Breast cancer Barbie

October brings Barbie and breast cancer awareness.

Published October 3, 2006 10:01PM (EDT)

How do you know it's October? It's not just pink cheeks going by you on cool fall mornings. No, it's the pink ribbons, bows, sweaters, tote bags and T-shirts that have suddenly appeared, heralding the return of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Sitting in a doctor's waiting room this weekend, I flipped through more than my usual share of fashion and fitness magazines and found them liberally doused with pink. I read good pieces on breast cancer survival and treatment, yes. But I also was somewhat taken aback by the enormous amount of merchandise -- almost all of it of a piece with Barbara Ehrenreich's famous complaints about "breast cancer culture": infantalized, girly-girl commercialism. Ehrenreich published her searing indictment of the breast cancer awareness movement in Harper's in 2001. In it, she noted that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she found herself overwhelmed by a mountain of attendant stuff: the cosmetics and jewelry, notepads, teddy bears, candy, journals and crayons. Wondering at the preponderance of cutesy toys and ribbons, Ehrenreich considered, "Possibly the idea is that regression to a state of childlike dependency puts one in the best frame of mind with which to endure the prolonged and toxic treatments. Or it may be that, in some versions of the prevailing gender ideology, femininity is by its nature incompatible with full adulthood -- a state of arrested development. Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars."

Six years after Ehrenreich's article, I noticed a two-page spread in Self magazine (and I do not mean to single out Self; it just happened to be the magazine I was reading when I decided to start taking notes, and it is the magazine that first popularized the idea of wearing pink ribbons for awareness and solidarity 15 years ago) headlined "Shop all day for a cure! ... and then dazzle all night!" It featured "treats [that] raise awareness and your mood," many of which benefit, at least partially, groups like the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and Women at Risk. Products included pink-ribbon cookies, pink lipstick, pink tennis balls, a $275 pink cashmere hoodie, pink ribbon charm bracelets, necklaces, a pink string bracelet, pink-ribbon-adorned chocolates, flip-flops and toothpaste. Admittedly, there was also a pink boxing glove and a pink snowboard. But the thing that surprised me most was the $400 pink Dyson vacuum cleaner. How is a vacuum cleaner supposed to "raise awareness" -- or, for that matter, "your mood"? A vacuum cleaner?

I had exactly the same feeling on Monday morning when I noticed that Martha Stewart's show was featuring a breast cancer doctor -- good -- and a KitchenAid pink electric mixer -- what? Do women with breast cancer want to show their support and strength by cleaning their house and then whipping up a batch of cookies? A quick search on Target also turned up pink KitchenAid hand mixers, blenders, coffee mills and a Dirt Devil.

Then a Broadsheet reader passed along a story about the new Pink Ribbon Barbie, a doll that Mattel claims "celebrates the incredible strength, beauty and resilience of women." Sales of Pink Ribbon Barbie will benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which partnered with Mattel to create the doll. Apparently, it is meant to help young girls -- whose mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins or grandmothers might be fighting breast cancer -- understand the disease. The "Barbie doll has traditionally provided a great way for mothers, and even grandmothers, to connect with their daughters," said Mattel's head of marketing.

I'm sure many of us have witnessed how dolls -- including doctor, patient and nurse dolls -- can help young children understand illness. I am not sure, however, how Pink Ribbon Barbie is going to help girls better understand what their mommies are going through. Check her out and tell me how many cancer patients battle their disease while decked out in a mermaid-style chiffon gown. And what is there to say about Barbie's glossy, towering bouffant as an expression of cancer awareness? As the reader who passed this tip along wrote, "Does [this Barbie] perform a self-exam when you push a button on its back? Are the breasts and hair removable, to prepare them for future operations and let them know it's okay?"

It certainly doesn't seem so, on either count.

Don't get me wrong. It is great -- and vitally important -- that October is busting out all over with breast cancer awareness. I should also mention that later in its pages, Self featured a Breast Cancer Handbook with a series of terrific and informative articles and an incredible album of five women who chose different treatments and were photographed topless, each describing the choices she made about mastectomy, reconstruction and implants. And I commend the companies that participate and give all or some of their profits to organizations that educate women about their health and offer support to cancer patients themselves. (It should be noted, however, that many of them also profit from sales of their ribbon-dotted products. According to Self, $40 of every $400 spent on that vacuum cleaner goes to charity. So $360 goes to Dyson.)

It's just that when all that stuff gets dressed in the buy-buy-buy mentality -- and when what we're told to buy buy buy is Barbies and vacuum cleaners and electric mixers -- it is important to remember Ehrenreich's points. In the years that she spoke regularly on the topic, Ehrenreich often noted that breast cancer activism was one cause that was largely underwritten by big companies eager to attract an older female buyer, including Revlon, Ford, Tiffany, Estée Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Saks, J.C. Penney and Wilson athletic gear. Many more of these companies have joined the list since Ehrenreich's damning article. But, she wondered during one speech, "Where were they ... when the Women's Health Movement was fighting for abortion rights and against involuntary sterilization?"

Well, I don't know about all the other companies. But back in those days, Barbie was still struggling to pass her math class.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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