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

The capitalist delusions of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

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.