I should probably start by confessing that Magic Mike isn’t my first time at the proverbial rodeo. In a testament to family loyalty that trumped better judgment, I experienced my first “all male review” years ago at a bachelorette party for my cousin. In what is probably not a too unexpected coincidence (especially given Channing Tatum’s previous stint as a male stripper), the “show” put on that evening is pretty consistent to those in Magic Mike, right down to the opening act set to “It’s Raining Men” (halleluiah!). The premise seems to be set on the fact that men perform “dance numbers” in characters that are meant to represent what I presume are female fantasies. In Magic Mike these includes soldiers, cowboys, and Tarzan, which, if you ask me, more closely resemble the desires of pre-adolescent boys than adult women. But again, in a nod to authenticity, I will say that my own “Magic Mike” experience mirrored this, with the performers appearing as construction workers, firemen, and James Bond.
As the eponymous “Magic Mike,” Channing Tatum’s character performs the star solo act. For this number he appears in a sideways baseball cap, white tank, and baggy sweatpants. Looking more “mediocre” than “magic,” I suppose his appeal is as an “average Joe.” This, in some ways, makes sense to me, and ties in with the character’s dream of being “legit.”
While I don’t remember the name of the headliner at the show I attended (although I am sure it was something as equally as clever), I can honestly say his performance is something I have never forgotten. Set to Usher’s “Yeah!,” to this day I only need to hear the opening chords of the song to flash back to this memory. The stage was dark and in the center of the floor shone a single spotlight. The crowd grew silent in anticipation of the “grand finale.” Things had been pretty tame up until now, and I admit, I didn’t know what to expect given the nature of the situation. And then, just as Lil’ John croaked his opening lines of “Yeah, okay,” there he appeared. Stumbling into the spotlight our Master of Ceremonies had transformed himself into—wait for it—a homeless man. Take that, rewind it back. Vagrant. Bum. Hobo. Whichever your pleasure, that, my friends, was the ultimate fantasy being offered for the evening.
Over the years, I have continuously marveled at this. Although my interest in seeing Magic Mike had more to do with the course I am teaching this summer on gender and popular culture than wanting to revisit that memory, in both cases, I am drawn to the same conclusion. In talking to my students about the “male gaze,” we have been discussing the possibility of a postfeminist “female gaze” in popular culture. My skepticism of postfeminism aside, Magic Mike can hardly be considered a “woman’s film.” With a male writer, director, and producers, Magic Mike no more hits the vision of what women want than did my vagabond from years ago. It is just another projection of male fantasy and a distorted take on female desire. Until women are actively producing an equal amount of the popular culture we as a society consume, the roles for women—and men—remain limited.
In all fairness, the audience of the showing I went to was comprised mostly of women, and there was quite a bit of laughter. Magic Mike isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but it certainly isn’t a good one. If you noticed this review is lacking a synopsis of the plotline, it’s because the film doesn’t have one. Well, I suppose it does, but it’s about as superficial as the characters and with as much substance as a thong. It covers the bare necessities, but not much else. Overall, the dance numbers are solid and Matthew McConaughey is devilishly good, but the rest is as predictable as, well, a striptease. Mostly hype with little to offer in the long run.
This past Saturday we held our Iota, Iota, Iota National Women’s Studies Honor Society Induction and 2012 Graduation and Awards Ceremony. This even is always my favorite of the year, as we honor our graduates and their accomplishments. This year I had the honor of giving our annual address, which I have included below.
On the Courage of a Feminist Future
Hello. It is a pleasure to be here today, celebrating with you all. I would like to congratulate our Triota inductees and our graduates, as well as the friends and family who have joined us today, because without your love and support, our students would not be here celebrating these wonderful accomplishments. At this time, I think it is also important to once again acknowledge this marvelous group of students, because without them, the Gender and Women’s Studies Program would not be what it is today.
The graduates of the class of 2012 have been a part of some very exiting changes for our program. We’ve successfully completed assessments that have streamlined and strengthened our curriculum, our number of majors has nearly quadrupled in the past five years, and we successfully petitioned to have our name officially changed to the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies. This name change represents the program’s emphasis of how the social construction of gender and the relations of women and men structure our politics, culture, and everyday lives. Our new name also better reflects the achievements of the women’s movement and the ways that Women’s Studies has, and continues to, address issues of ethnicity, race, class, and sexuality, along with the fight for social justice and equality.
