Barbara Ehrenreich's Thoughts on Breast Cancer, Anger and a Cult of Pink Kitsch
Barbara Ehrenreich, acclaimed investigative journalist and author of more than a dozen books, spoke in Montreal recently about a subject that has long been important to her: women's health and the flurry of opinions generated by the medical establishment. In an interview with BCAM, she discussed her experience with breast cancer, her distaste for "a cult of pink kitsch," and her part in the women's health movement.
Ehrenreich's prolific career spans four decades, during which she has published critical essays and journalistic articles in some of the most respected newspapers and magazines in North America. Her publishing credits include The New York Times, Esquire, The New Republic, Mother Jones, Time, Ms. Magazine, and dozens of others. She has written on issues such as war, poverty, abortion and equality. Her books include For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women; Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America; and Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers.
In the 1970s and 80s, Ehrenreich was active in the women's health movement that empowered women and encouraged them to be critical of the medical system. She started writing about breast cancer a few years ago, when she was diagnosed with the disease. She published "Welcome to Cancerland," a scathing look at what Ehrenreich refers to as "breast cancer culture," in Harper's in 2001. Ehrenreich wrote about the "cult of pink kitsch" she found when she searched for resources and support after her diagnosis.
"I reached out to other people who had experienced breast cancer," she said. "I looked on the web and found a sickening pink ribbon culture, which was all about being positive and unquestioning. I was seriously repelled to find products — a supermarket of breast cancer paraphernalia — everything from home décor to teddy bears, that were part of that culture."
Particularly offensive was what Ehrenreich calls the infantilizing theme of what she saw. She describes a kit, given to patients at a cancer treatment centre, that included a sketchbook and crayons intended to help women express their emotions. She sees the mentality that encouraged regression as an affront to women who had made tremendous strides at gaining respect as independent adults with minds of their own. Ehrenreich said she was not willing to deny the gravity of her situation or allow the effects of the debilitating treatments she endured to be placated by the sea of pink before her. She was angry, and that seemed to break the rules.
Ehrenreich once told an interviewer from the University of Oregon's journalism school that her story ideas come from things that make her angry "and a lot of things make me angry" she said, "so there's a lot of material... the other source, the other inspiration, is curiosity." She approached her breast cancer research with the same fervour that she would have any other story, except that this one was personal.
"Here I was, 59 years old, facing the worst crisis of my life, and there was nothing empowering, no trace of the feminist health movement of the 70s," she told BCAM. "I posted something on an internet message board [about all the pink products], and got a response from a woman who suggested I run, not walk, to the nearest therapist, and that she would pray for me, because I needed to work on my bad attitude if I wanted to live."
"After the Harper's story, I expected backlash, but the response was positive. I got letters from women thanking me for saying what needed to be said," Ehrenreich explained. She is careful to note that she has nothing against the cancer foundations, but she takes issue with corporations that profit from breast-cancer based marketing schemes while producing carcinogens.
Through her research, Ehrenreich connected with Barbara Brenner at Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco, and the pair have since worked on projects together. She said they are cooking up a speaking tour for next year. Barbara Ehrenreich's essay, Welcome to Cancerland, is available on the Breast Cancer Action website: www.bcaction.org/Pages/LearnAboutUs/WelcomeToCancerland.html
Barbara Ehrenreich was a keynote speaker at the New View conference in Montreal in July. Her talk provided a history of the women's health movement, and highlighted the pattern of medicalizing women's health issues by labelling normal functions such as menstruation, pregnancy and menopause as disorders, and then devising treatment plans to eliminate symptoms.
The New View conference featured two days of plenaries and workshops analyzing and challenging the corporate manipulation of women's sexual health. Dr. Leonore Tiefer, a New York-based sexologist and professor, is the founder of the New View Campaign and co-author of A New View of Women's Sexual Problems. Tiefer and a team of like-minded activists aim to raise awareness through public education. "In today's world of inadequate government sexuality policies," reads the manifesto, "Big Pharma marketing masquerades as science and education, and sexual complexities are reduced to pushing the latest pill or patch."
The New View campaign was launched five years ago, and is picking up steam. Several hundred people from around the world were at the conference, many of whom stopped to talk with BCAM members at a BCAM information table. The New View Campaign's manifesto is at www.fsd.alert.org