The charity Rethink Breast Cancer, which just produced a moronic video to “raise awareness” of breast cancer? Or LA Times reporter Dan Neil, who thinks this ad, entitled “Save the Boobs,” is a swell idea? (I think something may be rising and swelling, but I highly doubt it’s awareness.)
Jeff Fecke of Alas has already laid out the main reason why this ad is objectionable: However compelling breasts may be, and however much pleasure he may take in them, they don’t trump the well-being of the whole woman.
I can think of a few more gripes. The ad implies that the breasts are worth our sympathy are big, bold, and bodacious. Those of us who have A and B cups, or who don’t choose to wear skimpy bikinis, or whose sexuality is just more private – well, our breasts just don’t command that sort of “awareness.”
The breasts that deserve care are obviously young. They haven’t nourished babies. They haven’t drooped due to the changes of pregnancy, nursing, or just plain old gravity and time.
I’m trying to imagine how I’d feel if I’d undergone a mastectomy or lumpectomy and then seen this ad. I had a breast cancer scare that went on for about a year. I had lots of time to wonder if a lumpectomy would leave my left breast completely misshapen; indeed, if anything whatsoever would be left of it. Peggy Orenstein has written of the scars left by just lumpectomy and radiation, and her experience sounds to be fairly common among us small-breasted women. Maybe I’d be self-confident enough not to care. More likely, I’d already feel insecure about my scars, and an ad flaunting “perfect” breasts in the context of breast cancer would feel like another blow.
Does raising awareness really require an ad that might lower breast cancer survivors’ self-esteem?
For that matter, is there any sentient adult in American who’s not already “aware” of breast cancer? Even my young sons know about it. They comment on the pink Yoplait lids and worry about the Bear’s teacher, who’s undergoing treatment.
I’m not sure we need more “awareness.” What we need is research targeting more effective, less harsh treatments that go beyond the “slash, burn, and poison” paradigm that we’ve had for the past half-century. We need a better understanding of breast cancer’s pathogenesis, including the role of toxins and other environmental factors. We need to hear the stories of women undergoing treatment. We need to unveil the brutality of treatment, not just so patients know what to expect, but also to light a fire under the asses of the legislators and other government officials who can choose to fund research, or not. And we need this not just for breast cancer, but for cancer in each of its ugly guises.
Instead, we get this drivel from Dan Neil in the LA Times:
If this were a Budweiser commercial, the bluestockings, psalm singers and family focusers would be going completely mental, but in this case the morals police have no grounds to object unless they want to come off as somehow pro-breast cancer.
In recent years, the increasing frankness of breast cancer PSAs has been a bright spot of adult sensibility in what is Americans’ generally neurotic relationship to the female anatomy. Bear in mind that our national dialogue was brought to an inane standstill when Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly exposed during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Compared to the “Save the Boobs” spot, Jackson might as well have been wearing a burqa.
Also, this ad — and a couple more like it — represent one of the few occasions when the male tendency to objectify the female body is put to good use, as opposed to selling beer and premium football cable packages. They seem to answer a question that must have nagged breast-cancer-awareness advocates: How to get men to care? With rare exceptions, men don’t suffer from breast cancer. The earnest, sad-violins spots invoking moms and grand-moms of the past probably haven’t gained much traction among men.
Feminist film theory has a name for the camera’s eye here: The “male gaze,” which is to say, the camera’s view is that of the male spectator and unseen protagonist regarding the female as an object (cf. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”). This is the camera’s-eye of pornography and it’s inherently misogynistic. The “Save the Boobs” spot spoofs the male gaze and turns it into something positive.
This isn’t awareness; this is objectification. Dan Neil has some nerve, using feminist film theory as cover! Did anyone see the male gaze being “spoofed” in this ad? Nope, me neither. I’m confident Laura Mulvey wouldn’t, either; she’d just see scopophilia: erotic pleasure derived from a controlling, objectifying gaze, which is male or at least male-identified. And by the way, Janet Jackson got flak because she exposed a nipple, which this ad never does. Women have been showing this much flesh ever since Baywatch, at the latest; it’s the nipple that remains taboo. A niggling point, maybe, but also further evidence that Neil’s critical faculties shut down while watching that ad. Oh, and objecting to this ad on feminist grounds has nothing to do with moralism or neurosis. For me, part of being “sex positive” is insisting that women can be agents of their own desire and not mere objects of men’s lust.
Making breast cancer sexy won’t solve a damn thing. Any of us who’ve lived with cancer, first-hand or in our immediate family, knows that it’s the diametric opposite of sexy. Cancer does its best to replace life with death, vigor with fatigue, comfort with nausea and pain. The pleasures of the body are undermined by alienation from one’s own flesh, which is now treacherous and unreliable.
Indeed, the sexualization of breasts has never helped Americans deal more intelligently with breast cancer. In the bad old days before the late 1970s, the stigma of breast cancer wasn’t just a consequence of cancer generally being hush-hush. It also stemmed from the fact that breasts meant sex, and sex wasn’t often openly discussed before the 1970s.
Titillation won’t bring back the old taboos, but it still trivializes the problem. I don’t think such ads need to be tearjerkers. When cancer takes up residence in your family, black humor can be a saving grace. But this ad isn’t particularly funny, nor is a joke between people who’ve been there. It’s using a deadly disease to justify objectifying women one more time – and if that seems too simpleminded, well, it worked with Dan Neil.
If you’re still inclined to give Neil the benefit of the doubt, here’s one last bon mot from him:
The only people who could object to such ads are advocates for other kinds of cancer awareness. Women don’t gossip behind their hands about the largeness of a man’s prostate as if it’s a good thing. These breast cancer ads are tapping into a built-in constituency that doesn’t exist for other organs. Unfair but true.
Um, no, women don’t chat about prostate size, but most of us know that our male partners’ sexual health depends on a healthy prostate. Damage or remove the prostate, and erectile function will almost always suffer. And dude, if you think there’s not a bipartisan and pan-gender constituency for erections, I’ve got news for you!
But I doubt we’ll see an equivalent ad for prostate cancer awareness in my lifetime. A tanned, muscular young man striding shirtless around a pool … the camera zooms in on his Speedo … women gape at him as his man-parts jiggle … and begin to bulge and rise … the screen fades to white with stark black lettering: “Save the Boners.”
That’s not an ad I’d especially want to see, either. But Neil’s implication that women don’t care about their partners’ sexual health – including erectile function – isn’t just stupid, it’s sexist. It’s also heterosexist, because some of the women who appreciate “boobs” are other women – duh! And apart from sexual politics, it’s plain heartless to focus so much on individual organs, because as much as we might appreciate our partners’ parts, we love them as whole people. When cancer strikes, we want them to survive as whole people. That might be a little hard to capture in a 60-second ad, but ads could at least refrain from sabotaging it. Or am I asking too much?