Saturday, April 10, 2010



The pink ribbon has become a symbol for breast cancer awareness and is known worldwide. The revolution of this sign can be interpreted by looking at semiotics, specifically the works of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes. In 1916, Ferdinand de Saussure coined the term semiology, the ways in which things are vehicles for meaning (Sturken and Cartwright 2010). Roland Barthes adapted the ideas of Saussure in his own model of the visual representation system. He centered his work on interpreting signs and how these signs take on the ideological or connotative meanings in our civilization. He stated that “every message includes at least one level of expression, or level of signifiers, and one level of content, or level of signifieds; the junction of these two levels forms the sign” (Barthes 1986, 84). The signifier is the sound, word or image indicating its denotative or literal meaning. The signified is the mental concept evoked by the signifier. The knowledge and values of the viewer, discourses, and historical and cultural contexts of the signifier influence this meaning. Once this is established, we perceive the sign as the associative total of the signifier and signified (Barthes 1986). As the signifier-signified relationship proliferates through society its separation is hard to distinguish. This association is what the pink ribbon has established with breast cancer awareness.

When looking at Barthes model there is an importance put on the denotative and connotative meanings. We initially look at the first order denotative meaning which gives us the literal sense and we then proceed more thoroughly into the realm of connotative meaning (Allen 2003, 50). How we respond to this last level of signification is of the ultimate importance, which Barthes styles in terms of the ‘rhetorical code’, and it depends on the context in which the statement is presented (Allen 2003, 51). Barthes theory lets the combination of the denotative meaning and connotative meaning come together to give us the images meaning, however it also depends on the context the image is placed in. For the Pink Ribbon example the denotative meaning is the pink ribbon, while the connotative meaning is based on the emotion the ribbon portrays. The rhetorical code is crucial as it involves the worldview or ideological sign which the creator wants the reader to realize (Allen 2003, 51). When it comes to the pink ribbon the context can be important, as the ribbon can be displayed by many people using numerous forms such as fundraising events, everyday objects such as a keychain, and through corporate partners.

Barthes believed that every sign comes from the signifier and signified, and doesn’t take into consideration the interpretation of signs by unique individuals and their own personal experiences. His theory is rooted in the fact that every sign comes from this pairing of signifier and signified and can lose the influence of the individual viewer. Barthes fails to see that the connotative signifier presupposes the interpretant and the sign presupposes the interpretant (Tejera 1988, 175). With breast cancer and the pink ribbon, people initially draw on personal experience towards the symbol and can be drawn to this emotion right off the start. One of Barthes more famous examples of the semiotics model is of the rose. He explained that roses were a signifier of the signified, passion, something signified by the roses sent to a loved one. Strinati argues that this has its flaws, because the roses could signify passion but also could be sent as a joke, a farewell, or for many other reasons. (Strinati 1995, 125)

This can be the case with the pink ribbon as it can take on multiple meanings such as hope, remembrance, or even commercialization depending on how one displays it, or how it is viewed. Both the viewer and the creator have their own experiences and reasons. You cannot simply understand symbols in terms of the system of signs, you need to locate the context of the social relationships in where the acknowledgment of meaning is found (Strinati 1995, 125). There can’t be a complete and objective meaning to analyzing signs, just as there can’t be a complete meaning to the pink ribbons.

The symbol of breast cancer awareness seems to be natural to us today, but it was in fact constructed by Charlotte Haley in 1992. It was then refined by Evelyn Lauder and Alexandra Penney to become the ribbon we see today. Haley was initially using a peach ribbon to raise awareness of the disease that had struck her family, but she would not sell out her concept to commercialization (, History). This impelled Lauder and Penney to change the ribbon color to pink, giving birth to the sign we now see today. This revelation can be understood using Roland Barthes concept of the sign. Barthes model combines the signifier (the pink ribbon) with the mental concept (breast cancer), which is then combined to represent the awareness and fight against breast cancer. The signification of breast cancer awareness is showcased as a united front around the world and has created a strong relationship with the image of the pink ribbon.

This symbol has spread through dominant modes of representation in our society, specifically visual culture. It can be seen in many forms throughout Edmonton and the world. Our perspective and meaning that the pink ribbon displays has been influenced by these styles of representation. This is similar to the Marxist perspective, in that “those who own the means of production are also in control of the ideas and viewpoints produced and circulated in a society’s media venues” (Sturken and Cartwright 2010, 69). Therefore the media, newspapers, corporations and other influential institutions have power over how the pink ribbon is portrayed. Firms such as CIBC and M&M’s have latched onto this cause and it is tough to decipher if their involvement is solely for public relations or if they are truly invested in the cause. This had led to a divide between breast cancer supporters, those who believe the commercialization of the ribbon is exploited for revenue and those who believe it has added value to the cause. Currently on the Pink Ribbon website there is a poll asking this very question:

The pink ribbon is also seen as an icon to many people. “An icon is an image that refers to something outside its individual components” (Sturken and Cartwright 2010, 36). It has great symbolic meaning to anyone who has been directly influenced by breast cancer, and also is realized by nearly the entire populous. This icon is identified universally as a sign of breast cancer awareness and the battle to end the disease. When people display the pink ribbon it is symbolizing the fight against a disease that has taken the lives of millions of women and also showcases the continued fight against this plight by survivors. The pink ribbon is both a symbol of hope and one of remembrance. It is used by corporate partners, individual fundraisers, and the general public. This vast, diverse acknowledgement and use of the ribbon has allowed it to gain significant value throughout the world.

In order for the pink ribbon to maintain its natural association to breast cancer awareness every community, city, province, state and country will have to continue to use and strengthen this relationship. Increasing globalization allows the circulation of the pink ribbon to be displayed in many visual forms around the world. We look at the ways in which Edmonton, Alberta, Canada uses the pink ribbon to gain awareness for breast cancer. Merchandisers, promotional event hosts, organizations and the general public have recognized the importance of visual culture as a way to maintain and inform individuals of the awareness of breast cancer using the pink ribbon. Below is a powerpoint presentation of the many roles Edmonton plays in establishing and maintaining this worldwide icon through utilizing the "practices of looking".


When viewing remember to double click on the screen, it will send you to youtube!


Other Links to Breast Cancer Awareness In Edmonton:

Book References:
Barthes, Roland. 1986. The Rustle of Language. Toronto: Collins Publishers.
Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright. 2nd edition. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Cultire. NewYork: Oxford Univ. Press.
V, Tejera, 1988. Semiotics from Peirce to Barthes. E.J. Brill.
Allen, Graham. 2003. Roland Barthes. London: Roultedge.V, Tejera, 1988. Semiotics from Peirce to Barthes. E.J. Brill.
Gardiner, Michael. 1992. The Dialogics of Critique: M M Bakhtin and the Theory of Ideology. London: Routledge.
Strinati, Dominic. 1995. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. London: Routledge.

Image References:
Edmonton Oilers website.
The Breast Cancer Site Store.
The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Site.
Bizrate search engine: breast cancer golf equipment.
Pink Ribbon International. About, History.
Facebook. Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure - Edmonton.
Susan G Komen Greater NYC website.
Fabutan Sun Tan Studios website.
CTV Edmonton, Pink Coin To Raise Breast Cancer Awareness, CTV News.
Official Website of the National Lacrosse League, Articles, NLL Teams & Fans Black Out Breast Cancer.
Breast Friends Dragon Boat Racing Team Edmonton, General Photo Gallery.
2007 Canadian Women’s Open-Edmonton.

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