Review: ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’

Indignant and subversive, "Pink Ribbons, Inc." resoundingly pops the shiny pink balloon of the breast cancer movement/industry, debunking the "comfortable lies" and corporate double-talk that permeate the massive and thus-far-ineffectual campaign against a disease that claims nearly 60,000 lives each year in North America alone.

Indignant and subversive, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” resoundingly pops the shiny pink balloon of the breast cancer movement/industry, debunking the “comfortable lies” and corporate double-talk that permeate the massive and thus-far-ineffectual campaign against a disease that claims nearly 60,000 lives each year in North America alone. Veteran helmer Lea Pool, working from Samantha King’s book, won’t be making any friends with her full-frontal attack on the corporate co-option of the breast cancer cause, which could limit Stateside circulation of this Canadian production. But there are plenty of women who’ll want to see it. And they’ll be seeing red, not pink.

The thrust of King’s thesis is that all the pink-themed walk-a-thons, parades, singing children and rose-lit monuments (the Empire State Building, Niagara Falls), actually do more harm than good. By putting a warm and fuzzy spin on the state of breast cancer, the public is distracted from some very ugly numbers: In 1940, a woman had a one-in-22 chance of developing breast cancer; today, the number is one in eight. Only 20%-30% of women with breast cancer have high-risk factors, which means no one really knows what causes the disease. The leading foundations involved in funding cancer research are peopled by representatives of the pharmaceutical, chemical and energy industries, so their ethics are inherently compromised.

The supposed beneficence of corporate-funded breast cancer campaigns often masks corporate guilt — Yoplait, for instance, of the “Save Lids to Save Lives” campaign, had growth hormones in its yogurt until the company was embarrassed into taking them out; Estee Lauder has carcinogens in its cosmetics; the Ford Motor Co. virtually fills the atmosphere with suspicious chemicals. The single case that seems to outrage everyone in the film the most, perhaps because it’s just so clueless, was a pink-bucket promotion by Kentucky Fried Chicken, in which — as Breast Cancer Action chief Barbara Brenner puts it — “the disconnect was shocking.”

Along with such commentators as author and cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich (“Nickled and Dimed”), Dr. Susan Love, Nancy Brinker of Susan G. Komen for the Cure (which has funneled $1.9 billion into fighting breast cancer and, as several people ask, for what?), the film also turns the spotlight over to ordinary cancer victims, one of whom puts the public-relations spin into very clear perspective. “The message,” she says, “is that if you just try really hard, you can beat it. Just try really hard.” Those who die, she adds, “weren’t trying very hard.”

All of this, the interviewees agree, is a distraction from what are probably the environmental causes of breast cancer, including industrial pollution, estrogen-imitating pharmaceuticals, plastics and recombinant bovine growth hormones, which are commonly found in dairy and meat products. And, Pool emphasizes, even as corporations continue to contribute to the problem, they make PR hay with pink products and pink promotions (American Express takes it on the chin here for mounting one ballyhooed campaign that ended up donating only one penny per purchase to cancer research.)

Pool structures her film conventionally, balancing scenes of pink-hued protests, products rallies and T-shirts with scathing interviews with knowledgeable experts on the subject, as well as people who know how to spin their company line. Pool lets the offenders dig their own rhetorical graves; the only time she goes overboard is in juxtaposing her revelatory information with scenes of pink-clad women at anti-cancer events, which only serves to mock some very well-intentioned activism. Those activists may well be rechanneling their energies once Pool’s movie gets into circulation.

Production values are fine, the interviews shot handsomely, with animation by Francis Gelinas adding a winsome touch to a tough movie.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.



A National Film Board of Canada presentation. (International sales: National Film Board of Canada, Toronto). Produced by Ravida Din. Directed by Lea Pool. Written by Patricia Kearns, Nancy Guerin, Pool, based on "Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy" by Samantha King.


Camera (color), Daniel Jobin, Sylvaine Dufaux, Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky; editor, Oana Suteu Khintirian; art director, Patrice Bengle; set decorator, Patrick Lee; sound, Claude La Haye, Yann Cleary, Thierry Morlaas-Lurbe, Sylvain Vary; sound designer, Claude Beaugrand; re-recording mixer, Jean Paul Vialard; associate producer, Nancy Guerin. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 14, 2011. Running time: 98 MIN.


Barbara Ehrenreich, Samantha King, Susan Love, Maricela Ochoa, Kim McInerney, Nancy Brinker.

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