You’ll Never Look at Pink Ribbons the Same

Pink Ribbons, Inc., a documentary based on the 2008 book by Samantha King, looks at the effects of “pinkwashing” (when companies use the ubiquitous breast cancer-related pink ribbon to promote a product while also selling products linked to the disease), damns the ribbon as contaminated by profit.

At first, the ominous soundtrack feels heavy-handed as it plays over footage of dedicated, well-meaning masses of women in hot pink t-shirts, walking, skydiving, dancing, hugging, crying and shopping for the cause of breast cancer awareness. But as the documentary dissects the pink-ribbon marketing, it suggests the wasted potential of so many dedicated women. They’re not sinister in any way: It’s the machine that has co-opted their energy. Pink Ribbons, Inc. suggests that the greatest pinkwash of all isn’t KFC’s pink buckets of chicken or Yoplait’s former use of rBGH dairy, but instead the demilitarization of the women’s health movement by changing a message of outrage and protest about an epidemic with an unknown cause to a profitable sea of pink: a nice, cuddly and traditionally feminine color.

Between interviews with activists, women with breast cancer, researchers and fundraisers, the film focuses on various pink ribbon fundraisers throughout the country, highlighting the sunny optimism and the immense energy (and money) that they generate. The corporate stakes in this movement are exposed in the origins of the ribbon and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, two alarming histories based more in profit than idealism.

The film also scrutinizes the pink ribbon as a public relations magic bullet–from redeeming the NFL after a slew of bad press, to being used as a sly form of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. And as we watch the film, the idea of finding a cure or racing for a cure seems much less significant than finding a cause for the disease. According to the film, the marriage between corporate interests and fundraising has heavily shaped research directions, funneling money toward the quest for “the cure” rather than investigations of, say, possible environmental causes of the cancer. The narrative of the disease has also been shaped by corporate messaging that shows breast cancer most often as affecting white middle-class women–the target shoppers for corporate sellers.

Barbara A. Brenner of Breast Cancer Action stands out as a clear voice of reason, while Nancy Brinker of Susan G. Komen for the Cure represents the gloss and misdirection of such a powerful movement. Always on message, the only time Brinker looks away from the camera is when she explains the foundation’s decision to partner with KFC.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. is worth watching even if you think you are familiar with pinkwashing and the recent scandals surrounding it. The film honors the complexity of breast cancer without pandering to those who have it, or even knocking those who find support in the pink ribbon world. Instead, it calls out the mismanagement of our energy and dollars.

Says activist Judy Brady in the film,

For people to finally rise up and object, people have to know. They have to be aware of the magnitude of the lies they’re being fed. And the lies are comforting lies … Breast Cancer Awareness Month is comforting, because you’re doing something about something that scares you.

Pink was chosen as the color of the movement after a focus group of women were asked what colors they found the most reassuring and non-threatening. This film is not pink. It’s a request for anger and a different kind of breast cancer awareness than the one we’ve been fed so far.

Pink Ribbons, Inc., is now playing in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, and will be at local festivals in the coming months. Check here for a screening near you.


Danielle Roderick is a writer and full spectrum doula in Los Angeles. She's written for Ms. magazine, The Hairpin, The Awl, Splitsider and Delirious Hem.