Before this week, you probably never gave much thought to where the Susan G. Komen Foundation gives its money. Not because you don’t care about ending breast cancer, which kills over 400,000 Americans each year, but because you were busy extricating yourself from a giant pile of pink consumer crap. Who has time to read nonprofit financial reports when you’re staving off a tide of rosy lipsticks and loungewear? In her 2001 report on her own experience with breast cancer and the accompanying cult of infantilizing kitsch, Barbara Ehrenreich sees a classified ad for a ”breast cancer teddy bear,” complete with pink ribbon, and prays, “Let me die of anything but suffocation by the pink sticky sentiment embodied in that teddy bear.”
Thanks to Komen CEO Nancy Brinker, Americans can buy pink colored products from a huge number of chain retailers with the peace of mind that they are purchasing “with purpose to end breast cancer forever.” “’Awareness’ beats secrecy and stigma of course” concedes Ehrenreich, “but I can’t help noticing that the existential space in which a friend has earnestly advised me to ‘confront [my] mortality’ bears a striking resemblance to the mall.” Everything from halftime shows to handguns has been blazoned with the Pink brand. Not to mention the cottage industry required to affix pink ribbons to the remaining products which cannot be literally “pinkwashed.”
It’s no small feat that this mega-charity has successfully branded a color, making pink synonymous with fighting breast cancer. According to an old New York Times profile, Brinker is well aware of her achievement. Thanks to Brinker, “breast cancer has blossomed from wallflower to the most popular girl at the corporate charity prom.” Her numbers are indeed impressive. Brinker brought in $420 million in FY2010 alone, and spent a whooping $141 million on public education campaigns. In a public health climate scrambling just to keep ahead of emergency care, that kind of investment in prevention is extraordinary. Brinker has responded to criticism that she is branding a disease, by telling the grey lady that “America is built on consumerism […] To say we shouldn’t use it to solve the social ills that confront us doesn’t make sense to me.”
Of course, it was confronting those social ills that got Brinker and the Foundation in trouble last week, when they announced plans to stop the flow of $700,000 to Planned Parenthood. Although Komen’s Fiscal Year 2010 report proudly highlights that foundation assistance helped fund 650,000 breast screenings, they apparently weren’t so thrilled with that other stuffgoing on at Planned Parenthood.
We all know what happened next. The reaction to such blatant politicization of women’s health was met with wrath from across the internet. Let us hope that such vitriol can be re-deployed for all those other attacks on women’s health and body autonomy. It hardly bears linking to the million bajillion angry blog posts, articles, and calls of hypocrisy to the defunding announcement. The outrage was palpable, and even compelled the ever-benevolent Mayor Bloomberg to announce a gigantic personal contribution to Planned Parenthood. In a matter of days, short a top official and quite a lot of PR capital, Komen retracted the decision. (Don’t worry Bloombito, even if that check bounces in the wake of Komen’s backtracking, we’ll remember the gesture in 2016.) The defenders of Planned Parenthood declared collective victory, including millions in new donations, and then went home to watch the Superbowl.
We should not be so hasty. The Komen Foundation PR debacle may be over, but it illuminates a much larger disaster built into the charity model of social justice work. If there were adequate public funding for health care, including preventive screenings, the private pullout would barely register on our radars. And coming from a group whose CEO served as an Ambassador for Bush42, this kind of politicization of basic life chances should hardly surprise us. What do you expect when the social safety net is replaced by corporate benevolence? And more to the point, what are the other unseen consequences of abdicating a critical state function? Rickke Mananzala and Dean Spade write:
The political, economic, and social conditions resulting from neoliberalism — including throwing low-income communities into increased crisis due to cuts in survival services — have presented significant challenges to social movements trying to build leadership and power among oppressed communities. The other side of the coin is that social welfare has increasingly become dependent on business: Business charity essentially has replaced government funding in providing resources for social welfare and has become the so-called answer to social problems.
The result is that the most vulnerable women do no receive necessary help, while rich women race for the cure. In the glossy 2010 report, the foundation touts $40 million in community grants targeting women of color. That’s a nice chunk of change, but is nearly $10 million less than the foundation spent on advertising in the same year. Ironically, Nancy Brinker sees her emphasis on consumer product tie-ins as the “democratization of a disease.” Lots of consumers undoubtedly feel the same way, assuaging their guilt, fears, and grief at the check-out counter. But buying a key-chain isn’t real democratic participation. As citizens concerned about public health, we should be demanding publicly funded healthcare for all, and insisting on a health system whose egalitarianism would be ingrained in its very structure, not cited as an incidental byproduct of corporate goodwill.
Some of the Komen Foundation’s corporate relationships are quite remarkable in this regard. I promise I did not invent “Buckets for the Cure,” wherein some of KFC’s grilled chicken proceeds went to the Foundation. Both parties apparently agreed to nix the genius plan this year, after an onslaught of criticism stemming from the fact that obesity is a known risk factor for breast cancer. To be fair, Komen is hardly the only nationally prominent charity brand to face this type of criticism. 50% of Gap’s income from Bono’s AIDS charity brand Product (RED) goes to his foundation, which sounds great until you learn about the horrific labor practices of many Gap suppliers. It almost absolves Old Navy of the cognitive dissonance necessary to applaud itself in the fight against breast cancer when a mere five cents of every dollar earned through their Komen-sponsored t-shirt line actually goes to the charity.
Komen Foundation v. Planned Parenthood has been decided in the court of public opinion, but the larger problems remain. The controversy helps identify the twin evils that we face: the privatization of basic life chances, and placation of progressive political impulses through capitalist accumulation.
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