Friday, April 9, 2010

Breast Cancer Awareness in Edmonton as a Visual Phenomenon

By: Kevin Gillies, Sean Zubick, and Samuel T. Dean

Have you ever seen the pink ribbon in Edmonton and wondered what it means? Probably not. This is because is it so entrenched in our culture that its meaning has become second nature. It could be said that we see the ribbon as the bandage that will heal the wound breast cancer has created. In Edmonton it is common to encounter breast cancer awareness when we turn on the radio, watch a local television station, drive down the street, or even log on to Facebook. Everyone from banks to local sports franchises promote the cause. When examining the visual phenomenon associated with breast cancer awareness in Edmonton it is impossible to ignore the pink ribbon and how it enters our everyday gaze. In this blog we will examine the ways in which breast cancer awareness is reproduced as a visual phenomenon in Edmonton’s public space. We will focus on breast cancer events and institutions, the association of the colour pink and the pink ribbon in reproducing breast cancer awareness, and its appearance on various commodities. We examine this phenomenon using Marxism and semiotics.

Takin’ it to the Streets (and sidewalks)

It is apparent that Edmontonians are passionate about raising money and awareness for breast cancer. This can be seen in the numerous events and public displays around the city. Some of these community displays are the CIBC Run for the Cure, the Weekend to End Breast Cancer Walk, and the Facebook bra colour status updates. All these events demonstrate that Edmontonians are concerned about breast cancer and feel action must be taken. Citizens recognize breast cancer as a threat to women, but how has this become such a common concern? One way to answer this question is from a Gramscian perspective. According to Gramsci, “the basic premise of hegemony is […] that man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas” (Bates 1975, 351). From this view, the hegemonic idea of raising breast cancer awareness compels people to get out in the city (or online) and participate in these events. These events are evidence that people are convinced raising money to find a cure is the solution to the problem. The idea to find a cure has become hegemonic since it is widely accepted and is not challenged; it is seen as common sense. Ideas surrounding breast cancer have become leading ideas, causing Edmontonians to focus on this particular form of cancer over other equally deadly cancers and diseases. Moreover, the focus on finding a cure for breast cancer, in form of treatment rather than prevention, is an example of hegemony. Edmonton has succeeded in mobilizing people to find a cure; maybe focus on prevention is the next step.

Mass participation in breast cancer awareness events is the manifestation of the breast cancer ideology in material institutions. Breast cancer awareness events and foundations reproduce the breast cancer ideology. These events and foundations belong to what Althusser calls the Ideological State Apparatus that he says belong to the private domain and function through ideology (1971,13). In Edmonton, the breast cancer movement is organized largely by private organizations such as Sorrentino's Restaurant Group, the Oilers, CIBC, and Shoppers Drug Mart; not by the public domain. Althusser contends that ideologies are “realized in institutions, in their rituals and their practices” (1971, 40). Practices such as wearing breast cancer fashions, donating money, and running or walking for breast cancer are the concrete materialization of ideology – they are what people do. Edmontonians are interpellated by these events; as the ideological system “hail[s] social subjects and tell[s] them their place in the system” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 446). It is through the material institution of breast cancer that people come to recognize themselves as supporters, survivors and potential victims of breast cancer.

Pink Ribbon!? …Who Says? Tying Ribbons to Meanings

The colour pink is associated with breast cancer. In the YouTube video, Breast Cancer Awareness: A Visual in the City of Edmonton, some Edmontonians were asked “what colour stands out in your mind that is associated with breast cancer awareness?” The resounding response was pink. A possible semiotic explanation of this connection comes from Roland Barthes. He professed that a sign consists of a signifier and the signified (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 29). The signifier (image) in this context would be the colour pink and the signified is the concept of breast cancer (awareness). To Ferdinand de Saussure, “language […] depends on conventions and codes for its meanings” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 28). His theory states, “meanings change according to context” (Ibid.). Although Saussure focused on language, his concepts can be applied to the colour pink. In other contexts the colour may not be associated with breast cancer, but is still associated with femininity. However when the colour is used in other contexts, such as on a pink ribbon, it is linked to breast cancer. This is an example of intertextuality; “referencing one text within another” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 446). In general, ribbons are cultural icons used to raise awareness for causes and the colour pink is associated with femininity. In context, people put these two meanings together, causing the pink ribbon to signify breast cancer. These meanings are both connotative and effective because they appear natural, yet are socially constructed. This exemplifies Sassure’s idea that language works through arbitrary conventions (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 28). Our society has arbitrarily assigned the pink ribbon to mean breast cancer awareness. A pink ribbon has no natural relation to breast cancer, it is a cultural construction whose interpretation is unique to our specific culture. If someone from a place isolated from our culture came to Edmonton, the pink ribbon would mean nothing to him or her.

Breasts as a Commodity: The Commodification of Breast Cancer Awareness

Commodity fetishism is “the process through which commodities are emptied of the meaning or their production” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 435). When the pink ribbon is featured on commodities, it is emptied of its meaning because people are forgetting the ribbons intentions. They are no longer purchasing the ribbon solely to support cancer but instead purchase a product that happens to have a ribbon on it. These breast cancer products are selling a style, which is appealing to people not because they are supporting breast cancer but because by owning the product, they portray a certain image that identifies them as being a supporter. This can be seen in the YouTube video when Edmontonians are asked if wearing the colour pink or the pink ribbon is a style choice. The majority of the respondents said that they believed people are wearing pink and the pink ribbon as a style choice rather than to support breast cancer awareness.

The placement of the pink ribbon on material goods has led to its commodification into a marketable product. This commodification is likely the reason people in the video see the pink ribbon as a style choice. People are able to purchase items such as t-shirts, hats, water bottles, and even hockey sticks that feature the pink ribbon graphic. From a Marxist perspective, the commodification of the pink ribbon poses an interesting question. Are companies exploiting the connotative meaning of the pink ribbon to support their own interests? Not only are companies such as TPS with pink ribbon hockey stick making profit from the sale of the stick, but they are also creating an image for themselves as being philanthropists. This cause-related marketing creates a “wholesome image” for the company that will likely lead to increased profits. A Marxist may also point out how companies are exploiting the public; they pull on the heartstrings of people who have been affected in some way by breast cancer. These products are unique commodities because they make people feel good about themselves for supporting the cause, but the consumer also purchase material item; something they may have purchased anyways in some cases. It is a win-win situation for corporations and consumers; both receive an image boost and get what they need.


Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and philosophy, and other essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Bates, Thomas R. 1975. Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony. Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (2): 351-356.

Struken, Marita, and Cartwright, Maria. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Second ed. New York, NY.: Oxford University Press Inc.

Interesting Links

Oilers use Power of Pink Ribbon to Fight Breast Cancer

Weekend to end breast cancer

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation

Sorrentino's Compassion House

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