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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?

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.