Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Meme-Shmeme: becoming critically aware of "awareness" campaigns

Hey readers, this is your long-lost blogger, Michelle. Sorry for my lazy-blogging last semester. It is one of my new year's resolutions to actually blog when I say I will. So, here I go, letting off a little steam about the latest facebook meme.

I started noticing last week that many female friends of mine were posting colors on their facebook status. Upon a quick google search (ah, internet!) I found out that this phenomenon is a viral-campaign to raise awareness about breast cancer. How? Well, the colours refer to the color of bra that one is wearing, and you know, bras hold up our boobies.

Let me set something straight: I am all for people being aware of breast cancer, for funding research on breast cancer, and for supporting women and men who have breast cancer. That's right, men can get breast cancer too. However, I am entirely sick of the sexualization of breast cancer. Whether it's the Save the TaTas campaign, or the Save the Boobies campaign, it seems like the logic behind many breast cancer-awareness goes something like this: Boobies are nice to look at. Breast cancer treatment often necessitates mastectomies. A world without boobies is intolerable to the (heterosexual) male gaze. Therefore, we must end breast cancer.

The problem? There are real women attached to those boobies, women who I care about for reasons beyond their racks. I want to prevent breast cancer because, you know what, breast cancer fucking sucks. The greatest injustice of breast cancer is not the loss of breasts to the male gaze, but the loss of women and men whom are loved and cherished by their family and friends.

Now, the bra-colour-posting meme, to me, is a cocktail of discomfort. First and foremost, I don't see how anyone imagining me in my underwear is going to raise awareness about breast cancer-screening. Imagining a bevy of facebook freinds in "lacy black" bras might raise certain things *ahem*, but it certainly doesn't "raise awareness" in any clear way.

Some people have defended this meme as an "awareness-raising" campaign. I've heard this approach before: such-and-such product or so-and-so celebrity is raising awareness about global warming, Aids, poverty etc. However, having the intent of "raising awareness" (as vaguely defined as that is) does not alleviate one from accountability for the effects of one's methods in raising awareness. There are different ways of "being aware" of any phenomenon, and no way is apolitical or ahistorical. One can "be aware" of global inequalities such as poverty, but that doesn't necessarily mean that one situates poverty within, for example, colonial legacies and the capitalist market system. Instead, for example we could "be aware" (as people often are) of poverty as something cultural, an inherent quality of the exoticized and Othered "African." World Vision infomercials offers us images of black children with bugs in their eyes, black bodies with distended bellies, and then juxtaposes these images with images of a white woman extending her hand to black youth, white men distributing rice. After watching these infomercials, are we really more "aware" of any "situation"? Do we truly understand the complexities of the image being offered to us? No. This infomercial operates to appeal to our already preconceived notions of African society as a homogeneous "culture of poverty" and of white bodies as the benevolent agents of social change. It offers the "western" white viewer the psychological satisfaction of being subject of social change, but not in anyway implicated in the oppression of others. No structure or policies are implicated in such representations of poverty, instead poverty appears to be some abstract, ethereal substance that somehow diminishes once white people shine their benevolent gaze upon it. (Please read in my sarcasm).

We often prematurely assume that "we are aware" of a situation simply by consuming images or numbers about said issue that are offered to us in marketable forms such as a white "end poverty" bracelet, a well-edited infomercial or a "save the tatas" t-shirt. There is nothing inherently wrong with "raising awareness," but we must be aware and accountable for the implications of specific awareness raising initiatives. "Raising awareness" is not enough. We must critically engage with the messages offered by initiatives such as the bra-colour meme. This means asking critical questions like:

What gendered assumptions underlie the success of this bra-colour-meme-campaign? Why is this sexualized tactic often used for "breast cancer" but not prostate cancer? (possible answer: we often define women as objects of male gaze, and value women based on their attainment of aesthetic or beauty standards.)

What are the possible effects of "save the boobs" and similar campaigns? (possible answer: narrowly mapping breast cancer's impact on the breasts itself, rather than the social reality of individuals and families living with breast cancer.)

and finally,

What do you think? Do you have any feelings on the facebook meme, or "raising awareness"? Please share!


  1. Thank you for making this case michelle!

    I at first had myself caught up in the bra-posting "meme-shmeme" but it is so true that when you stop to think about you (at least, this was the case for me) realise how......dumb?...of an idea it actually is.

    Sure, maybe a "Save the Boobies" campaign approach to breast cancer awareness (or, as you mentioned, having a high-potential for mental images of women in various-coloured lingerie) will raise some awareness....but is it really the awareness that we want?

    Sure, maybe it will "encourage" some straight men (or whoever is intrigued by the thought of women in coloured lingerie, I suppose) to fork out some money that they wouldn't have thought to give otherwise ---- and I KNOW money is money is money---- but there MUST be less-objectifying ways by which we can advertise the need for breast cancer research/treatment funding.

    - Nadya

  2. Hey Michelle, thanks for the awesome post!

    I think that "raising awareness" is often just used as a generic reason for an event/campaign when you can't decide on or meet any concrete goals. Not to say that there's anything inherently wrong with that (or that I haven't been guilty of it myself).

    And this whole bra colour thing...ugh. I suppose that it makes people aware that there is such a thing as breast cancer, but provides no helpful awareness information such as: how to give yourself a breast exam. Which would actually be useful.

    :) Steph

  3. It's interesting to see how the internet acts as a telephone game, distorting the intent of the message as it is passed along. Where I first heard about the "awareness" event, it was not trying to raise awareness for others to support breast cancer, rather it was intended for women to support their own breast health.

    The link that I was sent asked women to post the color of their bra, however, while they took the time to see what color bra they had on, it also asked that women take five minutes out of their time to do a self breast exam, and had links attached to the article explaining how to do a self examination.

    It's unfortunate that many women did not receive this message, and as the article states, the majority of people turned the "awareness" into sexualized guessing game.

    I just wanted to give an alternative perspective to the situation, and to show that some people had positive intentions behind the Facebook status updates. Looking back, I don't think that Facebook was the ideal outlet for a pseudo event such as this, but is certainly an interesting way to spread messages, as long as other factors do not interfere with the credibility of the message.

    That said, this article brings up some fantastic points, and I believe it is an eye opener for many women : )

  4. That's a really good point to make. It's interesting to know that there was more than one "reason" for the colours....or, I guess to be more specific, there was more than one message being passed along.

    Even with the self-awareness message though (and, to throw it out there, I think that self-awareness about all sorts of kinds of cancer --and other illnesses for that matter--is VERY important) ....but even at looking at the colour-posting as a method of promoting self it not possible to find less-objectifying methods that are equally as catchy as posting the fun colour of your bra?

    I guess I don't understand what the importance is of posting your bra information to the world. Like Michelle alluded toward.... does inviting others to view us in our underwear really get the message across that we are going for?

    Sure, I realise that the public colour-posting brought people's attention to the matter that had not necessarily received a message from a girlfriend.......but why is it that our society seems to frequently resort to a (at least somewhat) sexual-related appeal in order to communicate awareness messages?


    I'm not trying to be the critical bitch here. I'm all for awareness just as much as I'm the person who's written poems (yeah, concept piece) on matters way more "objectifying" than the bra-colour post "meme shmeme" .....I just think we, as a societal whole, resort way too often to the sexual-appeal method.

    Which, in part, is our own fault for accepting/encouraging it.......

    Now I'm just babbling; and should get back to work.

    I would love to hear people's response to this though.


  5. Glad to get so much feedback!