Friday, October 07, 2005

Sport, Feminism and Breast Cancer

Many thanks to amateur for pointing me to this fascinating blog entry by sportsbabel about his experience running in a recent breast cancer charity event. Here are his very interesting observations as he questions if such events are really "feminist" (noting that there are many types of feminism of course):
"1. There is a bounty of sponsor-provided free food offered to the runners after the race is completed, while Toronto's homeless peer in through the semi-enclosure or sleep on grates nearby.
2. After the post-race refuelling is finished, there do not appear to be temporary recycling facilities anywhere to collect what will be thousands of plastics and tetra boxes.
3. Men can get breast cancer as well, yet I could only find this nugget of information buried away on the web site's Breast Cancer Statistics page. Saying so out loud must confuse the "Think Pink" message.
4. In the ultimate irony of "Thinking Pink," there is predominantly pinkish skin in attendance at the event held in what is purportedly the most multicultural city in the world. One presumes that the minimum requirement of $150 in pledges or a paid $40 registration fee places real economic pressure on those (particularly minorities) who would like to contribute their efforts as runners, rather than as volunteers."
Point 1 about the homeless is well-taken, but as someone who teaches women's studies and continually hears from her students about the multitude of issues out there I can unserstand that every event cannot address every issue. So long as the charity event did no harm to the nearby homeless, I do not think they can be faulted. But I do hope others noticed the situation and were perhaps moved to consider ways to address this issue as well.
Point 2 about recycling is quite surprising. Because it's in the purview of the event, organizers should have had recycling bins. And participants should complain about their absence.
Point 3 is somewhat contentious. While men do get breast cancer, they get it much less frequently--which does not mean that they should be ignored. But grassroots movements by women fought so hard for so long to get recognition for and research on this disease, and I don't truly believe they have an obligation to place men at the center of the discourse alongside women.
Point 4 is particularly compelling to me given the recent stats I have heard about the increase in cancer among African-Americans. I understand the need to have a registration fee for these events because too many people would just run it as part of a larger training regimen. But I do think there needs to be a sliding scale for these events. Will this draw more people of color to the event? I don't know. Like the original women's movement of the 70s, breast cancer activism has a very white movement and it might take a lot more purposeful outreach to change that dynamic.


Amateur said...

(I'm going to post this to both sportsBabel and After Atalanta.)

I used to captain a dragonboat crew for a charity event which draws 150-200 crews (several thousand participants) each year. As part of that event there are various "challenges" that can be won based on what type of crew you are. One of those is the women's team championship, and one of those is a "breast cancer challenge." The criteria for the former are fairly obvious; for the latter, all paddlers in the crew must be breast cancer survivors.

(For those not familiar with the dragon boat craze, I will point out two things. First, dragon boat paddling is quite a popular post-treatment activity for breast cancer survivors in Canada thanks to the work of Dr. Don McKenzie. And second, recreational men-only dragon boat crews are almost non-existent. At the event I participated in, there was no men's championship at all; more than 80% of the crews compete in the "mixed" category, and the rest were women's crews.)

One year at a pre-race information meeting, a (female) captain from one of the breast cancer survivor crews stood up to note that they had a male breast cancer survivor paddling in their crew, and wanted to clarify that they would still be eligible to participate in the breast cancer challenge. The organizers said yes, but casually pointed out that they would then not be eligible to race for the women's team championship, unless the male paddler was replaced with a female paddler for that event.

There followed a lengthy argument from the captain of the breast cancer crew that they should be eligible for the women's race, repeatedly stating (by way of justification) that the man in question was a breast cancer survivor.

Without explicitly saying so, the captain was arguing that this man, by virtue of having had breast cancer, was in some way equivalent to a woman.

ken said...

Wow--that's fascinating. There are so many ways from which to look at this. I guess initially my reaction is that the male breast cancer survivor should not be constructed as a woman because of his survivor status by anyone. But then I devil's advocate myself and say "well what the hell's so wrong with being called a woman."
Of course then there's the argument about mixed competition and male vs. female strength and, as always, I will beg off that weighty topic.
I wonder amateur if you are arguing for or against more of male presence in the current version of the breast cancer movement.

Amateur said...

I think it's clear that the current "we're all sisters and we'll stand together against breast cancer" atmosphere marginalizes male victims. Not being a victim myself, I can only imagine, but I suspect that a man who develops breast cancer will suffer from a certain amount of embarrassment and a feeling that his "manhood" has been diminished. As much as you might say that this feeling is misguided, I suspect that co-opting him as a sort of "honorary woman" is not making his psychological recovery any easier.

I won't argue that this negative outweighs the undeniable positive impact that the movement has had. For a woman to develop breast cancer is much less psychologically damaging than it would have been twenty years ago. For a man things are probably slightly worse than they were when nobody talked about it.

ken said...

I wonder how many of the psychological effects we can place on the femininization of the disease versus men's (yes, I am generalizing) handling of disease in general. How many men feel less manly when they get testicular cancer or prostrate cancer? I think there is a different psychology in the way men and women handle disease--not anything innate--certainly something we develop/learn. And I don't think we should hierarchize diseases but I do see how the breast cancer movement might marginalize men. But I think it probably also marginalizes some women--and that aspect is even more overlooked.

Amateur said...

Both good points, ken.

Anonymous said...

Ken, great points, and I'm certainly not asking the "Breast Cancer movement" to save the world, as it were. I guess I was trying to articulate in some way my feeling that the "Think Pink" message is too bubblegum cute and too easy, and wanted to critically poke at it a little.

An interesting article on consumer "pinkwashing" to add to the debate.

ken said...

Actually, Sean, I am indebted to you for raising this issue. There is a lot of interesting work being done about the breast cancer campaigns (I'll add this site to the list of places to check out: but I had never thought of it from a sport perspective. It's high on my list as a potential research project. Because it definitely needs some critical poking from all sides.

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