Thursday, October 7, 2010

Risqué Without Risk: On Gendering Disease, Sexy Status Updates, and Pseudo-Activism

I like it on the floor.

I like it on the couch.

I like it on the kitchen counter, and sometimes on the bed.

If you're on facebook, you probably saw a slew of these cryptic, provocative status updates this week. You may have felt intrigued by the clearly sexualized styling of the phrase, or perhaps you wondered about the mysterious "it" to which these statuses referred. Or perhaps you received a message in your inbox, like I did, encouraging you to participate in this "silly, funny" game created with the purpose of "leaving men in the dark."

What you maybe didn't get was that the "I like it on the floor" game was an unofficial promotional campaign to raise breast cancer awareness. The idea is that women post a status update filling in the blank of this sentence: "I like it on ___," with "it" being the place where women prefer to drop their purse at the end of the day. These statuses were meant to prompt discussion about breast cancer, this year's version of the "bra-color game" that circulated on facebook last year for the same breast cancer awareness-raising reason.

That's right. These updates, in all their feigned exhibitionism and sexual suggestiveness, were actually meant to inform and educate people about breast cancer awareness month. Never mind that these updates didn't actually contain the words "breast" or "cancer" or "awareness." Or anything that could remotely associate the updates with the actual cause.

Never mind that these updates were anything but clear and informative tools of awareness-raising. Intentionally elusive and obliquely intended to arouse, perhaps, but effective communications regarding this terrible, life-threatening and all-too-real disease? Definitely not.

And never mind that, despite the fact that this unofficial B.C.A campaign has "gone viral" (a phrase the Internet seems to use as an analogue to "going platinum:" you've made it now, baby!), its intentional evasiveness accomplishes very little in terms of actually helping people with breast cancer. Oh, but it's only facebook, right? It's just a silly and fun game, a harmless little chance to be sexy and risqué, right? And, as we all know, silly and fun and harmless and sexy are all words we commonly associate with breast canc...oh, wait.

Now, as other critics of the "I like it on the floor" phenomena have noted, criticizing this stunt is not tantamount to criticizing promotion of breast cancer awareness in general. Indeed, the awareness-raising campaign through the pink ribbon marketing motif has successfully culled millions of dollars for breast cancer research, and that work should be, needs to be, applauded.

But facebook status promotional campaigns such as this not only do little in terms of helping the cause. They actually illustrate, even as they perpetrate, at least three things that are very, very wrong with American society:
  • The gendering, reifying, and branding of disease;
  • The oversexualization (and consequently, the trivialization) of women's issues and bodies;
  • The disinterested, low-risk, low-engagement psuedo-activism made all too easy (and commonplace) by social media.

The gendering, reifying, and branding of disease

Breast cancer, though by no means a gender-exclusive disease, has nonetheless been branded as a woman's disease in the United States. What about the men who have breast cancer? That's what I kept asking myself as I googled the "I like it on the floor" phenomena for this blog post. While numerous breast cancer support and research organizations came up, they were all explicitly cisgendered as female, their sites emblazoned with pink ribbons, pink fonts, and, well, pink everything, from flowers to little high heels. I've never seen an issue so clearly branded as "female," and outside of maternity stores, I don't think I've ever seen so compulsory an assertion that female equals pink. Which is great and all for the cisgender, stereotypically-feminine women who identify with such gendered iconography and find support or comfort in rallying under a pink ribbon. But what about male patients and survivors, for whom the experience of the disease can't be boiled down into a pair of pink heels? What about women who have breast cancer, or support their survivor friends and relations, but who don't carry purses?

The issue becomes more pronounced when you consider what would happen if you switched genders. Take, say, prostate cancer, a lethal and unfortunately almost-unstoppable disease that affects only men. Can you honestly imagine what a comparable prostate-cancer-awareness campaign would look like? Can you imagine a marketing push where the little pink heels are replaced with...what, exactly? Little blue hammers? Little blue footballs? A facebook campaign where men suggestively, coquettishly post about...the color of their boxers? Not quite the same, is it? And men speaking in riddles doesn't mean quite the same thing to mainstream society as does, say, mysterious women speaking in a secret, indecipherable women's code?

It's not quite the same, of course, because men and women, masculinity and femininity, are not treated with equality in American society. Not historically, when women's voices were dismissed because they challenged patriarchal discourse and were dismissed as an unknowable, elusive "other" tongue incomprehensible (and therefore dismissable) to men. Not in psychological terms, where society perceives women/femininity to be reducible to gendered objects while men/masculinity are perceived to transcend such confinement. Not in terms of actual behavior, where the general populace encourages women to post about their bra colors but does not comparably fetishize men posting about their undergarments. Sexism is alive and well in America, folks, and this whole breast-cancer-status-update phenomenon, while perhaps well-intentioned, nevertheless is indicative of the problem. Which brings me to...

