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Laurie Penny on Breast Cancer Awareness Month: The sexy way to die

The capitalist delusions of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

A sickly pink rash has descended on the high street. Everywhere, push-up bras, patterned T-shirts and packets of crisps are festooned with rosy ribbons, drenched in sugary schmaltz, branded with the ubiquitous signifiers of slightly sexist sentiment disguised as popular altruism. That's right, it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month again. Buy these pink pants and you, too, can stand up to cancer -- sexy, flirty, naughty cancer.

Every October, hundreds of charities and businesses across the world compete to bounce on the breast cancer bandwagon, "raising awareness" of the disease with a series of perky pink products and a gamut of increasingly demeaning stunts. This year, the standard ladies' fun run in pink T-shirts isn't enough, so celebrities are lining up to join sponsored stumblers in stiletto heels, the idea presumably being that the best way to inform the public about cancer of the breasts is to make a complete tit of oneself.

Tight profit

Meanwhile, thousands of female social networkers have been encouraged to update their Facebook profiles with cryptic messages telling their friends where they "like it": on the bed, on the floor, or possibly on the back seat of their brother's best friend's Ford Focus. This isn't the first time a frisky Facebook meme has used breast cancer "awareness" as an excuse to drum up a little profitable exhibitionism.

In January, women across the world confided the colour of their underwear, apparently in the belief that playing along with yet another self-objectification fad might, in some arcane way, help the dying.

“Cancer is not pretty. It's not pink. And it's definitely not flirty," wrote Susan Niebur in a letter to Salon magazine this month. "It's a deadly, bloody, nasty disease, and it's killing me. Don't play games while I die." Many breast cancer patients and survivors and family members of sufferers have begun to take a stand against demeaning campaigns that seem to infer that breast cancer is serious not because it kills women, but because it threatens our uninterrupted enjoyment of lovely, bouncy, sexy boobies.

The products range from the cheesy to the downright threatening. One men's shirt sold in the UK warns women: "Check your boobs -- or I will". In the US, the infamous "Save Second Base" campaign has organised tight T-shirt contests for breast cancer -- which, quite apart from being a staggering feat of point-omission, is in poor taste, considering just how many women have lost breasts to the disease.

All of this turns a profit for companies, while portraying breast cancer as a species of sexy lifestyle choice. In Breast Cancer Awareness Land, popular piety and the mawkishly totemic ribbons and bracelets of charitable one-upmanship combine with a rose-tinted refusal to acknowledge that, under our perky, plasticised, sexually performative exteriors, women have bodies that sicken, age and die.

All of this would be rather more excusable if the annual avalanche of pink garbage could be proved conclusively to be saving lives. Unfortunately, buying products with a pink-ribbon logo does not necessarily correlate with more money for research and treatment, as it is difficult to attach a tangible value to much of the corporate "sponsorship" of breast cancer charities. In some cases, moreover, companies have begun to engage with "think pink" rhetoric while making no effort to stop selling goods that may have contributed to the rise in breast cancer rates. It's a process known as "pinkwashing".

Shop till you drop

Uncomfortable as it is to admit it, the breast cancer awareness industry has become a gruesome global rehearsal of the collective capitalist fantasy that if we just shop hard enough, if we just buy enough junk, if we objectify women consistently enough, we can even prevent death.

It is perhaps understandable that cancer patients and their families should seek out a diverting routine of awareness-raising as a way of giving meaning to the prospect of what Susan Sontag aptly called "an offensively meaningless event". Yet big business is rather too content to cash in on the impulse. An event that sought to publicise an underdiscussed illness is now a multimillion-dollar scramble by commercial firms to turn grief and suffering into a cheerily homogeneous public experience -- one that can be monetised and, in the process, emotionally neutralised. The facts of cancer have nothing to do with shopping, or stripping, or sexy stunts.

And until we have boring, unsexy things such as properly financed health care and a government that isn't determined to drain away science funding, this sugary-pink, boob-bouncing carnival of concerned consumerism will remain worse than useless.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?

A pro-union march in 2014. Photo: Getty
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The legacy of sectarianism is still poisoning the air of Scotland

Ruth Davidson has reinstated two Stirling councillors who posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media. That this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles.

Kenny Dalglish was a bluenose: as a boy in the mid-60s, he and his father would make the short journey to Ibrox to cheer on Rangers, then Scotland’s most successful team. With the football allegiance came a cultural one, too. Or, probably, the other way round.

