provides an interesting study into unintentional offence caused as well as everyday language and the potential connotations of it. However it’s with the corporations and big-businesses which strive to capitalise on those who are suffering that it’s really worth taking issue with. Whilst the best way to evidence this is through watching the documentary itself, two examples spring to mind as a taster of this corporate greed and shamelessness.

The first of these is a very quick indication of how the NFL attempted to latch onto breast cancer awareness for a bit of positive PR when it was tarred with a bad image. The second and more depressing is an American Express campaign which proclaimed that ‘every dollar makes a difference’ and yet their ads revealed that they donated only one cent of every purchase – regardless of the price – to such a worthy cause. Despite the troubling and quite gruesome link to companies of this nature, and the extent to which it again, like The Spirit of 45 evokes the incredible doc Fire in the Blood, this is fortunately just part of a much bigger story.

If all of the above – as bleak and controversial as it might sound – does not entice you into viewing, then perhaps the powerful Walk of Survivors (whether an appropriate name or not) and the incredibly moving Stage 4 support group will. The first is as self-explanatory as it would seem and involves those who have overcome breast cancer receiving a rightful, rapturous applause. The latter is a self-help service for those who have been diagnosed as ‘Stage 4’, which is incurable and guarantees death.

The testimony and tales of these fated women is worth your time and attention alone.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott