As many of us are aware, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Despite the relative longevity of this particular disease awareness campaign, I remain intrigued by the story behind the origin of the Susan G. Komen foundation, one wherein Komen’s sister, Nancy Brinker, described her desire to start a foundation to raise awareness about breast cancer at a time (the early 1980s) when the diagnosis was still surrounded with secrecy and stigma.
One reason for my ongoing interest is that I wonder if the stigma surrounding breast cancer has been lifted or if it has merely changed. It is true that we are now able to openly discuss breast cancer in a way we never did before, and it is also true that much more money goes to breast cancer research now than in past decades. Yet if stigmas are nothing more than public attitudes that create social liabilities for those who bear them, then perhaps something more is going on.
Although there have been legitimate questions about the financing of and actual benefits provided by breast cancer awareness organizations (both the Komen Foundation and the NFL have recently come under fire for a variety of reasons), my interest lies more with the symbols that have been used over the past few years to generate this thing that we call “breast cancer awareness.” In particular, the infamous “Save the Tatas” slogan focused our cultural attention on an unexpected — dare I say even positive — message about breast cancer: It has humor value.
Many have rightly argued that these slogans are spectacularly offensive (consider also similar sayings that gained popularity, like “Save Second Base!” and “Save the Jugs!”). Yet I am interested in situating these slogans as part of a set of cultural attitudes towards breast cancer that Barbara Ehrenreich has very poignantly described as something like a cult of perpetual cheerfulness. She notes that this can be a tremendous liability to those suffering from the disease, who are often encouraged to think of cancer “as a gift” and to “keep on smiling!” even as they face their own mortality, having been told (wrongly, she notes) that an air of happiness is critical to their recovery. In an excerpt from her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Ehrenreich remarks:
Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift”, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.
Rather than a paean to pessimism, Ehrenreich’s much larger argument is that resorting to perpetual optimism is a particularly good way for societies to ignore real people and real problems. With this in mind, I can’t help but see some powerful links between the type of lowbrow humor generated by the “tatas” reference and the sort of attitudinal constraints that Ehrenreich describes. If we think critically about the longstanding feminist critique of the ways in which patriarchal culture has tended to interpret women’s anger and outrage as a sign of irrationality rather than a legitimate response to discouragement and struggle, then it becomes tenable to see the “tatas” reference as well as the cult of perpetual cheerfulness as merely different points on the same sexist spectrum — one that deals with women’s misfortune by turning them into jokes at the worst, but, at best, turns their suffering into something more tamed, palatable, and ultimately, diminished.
Keeping in mind that objectification is a process whereby part of a thing symbolically substitutes for the whole, it thus seems that processing cancer as something funny is itself such an act, for I can think of no other region of the body to which we would refer using this degree of humor and/or ridiculous and degrading euphemism. We do not speak to each other about saving prostates, testicles (or “‘nads,” if we’re going to talk about “jugs” or “tatas”), parts of colons and lungs. No, these body parts are never confused with the whole person. They are rarely ever part of a public punchline.
As much as stigmas are signs of enduring power relations, it is perhaps better to think about them as things that shift and move as they reflect the dynamism of social relations rather than things that materialize and then disappear into thin air. It is true that silence certainly can kill when it comes to something like breast cancer, but whether “laughter heals” (the official slogan of savethetatas.com) is a complex claim that, at least in the socio-critical sense, disguises far more than it exposes.