Wee Kenny could play a bit, obviously, and dreamed that his beloved Gers would sign him up. But, as Richard T Kelly writes in Keegan and Dalglish, his enjoyable new double biography of the two footballing greats, "Rangers had a certain preference for big lads, or else lads with an obvious turn of pace; and Dalglish, despite his promise, had neither of those easy attributes."

Rangers’ loss was Celtic’s gain, but it took some effort. The former, writes Kelly, "was the club of the Queen, the Union, Scotland’s Protestant majority… founded by Freemasons and members of the Orange Order, strongly tied to the shipyards of Govan. Glasgow Celtic was the team of Irish Catholic patriots, revolutionary Fenians and Home Rulers, begun as a charitable organisation… a means to bolster the faith and keep the flock out of the clutches of Protestant soup kitchens. It was going to be a serious step across a threshold for Dalglish to accept the overtures of Celtic."

In the end, Jock Stein dispatched his number two, the unhelpfully named Sean Fallon, to meet the young starlet’s family. "Fallon entered a domestic environment he felt to be 'a bit tense' -  a Rangers house, a lion’s den, if you will. Fallon even picked up the sense that Bill [Dalglish’s father] might rather his son pursue [an] apprenticeship in joinery."

The deal was done ("My dream was to become a professional footballer – the location was just a detail," Dalglish would later say) and the most gifted player Scotland has ever produced went on to make his reputation kitted out in green and white stripes rather than royal blue -  a quirk of those difficult times for which those of us classed as Fenian bastards rather than Orange bastards will be forever grateful.

Growing up in west and central Scotland, it was hard to avoid being designated as one type of bastard or the other, even if you supported a team outwith the Old Firm or had no interest in football at all. Thanks to 19th century immigration, the terrible religio-political divide of Ulster was the dominant cultural force even in Stirling, the town around 25 miles from Glasgow where I grew up and where I now live again. If you went to the Catholic school, as I did, you were a Fenian; if you went to the Proddy (officially, non-demominational) school, you were a Hun. You mostly hung around with your own, and youthful animosity and occasional violence was largely directed across the religious barricades. We knew the IRA slogans and the words to the Irish rebel songs; they had the UVF and the Red Hand of Ulster. We went to the Cubs, they went to the Boys’ Brigade. We got used to the Orange Walks delivering an extra-loud thump on the drums as they passed the chapel inside which we were performing our obligatory Sunday observance.

At the time – around the early and mid 80s – such pursuit of identity might not have been much more than a juvenile game, but it was part of something more serious. It was still the case that Catholics were unemployable in significant Scottish industries – "which school did you got to, son?" was the killer interview question if your answer began with "Saint". This included the media: in the late 90s, when I joined the Daily Record – the "Daily Ranger" to Celtic fans (its Sunday sister, the Sunday Mail, was known to Rangers fans as the "Sunday Liam") – vestiges of this prejudice, and the anecdotes that proved it, were still in the air.

The climate is undoubtedly better now. Secularisation has played its part - my own daughters attend non-denominational schools – even if, as the sportswriter Simon Kuper has observed, many are "not about to give up their ancient traditions just because they no longer believe in God". The peace process in Northern Ireland and important gestures such as the late public friendship between Ian Paisley Sr and Martin McGuinness have made a difference. And I suppose the collapse of Rangers as a footballing force, amid financial corruption that saw them dumped into the bottom tier of Scottish football, helped.

But the sensitivity remains. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum broke down in part across tribal lines, with many Celtic supporters, once Labour, now SNP, loudly backing a Yes vote, while Rangers fans were on the No side. The prospect of Brexit creating a significant border between the north and south of Ireland, which could inflame recently and shallowly buried tensions, makes one shudder. And even locally, the old enmities continue to raise their grubby heads. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, is currently taking flak for allowing the reinstatement of two Stirling councillors who had posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media prior to their election. The pair have apologised and agreed to take part in diversity training, but I confess that this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles. The rawness remains.

That this is so was brought to me a few years ago when I filed a column containing the word ‘sectarianism’ to a Scottish newspaper. Though the context had nothing to do with Catholic/Protestant or Celtic/Rangers, the editor asked me to remove it. "It’ll be deliberately misunderstood by one side or the other, and probably both," he said. "It’s not worth the hassle. In Scotland I’m afraid it never is."

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).