Change, as I am sure you are all poignantly aware of today, is not always easy, and therefore it is not surprising that this move was met with some resistance. By exposing the changing dynamics of the field of Women’s Studies, both faculty and students alike were forced to consider how the politics of a seemingly benign issue such as a name change might mask deeper concerns that this institution (and others) may not want to face, raise provocations that challenge some too deeply, and mirror larger social systems that perpetuate a status quo of inequality on both the macro and micro levels.
When Jody approached me about speaking to you all today, I believe it was with these concerns in mind that she asked that I talk about what might “surprise” you as you go out in the world, or what “challenges” you might face—but I’m not going to do that. I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t predict the future, and besides, it is both the fear and beauty of the unexpected that motivates us to do and be our best.
Instead, I want to speak to you today about courage. Not because I am an expert on the subject—far from it—but because it is the one thing I know for sure that you will need to possess as you set forth to claim your futures. Fortunately, I believe this is something all of you know a little bit about. Courage, not unlike the activism we teach in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program, need not be revolutionary. It starts small. The seeds were planted the day you signed up for your first Gender and Women’s Studies course. It began to sprout when you started to talk to your friends and family about things like intersectionality, privilege, and equality. Your courage grew the day you declared Gender and Women’s Studies as your major, despite what others may have advised you to do, what your friends thought, or the secret stigma that you may have felt inside. And, most importantly, your courage came in to bloom the day you first called yourself a feminist.
Yes, I said it, the “F” word. This past week I sat in a meeting where some suggested we step back from the word feminism. Apparently, it doesn’t speak to your generation. It’s too outdated, too old, too political, or so the argument goes. But I do not believe any of these descriptions to be true. I think that men, but even more so women, particularly those who are your age, avoid the word feminism out of fear. Saying you are a feminist is an acknowledgement of the fact that just one year after graduation female graduates will earn only 80% of what their male counterpoints make; it’s an awareness that our Senate almost did not reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, despite the fact that each year battery continues to be the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States; and its knowing that being the victim of domestic violence, along with other “pre-existing conditions” such as having a Caesarean Section, or hell, even having a vagina, raises a person’s insurance premiums and can even disqualify her from receiving medical coverage.
As the late Adrienne Rich wisely stated, “It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness,” but “it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful.” Each semester I witness within students an awakening into a feminist consciousness that quite often mimics Rich’s reflection. Students believe in equal rights and they believe in social justice, but they don’t believe themselves to be feminists because doing so means they must also believe that they live in a world that I just described to you, one where not all men—and certainly not women—are created equal.
And, yet, into this world you must go. This, then, is where your education, and your courage, will come in handy. What you have learned these past four or more years should not be the answer to what you should do or who you should be, but the question of how you might live and who you may become. Your courage is your hope that change is possible, the remembrance that much has been accomplished, and your conviction that equality is a right for all, and not just a privilege for the few.
Gender and Women’s Studies encouraged you to claim your education by stressing that you take an active part in your learning experience through the intersections of scholarship, activism, and teaching. As you move on to the next stages in your life, it is imperative that you continue to recognize the relationship between knowledge and power and continue to ask questions and seek information that will allow you to make the most informed choices for your own lives.
Far too often the personal is removed from the classroom and the learning experience, resulting in complacency and detachment on the part of both student and teacher. This leads to a general apathy that encourages us all to remain content with the status quo. Change, however, is possible. For this to happen, though, you must continue to work combating outdated stereotypes and methods not just to define a feminist space within the university setting, but in your own lives upon your graduation. It is in this way that Gender and Women’s Studies is not only relevant to you today, but imperative to your personal growth and futures.
So, as you embark on your journeys, I offer you the following advice:
Ask for directions, but always be your own GPS. The quickest route isn’t necessarily the best, and only you can decide which path your future should take.
Spend less time on Facebook and more time with a your face in a book. You may be done with school, but your actual learning has only just begun.
With that in mind, don’t forget the power of actual face-to-face interaction. Seek out mentors and become a mentor to someone else. These relationships will be some of the most transformative and important ones in your life. Feminism is about cooperation, not competition, which is why Adrienne Rich cautioned that “The connections between and among women are [some of] the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.”
Your future is up to you. Only time will reveal the challenges you will face and the surprises that may be in store. However, if you keep your minds sharp, your hearts soft, and your voices loud, the strength that you each possess today will become the courage of a greater tomorrow.
