Absolutely Safe. Directed by Carol Ciancutti-Leyva. New York: Amaranth Productions, 2008. 83 minutes.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. Directed by Léa Pool. Montreal: The National Film Board, 2011. 98 minutes.

Reviewed by Chad Hammond

The following films explore two very different issues that converge upon political and cultural “handlings” of women’s breasts. They remain relevant for any pedagogical setting focused on exploring the ways in which governmental, for-profit, and nonprofit organizations affect and exploit women’s bodies in the name of health.

Absolutely Safe is an ironic title as the film strives to reveal the flawed rhetoric of innocuity around breast implants. Demonstrating that the Food and Drug Administration’s stance on the safety and integrity of implants is entangled with the interests of profiting manufacturers and plastic surgeons, the film makes the point that women considering the procedure are misinformed about the product’s detrimental health effects. Viewers are taken through the personal journeys of two women: Deneé is a young middle-class wife who undergoes breast implants without her husband’s financial or emotional support, believing it is her “birthright” as a woman to have (larger) breasts; and Wendy is a former exotic dancer and single mom who is convinced her implants are causing a series of health issues and has them removed. However, the film is as much about the plastic surgeons carrying out these operations and their professional (male) gaze toward women with/wanting/removing/criticizing implants: Dr. Franklin Rose walks the profession’s line touting the unequivocal safety of implants as he inserts 375cc of silicone into Deneé; and, by contrast, Dr. Edward Melmed appears as a solitary objector by doing what most surgeons won’t—explant.

The film is insightful in its presentation of a controversial issue. It leans heavily to one side, situating the practice of breast implantation within hegemonic notions of beauty “operating” on women’s bodies. The best fodder for fueling this perspective is when Dr. Rose claims with heavy condescension that women have “always wanted” to modify their bodies to be more confident in themselves and more appealing to men, and that his profession is there simply to fill such needs. The film rightfully scrutinizes this position, but on the other hand, its overall framing of the issue also tends to simplify women’s desires. Deneé stands in for the young, naïve woman who alters her body for “beauty,” while Wendy takes the place of an older, disillusioned woman who knows it’s not worth the suffering. This film draws out the extreme positions, but does so by erasing the gray spaces between. Nevertheless, it can serve as a starting point for interrogating the politics of cosmetic surgery (and of women’s beauty in general) within the classroom.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. shows another way in which industries colonize women’s bodies, with particular emphasis on how this comes about through breast cancer philanthropy in North America. The pink ribbon is the accepted symbol for breast cancer, which, as the film explains, has been co-opted by corporate entities to increase their sales. The unfolding narrative of the film shows a transmogrified form of philanthropy emerging over the last few decades; citizen-led pressure for improved governmental and corporate responsibility in addressing the causes of breast cancer has given way to today’s often un-politicized, corporate-sponsored feel-good messaging that deflects critical evaluation and redirects responsibility upon individuals. A few major nonprofit charities are headlined in the film, such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Avon Foundation, as well as their questionable partnerships with corporations that appear to have insidious conflicts of interest.

Impressively constructed and persuasive, Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a documentary of substantial analysis. Above all, the film teaches us that all cancer campaigns (awareness, fundraising, or other) have the potential to perpetuate the status quo and to channel mass desires for social change into docile forms of action. The film is motivated by a deep anger over the exploitation of women’s suffering to advance profits, public relations agendas, and vacuous rhetoric. Its politicized ire is complemented sensitively by recognition of the deep sorrow and the blazing motivation among people who do (and do not) participate in breast cancer philanthropy—people who have lost loved ones, feel helpless, and want to “do something” (one notable exception is Nancy Brinker, whose own story of losing her younger sister, Susan Komen, and founding a charity in her name could have been honored). Given the dominance of positivity discourses in (breast) cancer culture in North America, the film refreshingly advocates for the power of anger, sadness, and critical attitudes to push for improvement in the lives of women with cancer. The most appropriate supplements to this film would be Samantha King’s book of the same name, upon which the movie was based, or for a more compact critique see Barbara Ehrenreich’s fierce essay in Harper’s Magazine, “Welcome to Cancerland” (she and King are also co-discussants in the film).1

Both films show how women’s breasts have been colonized by capitalist interests under the guises of health and beauty. A useful resource to accompany either film would be a very recent critical sociological text The Body: Social and Cultural Dissections, which has a chapter devoted specifically to breasts, uses plenty of concrete examples, and supplies discussion questions at the end of each chapter—perfect for facilitating class engagement with the films.2

1 Barbara Ehrenreich, “Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch,” Harper’s, November, 2001, 43-53; Samantha King, Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

2 Lisa Jean Moore and Monica J. Casper, The Body: Social and Cultural Dissections (New York: Routledge, 2015).

Chad Hammond is a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He is a critical and cultural psychologist currently studying discourses of cancer survivorship among First Nations women with cancer.