Pink Ribbon Inc. – The story of how breast cancer become a pink marketable good

I don’t usually see movies in central London, but this time I decided it was worth the equivalent of $50 for two cinema tickets. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival was in town and my husband and I decided to see at least one movie. We decided on Léa Pool’s Pink Ribbon Inc, which is based on the book by Dr. Samantha King and boy, was that a good idea.

This movie really should have the subtitle: “Here’s more if you’ve sort of stopped being angry at Komen after the Planned Parenthood debacle.” It exposes how the Susuan G. Komen Foundation and the Avon Foundation have hijacked the ribbon from Charlotte Haley  (which was originally more of a salmon color than the bright pink we know today) and turned it into a tool for corporate gains.

To be sure – raising awareness is important and so is community. However, this film peels away the layers of pinkification and the “tyranny of cheerfulness” which now surrounds this brutal disease and touches upon the difficult issues. It talks about the very important stuff which is left unspoken during the runs and races for the cure. Just a few include:

  • Women still die of cancer at an alarming rate!
  • Billions have been poured into research but we still have nothing close to a cure!
  • Why are we investing huge sums of money in drugs which prolong a patient’s life by 3 weeks and make a huge profit for a pharma company, when next to nothing is going into prevention?
  • How come Komen’s corporate partners sell products with toxins which are known to be carcinogenic?

The movie touches a number of important issues, but not only is it incredibly informative, it’s also touching. I had tears in my eyes when Léa Pool was interviewing stage 4 cancer patients. These women talked about how the pink ribbon alienates them and how the whole rhetoric around the disease implies their “failures” because they’re “losing their battle.” Although they make it clear they think individual people have only the best of intentions and I still felt bad about every single pink ribbon I’ve ever dealt with.

Overall, I think the movie was great and it has everything I love in a good documentary – the facts, the great talking heads (yes Barbara Ehrenreich!), the joys and trials of real life. The only thing I felt missing was the raw – and pretty sobering data – showing how Komen spends its money. What you might not know when you buy the pink ribbon yogurts and guns (not joking) is how much of that money actually goes to breast cancer research.  Short answer is: probably much less than you’re thinking. And Komen itself spends 24% of its budget on research while half as much goes to running the foundation (this – and more shocking facts – are from a great article in Mother Jones. If you read just one thing about Komen and issues surrounding breast cancer fund raising pretty please make it this amazing piece of journalism. (And no – I’m not a friend or relative of the author.)

Really, if you get the chance – see this movie and I guarantee you’ll walk out pretty angry and determined to ask more questions about how all that money we’re running and racing to collect is being spent.

About Maria:
A recovering scientist, healthcare analyst and junkie of all things gender and women's health


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I wish more was being done for prevention instead of people pretending to care one month out of the year. Even though I would participate in the local marathons if I could.

  2. Maria, leave it to a post about cancer to encourage me to comment after keeping my mouth shut for so long. ;)

    I suppose one of the benefits of having brain cancer is that it’s rare – I don’t have to look at silver ribbons or anything like that. I know this is totally off topic, but I am really grateful for the online community I’ve found on Twitter, where cancer survivors support each other, regardless of where they are in their fight.

    To get back to what you said about the patients sharing their stories in the film, no one should give any cancer patient any flak for where they are in their fight. Period. If you don’t agree with the treatment plan they’re taking, keep your mouth shut. It’s not your business. And please don’t expect someone to discuss their woes with you when you ask “how are you” and give a pitiful look. You’re only going to get a one word answer.

    Anyway, I’m going to look up Pink Ribbon, Inc. and see it myself. It sounds really good.

  3. Monika Platek says:

    All right, than what are the questions one should ask? What are the indicators to make sure the enthusiasm of many is not used and abused for some to make money on it? And who is the one to give an answer?

    • The Mother Jones article I linked to lays it out nicely in realtion to Komen. Charities have to publish how they spend their money – it’s worth being interested in these publications and donating to the ones which are spending the money in a way we are most comfortable with.

  4. I JUST finished reading this book today! It was amazing, totally reworked my perception of why Breast Cancer activism has been so popular. When a movement is constituted by mostly white, middle to upper class stay-at-home moms, funded by corporations interested in supporting an uncontroversial cause, and based on the heteronormative idea of motherhood and womanhood and citizenship, you know there’s something wrong. We need to focus MUCH more of this money on treatment, and prevention among disadvantaged communities, rather than yogurt tops.

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