Title: Pink Ribbons, Inc.
Director: Lea Pool
An interesting documentary that rather criminally buries its lede, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” examines the ubiquitous pink ribbon campaigns for breast cancer awareness, and how — in distressing but perhaps classically American fashion — the movement has moved from activism to consumerism. Director Lea Pool assembles a fantastic collection of medical experts, authors, activists, social psychologists and others, but never quite tames her unwieldy collection of thought-provoking opinions into a coherent and cohesive entity any grander than the sum of its disparate parts.
Candid, focus-group-style personal discussions amongst women living with breast cancer (including one of the country’s few Stage IV-specific support groups) lends Pool’s movie an emotional pulse, but it’s the commingled pique and critique of Barbara Ehrenreich, Dr. Samantha King, Dr. Charlene Elliott and others that give “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” a most gripping sense of intellectually rooted provocation. Examining how, over the last two to three decades, certain parties pushed and backed a culture of corporate philanthropy in place of governmental investment in medical research and social issues, Pool’s film delivers a pretty unsettling indictment of the phoniness of cause-marketing, which is what corporations and brands like Yoplait, Ford and KFC do when they ply consumers with advertisements and promotions promising charitable donations on their behalf in exchange for purchases.
This debate over the commodification of breast cancer, and the militaristic metaphors often deployed in the realm of public discussion (a “battle against,” “survivors,” etcetera) is an important one, because it gets to the heart of a two-fold pattern in American life — the cynical manipulation of a widespread basic decency in the country, and a tendency to commercialize the treatment or tamping down of problems and ills rather than attack underlying systemic causes. This has everything to do with socioeconomic inequality, but while Pool doesn’t run from this line of inquiry neither does she find a way to truly focus on it in laser-like fashion. “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” ping-pongs back and forth between big-question inquest and lots of anecdotal footage from Susan G. Komen and Avon events, who are the two largest pink-peddling breast cancer public charities.
The underwater portion of the issue iceberg, of course, lies in the fact that in the 1940s breast cancer impacted about one in every 22 women, while today that rate stands at roughly one in eight. And it’s here, in its treatment of possible environmental factors for this terrible boom (think: plastics), that the movie stumbles most badly. It’s more than 50 minutes into the film before this question is even addressed, and the issue of suppressed corporate chemical research and testing is treated as an adjunct, when it really says everything about the silent conspiracy at the heart of this go-go capitalist machine. For hardcore documentary fans this smart but problematically constructed film is still definitely worth a look, but “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” doesn’t deliver enough of a knockout blow to win over audiences not already predisposed to lend an ear to its message.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.