Film Review: Pink Ribbons, Inc.

When every month has its own disease, and each satin ribbon pinned to your chest is in a different color, it’s an eye-opener by a splash of cold water to see this documentary questioning the uses of philanthropy for the fight against breast cance

There’s so much scary stuff in Pink Ribbons, Inc., the Canadian documentary by Léa Pool exposing the corporate connection to the cause célèbre of breast cancer, that it’s hard to decide which is most upsetting: It’s still one in eight women who get breast cancer (one in 22 in the 1940s), and only five to 15 percent of research goes to finding the root cause. Corporations like Avon and Revlon bond and brand with breast cancer awareness, but use potentially cancer-causing chemicals in their cosmetics. Don’t even mention the drug companies; while supporting mammograms and early detection, they also profitably produce the drugs to treat the disease. Some even use chemicals in other products which may cause it (for instance, Eli Lilly—the movie includes a campy set-piece about synthetic bovine growth hormone and

My vote for really frightening goes to the story of Charlotte Haley, who created the first ribbon in the 1990s, and who the movie interviews today. It was not blush pink at all, was made of plain cloth, and was created for a grass-roots appeal to the National Cancer Institute to focus more on prevention. Estee Lauder and Self magazine wanted in on the ribbon, Haley said no; lawyers countered that all you have to do is change the color and it’s yours. The kicker: Focus groups composed of women determined warm pink was the most comforting color.

Using standard “expert testimony” interviews, award-winning documentarian Pool reveals that things are much more complex than we thought. Breast cancer may be estrogen-dependent, but it also picks up on carcinogens in the atmosphere. Those with risk factors sometimes don’t get it, and the reverse is true. Distinguished Professor Dr. Olufunmilayo I. Olopade of the University of Chicago Medical Center says the only known common denominator for breast cancer is being a woman. (At least that explained to this unscientifically oriented viewer why estrogen simulating plastic and chemicals can be cancer-inducing; the movie does make complicated science understandable.) Dr. Susan Love of the famed breast book says she stopped working as a surgeon because the response to a disease with an unknown cause was just crude: slash, burn, poison.

But since it’s such a warm and fuzzy cause, numerous corporations—and very many products—want to be associated with it, with a high profile at walks, runs and causeways. The movie says even the government wanted to get in on the act: A wickedly clever shot shows First Lady Laura Bush with some Muslim women in full burkas, perhaps using the cause of breast cancer to smooth over some of the U.S. intervention in the Middle East. As writer Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed, “Welcome to Cancerland”) observes in the film, we used to march in the streets but now that energy is drained and deflected as we try to be perky and beat the Big C.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. may anger some viewers with its radicalism, and shake up others. Like all good investigative documentaries, it presents some unpleasant truths, doesn’t sugarcoat, or pretend there’s an easy solution when there isn’t. After all the miles, we seem no closer to any actual cure. The basis for the film is Samantha King’s book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy; she is interviewed, along with the knowledgeable Barbara Brenner of the Breast Cancer Action Center. Spokespeople for the other side include Kim McInerney of Ford (you’ll love an ad with a woman saying the first thing she wanted to do when she learned she had breast cancer was to get in her Mustang and drive) and various marketing experts. And of course Nancy G. Brinker, the former ambassador and founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the most successful money-raiser of all with $1.9 billion. Brinker continues to insist that you can never have too much pink (one critic wonders what good it does to have the Canadian Niagara Falls suddenly lit up in rosy hues). Other on-the-scene events take place in San Francisco, Washington, DC and New York City. Pink Ribbons, Inc. also questions where the money goes, and if some research doesn’t overlap.

The “putting a face to it” sequences of “stage four” women ignored by their cancer survivor sisters are the most heartbreaking: there is no stage five, as one observes sardonically. Metastasis is just not researched. (You will also be surprised to learn there are at least five different kinds of breast cancer.) Nearly as poignant are all the women who—happy to be doing something to help, if in a benighted way, the film implies—gather together and walk, run, row or jump for those who they have lost, or fear they will. You’ll never get over that little girl in her horse-riding outfit looking so hopeful.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. still manages somehow to be fun. It has a spunky attitude and wit, thanks to sprightly animation by Francis Gelinas, as a plentitude of pink products pile up. Activist Brenner has a “can do” approach, and you can’t wait for the wry comments of Ehrenreich, who says of her own breast cancer: “There I was facing my own mortality, and they’re offering me a pink teddy bear?”