Breast Cancer Awareness: Who Are the Real Boobs Here?

by | October 27, 2013
filed under Feminism

3 pink ribbon chocolates on sticksby Maggie MacAulay.  This piece is dedicated to her fabulous, late great-aunt Gabriella.  

This October 31, many people will eye-roll at the parade of lost objectified souls who drunkenly teeter around the city dressed as Slutty Mouse, Slutty Nurse or Slutty Hungry-Man Dinner. I’m less (as in not really) bothered by that, mainly because dressing up provocatively on Halloween is at least honest about what it is.

What I find more concerning and dishonest is the annual spectacle of objectification that is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, where we women buy ghastly pink-themed and carcinogen-laced objects, Run for the Cure and allow our bodies and ourselves to be positioned as sexual objects.

We’ve gotten to the point where we contest “rape culture”, “victim-blaming” and “slut-shaming”, but somehow the boys’ locker room lingo of “Save the Ta-tas” and “Run for Boobies” is perfectly acceptable when it’s done all in the name of “raising awareness”, especially when that awareness translates into money being funnelled to breast cancer research organizations.

I’m not going to get into the politics of how research money gets distributed here; instead I want to raise consciousness about how the sexualisation of breast cancer makes visible how Breast Cancer Awareness™ has co-opted women’s health and disempowered us by positioning patriarchal capitalism as our only salvation.

This week, the so-called Nice Guys™ from Simple Pickup, a website designed to teach hetero men how to refine their “pickup artistry” skills, made a video expressing outrage that the $2000 they raised from their “Motorboating for Boobies” video (it’s now private) had been rejected by the U.S-based Breast Cancer Research Foundation who asked them to refrain from associating themselves with the organization and using their logo.

In the video, the group of young men approached women in public spaces and offered to donate $20 to breast cancer research in exchange for the experience of aggressively shoving their faces in the women’s breasts. While some of my friends expressed outrage about why those women would participate, it seems not at all surprising to me that some would, since they deployed the rhetorical strategy of “raising awareness” as a scheme to bribe women into objectifying themselves “for the greater good”. I’ve been that feminist who resists, refuses and retaliates, and it doesn’t sit well with everyone to be that bitch who has ruined it for everybody. Compliance means that you are a woman who cares about breast cancer enough to take a joke while critique positions you as a humourless harpy who doesn’t.

This trope can be found in Simple Pickup’s video response a few days ago (see also Exhibit A).

Kong, one of the leaders of this website, lashed back at what he characterized as a “small minority of haters who thought that this video was ‘offensive’” and were “completely out of line”, as if the likely sizeable group of dissidents were the ones who had broadcast such a spectacularly sexist video in the first place. This is part of the same reverse discourse that says that pointing out sexism (or racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc) somehow makes you the sexist.

Exhibit A: Nice Guy Raising Awareness Model

cartoon by Maggie

As a Nice Guy™, Kong operated on the transactional model of relationships where he assumed that money or kind gestures warranted his sexualized access to women’s bodies (see Exhibit B). When such actions are refused, Nice Guys™ typically express outrage at their relegation to the Friend Zone™, often by lashing out as if they have been severely wronged while never stopping to consider the implications of their own ethically-questionable motives.

Exhibit B: Nice Guy Transactional Relationship Model

cartoon by Maggie

In many ways, Kong’s outrage is similar. The blame in this case is assigned to those of us (likely feminists and their sympathizers) who have rejected sexist capitalism, as Kong furiously spouts: “Breast Cancer Research literally just lost $7000 because of your personal problems with this video”. Oh, honey…no. While his proposition is laughable (the Breast Cancer Research Foundation received nearly $48 million in contributions last year and don’t we all know that the personal is political?) and we can easily dismiss these guys as losers, the ones who ultimately continue to lose are women.

All of us are in agreement that breast cancer is an atrocity that we need to do something about. The problem is, what should we do? The liberal rhetoric of Breast Cancer Awareness™ has us convinced that “every little bit counts” and that individual acts of philanthropy and consumptivism are the solution. I don’t think of these market-based actions as slacktivism because the fundraising activities that women organize around breast cancer and the historic role we have played as caregivers and community organizers make me think we are anything but a lazy bunch. So why do we continue to convince ourselves that cancer is a problem that we can just throw money at and Run for the Cure™ away?

There’s no question that breast cancer research and care require funding. But why are we so narrowly focused on a cure when we haven’t sufficiently addressed the causes? Genetics tell us 5-10% of the story, but we also know that diet, exercise, substance use, stress and the physical environment are also contributory factors. And while breast cancer is a serious women’s health issue, what about other cancers and heart disease, which kill more women annually?

Both the causes and the other health issues that women face today could be more effectively addressed by a renewed feminist health movement that examines how social determinants like gender affect health or pushes for structural reform on environmental issues, since our reproductive systems are strongly influenced by the chemicals that seep from our consumer products and the physical landscape. These do not require corporate sponsorship but they do require a collective and politicized investment in the idea that feminism and “good health” can no longer afford to be bought out and rebranded under patriarchal capitalism. As a prominent woman video game developer (who shall remain nameless) reminded someone at an event I attended last year about sexism and gaming, “just because it makes money doesn’t make it okay”.

(photo of pink ribbon chocolates CC-licensed by wishuponacupcake via Wikimedia Commons, cartoons by Maggie MacAulay)


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  • http://www.thebreastlife.com Elisabeth Dale (@TheBreastLife)

    Nice article and good points made. Wondering if there is a typo, though, in the sentence that “genetics tell us 50% of the story.” Only 10% to 15% of all breast cancers can linked to family history of the disease.

    • Maggie MacAulay

      Oops. It was an error and will be corrected soon. Thanks for pointing that out Elisabeth.