Culture | Untying the pink ribbon

Cinema Politica presents Pink Ribbons, Inc.

With its compulsory cheerfulness, vague objective of “research funding,” and myriad corporate ties, I have always regarded the “Run for the Cure” events with a slight twinge of unease. When my mom was diagnosed, I learned that she shared my discomfort with the rah-rah juggernaut of modern breast cancer culture. After that, I felt less guilty for not wanting to participate in a movement that seemed to create a collective illusion of empowerment, rather than tackling the root causes of an epidemic that takes the lives of 5,000 Canadian women every year.

As it turns out, my mom and I weren’t alone. Screened on October 18 as part of Cinema Politica’s weekly documentary program at McGill, Léa Pool’s 2011 documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., expertly deconstructs the “Run for the Cure” culture. Based on Queen’s University professor Samantha King’s book Pink Ribbons Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, Pool’s film interviews a wide variety of women, from stage-four cancer patients to feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich, illuminating the underside of the flashy annual events.

The film seeks not to criticize the thousands of participants in “Run for the Cure” events across North America, but rather to bring to light serious problems with the movement that anyone who cares about breast cancer should know about.

First, there is the chilling effect of corporate sponsorships. When sponsors of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) include companies whose products are associated with the development of cancer, including cosmetic corporations, car and gasoline companies, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, how can the public be sure that research funding is being effectively used? Unsurprisingly, KFC’s tie-in commercial was particularly crass, featuring actors holding buckets of fried chicken, declaring, “for my mom,” and “for my wife,” before promising as a corporation to donate fifty cents to the cause “for every pink bucket of Grilled or Original Recipe.” Obesity is a risk factor associated with a wide variety of cancers, including cancer of the breast.

According to King and Pool, despite the fact that the rate of breast cancer among North American women has increased to one in eight from one in twenty-two earlier in the 20th century, there is precious little concrete information available to the public on the causes of the disease. Only 15 per cent of the money raised for breast cancer goes to prevention research, and only 5 per cent is channeled towards investigating environmental causes. The film reveals that Avon, a cosmetics company that has championed the cause, sells multiple products that contain chemicals associated with the development of breast cancer.

Even more sinister is the development of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the documentary, BCAM was invented during the 1980s by AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company that holds the patent for Tamoxifen, now the world’s most common drug in the treatment of breast cancer. AstraZeneca also produces Atrazine, the most popular herbicide in the United States. Although the research is contradictory, Atrazine has been associated with the development of breast cancer in certain rats, and is a disruptor of the mammal endocrine system, which regulates hormones.

As Pink Ribbons, Inc. demonstrates, these kinds of dubious relationships are intrinsic in the mainstream breast cancer movement. Pool’s muckraking doc also raises problems with the portrayal of the disease as a middle-class, white affliction, while little research exists on minority demographics. It exposes the lack of global coordination in breast cancer studies, which creates overlaps and gaps in much-needed research. Illuminated with the pithy commentary of veteran feminist author and cancer survivor Ehrenreich, the film is a well-coordinated effort that offers a nuanced critique. Credit must be given to King and Pool for courageously tackling a subject many might avoid for fear of backlash from well-intentioned but poorly-informed critics.

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