pink ribbons and survivor narratives

I have been trying to stay busy and not focus all day on how I am looking forward to bebe-lentille’s birth. Yesterday as I was browsing Netflix looking for a way to fill an hour or two, I came across a documentary I had been wanting to watch for a couple of years but had missed when it was shown in theatres, Pink Ribbons, Inc., by Lea Pool. It is a 2011 documentary based on a 2006 book by Samantha King, Pink Ribbons, Inc., Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.

The film explores the industry that has grown around breast cancer awareness campaigns in the last decades, from the birth of the pink ribbon symbol to wide-scale “pinkwashing” as a marketing tool for corporations that often participate in the distribution of products linked to cancer (cosmetics, bovine growth hormone-boosted dairy product, etc.). Pool conducts in-depth interviews with researchers, activists and women dealing with breast cancer, whether they identify as patients, survivors or allies, questioning the large social consensus supporting pink-ribbon initiatives across North America and beyond.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. offers a lot to take in and reflect upon – interests of large corporations, including those that belong to the “pharmaceutical industrial complex”, lack of fundamental research and prevention, racial and class-based biases in research and treatment, etc. – but I thought one of the most interesting aspect of the movie was the discussion around the cheerful discourse that has become associated with the “fight for the cure”.

I think that the point of view of several women interviewed in the film who adopted a more critical approach towards pink ribbon campaigns can be useful to think about grief, death and how we frame these events in our life stories.

Samantha King, researcher and author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, explains:

What I found in my research is that many women actually feel alienated by the overly optimistic approach. They feel like they can’t have their feelings of anger or despair or hopelessness and feel like a legitimate person with breast cancer. That in order to be a survivor, you must maintain this optimistic outlook and participate in what I call the tyranny of cheerfulness.

I think this “tyranny of cheerfulness” is also very present in the typical accounts of babies and children “fighting for their lives” as well as in grief narratives. In our culture(s), we celebrate those who survive, those who make it out of the NICU against the odds, those who find meaning in their loss and become better, stronger people after winning this battle against grief and depression. But these stories, as uplifting and inspiring as they might seem for those who lead lives free of life-shattering events, can be painful for those of us who don’t find themselves in the “survivors” camp, for those of us who love people who have “lost their battle”.

Or as Sandy, a member of Austin-based Stage 4 Breast Cancer Support Group, puts it:

The message there is that if you try hard enough, you put forth the effort, if you “just do it”, if you live… strong, […] you can beat it. You can. You can do it. So just try really hard. And the problem with that message is that is that you can’t have that message and then not see people who die as somehow, not having lost. They lost their battle because why? They didn’t maybe try hard enough. They didn’t try hard enough […]

My parents died of cancer. My baby did not make a miraculous recovery after we were given a grim prognosis in the days that followed his cardiac arrest.

What am I to understand, then, from this social choir promoting positive-thinking as a cure-all? I don’t know. I have bought into it myself, against my better judgment, and i am not sure how to go about building another type of narrative.

But hearing and reading from other people who offer a critique of this fighter/survivor discourse is helpful in and of itself.


2 réflexions au sujet de « pink ribbons and survivor narratives »

  1. I really appreciate this point of view because it is very closely aligned with my own, and even before I lost my sons. My mother suffers with progressive MS. Life stopped when she was diagnosed (I was still a child) and everything in life has been dramatically affected from that point, and in painfully severe ways. She will deteriorate, her quality of life will continue to decline, until she dies. There is no cure, no rallying around an optimistic outlook. The caretaking is endless. The best she/we can hope for is a slower than expected progression. The « fighter », « live strong », « survivors » – « the tyranny of cheerfulness » (which is so apt) has always been a source of pain for me, as I’ve watched her suffer and decline, and as I’ve been burdened from a young age in a way my peers were not.

    Of course, when I lost B.W., and then Zachary, my disdain for this attitude, and its rallying effect, has solidified.

    It’s funny, I had a blog for a short time (it was a few years after we lost B.W.)…, and « embracing my life » was actually embedded in the title of my blog. Part of the humiliation in losing Zachary, of course, is that I (he) was still struck by lightning while I was « fighting the fight » to survive and to embrace happiness and optimism again. I tried – I think I felt compelled by every other loss mom who was able to spin a positive story. As you can probably observe from the writing that exists on my blog now, I have totally abandoned any forced approach to conning myself into feeling optimism.

    What I have been through is sad and tortuous. I may learn something along the way, I may go on to live a meaningful life, but I will not frame Zachary’s death (my boys’ deaths), or my grief, as uplifting to suit the expectations of anyone. It is not an easy thing to resist or feel confident about, since there is so much push to the cheerfulness you describe.

    • It is difficult to resist to this pressure to find positive meaning in every event, to treat tragedies as « challenges ». The whole « what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger » message is so embedded in our collective psyche.

      Even in grief support groups, i have heard the goal of finding meaning in our loss(es) being presented as the only possible outcome of grief, which i’m not sure is quite true. I think making peace (or trying to) with the fact that some events and some deaths just do not make sense is a viable path too.

      As impossible as i thought it would be just six months ago, i find that how i feel about Paul’s death has started to resemble how i feel about my parents death (with more rawness and unpredictability still, of course). I haven’t found « meaning » in his death but i have started to integrate it more calmly into who i am… But i feel like this is only possible as long as i make myself believe everything will be ok with bebe-lentille. If something was to happen to him/her, i don’t know that i could ever recover.

      Thinking of B.W. and Zachary. They are loved and that’s so much more important than forced optimism.

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