This week's lecture is on women's health in the media, focusing on breast cancer. Media analysis of women's health is my THING so this week should be a fun class. I chose breast cancer despite myself (or to spite myself) because I think it is area that has been way over done. There are a bunch of media analyses of breast cancer and frankly I think academics have both contributed to and have been influenced by the breast cancer awareness raising and related pink ribboning that has consumed women's health discussions in the last decade.
I'm not against raising awareness etc., and what I say next is not directed at individual women and their experiences but is a critique of the social construction of breast cancer in the media consciousness. I think this breast cancer/pink ribbon phenomenon has occurred at the expense of other very pressing public health issues that affect Western women and women around the world. I also think the media discourse on breast cancer does not encourage women's activism, anger or collective thinking instead focusing on individuals, consumerism (buy something pink because the company will donate money to breast cancer), and reinforcing of gender stereotypes and illness metaphors of courageousness and valour.
That being said, it is important for students to discuss an issue as pervasive on the women's health in the media landscape as breast cancer, and well, it is breast cancer awareness month and the students have to do a media analysis assignment so I'm betting 99% of the papers will be on breast cancer.
So breast cancer it is. There are a bunch of different things I could have taught them (and if you email me I can send you some sources) but I decided to focus on what I'm calling the discourse of concealment (which I'm borrowing from others) because of this photo.
That is not the image of breast cancer we get in the media. Instead we get this.
No, it's not porn, it's from Canadian Living (a popular women's magazine like Ladies' Home Journal).
Why? Well, even though breast cancer is ubiquitous in the media, we are taught through the images and stories that while we need to discuss breast cancer and take on preventative protocols and present women's triumph over tragedy stories, we are not to show the real breast cancer. The mutilating surgeries, the hair loss, the pain and suffering, the vomiting and crying and moaning and pity and anger and losses and fear.
Instead, through stories of women beating the odds, or fighting hard but failing to survive and dying courageously, of pressures to Look Good and Feel Better, to fight, to eat right and exercise regularly and eat flax and avoid estrogen and buy organic, and not smoke and have babies and breast feed and avoid too much stress and take every treatment and new therapy and be guinea pigs for the next treatment, and paddle in dragon boats and have breast reconstruction surgery and be super-women fighting cancer... we are taught that breast cancer is something to talk about but hide at the same time.
And that is why there are no pictures of women's breasts in articles about breast cancer that are not sexual and mysterious (or headless)-- women with faces and saggy breasts and fat bellies. Women with dark skin or older women or other women or do not conform to society's ideas of what a woman with breast cancer really looks like. That's why we think women who don't wear wigs or prosetheses are courageous because they defy the discourse of concealment and show us what having this disease is all about.
That's why that picture of Twisty is so shocking. It's real and it sucks. No pink ribbon or buying a blender so 2 cents can go to a charity makes that better. Because that would be just too much. Too close to home and too ugly.