Breast cancer’s handbag campaign: sexist, puerile, insulting

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop

11 October 2010

In honour of breast cancer awareness month I left the following status update on facebook:

“Elizabeth likes it on the table so I can throw up in it, because all the handbag lala jokes are sexist gender stereotyping and objectification. All women are good for apparently is being shagged while hanging off some hook around the house.”

I wasn’t being a killjoy, simply noting that what seems like a bit of playful fun in the name of a good cause, is actually reaffirming all kinds of denigrating ideas around the subject of gender.

In the run up to October, girls received an online rally to leave a facebook status update saying where they keep their handbag: “likes it on the coffee table,” “likes it on the passenger seat”. Key to this game being to keep its real meaning a secret from the titillated boys (snigger snigger).

Our society has a 20 second attention span, and is obsessed with a selfish consumerism and the objectification of women. So what better way to support a good cause than by getting women to sexualise and trivialise themselves through a meaningless, banal and effortless activity.

The emails urging the activity said things like “Come on girls let’s show the boys how powerful we are”. Of course there’s loads of power in pretending to hang from the banister 24 hours a day waiting for random penetration.

All that actually happened is men thought their female friends were proffering their wares online. And women believed that writing a five word vapid status update made them a good citizen.

It’s a veneer of frivolous fun but with a subtext that is not funny at all. And it’s for a good cause that would benefit from a $5 donation rather than from inanity, and a cause which should frankly know better.

The whole pink ribbon thing, last year’s what colour is your bra facebook campaign, and now this handbag tosh: Apparently being a woman is all about bras, handbags, liking pink and being a sex object. Great. If a woman has a mastectomy there’s a big coming to terms with losing an aspect of her femininity. So why is the organisation responsible for helping her, making the concept of ‘woman’ and ‘femininity’ be so narrow and gender polarised?

Meanwhile the smug moral authority accompanying the questioning of these status updates “Oh I know someone with breast cancer” “Oh it’s all for a good cause” is not good enough. One breast cancer survivor wrote to Salon saying:

“As a double mastectomy two-time cancer survivor, I was deeply hurt by the last meme … It was not a harmless game. It was a slap in the face for some of us who no longer need bras because of breast cancer… Playing games in the name of breast cancer, or purchasing pink products that donate a penny to the cause, is just insulting. Cancer is not pretty. It’s not pink. And it’s definitely not flirty. It’s a deadly, bloody, nasty disease, and it’s killing me.”

And I can think of at least five reasons why men should not be excluded from breast cancer (total lack of) awareness campaigns: 1. Men and transgender individuals also suffer from breast cancer 2. Women with breast cancer need the support of men in their family and community 3. Breast cancer charities need the financial support of men 4. Making something a ‘woman’s issue’ does nothing to gain support for it at a wider societal level – the level at which substantive change happens 5. Making in-jokes at the expense of the opposite sex is about as 70s / seaside postcard / Les Dawson (“what’s the difference between my mother in law and a bag of walnuts”) as you get. As a society haven’t we moved on from that? Or at least don’t we want to have?

As one male friend of mine said “I asked my wife what her facebook status meant and she told me it was a women only thing. As far as publicity campaigns go that is about as daft as you get.”

Of all the facebook updates in the campaign this is my favourite: “I don’t have a handbag, and I’m not about to reveal my bra colour, but breast cancer kills so you should check your boobs regularly. If you’re a bloke in a family where the women have had breast cancer you should check yours too.’

So much more powerful than the pathetic giggling girls at the back of the class, skirts hoiked up for the boys.

Liberty & Humanity

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