I have been trying to stay busy and not focus all day on how I am looking forward to bebe-lentille’s birth. Yesterday as I was browsing Netflix looking for a way to fill an hour or two, I came across a documentary I had been wanting to watch for a couple of years but had missed when it was shown in theatres, Pink Ribbons, Inc., by Lea Pool. It is a 2011 documentary based on a 2006 book by Samantha King, Pink Ribbons, Inc., Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.
The film explores the industry that has grown around breast cancer awareness campaigns in the last decades, from the birth of the pink ribbon symbol to wide-scale “pinkwashing” as a marketing tool for corporations that often participate in the distribution of products linked to cancer (cosmetics, bovine growth hormone-boosted dairy product, etc.). Pool conducts in-depth interviews with researchers, activists and women dealing with breast cancer, whether they identify as patients, survivors or allies, questioning the large social consensus supporting pink-ribbon initiatives across North America and beyond.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. offers a lot to take in and reflect upon – interests of large corporations, including those that belong to the “pharmaceutical industrial complex”, lack of fundamental research and prevention, racial and class-based biases in research and treatment, etc. – but I thought one of the most interesting aspect of the movie was the discussion around the cheerful discourse that has become associated with the “fight for the cure”.
I think that the point of view of several women interviewed in the film who adopted a more critical approach towards pink ribbon campaigns can be useful to think about grief, death and how we frame these events in our life stories.
Samantha King, researcher and author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, explains:
What I found in my research is that many women actually feel alienated by the overly optimistic approach. They feel like they can’t have their feelings of anger or despair or hopelessness and feel like a legitimate person with breast cancer. That in order to be a survivor, you must maintain this optimistic outlook and participate in what I call the tyranny of cheerfulness.
I think this “tyranny of cheerfulness” is also very present in the typical accounts of babies and children “fighting for their lives” as well as in grief narratives. In our culture(s), we celebrate those who survive, those who make it out of the NICU against the odds, those who find meaning in their loss and become better, stronger people after winning this battle against grief and depression. But these stories, as uplifting and inspiring as they might seem for those who lead lives free of life-shattering events, can be painful for those of us who don’t find themselves in the “survivors” camp, for those of us who love people who have “lost their battle”.
Or as Sandy, a member of Austin-based Stage 4 Breast Cancer Support Group, puts it:
The message there is that if you try hard enough, you put forth the effort, if you “just do it”, if you live… strong, […] you can beat it. You can. You can do it. So just try really hard. And the problem with that message is that is that you can’t have that message and then not see people who die as somehow, not having lost. They lost their battle because why? They didn’t maybe try hard enough. They didn’t try hard enough […]
My parents died of cancer. My baby did not make a miraculous recovery after we were given a grim prognosis in the days that followed his cardiac arrest.
What am I to understand, then, from this social choir promoting positive-thinking as a cure-all? I don’t know. I have bought into it myself, against my better judgment, and i am not sure how to go about building another type of narrative.
But hearing and reading from other people who offer a critique of this fighter/survivor discourse is helpful in and of itself.