Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

 “This is an outright war on breast cancer and your dollars are the ammunition.”

As an artist, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the association between females and the colour pink, but these thoughts have never strayed into the rich (literally) connection in breast cancer marketing. Sure, I’d noticed some bizarre products like a pink plastic stapler resembling a high-heeled shoe, but the extent of this marketing extravaganza and its connotations were lost on me. Enter Samantha King, associate professor of gender studies and kinesiology at Queen’s University, where she presented in today’s MiniU conference.

In the introduction to her book, Pink Ribbons, Inc. (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), King ponders what brought about the change in representations of breast cancer on two New York Times Magazine covers. A 1993 cover with artist Matuschka revealing her mastectomy scar contains the caption—incidentally, known in the publishing world as a ‘slug’—“You Can’t Look Away Anymore. The Anguished Politics of Breast Cancer.” A 1996 cover, meanwhile, features supermodel Linda Evangelista covering her breasts with her arm and the caption, “This year’s hot charity.” Evangelista’s “hypernormal femininity” (p. x) and chic portrayal of the disease were a sign of things to come, but they weren’t the first in a series of marketing oddities.

Rewind to the early 1990s, when the pink ribbon originated. It wasn’t always a pink ribbon. It was peach and it was the brainchild of Charlette Hayley, who regarded it less as a brainchild and more as a sincere gesture to bring attention to federal funding shortages for breast cancer prevention in the US. When she declined an offer from Self magazine and Estée Lauder to partner with them in a magazine issue devoted to breast cancer awareness, they appropriated it anyway. Based on a lawyer’s advice, they changed the colour. “Colours are really important,” King stresses, and focus groups revealed that pink denotes qualities like lack of threat; certainly, it would be in corporations’ best interests to avoid acknowledging the threat posed by breast cancer. King thought at the time that “the pink ribbon would soon lose its lustre” but it seems to have perpetuated this “insidiously gendered…cause-related marketing” (p. xxiv). Pink is so closely linked with femininity (at least in the last 65 or so years) that we are stopped in our tracks by breast cancer awareness campaigns with slogans like, “Real men wear pink.” This particular slogan was used for a partnership between the NFL and the Komen Foundation, which is notorious for withdrawing and reinstating funds for Planned Parenthood (which, incidentally, plays an important role in breast cancer screening). Men are generally excluded from this pink marketing, which is problematic since they too are at risk of getting breast cancer. King highlights the bizarreness of women receiving gifts like pink bears when they are diagnosed, in contrast to men, who would not receive, say, Matchbox cars when diagnosed with prostate cancer. Even products that are associated with men can have a feminine version thanks to corporations cashing in on the breast cancer awareness trend, most notably a handgun with an interchangeable pink grip. If you still don't think pink products are ubiquitous, consider that the pink ribbon is featured on one of only two coloured Canadian coins in history (a quarter, which was only distributed at a drugstore chain), or that one of only two American stamps to be sold for higher than the letter rate was part of a breast cancer awareness campaign. Also consider that the other Canadian coin commemorated war veterans and the other US stamp commemorated 9/11. This is an outright war on breast cancer and your dollars are the ammunition.

These marketing gimmicks wouldn’t be so perturbing if their wording weren’t frequently misleading (noting, for example, that an unspecified portion of proceeds goes to an unspecified charity); or if the same companies didn’t put a cap on the money they donate to said charity; or if the dollar amount donated per person weren’t so bleak. King gives the example of a yogurt campaign that would require consumers to consume three large containers of yogurt a day for four months to generate $36 in donations. It hardly seems worthwhile, but who in the general population bothers to do the math? 

It’s not just the products we buy that are pink. Pink branding has spread to our environment, with corporations competing over who will light up the next major monument, be it a pyramid or the Eiffel Tower. Last year, I was part of an art show called PINK that involved local businesses in a small town outside Chicago creating pink window displays simultaneously. It’s no wonder King has observed breast cancer patients counting down the days on an online forum until the end of breast cancer month (October) so they can escape the constant presence of pink and the commoditization of their experience.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the face of breast cancer tends to be “youthful, ultra-feminine, and radiant with health” as well as Caucasian. What, then, can we make of donut and fried chicken companies launching breast cancer campaigns or cosmetics companies doing the same while continuing to include known carcinogens in their products? They’ve been labeled ‘pink washers’ by a San Francisco-based activist group.

