October is a wonderful month. It’s chilly, but not too cold to enjoy seasonal gourds. The leaves change, the campus is beautiful, and the Med sells hot apple cider. But October for me has an additional, slightly more masochistic component. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means an influx of “Save the Boobies”–style fundraising/awareness tactics, which means my already higher-than-usual amounts of feminist rage become fueled anew.
Briefly, the feminist argument against such boob-centric messaging is that surely cancer research and treatment organizations should focus on saving lives, not an already oversexualized body part, and especially not an oversexualized body part that is frequently removed in the course of life-saving treatment for breast cancer. But this is not an article about why breast cancer fundraising campaigns that focus on boobs and how sexy and great they are contribute to a harmful culture of sexualization and drastically miss the point of breast cancer treatment. That point has been talked to death in a variety of forums, including debate on the Colleges Against Cancer at the University of Chicago Facebook page, an organization that hosted the “BOOB CAKE Sales!” last week, selling cupcakes decorated to look like literal breasts. Instead, I’m more interested in the rebuttals I usually hear to such arguments—namely, that the sexy marketing tactics are funny and humorous and should only be taken as such, and that, moreover, they’re effective in raising money for a good cause.
It’s true that breast cancer awareness and fundraising campaigns are effective, even disproportionally so compared to other cancers. And I certainly see the argument for bringing humor and light-heartedness even to something as objectively terrible as cancer. Still, though, I don’t buy the pragmatic argument about efficacy, and I have perhaps even less tolerance for the claim that those of us with legitimate criticisms about marketing techniques just need to learn how to take a joke. Both arguments completely fail to grasp central tenants of activism, feminist or otherwise. Activism requires critically examining how seemingly unimportant facets of our daily life, written off as insignificant or joking, can contribute to larger systems of oppression. Activism requires a commitment to ideals that frequently seem difficult, if not impossible, to attain. And, most of all, activism requires a dedication to change where it is possible. There is no one easy fix to rape culture, or the murder of people of color by police officers, or any of the other giant, pressing issues that negatively affect too many people. That’s why it’s essential to strike a balance between a commitment to idealism and continued work toward incremental change.
It would be absurd to claim that “I <3 Boobies” wristbands are the most pressing issue currently facing the feminist movement, or that reworking breast cancer marketing strategies would end the problem of oversexualizing female bodies. But I refuse to believe that that means it’s not worth caring about, and I don’t care about being too idealistic or “humorless.” Because for every time we encounter a real, tangible, positive change that can be made in our culture and behavior—however small it may be—there are countless more moments of doubt about the futility of activist belief, when it’s easy to get discouraged by the disparity between a socially just utopia and the world we currently live in. So even though I’m not expecting a national overhaul of Breast Cancer Awareness Month anytime soon, I’ll continue to get fired up about it, if for no other reason than it’s become something of an October tradition.
Clair Fuller is a third-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.