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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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.