If you think that participating in a walk-a-thon or marathon is a better choice for helping in the fight against breast cancer, you’ll be disappointed to hear that many of them have declared bankruptcy for using trademarked phrasing by a major fundraising corporation. Or that in one of the most high profile fundraisers with well-meaning participants celebrating their own survival or honouring loved ones affected or killed by the disease, almost one-third of the money raised was used for administration and marketing costs as well as entertainment for the participants.

The film, Pink Ribbons, Inc. (2011, National Film Board of Canada) opens in the US on June 1st. For a clip, click here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nude PM portrait brings national media attention to library

“Here, the power dynamic is turned on its head.”

A week ago, it was only the locals who were talking about Margaret Sutherland’s nude portrait of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, which is how I heard about it. By the week-end, Googling ‘Harper painting Kingston library’ produced ten-plus pages where every single result was about the controversy. On my lunch break today, I headed over to 130 Johnson Street to see the arguably iconic portrait in person.

The children’s librarian pointed me to the doorway where two viewers lingered hesitantly before heading in to see Stephen Harper reclining on a chaise lounge, without a stitch of clothing. I overheard one visitor say, “You know what’s great about showing controversial work? It gets people in to see the show.” A quick head count of fifteen people on a sunny Tuesday at lunchtime suggests that this is indeed true.

In the same way that Charles Pachter’s paintings of the Queen on a moose elicited hostile reactions forty years ago, Sutherland’s portrait has provoked extreme feedback, ranging from hilarity to disgust. My husband and I debated when the last time was that a painting caused as much commotion in the Canadian media as Sutherland’s Emperor Haute Couture (2011). His suggestion was the National Gallery of Canada’s 1989 acquisition of Barnett Newmann’s Voice of Fire (1967). In contrast to that scandal, it’s exciting that the present discussion has stemmed from a female artist in a lower profile setting, while also highlighting the role of libraries beyond collections of books.

Satirical artistic representations of politicians have a long history with caricatures, so what is it about this painting that is so startling? Is it its realism and his sheer nudity? Harper’s sex organs may be visible, but it’s not a sexualized painting. It brings to mind a comment by performance artist Stuart Ringholt in relation to his recent tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia where guide and guests were required to be naked: “We are sexualized with our clothes on—with them off, we are not” (1).  Sutherland’s portrait is hardly titillating, with Harper’s patchy chest hair and slight paunch. The background composed of figures in neutral business suits creates a drab setting that runs counter to idealism. It’s telling that the portrait is covered in a different fashion than Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866), a painting where female genitalia is the focus. It was screened for a private peepshow, whereas Sutherland’s portrait is draped during children’s programming. Here, the power dynamic is turned on its head: after centuries of women being painted nude by men, Sutherland disrupts the gaze that has been in the male domain for so long. Harper meets the viewer’s gaze, but curiously, his expression seems apathetic and less forceful than the gaze of the dog resting by his feet.

Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s new communications officer, tweeted disdain for the portrait, noting that Harper is a cat person (2). Since this is common public knowledge, Sutherland’s choice of dog seems purposeful. While symbolism isn’t reigning supreme these days, the fact that the artist has acknowledged Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) as a source of inspiration gives the green light to consider symbols in historical works like Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia (1514). In these works, the dog symbolizes fidelity, which is fitting considering that Sutherland cites among her frustrations with Harper cuts to arts funding, census-taking procedures, and prison closures.

The Tim Hortons cup passed to Harper on a china plate by the sole female in the background is also reportedly symbolic (representing the common folk of Canada). It also reinforces the Canadian-ness of the painting: Tim Hortons is so integral to our national identity that its Olympic advertising is unforgettable but American locations feel the need to specify that it is a coffee and bake shop. As product placement, it also serves as a reminder of political branding and last year's public outcry that followed the discreet switch in federal government communications from ‘the Government of Canada’ to ‘the Harper Government’. All seriousness aside, I had to laugh when I looked down at the Tim Hortons drink I picked up spontaneously on my way back to work and realized the probable cause of my detour.

The Kingston Arts Council's Juried Art Salon, of which the painting is part, runs until May 30. If you are in the area, be sure to cast your vote for best in show.

Works referenced:[showUid]=125&no_cache=1


(1)  As cited by Mark Whittaker, “New Tour at Museum Reveals All,” The New York Times, May 1, 2012.

(2) Andrew MacDougall @PMO_MacDougall  On the Sutherland painting: we're not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person. [Twitter post]. May 18, 2012.