Matt Reviews “Pink Ribbons, Inc.”

Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a documentary about the pink ribbon campaign, and specifically about the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  The film is incredibly timely, as it was released just before the scandal surrounding Komen and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.  For many people, this incident was their first cause to question the breast cancer-funding monolith, yet frustration, anger, and accusations of impropriety have been swirling around the organization for years.  The film is based on the book Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy by Samantha King, and covers an incredible breadth of topics, without ever feeling too rushed or unfocused.

The movie is structured around several interviews with people or individuals representing various constituencies that oppose Komen, including a survivors group (that incidentally takes issue with the word “survivor”, I should point out), a cancer researcher, a cancer activist, etc.  In the interviews, the subjects very clearly and directly explain their various objections.  When making a documentary that exposes a dark side of an institution that has such an overwhelmingly positive public image (as Komen did pre-Planned Parenthood fiasco), it requires delicacy and tact in explaining your arguments, and all of the interviewees here in general seem to understand that.  They hold the viewer’s hand as they (usually) patiently explain to you why everything you previously thought about Komen and cancer advocacy in general is wrong.

The film looks at the issue from many different aspects.  It looks at the marketing of a disease, and what could be called the “breast cancer industrial complex,” in which many corporations are profiting from women’s pain.  They, of course, look at the amount of money that Komen spends on marketing, legal battles, and executive salaries versus the comparatively small amount that it contributes to research.  It also examines the environmental hypocrisies of the pink ribbon movement, including the fact that many of the corporate sponsors of the movement have historically used products linked to cancer, such as Yoplait using RBGH-containing dairy.  It looks at the fact that so little funding is designated to examining potential environmental causes such as pollutants, and the clear conflict of interest that would involve given the industrial contributors to Komen.

The film also explores the problems with Komen’s messaging.  They speak to a support group of women living with stage four breast cancer, who talk about how it feels to have cancer paraded as something pink and pretty and normal.  (The filmmakers typically juxtaposed these interviews with shots of people at Komen race events waving pink pompoms and streamers and cheering.)  They spoke candidly about how they feel that there is not a place for them in the current dialogue surrounding cancer, as they are viewed as the “angel of death” in a typical group of people living with breast cancer.  They also touch on the sexualization of the disease, speculating that one of the reasons that it receives so much media attention is that it affords people the opportunity to say “breast” on the news.  All of these interviews were incredibly poignant, articulate, and at times heart-wrenching, and while in general I would have liked to have had interviews with more people overall, the subjects that were featured were chosen very wisely.

The one critique that I will make is that I felt that the film came down a tad harshly on people who currently and previously supported Komen and the pink ribbon campaign.  While it is true that everyone could always do more due diligence in all aspects of life, it is also true that the people who donate to Komen and participate in their events are well-meaning and well-intentioned people.  These people want to give money to breast cancer research and so they donate to the organization that appears to be the most reputable group around, and I think that it is difficult to damn these people, regardless of the truth about where their money goes.  However, not only does the film not explicitly forgive these well-intentioned and potentially misguided people, but there were several moments when the filmmakers went out of their way to make these people look foolish.  I felt that this was unnecessary, but more importantly, I felt that this would make the film’s message less accessible to this audience — potentially the most important audience that there is — and instead prompt a defensive response from them.

Notwithstanding, this is an exemplary work of activist documentary filmmaking.  Unlike some other examples of the genre, it does not beat you over the head with emotional pleas (though some moments are incredibly emotional), but rather calmly lays all of the rational arguments out before the viewer.  It is a difficult task to take down a giant like Komen, but this film firmly does so with elegance and grace.

A-

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