On Tuesday, April 24th, the students in WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action will be hosting a Poetry Memorial in memory of Erica Knowles, a Gender and Women’s Studies and Journalism major at URI, who passed away on February 15th. Erica was a talented artist and poet who, in the words of her stepfather, “was passionate about singing and music.” Erica “sang Karaoke a lot and was not afraid of the microphone,” but her greatest love was her family. “She loved her sisters, Ashley and Sydney, and her brother, Vito, along with her mom, very much.” Erica was the beloved daughter of Shiela (Wood) Priore, and her husband John Priore of Alpharetta, GA; and the late John Knowles and his wife Carla Knowles of Wakefield. In addition to her parents and siblings, she is survived by her maternal grandfather, George Wood of West Kingston; and her paternal grandparents, Franklin and Phyllis Knowles of Cranston.
The Poetry Memorial is an open mic event, with many students already signed up to read selections of Erica’s poetry. All are invited to read, reflect, and celebrate the memory of this remarkable woman.
The Erica Knowles Poetry Memorial will be held on April 24th at the 193° Coffeehouse (URI Memorial Union) from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Erica’s poetry can be found online through the Origami Poetry Project at http://www.origamipoems.com/component/content/article/56.
Some of her artwork was displayed recently at the Hera Gallery in Wakefield, RI: http://heragallery.blogspot.com/2011/12/erica-knowles-displays-at-worlds.html
On Friday, March 30, students from WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action, along with URI students from the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies and the Political Science Department, attended the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s “Women Making Democracy” conference. Each year the Institute organizes a conference that highlights the significance of gender in relation to the human experience. This year’s theme brought together a selection of preeminent journalists, scholars, and activists to discuss the role of women and gender in movements for social justice and political change. Much of the discussion centered on the role of women in the “Arab Spring,” but there were also comparative perspectives that opened the dialogue to include democratic movements in Eastern Europe and South Africa. The mix of speakers and topics created a space for interdisciplinary conversations that not only informed, but also raised new questions while challenging previous assumptions regarding gender and political unrest.
While the scope and depth of the information presented at the conference could be the springboard to a multitude of important discussions, I will limit my thoughts to points and questions raised that relate most directly to the concerns of WMS 320. As the day’s opening remarks suggested, when thinking about how the Arab Spring is unique, we should also consider its broader implications and the ways in which as “unique cases,” these uprisings also share similarities “across cases.” And, in this examination, specific attention should be paid to the ways in which these democratic movements challenged notions of space (both physical and virtual), gender, and human rights, and larger connections to structures of political and personal power. As Dalendra Larguèche noted, the Arab Spring opened new solidarities and spaces, but it also reinforced old ones. If new spaces of revolution have emerged, will they remain open, and for how long?
Of critical concern is the complex power dynamic between gender and “the state.” Heba Raouf Ezzat noted in her thrilling talk that there is a need to not only re-consider the idea of “state feminism,” but also to re-think the need and/or utility of feminist governance. These thoughts further problematized Shireen Hassim’s discussion of South Africa’s democratic struggles and the unfortunate ways in which the language of feminism did not speak to the situation of “ordinary people” in more rural areas. Or, as Rima Khalef succinctly noted, it is “easy to change laws,” but much “harder to change customs and traditions.”
With this in mind, one of the larger questions to come out of the conference is the need to constantly be mindful of who has the right to narrate, define, and defend revolution. In relation to activism and social media, I have asked my students to consider whether things like Facebook and Twitter are new ways to say the same old thing, or are new things being said by the very use of these technologies? That is, how might social media allow individuals to create a space of possibility from more general notions of “public space”?
The thoughts, observations, and lively conversation that my students engaged in via Twitter during the conference speak to this possibility, and I am incredibly proud of their participation during the day’s events. Through the diversity of voices, views, and opinions presented by the panelists, I believe the most important lesson learned by my students is perhaps one of the most simple: we all have the power to make a difference when we make our voices be heard. It is not enough for women to make history; they must also write and record it.
Here is a great entry and initiative by my friend and colleague Sara MacSorley! Students in WMS 320, if you could write a letter to your younger self, what would it say?
Sara MacSorley graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a Bachelors of Science in Marine Biology and minor in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies and is currently taking courses toward a Masters in Business Administration.
