Bras and Bags Don’t Cure Cancer

“I like it on the floor.”

“I like it on the kitchen bench.”

“I like it hanging off the edge of the bed ;)”

If you’re involved in social media, it’s likely your facebook news feed was filled with such titillating statements last week.  All of a sudden, your female friends would have started posting seemingly explicit status updates about where they ‘like it’.

You might have been confused.  “I didn’t think Samantha/Claire/Jessica was so forthright about such things,” you might have thought.  Then you probably hit Google, and found out that she wasn’t talking about where she likes to get to know people in the biblical sense, but rather where she likes to put her handbag.

You see, Samantha/Claire/Jessica was fighting cancer.  That’s right.  Just by telling us where she plonks her accessory at the end of the day, she was raising awareness about breast cancer research.  The idea, as spelled out in a message many of us received (below), was to pique the curiosity of facebook’s assumedly neanderthal men by tricking them into thinking that women were talking about sex.

This kind of campaign is becoming more common.  In fact, we’ve seen it before.  In January, there was a slew of status updates on facebook simply stating a colour.  “Red” said Emma.  “White” said Christina.  “…. Black ;)” teased Lucy. What were people talking about? The bra they were wearing, of course.

The intention here is seemingly to both to arouse and confuse our male friends.  This makes a certain amount of sense as a meme, ethically dubious as it may be.  Social media bible Mashable certainly likes it, saying the campaign is “cute, fun and generating some buzz”. But to link this kind of web trend to cancer research is worrying.

There’s a genuine concern that using facebook and twitter to refer to problems without actually donating time or money to their solutions acts a placebo for those who participate.  Instead of doing something meaningful, people update their web profile and feel they’ve made a difference.

I’m generally quite wary about ‘raising awareness’ through stunts.  Is there really anyone in Australia or indeed the developed world who isn’t ‘aware’ of breast cancer?  We’ve got a whole month devoted to it (this one), there’s pink ribbon days, there’s the Field of Women at the MCG each year.  Never mind the complete tizzy the media gets into every time someone with a public profile is diagnosed with the disease.

Don’t get me wrong, all that stuff is great, especially when it results in donations towards more research into causes of, and potentially a cure, for breast cancer.  My point is that updating your facebook isn’t really going to change people’s attitudes towards this very high-profile disease. No-one’s checking their iPhone on the train thinking “Crap! Breast Cancer? Thank God Laura told me she likes to put her bag on top of the piano, otherwise I’d never have known it existed!”

No wonder we’ve seen a significant backlash against these trends by those weary of “awareness raising” and sceptical about the effectiveness of such campaigns.

Tokenism aside, though, there’s a more sinister subtext permeating this game women are playing with social media.  We’re linking cancer – a serious, devastating killer – to sex.  Breasts are sexy, right?  So why not sell cancer like beer and deodorant, with sex? Because it’s cynical, because it trivialises disease and fetishises suffering.  And by pursuing this campaign, women are purposefully cutting men out of the dialogue.   We’re playing a game of hide and seek.  Whispering “don’t tell the boys!” to each other in the playground at lunch.

Trying to keep 50% of the population in the dark by distracting them with sex is hardly the best way to ‘raise awareness’ using social media.

2 responses to “Bras and Bags Don’t Cure Cancer

  1. I am not sure whether or not I agree entirely with you here Meg. Initially, like you, I thought “this is silly, this isn’t going to help anyone”. But after thinking about it I decided that it has achieved reaching a demographic which it has never been able to do well in the past. Even if the majority of these young adults think they’ve done something by changing their status, a small amount may think about it further and decide to act, which would be great considering it cost virtually nothing to get a message around the world and then spark a debate between people like you and me.
    If people start to say maybe I should do more then just change my status, then I believe the message worked even if it is a small amount of people who do.

    I would have to do some research but maybe the message isn’t getting across to the younger generations and facebook is being used as a different approach to get young women who mightn’t of donated or lent a hand to a charity anyway at least thinking about it, if only for a split second.
    Saying that, without people like you questioning the validity of this gesture, we wouldn’t ask ourselves if we are actually doing enough to support the fight against breast cancer and will now do more then just change our status. So thank you for bringing it up for discussion.
    Have a great day.

  2. Couldn’d agree more with you on the dubiousness of a decision to link cancer and teh sexy.

    But responding to your point that *awareness* of breast cancer doesn’t need raising (which I also agree with), there is still a lot of value in raising or keeping high the *profile* of breast cancer. To use the advertising industry’s jargon if your message is front of mind, there is more chance of people responding. “Raising awareness” is a cliche unfortunately employed to describe the intended outcome of the campaign.

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