Save the People, Not the Boobies: The Ethics of Breast Cancer Awareness

Few ad campaigns make me as misanthropic as the breast cancer awareness ones I’ve been seeing at an especially high volume for the past month:

There’s also this video (NSFW).

I hate these campaigns for many reasons. First of all, they make breast cancer all about boobs. Yes, it has “breast” in the name, but reducing an illness as complex and life-shattering as breast cancer into a cutesy “save the boobies!” campaign seems callous and inappropriate.

I’m not sure everyone would even agree that the prospect of losing your breasts is the worst thing about breast cancer, and yet that’s what these campaigns almost universally target. It’s not the “boobies” or “ta-tas” that need to be saved–it’s the human beings who have breast cancer.

It’s even worse when the campaigns are created by and/or targeted at men and involve that hint-hint-nudge-nudge assumption that men should care about breast cancer because men love tits. Never mind that men can get breast cancer too, and never mind that men care about breast cancer not (just) because they care about boobs, but also because they care about their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and etc. who might get breast cancer, or who already have.

Campaigns like these also completely ignore women who have chosen (or been forced to) undergo mastectomies. If breast cancer research and awareness is all about “saving the boobies,” does losing your breasts mean you’ve lost the fight?

This preoccupation with breasts is probably what inspires awful ads like this one by the Cancer Patients Aid Association, an Indian NGO:

The text at the bottom reads, “One out of every eight women develops breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection helps recovery. Get yourself examined before it’s too late.” So there you have it. If you get a mastectomy, you’re “making yourself ugly.”

This is all to say nothing of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the hypocrisy and reactionism of which should by now be well-known. (Incidentally, the former Komen executive who was responsible for that move was not content with merely that; she just had to write a book-length screed against Planned Parenthood, as well.) This unethical organization seems to be the beneficiary of most (if not all) of the sexualized ads I’ve seen. I still refuse to give them a single cent, which is difficult given how easy it is to accidentally pick up one of those pink-ribbon-branded products at the grocery store.

On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to explain what feminists mean when we prattle on about “objectification” and “sexualization,” which are closely related concepts that often (but not always) occur together. Objectification is the reduction of a person to their body parts (usually the sexual ones; hence the frequent co-occurence of objectification and sexualization). An advertisement that objectifies women might show, for instance, a single female leg in front of a flashy car, or a woman lying in a martini glass–literally like an object to be consumed. Sometimes men are objectified too, but that seems to be rarer. Ads that objectify people often don’t show their faces (or eyes), thus making them seem less like people and more like bodies.

Sexualization, meanwhile, is when a person (again, usually a woman) is represented in such a way as to arouse the viewer or otherwise connote sex when the actual purpose of the representation has nothing to do with sex at all. You wouldn’t call pornography “sexualization” because the purpose of pornography is to depict sexual acts and to be arousing. But when an advertisement designed to sell cars or alcohol–or solicit donations for breast cancer research–portrays women in a sexual way, that’s sexualization.

The objectification and sexualization of women in the media has a great deal of negative effects, both on an individual level–for the people who view them–and on a cultural level. Check out the work of Jean Kilbourne if that interests you.

However, I am not a marketing expert. If I were, and if I were charged with designing an ad campaign that elicits as much attention and donations for breast cancer research as possible, there’s a good chance I would feel compelled to create an ad like this, because there’s a good chance that this is the kind of ad that works best.

Hence the misanthropy I mentioned earlier. Marketing people know what they’re doing. If this is really the best way to get people to pay attention to this important cause, I would say that not using ads like these is even more unethical than using them–at least until we shift our culture enough that we don’t need them anymore. But that still means that we’re choosing the lesser of two evils. I would rather more money went to breast cancer research than less, but I would also rather we stopped reducing women to their erogenous zones in our media.

After all, I don’t agree with this rubbish that men are “programmed” or “hardwired” by biology to be obsessed with breasts, at least not to the level that our society seems to think they are. As I already discussed when I wrote about public breastfeeding, the sexualization of breasts is not universal to all cultures and time periods. Even if “sex sells,” breasts don’t necessarily have to always be part of “sex,” and I think it would be beneficial to our society if they were not.

For the record, whether straight men’s love of boobs is entirely biological or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon public policy or trivialize serious illnesses. Besides, you can totally be an awesome (male) feminist and a boob enthusiast at the same time.

Edit: Here’s a great article that basically makes my point for me.

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On Girlcotts

The fact that Abercrombie & Fitch tried to market a push-up bikini top for pre-pubescent girls is old news now, but I read an interesting post on Fbomb about it and whether or not a “girlcott” would be effective. This got me thinking about the concept of “girlcotts” and of personal boycotts in general.

[Random aside: How would a push-up top work if there’s nothing there to push up? Anyways.]

The Fbomb post mentions a so-called “girlcott” led by the Women and Girls Association of Pennsylvania against stupid stuff from Abercrombie in the past. Apparently, it turned out to be effective and Abercrombie stopped selling the stupid stuff in question (though, of course, its shelves are still overflowing with various other crap.)

However, egregious overthinker that I am, I naturally have a problem with the term “girlcott” in the first place. Namely–and the people protesting these sort of issues would do well to recognize it–this is not a women’s issue. This is everybody’s issue. It should not be just women boycotting stores that sell products like this. There are men who don’t want to see these things marketed to their daughters and little sisters. There are men who refuse to buy into our society’s fetishization of little girls, who find themselves sexually attracted to women who look like women, not women who look like prepubescent girls. While men obviously wouldn’t be shopping for this stuff, framing this issue as one that only women should and do care about only robs us of potential allies.

Clearly, this neologism is a response to the perceived gender-specificity of the original word, “boycott.” However, some quick Wikipedia research has uncovered the fact that the word actually comes from someone’s name (specifically, that of Captain Charles Boycott) and has nothing to do with boys whatsoever. Furthermore, the solution to gender-specific words is not more gender-specific words, it’s gender-neutral words.

My second issue with this whole concept stems from a point brought up later in the Fbomb post, which discusses the idea of personally choosing not to shop at a certain store in order to make a point. I have mixed feelings about this. If you’re doing it for your own personal comfort and integrity–as in, you’d feel uncomfortable shopping at a store that doesn’t share your values–then sure. But it definitely annoys me when people think that they’re actually going to have an impact on the store itself if they refuse to shop there. If that’s what you want to do, organize a protest.

At any rate, nobody’s going to care that you personally refuse to shop there. At most, you’ll be preventing yourself from owning things you potentially like and making no impact whatsoever. It just doesn’t make sense.