Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a Social Movement Teaching Tool

It is October, and you know what that means. The color pink is everywhere. Perhaps you were tempted to purchase a pink ribbon bracelet or t-shirt at the department store. Your favorite NFL team may be wearing pink jerseys on game day. If you reside in Detroit, a pink tow truck may have towed your car. Maybe you even enjoyed a Susan B. Komen sponsored pink bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken during their ill-fated “Buckets for the Cure” campaign. The proceeds of these products are said to raise awareness about breast cancer. Critics argue that focusing on awareness is less useful than funding research on breast cancer prevention or causes. Plenty of people have eloquently critiqued said pinkwashing. But have you incorporated it into your classrooms this month? I found it to be a useful teaching tool for undergraduates.

While I was teaching undergraduates about feminism and women’s health, one student raised her hand and said she was part of the breast cancer awareness movement. Another was proud that she had raised money for a breast cancer walk with her grandmothers, aunts, and mother. Students felt that they had raised awareness of breast cancer through purchasing pink ribbon goods.

I certainly appreciated seeing such excitement and energy in students. However, it provided an optimal opportunity to teach students about the complexities of social change, and to discuss an industry that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars.

To begin, I asked students to bring in examples of breast cancer awareness month merchandise. We all got a kick out of the occasionally outrageous products and their questionable ties to women’s health (a pink gun, really?). Students had a more difficult time pinning down where exactly the proceeds of these funds were allocated and for what purposes.

I assigned readings by Gayle Sulik, Maren Klawiter, and Samantha King (see below for full citations). One quarter, we watched the incredible film Pink Ribbons, Inc. They were shocked to hear that many pink ribbon products, especially cosmetics, contain toxins linked to breast cancer. Students learned about activists who were organizing against pink ribbon culture.

In class, we discussed the definitions of social movements and social movement industries. I lectured about the evolution of the U.S. women’s health movement. We talked about consumer-oriented approaches to advocacy. If you are looking for an interactive activity, you could even stage an in-class debate about whether pink ribbon culture or its opponents are a social movement. These are just a few ideas, and the opportunities are vast.

The unit on breast cancer awareness month prompted many student comments, perhaps more than other units. Several students said it was eye opening and raised their awareness (pun intended). They said it helped them understand how sociological perspectives informed their everyday lives. After class one day, a student told me that she and her women family members were “die-hard walk for the cure” participants, and that the previous weekend they had spent several hours speaking about what she had learned in the course (not sure how that went over). Given the omnipresence of pinktober, the case of breast cancer awareness month is a useful pedagogical tool to teach about ideological tensions that arise when creating social change.

References and further reading:

“Pink Ribbons, Inc.” 2011. Director Lea Pool. First Run Features.

Sulik, Gayle. 2011. Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health. New York: Oxford University Press.

Klawiter, Maren. 2009. “Racing for the Cure, Walking Women, and Toxic Touring: Mapping Cultures of Action within the Bay Area Terrain of Breast Cancer.” Social Problems 46 (1): 104-126.

Klawiter, Marin. 2008. The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer: Changing Cultures of Disease and Activism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

King, Samantha. 2008. Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Blackstone, Amy. 2004. “’It’s Just about being Fair:’ Activism and the Politics of Volunteering in the Breast Cancer Movement.” Gender and Society 18 (3): 350-68.

Taylor, Verta and Marieke Van Willigen. 1996. “Women’s Self-Help and the Reconstruction of Gender: The Postpartum Support and Breast Cancer Movements.” Mobilization 1 (2): 123-142.

Pedagogy of Social Movements, Part One

Pedagogy of Social Movements, Part Two

Reflections on Teaching Social Movements

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