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movie review

Near the end of the polemical new National Film Board documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., activist Judy Brady is asked what she thinks of when she sees the pink ribbon symbolizing breast-cancer awareness: "I see evil," says Brady.

Who could possibly see anything wrong in a symbol that has mobilized people to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for breast-cancer research since the 1980s?

The answer is provided in this documentary by Quebec's Léa Pool ( Emporte-Moi, Lost and Delirious). The film is based on a 2007 book by Queen's University professor Samantha King ( Pink Ribbons Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, one of a handful of studies in the past dozen years on the contentious social history of breast cancer and the gulf between the reality of the disease and the high-profile public perception of it.

In spite of the optimistic messages, breast cancer is not being beaten. According to the film, in 1940, a woman had a one-in-22 chance of developing the disease, while today that figure is one in eight (based on the assumption that, if all women lived to be 85, one in eight would develop it during her lifetime). And, in any case, the high profile of breast-cancer fundraising has less to do with its risk (cardiac disease and lung cancer kill more women) than its marketability.

As Barbara Brenner of the activist group Breast Cancer Action puts it, breast cancer is the "the poster child of cause marketing" because of its links to motherhood and women's sexuality. With women doing most household buying, they're a ready market for products that piggyback on the breast-cancer cause.

Brenner is one of a line of well-informed and impassioned women academics and activists who raise their objection to the "tyranny of cheerfulness," demonstrated by scenes of pink-clad women walking and running for cancer fundraisers.

More insidiously, some industries began to use breast-cancer philanthropy to "pinkwash" soiled corporate reputations. Car companies that cause pollution, chemical companies that produce pesticides, cosmetics companies that use carcinogens, even KFC, which sold fried chicken in pink buckets – all engage in philanthropy to advertise their brands as woman-positive.

For balance, we have interviews with the formidable Nancy Brinker of the vastly successful fundraisers Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and a number of double-talking marketing types.

The line of critics accuses the pink-themed campaign of promoting a quick-fix mentality, focusing too much on early screening and achieving a "cure" for the disease, instead of researching causes and protection from environmental contaminants. As well, the pep-rally mentality of the movement obscures women's fear and suffering. The case is made forcefully in interviews with a half-dozen women in a support group who are facing death from the disease: "The message," one woman says, "is that if you just try really hard, you can beat it," while those who died "weren't trying very hard."

Pink Ribbons, Inc. is unabashed advocacy filmmaking. In spite of improved mortality rates and scientific advances, few women in the film will acknowledge that pink-ribbon-financed research has done any good at all. Yet, this alternative message needs to be heard and Pool's documentary provides some cold clarity on a well-advertised if misunderstood disease.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

  • Directed by Léa Pool
  • Written by Nancy Guerin and Patricia Kearns and Léa Pool
  • Classification: G
  • 3 stars

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