Yesterday the must-see documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.” opened at the IFC Center in NY. The film was released well before the news broke that the Susan G. Komen Foundation had stopped funding Planned Parenthood because it provided abortion services. If you think the Komen’s main offense was fetus fetishism, as radical feminists used to put it in the 1970s, you haven’t see the worst of it. This powerful mixture of investigative journalism and cultural analysis lies bare the truly sinister partnership of “cause marketing” and the rotten corporations seeking to exploit women’s suffering from an epidemic largely spawned by corporate America.
The film is based on Samantha King’s “Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy”. King, one of the primary interviewees, is joined by a number of other experts on the subject, including women who have survived breast cancer. As a way of showing what the radical critique of corporate philanthropy is up against, the film also interviews Nancy G. Brinker, the CEO and founder of Komen, as well as a number of the corporate chieftains who have teamed up with her.
The most riveting figure among all the interviewees is Barbara Ehrenreich, the long-time socialist journalist and educator who wrote about her own encounter with the disease in an article titled “Welcome to Cancerland” that appeared in the November 2001 Harper’s Magazine.
My official induction into breast cancer comes about ten days later with the biopsy, which, for reasons I cannot ferret out of the surgeon, has to be a surgical one, performed on an outpatient basis but under general anesthesia, from which I awake to find him standing perpendicular to me, at the far end of the gurney, down near my feet, stating gravely, “Unfortunately, there is a cancer.” It takes me all the rest of that drug-addled day to decide that the most heinous thing about that sentence is not the presence of cancer but the absence of me — for I, Barbara, do not enter into it even as a location, a geographical reference point. Where I once was — not a commanding presence perhaps but nonetheless a standard assemblage of flesh and words and gesture — “there is a cancer.” I have been replaced by it, is the surgeon’s implication. This is what I am now, medically speaking.
Ehrenreich is a compelling personality. Her saturnine observations on the medical profession, the pink ribbon industry, her personal drama, and the class dimensions of the epidemic, are worth the price of the admission. But there are some other eye-opening interviews that should be singled out.
Like Ehrenreich, Barbara A. Brenner is a sharp critic of American society and a breast cancer survivor. As Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, she mobilizes women and men against the type of incestuous relationship that the Komen foundation cultivates with corporate behemoths that produce carcinogenic commodities. When Brenner learned that Kentucky Fried Chicken had hooked up with Komen to give 50 cents to the foundation for every pink bucket of fried chicken that was sold, she launched a campaign directed against KFC and Komen named “What the Cluck?” that effectively put the kibosh on one of the more grotesque examples of “cause marketing”.
One of the more poignant moments in the film that amply demonstrates its class loyalties involves the handful of women organized as The Plastics Focus Group. These are women who worked in factories molding plastic car parts. As part of a research study on the ties between chemicals in the workplace to breast cancer, they described a battery of never-ending chemical assaults that left them feeling ill much of the time. While nosebleeds are bad enough on a daily basis, nothing prepared them for the cancer that would eventually destroy their lives.
One of the main points made in “Pink Ribbons Inc.” is that the Komen Foundation devotes very little resources to prevention, especially through the much needed campaigns against corporate polluters like Ford Motors that victimized the women working on plastic molding at the very time it was exploiting its ties to Komen. That, of course, would be tantamount to biting the hand that feeds it.
Ironically, the pink ribbon itself was thought up by someone very cognizant of the role of carcinogens unleashed by capitalist production. The documentary interviews Charlotte Haley, whose daughter, sister and grandmother all had breast cancer. She began handing out salmon-colored ribbons at grocery stores with cards stating, “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” For as long as she has been involved with breast cancer issues, Haley has always emphasized the likely environmental causes of a disease that has become an epidemic after WWII when American industry began to pump out enormous quantities of carcinogens, the carbon based materials that while cheap are deadly.
Anticipating that “Pink Ribbons Inc.” would deal with the question of the corporate role in making women sick, I read Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream: an ecologist looks at cancer in the environment”, a book that I purchased in 1997 when it first came out. To give you a sense of its provenance, you can read this blurb by Richard Levins on the back cover: “Sandra Steingraber’s ‘upstream’ approach to cancer is imperative. It is about time someone wrote this book.” Levins, as you might know, is one of America’s most respected Marxist biologists.
