Telling stories about cancer is a hazardous endeavor. So many books, movies and television episodes have exploited the subject for easy, mawkish sentimentality. It’s almost reached the point of dog whistle manipulation — “Look, this person has cancer. Now cry. Cry.” John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars was written as a conscious effort to avoid these pitfalls. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if he succeeded. But I have seen the new movie based on the book, and I know that it does not.
The Fault in Our Stars opens with the main character narrating to the audience how the events that follow are “The truth. Sorry.” That “sorry,” a semi-ironic wink, is there to immediately set the film apart from, say, a Hallmark movie. But while it tries to talk a tough, emotionally honest game, it doesn’t follow through on it. The truth is that the movie is just as nakedly, unashamedly manipulative as any other critically derided cancer movie. And no amount of philosophical pretension can cover that up. I choose Pink Ribbons, Inc. as a documentary alternative not because it is also a movie about cancer but because it really picks apart the way we treat cancer in our culture.
Specifically, Pink Ribbons, Inc. looks at the commodification of the breast cancer treatment movement. Companies like Avon and Estee Lauder have made millions through selling pink-colored products and passing on some of the profits to treatment research. Susan G. Komen for the Cure is one of the most trusted brands in America. And yet what good do they actually do for their cause? Many of the products these corporations sell contain known or suspected carcinogens. Most of their donations go toward a semi-mythical “cure” instead of prevention or early detection, which are methods far more likely to save lives. As time goes on, more and more companies are getting in on “pinkwashing.” It’s an easy way to look like one is doing something with very little real effort.
This is a crucial issue. The rah-rah, super-positive, oppressively pink tone pushed by these companies obfuscates many of the grimmer realities of cancer. In one sequence, the movie visits the IV League, a support group for women with terminal diagnoses. They feel left behind by the movement. In its terms, which have a heavy emphasis on ideas like “winning” “battles” against cancer, they are losers. And this is an attitude that pervades all talk about cancer, though the movie does not branch out beyond discussion of breast cancer. We’re so uncomfortable with death that we try to frame disease as a war that can be won with pluck and tenacity, rather than a complex issue with strong scientific ties and many uncomfortable truths. These truths include the fact that, sooner or later, some disease is likely to kill each of us, no matter what we do.
The Fault in Our Stars pays lip service to such realities. But it’s ruminations on death are shallow and trite, cloaked in legitimacy by the fact that its young protagonists are dying. But that doesn’t make what they say any more meaningful. You can tell it was based on a book written by someone who has never had to stare death in the face. Pink Ribbons, Inc. features women who actually are grappling with their impending mortality. And it has something real to say, something that can and will make people uncomfortable, because it directly clashes with the popular ideas about “races for the cure” and mail-in yogurt lids. And it does so without a cutesy fake apology to the audience.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. is currently available to stream on Netflix and to rent or buy on iTunes. The DVD is also available from First Run Features.