This week I received many Facebook messages urging me to tell my friends “where I like it” in my Facebook status. I’ve seen my friends post such mysterious statuses as “I like it on the chandelier” and “I like it on my car seat.” This morning I posted, “I like mine without pinkwashing.” Many people didn’t understand my status or why the meme makes me so angry. I have two simple answers:
1. I hate pinkwashing.
2. This is nothing but Facebook slactivism.
Put differently, I do not believe that if I post an “I like it…” status on Facebook, I have done something significant to advance women’s health.
Instead of pinkwashing, send a $5.00 check to the YWCA who will spend it helping poor women, primarily women of color, get free mammograms.
What is pinkwashing?
pinkwashing is the commodification breast cancer. I’ll let Wikipedia explain (quoting the book pink Ribbons, Ink: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy):
[In] an unprecedented outpouring of cause-related marketing, large businesses have turned their formidable promotion machines on the promotion of breast cancer awareness, while also opposing public health efforts (such as stricter environmental legislation) and stifling investigation into why and how breast cancer affects approximately one woman in 10 in the developed world.
pinkwashing, the breast cancer industry, and the national breast cancer industry month do not fund prevention. They fund “cures,” most of which are highly toxic themselves. The companies involved downplay environmental causes of breast and other cancers and they derail legislation that regulates pesticides and other toxins or efforts to investigate links between toxins and cancer. The ones who benefit the most from pink ribbon campaign money are pharmaceutical companies, who make huge profits on experimental drugs (experimental drugs are more profitable than mass marketed drugs). pinkwashing is even promoted by many companies (like cosmetic companies such as Estee Lauder in particular) whose own products are often filled with toxins themselves.
Be careful what you ask for – pinkwashing’s collateral damage
Feminism is a curious world view in that it seeks to eradicate itself. Feminism’s ultimate goal is to make itself irrelevant. If we didn’t have sexism, we wouldn’t need feminism. The pinkwashing backlash is the perversion of this truth.
This is convoluted, so stick with me.
Let’s start with history. In 1991, when the whole pink ribbon thing got started, the Susan G. Koman foundation advocated for greater funding for breast cancer research. At that point only 5% of the federal budget for cancer research was allocated to breast cancer research even though breast cancer caused the highest number of deaths for women. That disheartening disparity was a product of the sexism that has long influenced the medical industry (see Our Bodies, Ourselves). Through the activism of hundreds and thousands of women, breast cancer now receives a higher proportion of federal funding (I haven’t bothered to track the exact stats). Yay feminism! We’ve won!
Anti-feminists now love to point out that the government spends more money on breast cancer than on prostate cancer, thereby proving that feminists are shrill oppressors of all mankind (which includes women, by the way). If feminism ultimately desires to become irrelevant, then pinkwashing, feminism’s pretty-in-pink sister, makes it appear that feminism has achieved its goals. We’re past that, right? After all, we do have a race for the cure, right? RIGHT?
Not so fast! If we remember that women face not only breast cancer but also cancers of the reproductive system (there are five gynecological cancers — cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar), the numbers change. And let’s not forget that men get breast cancer too, whereas women do not get testicular, penile, or prostate cancer.
Moreover, we can spin the numbers game in some more ethically challenging ways. For instance, male reproductive cancers affect older populations and have much higher survivor rates. Female reproductive cancers affect younger women, so infertility becomes an issue for all those women who want to be mommies. Not to mention these cancers have lower survivor rates. So there’s a whole quality of life issue at hand too. But, see, that game is asking us to use a scale of suffering to determine where our dollars go and that’s a shell game. The bottom line is that comparing dollars spent on breast vs. prostate cancer research does not reflect much change in whose health gets priority. And, really, everyone’s health should get priority.
A woman’s work is never done
This year there will be an estimated 80,000 new cases of gynecological cancers and 30,000 deaths.
This year there will be an estimated 182,300 new cases of breast cancer and 40,000 deaths.
It seems to me that there’s a higher ratio of women dying from gynecological cancers than breast cancer. I actually have a pretty little pink ribbon charm dangling from my keychain. I bought it from a survivor of breast cancer who is a role model for me. I don’t have a comparable ribbon for gynecological cancer. Why is that?
Where have all the ribbons gone?
In the panoply of ribbons out there — the yellow ones for our troops, the red/white/blue ones for our troops, the pink ones for our breast cancer victims — where are the red ones? How many cars do you see driving down the street with red ribbons? Why?
The red ribbon was a strong intervention in the public discourse to raise our consciousness about the problem of AIDS. Because AIDS was considered a “gay disease” and therefore compounded by the stigma that creates closets, visibility was especially vital in gay activism. Don’t forget ACT UP’s “Silence = Death campaign .” Why can’t I buy red ribbon lipstick or teddy bears? Where are the yoghurts with little red tops that I can send in so the company can donate 30 cents to AIDS research? Why aren’t there red ribbon sweatshirts with little red bows on them? I guess drag queens just aren’t a large enough niche market and some diseases are just more marketable than others.
How to be a better pinkwasher
If you think I’m being overly sensitive and too politically correct, fine. If you want an easy way out, that’s fine too. Here are some things to think about if you want to participate in pinkwashing and actually make an impact.
Ask for transparency. Where exactly is the donated money going? What specific company or organization will receive the donated money? What type of research will be performed? Is there a cap on the donated money? Some companies put a cap on how much profits they will donate so that they only pay out a certain amount even though people keep buying their pink ribbon products.
Alternatively, give the money to Komen directly. As Time magazine put it
Komen would get a bigger donation if consumers simply donated the 39¢ it costs to buy each [breast cancer] stamp, not to mention the fact that donors would have to polish off 100 yogurts to come up with a $10 contribution–a formula that surely enriches Yoplait more than the breast-cancer cause.
If you really care, do something real, don’t just buy a stamp or click the Facebook “like” button.