Born in 1959, Steingraber grew up in rural Illinois surrounded by corn and soybean fields that were drenched by chemical pesticides and herbicides. In her 20s, when studying biology, she developed bladder cancer, a disease that is not usually found among the young but is endemic to the kind of workplaces that The Plastic Focus Group endured. The book is written as a kind of memoir and investigative journalism that revolves around her return to her hometown and the various places that might have led to her disease.
Put simply, “Living Downstream” is a latter-day “The Silent Spring”, with frequent nods to Rachel Carson who died of breast cancer, likely from the sort of chemical causes that impacted Steingraber as well. Steingraber is not only a highly accomplished researcher; she is also a deeply gifted writer, as this excerpt should illustrate:
Bean fields are humble; they start out that way and stay that way. For reasons I can’t explain, they are also a little bit sad. Walking through a soybean field, I feel like myself, only sadder. A soybean is a delicate plant. Like all other legumes—clover, peas, alfalfa—the soybean plant has a softness in its leaves. Fully grown, it is mostly shaped like a little bush that never extends much above the thighs, but, late in the season, an inconspicuous twining reveals its origin as an Asian vine. In spite of their modesty, the high-yielding varieties of soybeans are given brawny names—Jack, Burlison, Pharoah—that sound like brands of condoms.
As it turns out, 99 percent of corn and soybeans in Illinois were sprayed with herbicides by 1993. Although they have been shown to produce chromosome damage in lab animals, it is difficult to establish a direct connection between the chemicals and breast or ovarian cancer, their likely cause in rural Illinois. That, of course, is the loophole that corporate America exploits. Their “experts” demand proof that dioxins or PCB’s cause cancer, when the exact moment when a cell mutates is impossible to pinpoint. For that matter, the exact cause of cancer is still not known, nor may never be known since cancer is not exactly caused in the same way as, for example, malaria is caused by a mosquito’s bite.
Cancer has been around for as long as homo sapiens, but it is only in the more recent past, as industry has become more and more carcinogenic, that it has become the widespread menace that confronts humanity. If there is any stronger motivation for abolishing the capitalist system than eliminating a profit motive that makes pollution the threat it is to life and limb, I certainly can’t name it.
Let me conclude with a few words about a documentary that was aired recently on HBO and that can be seen on-demand if you are a subscriber. Titled “The Education of Dee Dee Ricks”, it is the story of a woman best described as out of the cast of Bravo’s “Housewives of New York”. (I watch such shows with my wife from time to time, I confess, because they are a lot funnier than most of the situation comedies on network TV.) If you don’t think that unrepentant Marxists have any business watching such garbage, let me advise you that the top-drawer Bookforum has a pretty positive review of Bravo executive Andy Cohen’s memoir. On second thought, I’ll watch garbage if I feel like it, so there.
Anyhow, Ricks has it all. She lives in a 14 million dollar apartment, is a young-looking 39, endowed with natural blond hair and a statuesque body. In other words, she has all the privileges and much of the seeming shallowness of the Bravo housewives.
Like the petty-minded bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”, she learns out of the blue one day that she has cancer. Her illness, like that character’s, gives her a new and more uplifted perspective on life. From observing the exclusively white and privileged nature of the women receiving treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital (a place I worked in the 1980s), she decides to become a fundraiser for a clinic in Harlem that caters to Black women in the community who die from breast cancer at a rate 5 to 8 times that of whites.
The film is very graphic in its depiction of Ricks’s surgery and aftermath—she undergoes a double mastectomy and 8 rounds of chemotherapy. Throughout it all, she continues to raise money for the clinic and becomes close friends, almost like a sister, with Cynthia Dodson, a Black woman who has stage-4 breast cancer.
This is a poignant study of the solidarity that emerges between women enduring a dreaded disease and a partial explanation for the appeal that the Komen foundation has for many women. Indeed, Ricks is seen giving a testimonial to Dodson at a Komen fundraising dinner.
If you do not have HBO, keep an eye out for this documentary if it ever makes other venues since it is a very inspiring film about women dealing with their number one health threat in this epoch.