Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Samantha King

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PINK RIBBONS, INC.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy
Samantha King
208 pages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)

In August 1993, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured the artist Matuschka revealing her mastectomy scar. The accompanying article reported on the growing grassroots political movement to fight breast cancer. Three years later, the same magazine ran a cover story titled “How Breast Cancer Became This Year’s Hot Charity,” featuring a tan, naked supermodel with her hands over her breasts. Quite a change.

In Pink Ribbons, Inc., Samantha King, an associate professor at the Queen’s University School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, argues that the rise of philanthropy targeted at breast cancer has contributed to the disease’s evolution from a political issue to a mainstream marketing gold mine. Although she raises important and interesting questions, she discusses few in depth or with an evidence-based approach. The growth in cause-related marketing campaigns and large-scale corporate- sponsored fundraising events (such as the various races, walks, and runs for the cause) has created both opportunities and challenges for non-profits. As the amount of available funding has increased, so has the number of nonprofits. And many of them struggle with the same ethical questions: Will our affiliations affect the positions we take? Will they circumscribe programming? Will messaging change? Will outsiders take control of the agenda?

Pink Ribbons, Inc. does not address these issues. Instead, King embarks on a scholarly discourse, claiming that corporate philanthropy “played a crucial role in the emergence of a reconfigured neoliberal state formation in which the boundaries between the state and the corporate world are increasingly blurred as each elaborates the interests of the other, often at dispersed sites throughout the social body and through practices that misleadingly appear to be outside the realms of government or consumer capitalism.” Scholarly discourse can and should be accessible. This book often is not.

Overall, Pink Ribbons, Inc., an amalgamation of King’s published articles, is disjointed and incomplete. For example, discussing cause-related marketing campaigns, she mentions the costs in terms of corporate marketing dollars, public attention, and nonprofit integrity without ever fully exploring them. Nor does she make a direct connection between the campaigns and neoliberalism. King does discuss the fact that the campaigns tend to put a “happy face” on breast cancer and exacerbate the harmful focus on early detection when we don’t even know how to prevent or cure breast cancer, and millions lack access to care. But in the end, she adds nothing new to the dialogue.

King is busy focusing on her agenda. She spends an entire chapter on the political campaign that resulted in the breast cancer semipostal (a stamp sold at a price greater than postal value) that has raised tens of millions of dollars for research; she uses this story as evidence that private philanthropy is substituting for historic government funding of public issues. But King overlooks the fact that the majority of government funding doesn’t come from stamp sales. Every year, grassroots political activists lobby successfully for high levels of federal appropriations for biomedical research and treatment policies – hundreds of millions of dollars per year. King barely mentions the fact that the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC) created a Department of Defense-funded research program that brought activists to the table to oversee spending and the agenda.

The book moves on to criticize the present state of activism because, according to King, it focuses on early detection, rather than disparities in care. Once again, reality is different. King reduces to a footnote the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act, a hard-fought victory that created a system of access to care for thousands of low-income and uninsured women. And she completely ignores the fact that several activist groups, including the NBCC, have long placed universal access to quality healthcare at the top of their policy agendas and continue to devote significant resources to its enactment. When the facts don’t fit, she ignores them.

In another example, King posits that the rise in corporate and event support for breast cancer results in the overriding association of breast cancer with a white, middle-class, nurturing woman – a “stay-at-home wife and mother.” In fact, the breast cancer movement is an incredibly diverse coalition of hundreds of organizations, including the Sisters Network, the Women of Color Support Group, the Mautner Project for Lesbians With Cancer, and others. As one of the founders of the movement, I have a firsthand perspective: I see angry, committed women and men who have made breast cancer a political issue and continue to speak up and out about issues of importance to all of us.

In an anecdote about the partnership between the National Football League and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, King demonstrates how far she will twist jargon and anecdote to make a point. King describes the NFL as “the epitome of a racialized black hypermasculinity” and the nonprofit as “the epitome of a pink-ribboned, racialized white hyperfeminity.” King asserts that the NFL used volunteerism to create a perception of its players as having good characters defined by “a willingness to embrace bourgeois, humanistic values such as the need to perform organized, charitable works.” There are interesting hypotheses in this difficult passage, but they are buried in hyperbole that leads to overworked and unhelpful conclusions.

King has glossed over many other issues, including the label of victim vs. survivor and the present development of biomedical research. But ultimately, her book disappoints because her agenda is too varied, unfocused, and predetermined to make a substantial contribution to social discourse or the fight against breast cancer.

Fran Visco, a 19-year breast cancer survivor and activist, is president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. She is a leading voice on the politics of breast cancer and women’s health advocacy issues.