February 2018 Blog: Review of Pink Ribbons, Inc. Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy

Par Fannie Valois-Nadeau
28 February 2018

In the mid-1990s, the public discourse on breast cancer and the activist movements to support the women who were affected by the disease underwent profound transformations in the United States. In fact, alongside the fight for greater accessibility to health services and on the sideline of the creation of support collectives, appeared another form of involvement that manifested itself through the explosive increase in fundraisers dedicated to cancer treatment research. With the objective of understanding these changes, Samantha King explored the emergence of what she deemed the “Pink Ribbons Inc. phenomenon”. By particularly focusing on the philanthropic activities that occur through consumerist practices and on the explosion of the charity discourse that underlies them, King offers an alternative read on the multiple facets of what she calls the “breast cancer culture”.


According to the author, this “breast cancer culture” emerged in conjunction with new corporate solicitation techniques and new forms of individual donations. These latter would have as an effect to not only increase the financial means of foundations, but also to put forth new models of citizenship. Inspired by the critical approaches of health studies and social movements, as well as a Foucauldian vocabulary, King questions the strategies and techniques that encourage private donations and that conceptualize philanthropy as a vehicle in the establishment of new forms of civil responsibility. The variety and multiplication of philanthropic practices associated to breast cancer as well as the new places they invest in represents for King the expression of a neoliberal conjuncture, whose effects can be felt through novel economic rapports and partnerships that are associated to a normative conception of political action. The effects of this transformation are also discernible in the social discourse, where the subjects with cancer are no longer patients or victims, but survivors having beaten the disease.

This book brings together articles that have already been published, and whose combination allows to illustrate the multidimensionality of this breast cancer culture. By mainly using existing literature, analyses of media discourses as well as ethnographic observations, each of these chapters is dedicated to the exploration of different locations and contexts where these transformations were felt. This new breast cancer culture (which is characterized by the proliferation of projects and multiple repercussions) is explored through diverse initiatives, campaigns and products launched to collect funds. However, the book pays particular attention to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Their significant financial and political weight, but also their determining role in the movement’s change of directions and its way of appropriating the pink ribbon as a visibility tool henceforth unilaterally associated to the cause, make them an important actor of the shift being studied. The Avon Foundation’s projects are also studied with care, due to their transnational reach and their way of mixing marketing with philanthropic action.

After having traced back the main roots of the development of the philanthropy that is associated with breast cancer in the chapter “A Dream Cause : Breast Cancer, Corporate Philanthropy, and the Market for Generosity”, Pink Ribbons Inc. presents two case studies. The second chapter “Doing Good by Running Well : The Race for the Cure and the Politics of Civic Fitness” is dedicated mainly to the Race for the Cureevent in order to specifically question the popularization of charitable athletic challenges as a form of collective action. The following chapter, “Stamping Out Breast Cancer : The Neoliberal State and the Volunteer Citizen” traces back the creation of the first American stamp specially designed to raise funds. The author emphasizes the American government’s explicit support of this new breast cancer culture as well as their facilitating role in the current emergence of philanthropy. If these two cases mobilize different actors of different levels (ranging from those close to those affected by breast cancer to politicians) and that they take shape in completely distinct locations, their joint analysis contributes to the documentation of a more “democratized” and general public philanthropy, accessible to all, that intensely penetrates new universes such as that of recreation, politics and the domestic space. This aspect represents a contribution that sets it apart from the classic texts on philanthropy, largely consisting in the analysis of great patrons or great foundations. By shining a light on the shapes taken by philanthropic practices that are integrated into the everyday and into regular consumption habits, King lays the groundwork for the exploration of popular philanthropic culture, within the reach of all and where all can (and potentially must) participate. The attention she pays to the actions taken by the American government to create the favorable conditions to the development of this “democratized” philanthropy as well as the discourse on generosity endorsed by this administration further allows the underlining of the value attributed to philanthropic action, which transposes itself to a model of “good” citizenship. By distancing oneself from a representation of the passive citizen waiting for the support of the State, this democratized conception of philanthropy happens simultaneously with an individualization of participation, which is incarnated as much in the bodies of runners as in the practice of buying stamps.

The chapter “Imperial Charity : Women’s Health, Cause-Related Marketing, and Global Capitalism” questions more specifically the development of this philanthropic culture in a context of globalized capitalism. Through the Avon company’s trajectory, King describes the arrival and effects of a “corporate philanthropy”, which is considered an efficient marketing tool, in addition to allowing for the development of connections with the many communities where this company has implanted itself. Involved in a true global “crusade” against cancer, Avon has developed standardized philanthropic programs and campaigns whose aim is the improvement of the health of women around the world. However, as King mentions, Avon’s significant involvement, as well as its homogenous approach of the disease, have contributed to the production of both a unidirectional story and answer to breast cancer, without regard to the cultural context in which cancer is lived. The weight of corporations as well as foundations can also be felt in the next chapter, “The Culture of Survivorship and the Tyranny of Cheerfulness” where King pursues the investigation of the discourses on breast cancer that participate in the creation of a culture focused on the fight and on cheerfulness. The massive circulation of these narratives and representations in the media, advertisements and even in the sponsored consumer products further reinforce this homogenous and hegemonic way of thinking about the disease, leaving little room for the critique of current treatments advocated by the medical circle, as well as any form of anger directed at the underlying issues or the economic and political effects of the disease. Finally, if King recognizes that there is real potential in the power of self-affirmation within this “survivor” culture, she condemns the forms and possibilities that are validated by this “pink washing” culture. By mostly being focused on the feminine, the visual, the strongly gendered, even stereotyped and heterosexist, practices, they participate in the production of the survivor within a sexualized schematic.

Pink Ribbon Inc. can be credited with having laid the groundwork for the analysis of the different dimensions and ramifications of this breast cancer culture which is not in the least hegemonic. King will have also contributed to putting forth a critical reflection on the new articulations of philanthropy as both a citizen and political practice, in the center of which the relation to consumerism takes a dominant place. If the book dedicates itself to the examination of the phenomenon and the context in which breast cancer culture is developing itself, it nevertheless has the effect of producing a general (and sometimes generalizing) analysis of this culture and the central adopted concepts. If it seems inevitable that certain actors take up a more than significant place in the orientations that this culture will adopt, little place is given in the book to the small initiatives at the local level, as well as to the answer of other nations (despite the presence of branches of these same large organizations).The resistance to this new philanthropic culture as well as the multitude of ways of appropriating these discourses and initiatives are absent in the reading proposed by Pink Ribbons, Inc. By giving room only to the most imposing initiatives to describe this new breast cancer culture, Pink Ribbons, Inc. perhaps participates, in spite of itself, in the reproduction of homogenizing frameworks through which grantmaking philanthropy is currently being built.