Earlier this year, the Susan G. Komen Foundation faced the worst PR catastrophe of its thirty-year existence when it pulled funding for breast cancer prevention programs from Planned Parenthood. The public backlash was fast and furious, and Komen reversed its decision shortly thereafter. By that point, however, the damage was done; the foundation has yet to recover its reputation among many liberals who now feel angry and suspicious of CEO Nancy Brinker's politicization of breast cancer donations.
According to the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., that anger and suspicion are long overdue. Unlike Komen, which has long marketed breast cancer as a fashionably feminine cause through make-up, food and toy tie-ins, director Léa Pool's film doesn't pull any punches. It uses testimony from exasperated doctors, social critics and Stage IV breast cancer patients (they hate the word "survivor," see why below) to indict Komen and its partner corporations for profiting off the concern of well-meaning individuals and hiding the ugliness of cancer behind a nonthreatening, ubiquitous pink ribbon. Because it was completed last year (with funds from the National Film Board of Canada), Pink Ribbons, Inc. doesn't mention January's Planned Parenthood scandal, but the film certainly benefited from it. The documentary opened in Canada on the heels of the publicity debacle, and it's likely to find a significant US audience during its seven-month rollout through positive word of mouth and Komen's recent drubbing in the media.
The film offers a searing political and cultural critique of Komen's most egregious practices, which include disproportionately funding pharmaceutical studies at the expense of prevention research, partnering with companies that produce carcinogenic products and helping PR-challenged entities like the NFL and the US government overseas "pinkwash" their organizations, thereby allowing them to rehab their image by advertising their contributions to Komen. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich and a group of Austin women with terminal cancer also speak out against the "tyranny of cheerfulness" that dominates Komen's events and messaging. They take particular umbrage at the word "survivor," which implies that patients in remission fought hard against their illness, while patients who die from their disease didn't fight hard enough.
But by far the most devastating story in Pink Ribbons is the commodification of compassion and sisterhood. The documentary exposes the non-profit Komen Foundation as an organization that essentially exists to make corporations money through its pink-ribbon endorsement. The film begins with scenes from a charity run, and footage of countless other fundraising and publicity events interspersed between the talking-head interviews. These scenes are sometimes inspirational for all the physical and creative energy on display—its participants are clearly partaking in a life-affirming ritual of mourning, remembrance and solidarity—but they're mostly depressing, given that such organized functions have as much to do with business branding as they do with corporate generosity. Unfortunately, the film is stuffed with extraneous footage of such events (as well as commercials for various Komen-approved products, including pink KFC buckets and beribboned Smith & Wesson handguns), which add significantly to the doc's slightly bloated running time of 97 minutes.
While Pink Ribbons wildly succeeds in baring Komen's crass commercialism and political cowardice, the film drags in its last half-hour, focusing on the medical establishment's many research gaps and funding imbalances. Since Komen often boasts of the billions they've poured into research with the help of corporate partnerships, research is the logical place to conclude the film. But because most of this segment is about how epidemiological research is spinning its gears, and the film can't help but do the same. Despite these minor pacing flaws, however, Pink Ribbons is an intelligent and moving account of how capitalism has profited off philanthropy, and how it's hurt cancer patients in the process.
Distributor: First Run Features
Director/Producer: Léa Pool
Rating: Not Rated
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: June 1, NY/LA