Dear Younger Self,
I’ve learned a lot about what is important to us and about how to deal with the stress that comes when things don’t go as planned over the past few years. I’d like to give you some tips on how to get through the challenges you will face.
First, follow your passion. I know we grew up in an area without a whole lot of focus on special science classes, but that is okay. Work hard in school, study, and put in the time to learn – don’t simply aim only to just pass tests. Ask questions, lots of questions! Don’t be afraid to ask them, even if no one else is speaking…
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Today, March 8, 2012, marks roughly the 103 annual International Women’s Day. It has been celebrated internationally on dates from the end of February to the middle of March since 1908, and March 8th is a now designated as an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia. Sadly, the United States does not officially recognize the holiday, which is probably why even after four years of dropping not so subtle hints to my friends and family, I have yet to get the day off from work or receive any cards, flowers, or small gifts like women in other countries do.
National recognition and lack of gifts aside, International Women’s Day is still one of my favorite days of the year. It is not only an opportunity to celebrate the contributions and achievements of women around the world, but it is also a great time to reflect on the wonderful women who have made a difference in our own lives. Last week students in my WMS 150 course presented their “Shero” projects, which involves them interviewing a woman who has inspired them, and then writing an essay that not only depicts the strength and spirit of their shero, but also reflects on their shero’s life in relation to our course. Each semester, the mix of touching, funny, and inspiring narratives that my students present always impresses me. They, in turn, benefit from not only sharing their shero’s story, but also from hearing about the amazing women that their classmates know and respect. Ladies, here’s to you!
Ultimately, this is what International Women’s Day is about: sharing our own experiences as women, celebrating the women who have made a difference in our lives, and honoring the women whose voices have been silenced, lost, or forgotten along the way. I have been fortunate to have amazing women as mentors and friends, especially the wonderful colleagues and students I work with in URI’s Gender and Women’s Studies Program.
Here’s the thing about being cool—the harder you try, the less you succeed. Case in point: last year’s Academy Award’s disastrous choice of hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco. This year the Academy may have taken a different route, but the results were pretty much the same. After the whole Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy debacle (the two backed out as executive producer and host after Ratner made a series of public sexist and homophobic remarks), it appeared as if the Academy was going to play it safe by dusting off Billy Crystal to host yet again.
And yet, from Crystal’s opening montage, it became apparent that this year’s awards were going to be another series of missteps stemming from the Academy’s desperate attempt to stay relevant while refusing to accept the changing nature of today’s entertainment. How else do you explain the bizarre mixture of Justin Beiber, Billy Crystal, and Billy Crystal in “black face” as Sammy Davis Jr.? The joke fell flat, and so did the rest of the show. With fewer and fewer people going to the movies, the Academy did its best to try and remind us of the golden days of cinema (see: The Artist’s win as Best Picture), but instead reminded viewers of how far the industry has and has not come.
Last Thursday I taught my lesson on feminist media studies to my students in WMS 150. In explaining to them the difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis, we talked about the different kinds of representation we see on screen and why that might be. I asked my students to watch last night’s broadcast and suggested they think about the number of women nominated for awards, the types of awards for which they were nominated, the types of roles available to women, and lastly to just observe in general how men and women were treated during the broadcast. In terms of quantitative data, the Women’s Media Center did a great job of compiling stats on this year’s nominations (http://www.womensmediacenter.com/blog/entry/where-are-the-women-at-the-oscars-the-stats). For example, this year, no women were nominated in the categories of Directing, Cinematography, Documentary (feature), Music (original score), Sound Editing, or Visual Effects. In only three categories, did the number of women nominated outnumber men, but in all these categories there were also male nominees. Clearly, the “male gaze” is alive and well in Hollywood. Need more proof? How about the “popcorn girls” walking down the aisles as the show cut to commercial break. Is this really the golden age of cinema to which we want to return?
There were some highlights, though. Gabby Sidobe’s moving comment that, “When I see myself onscreen, I know that I exist,” served as a reminder for the potential of how far the film industry has come, but also the distances it needs to go. While this montage as a whole was yet another way in which the industry seemed desperate in its attempts to prove its worth, Sidobe’s comment speaks to the media’s complicated relationship to difference—whether it be by gender, race, class, or body size. I applaud her for saying this and the Academy for including it.
