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Commercializing Diseases and Impotent Symbols

Jeanne Sather is an assertive cancer patient who has a gagging reflex with pink ribbons. I thought I was one of the few XX chromosomal species who can’t stand the color pink, and I’m comforted to know that Jeanne passionately detests pink, especially the shade of pink that Jeanne associates with “girly, sexist expectations.”

Her article, “It’s October–Time to Gag Me With Those Pink Ribbons” makes an important point: gross commercialization of breast cancer may send the wrong message to women and concomitantly desensitize us to the seriousness of breast cancer. Furthermore, the pink ribbon is exclusionary: men get breast cancer too. If a man with breast cancer wears a pink ribbon, I bet 9 times out of 10 he’ll get asked whether his spouse or female relative has breast cancer.

A ribbon used to work when it was a symbol unto itself, attached only to the its original cause. Now I can’t remember if a black ribbon is an activist symbol against torture or melanoma or lung cancer (lung cancer ribbon is sheer with gold, but black could be a logical lung cancer color if you think about the color of a cancerous lung).

Our culture of “commercialize everything” runs a risk of desensitizing us to the origin and poignancy of the cause. We have so many ribbon colors that I had to look up Wikipedia to see how many colors we’re actually using right now.

We’ve used all colors of the rainbow and have moved beyond primary colors into mixing colors and using color shades (burgundy, teal, lavender). I also learned a new term, “Slacktivism” or symbolic support of a cause without further effort, which has been used to describe the ribbon phenomenon.

Our minds can’t make sense of the overflow of different colored ribbons, so we get a new “tool” to help us remember a cause: bands. You know where this is going, don’t you? We now have soft silicon wristbands that symbolize causes. Most of these bands carry the colors over from the ribbons, but each color can symbolize a slew of causes. I thought the antiracist wrist band should be gray instead of black and white; isn’t keeping black and white symbolically suggestive of segregation? Oh, the problem with symbols is how open to individual interpretation they are!

Action still speaks louder than words, ribbons, or wristbands.


2006-11-6 @ 9:11:58 am by Jeanne Sather

Thanks for the OpEd about pin k ribbons.

I especially appreciate your conclusion:
“Action still speaks louder than words, ribbons, or wristbands.”

I’ve decided that next October (2007) I will be “boycotting October” to make my points about the commercialization of breast cancer with pink merchandise. See my blog for more on this.


Updated: June 30, 2013 — 8:08 am


Add a Comment
  1. i am sick of seeing pink everywhere. save the ta-tas makes me ill. did you know that while about 40,000 women will die of breast cancer this year, about 70,000 women will die of lung cancer this year. yes, lungs, those important organs right underneath the ta-tas. Only 36% of women are aware that lung cancer is more lethal and kills more women than breast cancer. i’d like to know how the death rates among women who get cancer would change if as much money was raised for lung cancer research as is being raised for breast cancer. November is lung cancer month. i wonder if we’ll be able to buy a specially marked can of chicken noodle soup for lung cancer. i wonder if the Raiders will sell a special team wool cap for lung cancer.

  2. Point well taken, Greg. Also, more women die of heart disease than of breast cancer each year. Maybe we should have some sort of a ribbon for heart disease. Maybe a red colored band or ribbon – but wait, that’s the color for AIDS activism. Maybe instead of ribbons we should consider heart-shaped pins.

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