Pink Ribbon, Inc, explores the money and politics of the fight against breast cancer

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As the trailer above details, the first breast cancer ribbon wasn’t pink. It was salmon colored. It’s creator, Charlotte Haley, was inspired by the organizing campaign to combat AIDS. She was concerned that only five percent of the National Cancer Institute’s budget was aimed at cancer prevention.

The cosmetics company Estee Lauder approached Haley about using her ribbon as a symbol in its anti-breast cancer efforts. Haley said the company was interested in its bottom line, and she was interested in fighting cancer, so no. As the movie details, Estee Lauder consulted its lawyers, who said that all the company needed to do was use a different color. They chose pink.

Pink Ribbon, Inc., is a powerful documentary (running at Zeitgeist beginning Friday) about pink ribbon politics and pink washing in particular. Based on Samantha King’s book of the same title, it probes the dynamics of the fight against breast cancer, particularly the work of the Susan G. Komen foundation and cosmetics firms such as Avon.

The documentary shows multitudes of women participating in runs, walks and other massive public events “for the cure” and “for the cause.” Many participants are happy to be participating and draw strength and inspiration from the events and being with other survivors and supporters. But that’s not the whole story. And the documentary takes a hard look at state of the disease of breast cancer, and the nature of the pink movement.

Among the hard questions it asks is whether Komen’s orientation towards seeking corporate partners is a distraction from the real problem: the cause of breast cancer is not known — in fact, much more could be learned about the different types of breast cancer that there are. Komen often sites the massive sum of $1.9 billion raised to fight cancer. But there’s little public scrutiny of what that money has bought or how it is used. There’s no accusation of illegal behavior or misappropriation of funds. But there are questions about how Komen’s prominence hinders other efforts (Komen’s presence makes it hard for research and health institutions to do their own fundraising) or protects companies that expose employees or consumers to carcinogens. Conflict of interest is a serious problem, and one would think it would be hard to support a cosmetics company that uses carcinogenic materials (lead, petroleum products, formaldehyde) in its products being allowed to use the pink ribbon to market them to women. General Mills, the maker of Yoplait yogurt, faced a similar charge. It used a growth hormone linked to cancer in its dairy products at the same time it promoted sales of the yogurt to generate funds to fight cancer. (The growth hormone is banned in Canada and western Europe.) A protest campaign persuaded General Mills to discontinue use of the hormone in yogurt.

The film also explores the divide between corporations and environmental organizations that object to carcinogens in pesticides, in manufacturing processes and in products. Komen hasn’t been able to accommodate both groups, and in the end, Komen raises a lot of money via massive corporate support.

The group Think Before You Pink evaluates various promotions and breast cancer issues.

The documentary also features many women with breast cancer who find the pink movement distasteful or off-putting. One woman with stage IV cancer says that the cheery message and cute images leave her feeling that she has failed to beat cancer because she wasn’t perky or positive enough, which has nothing to do with the disease that has metastasized through her body. The implication is that the movement is more about projecting positive images than delivering cures. It’s a difficult issue and the film explores just what’s being done for he cause.

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