The Feministing Five: Dr. Samantha King

We’re mid-way through Breast Cancer Awareness month, so naturally that means I have yet again turned into a grumbly, Pink Ribbon skeptic. For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke with Dr. Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy to learn more about the pink ribbon consumerist industry and why you should apply your critical feminist eye on the collusion between cancer prevention and corporate engagement. 

Obviously, I am pro breast cancer awareness, treatment, and/or prevention. Close loved ones in my family have been affected by the disease, and it’s incredibly awful (to say the absolute least). However, every October makes my skin-crawl with uneasiness as the pink-ribbon yogurt tops and, yes, pink-ribbon covered cancer causing chemicals appear in the market place.


Dr. Samantha King

Once again, I have sincere thanks for organizations and individuals who promote media literacy and thoughtful critique towards the over-the-top pinkwashing in the name of breast cancer. I’m delighted to have spoken with Dr. Samantha King, a professor at Queen’s University who researches, amongst other excellent topics, how breast cancer has been transformed from a stigmatized disease and individual tragedy to a market-driven industry of survivorship.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Dr. Samantha King!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Could you describe your research on breast cancer consumer culture? How did you first become interested in this topic? 

Dr. Samantha King: I had a long standing interest in issues of women’s health, and I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in the late 1990’s. I noticed this proliferation of pink ribbon products on the shelf at local stores as well as physical fundraising events such as the Race for the Cure.

I was just skeptical, to be honest. I wanted to know what this movement represented and what it was doing to address the challenges faced by women with breast cancer.

What I ended up finding in my research was that in spite of the millions of dollars raised and the huge exposure to the disease enacted through this Pink Ribbon Industry, as I came to call it, very little had changed in terms of the kinds of screening that was available to detect breast cancer in the first place. Little had changed in the treatments that people had access to, and there was little progress in terms of how we approach the disease, specifically the dominant focus on screening and treatment as opposed to prevention.

The bigger issue that I wrote about was the way that the Pink Ribbon movement represented a privatization of activism. It was this idea that the best way to address physical social issues like breast cancer was through the marketplace, like buying more stuff or paying money to participate in a race and receiving a t-shirt in exchange. To me, that represented a drastic and negative change in what it meant to be a citizen and active in society.

SB: There are some pretty absurd examples of breast cancer pinkwashing, like most recently the pink handcuffs (!) being used by a Massachusetts police force. What is the most egregrious example of the Pink Ribbon industry that you have seen? 

SK: The one that instantly comes to mind is the breast cancer handgun. There’s not just one actually, there have been several that have been on sale in the US over the years. To me, the slogan that comes to mind is, “Saving lives by taking lives.”

I do think though that these extreme examples in some way serve to distract us that there are so many everyday, toxic items like household cleaners, laundry degenerates, perfumes, and makeup that are sold in the name of breast cancer that are really bad for women’s health.

I would also add the increase of fracking drills or other tools used for oil extraction that have been painted pink. Giant oil platforms, and giant drills. This is happen in areas where there high rates of cancer linked to resource extraction that’s occurring.

SB: For me, one of the most mind-boggling examples of the breast cancer industry is the immense “pinkification” of the NFL, from referee’s whistles to player’s shoes. It’s as if the NFL thinks if they are pro-pink ribbons, that we’ll forget about all of their shitty moves against women. Still, it is interesting to observe the juxtaposition of what is traditionally thought to be a woman’s color standing as a metaphor women’s disease in a hyper-masculine environment. What thoughts do you have on the gendered depiction of breast cancer in popular culture? 

SK: The history of the color pink in relation to breast cancer is quite interesting. The first awareness ribbon was actually created by an older woman, Charlotte Haley, at her dining room table. Her ribbons were peach or salmon-colored. They were attached to a petition that she had written which asked people to ask their Congressperson to support legislation around breast-cancer prevention.

At this time, Estee Lauder and Self Magazine were looking to partner up for one of the earliest breast cancer awareness campaigns. This was one of the earlier ones in the 1990’s. They approached Charlotte Haley and asked if they could use her ribbon. In a moment of remarkable foresight, she said, “No. This will lead to the commercialization of this cause, I’m not interested.”

So the cosmetic company and the magazine went away and realized they had to find another color. They did focus groups with women, and the color that women said they associated with a lack of threat, with comfort, and with femininity was pink. So that’s how it was born.

The color pink has everything to do with a particular construction of the disease as unthreatening, something that we can get behind because it affects the mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters in our lives. It’s attached to a particular type of femininity that is extremely alienating both to women who don’t identify to that kind of gender expression, but also for men, including trans men, who contract breast cancer and who have to immerse themselves in this very narrow culture of pink femininity.

SB: The Pink Ribbon Industry seems to be everywhere. For people who want to fight against the disease, what are some ways that they can do so without engaging in this consumerist culture? 

SK: My perspective is that there is enough money flowing into the breast cancer cause. What we have to do is spend that money differently. We also have to stop imagining that throwing money at a cause is going to automatically lead to positive outcomes. I’m really interested in changing the conversation around the disease and encouraging people to think twice before giving money.

They should think about other things they can do. Whether that’s talking to other people about the limitations of a corporate approach to the disease, whether it’s pushing to have toxins removed from everyday products that we are ingesting that are linked to cancer.

If people really want to give money, they should do so when they see a place where it is needed. That could be research on the environmental cause of breast cancer or funding for women or men who don’t have health insurance or bad health outcomes because of their class status and other social inequalities.

In general, I think it’s good for us to question this sense that giving money is the answer to everything. This is something that I really struggle with amongst my undergraduate students. They’ve grown up in this idea that activism is raising money. That’s all the know. They look at me as if I have two heads when I say that fundraising is profoundly limited, there are other ways to do things. That’s good. They then ask me what to do, and I refuse to do that. They have to figure out among themselves and they have to figure out how to do that. It’s a real struggle but it’s really important. People have to figure out what social struggle means.

SB: Let’s pretend that you are on a desert island. You can bring with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose? 

SK: I would bring an avocado. They are so nutritious, and you can eat them any time of day. For a drink, I would bring a nice dry white wine. For a feminist, I would bring Audre Lorde because I would want to ask her how it was that she had so much foresight in the The Cancer Journals where she more or less predicted the overly optimistic, hyper-feminized pink ribbon movement. I would like to ask her what led her to imagine that it was possible and what she thinks of the current context that we are immersed in.

Header image: Cover of Dr. Samantha King’s book, Pink Ribbon, Inc

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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