Perhaps the best moment of the night, though, was on the red carpet before the main show actually began. When Sacha Baron Cohen, who came in character from his upcoming film The Dictator, spilled the “ashes” of Kim Jong-Il on red carpet host Ryan Seacrest, I thought to myself, “finally, someone gets it.” Cohen’s brilliant mocking of Seacrest, the Academy, and their self-inflated sense of importance may have gotten him escorted off of the red carpet, but by then it was too late. The joke was literally on them, and as Cohen reminded us, it has been for some time.
Republicans Honor “Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month” by Unanimously Voting Against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act
Since being signed into law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has been reauthorized by Congress in 2000 and 2005. Currently its reauthorization is being debated, and while passing this should be a “no-brainer,” not a single Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill last week. In addition to wanting to cut funding to existing programs aimed at combating domestic violence, Republican opposition is aimed at wording that ensures protection of gay and transgendered victims, as well as provisions for illegal immigrants who seek assistance for domestic violence.
The timing of this debate coincides with “Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month,” a result of the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. In response to the alarming rates of dating violence here in the U.S.— 1 in 3 teens is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, with girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experiencing the highest rate of intimate partner violence—in 2010 Congress declared the month of February dedicated to raising awareness to this often overlooked problem. Now, I realize that just last week I made an argument about the effectiveness of “awareness.” And while I stand by my earlier comments in relation to breast cancer, I do believe that we as a nation are woefully unaware and ill-equipped in dealing with and understanding intimate partner violence.
If you don’t believe me, we only have to look back to last Sunday’s Grammy Awards and the debates surrounding Chris Brown’s performances, to see the ways in which domestic violence is misrepresented and misunderstood by the media. As everyone remembers, Brown, 23, was arrested on the eve of the Grammy Awards in 2009 for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna, who was 21 at the time. This past Sunday, Brown performed at the Grammys for the first time since his arrest in 2009. For many, his two performances were too much, too soon. My point here, though, is not to debate the inclusion of Brown at the Grammys, but, rather, to stress the way in which reactions to Brown’s performances indicate our culture’s twisted relationship to violence against women.
Take, for example, this comment from Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich: “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years, and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.” Umm, I’m sorry, the Grammys were the victim here?? How exactly did the physical abuse Rihanna’s body suffered hurt the Grammys? Oh, that’s right, it didn’t. Rather, this is just one way in which the depoliticalization of the battered women’s movement has shifted the focus away from women—who, let’s face it, are the overwhelming majority of victims in these situations—and instead redirected the problem into what feminist Nancy J. Meyer describes as “a hyper-individualist rhetoric of impartial expert knowledge.” Or, in other words, a “culture of victimization” that sees everyone as a victim, except of course, those who actually are.
Even more disturbing than Ehrlich’s comments, though, were the number of Tweets during the Grammys from young girls saying things such as “I’d let Chris Brown beat me up” (@DontDoubtDani), “Like I’ve said multiple times before, Chris Brown can beat me all he wants…. I’d do anything to have him oh my” (@kelllllx), and “Dude, Chris brown can punch me in the face as much as want to, just as long as he kisses it (:” (@KaylaMarieWatts). While many of these women have fired back that they were “joking,” regardless of their intentions or meaning, they speak to the very warped way in which violence against women is seen as a joke in contemporary society.
The battered women’s movement arose from the second wave feminism in the 1960s and the 1970s, turning what was once seen as a “private, family matter,” into something that challenged patriarchal institutions that naturalized and legitimized violence. With its emphasis on “women,” the battered women’s movement argued that this violence was rooted in misogyny and sexism, and what happens to one woman is an issue for all women. Fast-forward to 2012 where domestic violence has been “domesticated” to the point where girls can “joke” about being beaten by a celebrity, and Republicans proudly put politics before the welfare of women. Maybe I’m too old, or too much of a feminist, but the humor is lost on me.
This week, my students in WMS 320 are thinking about “Feminist Activism and Human Bodies.” It’s a fitting topic considering the recent controversy between Susan G. Komen for the Cure (formerly known as The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation) and Planned Parenthood. As anyone who has been on the Internet or watched the news in the last two weeks is aware, on January 31 Komen announced that it would no longer be granting money to help fund cancer screening services at Planned Parenthood.
In a heated election year where women’s health and reproductive freedoms seem to be at the front of battle lines, this move had many people quickly arguing that Komen was putting politics before the welfare of women’s health. It has been no secret that Karen Handel, a Republican who was appointed Komen’s senior vice president for public policy in April 2011, is against Planned Parenthood. Perhaps what no one expected was the way that Planned Parenthood—through social media—would fight back. Almost immediately, angry responses began popping up on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Planned Parenthood quickly joined in with its own official responses, as well as posting links to the media’s coverage of the story, re-Tweeting pro-@PPact Tweets, all the while reminding individuals how they, too, could help support Planned Parenthood.
When all was said and done, Planned Parenthood received over $400,000 in just 24 hours, as well as a $250,000 pledge from Michael Bloomberg. As donations to Planned Parenthood continued to pour in, and amidst continued public pressure, Komen announced on February 3 that it “will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants.” On February 7, as a result of the controversy, Handel resigned from Komen. Discussing the matter in an interview with The Daily Beast on February 10 Handel conceded, “Komen doesn’t have the strength [of Planned Parenthood] in the area of social media.”
This statement is directly relevant to what I am trying to get students in WMS 320 to think about this semester: how social media has changed the landscape for personal and political activism. While some of them have jumped on-board the Twitter wagon, it has been surprising to me how reluctant many of them have been to use Twitter and this blog platform to partake in their own “feminist thought into action.” I am hoping some of them will comment their thoughts about this here. In the meantime, I have been thinking of ways to integrate social media into the classroom even more, not only for WMS 320, but also for WMS 150 and my courses at RISD.
The Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy also has me thinking about the role of “awareness” in social activism, especially as it relates to women’s health. Each semester in WMS 150 I have my students read Barbara Ehrenreich’s somewhat controversial essay “Welcome to Cancerland.” In it, Ehrenreich discusses what she refers to as the “cult of pink kitsch” and its infantilaztion of women. Komen, with its partnership with companies like Kentucky Fried Chicken (and their infamous 2010 “Buckets for a Cure” campaign), has long been accused of the type of “pinkwashing” that Ehrenreich refers to in her essay. Along with this article, I take the opportunity to educate my students on the business model of cause marketing, and ask them to consider the ways in which breast cancer, and its ubiquitous “pink ribbon,” has been used to sell everything from highlighters to hand guns. Students are routinely shocked to find out that the pink ribbon is unregulated in terms of marketing, and that companies routinely use it to sell products (particularly in October) without any consistent regulation on where funds raised for “Breast Cancer Awareness” actually go.
I then show students the following sets of images and ask them, how, exactly, do bracelets saying “i ♥ boobies” raise awareness of anything other than the fact that women’s breasts are constantly being exploited and fetishized? What do products such as these, or “high heel” races for charity, do other than capitalize on the sexist stereotypes that women are routinely subjected to in society? At this point, aren’t we as a culture already “aware” of breast cancer?
Now, I realize that thirty years ago breast cancer was a “women’s issue,” suffered in silence, rarely even discussed by those dying from it. I am certainly not advocating going back to this secrecy or shame. Fortunately, we have moved past this stage, and today breast cancer is one of the most highly visible diseases in American culture (heck, we even have a month set aside for its awareness). My point is, when does awareness move on to action?
In 2010 the National Institutes of Health, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the nation’s primary medical research agency, designated $631.2 million in breast cancer research, more than twice the amount allocated for any other disease. Yet, according to the CDC, between the years of 1998 and 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available) incidences of breast cancer in the United States have only decreased by 1.3% per year, with virtually no change in the rates of breast cancer among black women. Obviously money—and awareness—are not enough. While funding certainly needs to continue to go in to research and helping those who suffer from breast cancer and other illness, perhaps the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy can be productive in getting us to think about activism—and breast cancer—in new ways. Since 1990 Breast Cancer Action, a grassroots activism group out of San Francisco, has been arguing that “the breast cancer epidemic is a public health crisis, and a social justice issue.” They advocate for “systemic change that will end the breast cancer epidemic, while supporting women & men at risk for and living with breast cancer.” For those looking to take action aimed at prevention, or to learn more about their “Think Before You Pink” campaign, I highly encourage you to visit their website: http://bcaction.org/. Their priorities, which include creating a different kind of awareness, “that it is not just genes, but social injustices — political, economic, and racial inequities — that lead to disparities in breast cancer outcomes” speaks to the type of consciousness that can lead to real change.