The oversexualization (and consequently, the trivialization) of women's issues and bodies

So what are you actually promoting when you post one of these updates? Well, for one thing, you're supporting a subtle but insidious process whereby:

a) the actual, awful medical facts of breast cancer get erased and replaced by vague sloganeering,

b) said slogans intentionally, purposefully obscure the causes for which they stand, again omitting actual information and replacing it by rephrasing the cause in terms of sexual suggestiveness, which at once trivializes the struggle of breast cancer survivors and hypersexualizes breast cancer activism (which in turn totally ignores the huge economic and ethnic disparity of who gets, and who survives, breast cancer, not to mention buys into the idea that issues are only worth hearing if they're made out to be sexy),

c) this rhetorical omission takes on sexual undertones, and as it is constructed to be elusively performed for the purported reason of leaving men in the dark, it steals the momentum of the breast cancer awareness movement and re-purposes it for the male gaze. I like it on the floor! Teehee, clueless men, you'll think I'm talking about sex! Sure, to some, it's just a fun, silly game, but it invites trivialization, which in turn enables exactly that sort of dismissive mentality to be applied to breast cancer itself. It co-opts the rhetoric of bodily empowerment that feminism has worked so hard to achieve into an arena that prompts people to perform hetero-normative, cisgender sexuality in the guise of a "progressive" cause that affects small actual real-world change. It's the appearance of being risqué without any actual risks being posed or undertaken. Which brings me to...

The disinterested, low-risk, low-engagement pseudo-activism made all too easy (and commonplace) by facebook.

In one of the latest issues of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how the Internet and social networking sites have altered conceptions of "activist" practices. Gladwell contrasts social-networking-sites activism with the grassroots civil rights activism of the 1960s, noting how some seventy thousand demonstrators congregated around an anti-segregation protest at a diner in Greensboro, NC without the help of sites like facebook and Twitter in 1960. Since many facebook sites promoting causes boast far greater number of members than this--the Save Darfur Coalition, Gladwell reports, has over one million members--it may at first appear that the digital revolution has indeed arrived, that social networking sites have improved activism overall. But Gladwell convincingly challenges this appearance. Whereas activists in previous generations had to actually travel to sit-ins, had to actually physically perform their resistance, had to actually risk their reputations and/or lives to demonstrate their protests, nowadays all an aspiring activist need do is hit "like" on a facebook page, or re-tweet something someone else wrote, or, you guessed it, type in a seductive little status update, and presto, you've engaged in "activist" activities without leaving your house or sacrificing anything other than a few seconds' time. Or, as Gladwell puts it, "facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice," i.e. giving you a much more passive and effortless way of pretending you're doing something for a cause.

The "I Like it on the floor" phenomena strikes me as a prefect example of what Gladwell's talking about. You undertake an action that implicitly aligns you with breast cancer awareness, yet you obfuscate your activism, and instead of your words attaching you to any attendant implications of activism or breast cancer, your words mask the activist impulse in innuendo, equating the gender-essentialized, reified-yet-unmentioned "purse" with breast cancer even as you subtly sexualize yourself for the sake of piquing the curiosity of those people your words evade and exclude. The irony here is that while "I like it on the floor" style activism may not do much to advance the cause it supports, it goes a long way in participating in and perpetuating the harmful American cultural narratives wherein women and women's issues = cute and silly, all purses and pink, speaking a language men just don't understand.

End rant. Again, this is not to belittle breast cancer awareness, or to demonize the people who participated in the "I like it on the floor" phenomenon (some of whom are very dear friends of mine). Just encouraging you to critically reflect on what these facebook statuses are actually saying. Please feel free to disagree with or challenge my thinking here. I welcome your thoughts.

And if you're interested in doing something for breast cancer, breast cancer survivors, or breast cancer awareness beyond updating on facebook, please consider visiting some websites, learning about the disease and its effect on the world, and supporting research organizations and hospitals. Here are a few starters:

Edited 8:09pm to add explicitly what "it" is -- thanks, Squeakymouse!


  1. Thanks for the post! I had seen a few "I like it on the..." posts and had absolutely no idea what they were about nor did I care to find out, which is sad of course, because breast cancer awareness is obviously important and worthy of some serious attention.

    I also HATE the "Save the TaTas" campaign - I have to park some days behind a neighbor who has one of those stickers on his car and it makes me angry every time. It's about sexualization rather than identification. If people really care more about breasts than they care about the women who said breasts belong to, then we have a societal problem arguably as serious as cancer.

  2. THANK YOU. You have echoed my thoughts in far more articulate fashion. I am irked by the psuedo-sexual commentary that reinforces the concept of women (and breasts) as purely sex objects and the armchair/mouse-click activism that accomplished nothing and gives a falsely inflated sense of social contribution. Thank you for pointing out the inherent flaws in such absurdity, but also for providing more useful directives about connecting with reputable, educational resources.

  3. Thank YOU, Em and Jacqueline! Em, I had not heard of the "Save the TaTas" campaign. Grr. Argh.

  4. To quote my friend on Facebook: "Your suggestive updates have made me aware of breast cancer. In the same way naked PETA models make me aware of animal rights."

  5. LOL Diane! That really hits the nail on the head. I think it all goes back to the basic question for radical thinkers/viewpoints who want to get their ideas circulated in a mainstream society that actively seeks to suppress them. Do you keep going against the grain and maintain radical rhetoric? Or do you try to slip into the disguise of mainstream rhetoric, translating the terms of your cause into nudity and sexualization, and hope your message gets through? Can you dismantle the master's house by commodifying breast cancer and marketing to the master's boobie-gaze?

  6. I have a question. I. too, question the usefulness of this campaign. however, I withhold commentary until I read an analysis of what happened last year. Somebody must have studied it? Did more people contribute to the cause? Did more people come out for marathons? Did more people go to the doctor for breast checks? That's a pretty important part of the discussion, and I haven't seen it addressed yet by those who criticize the campaign. btw I agree with everything else. Just hoping somebody has some facts.

  7. Oh one other comment. It seems you are playing right along in this article by continuing to leave men in the dark about what "it" is. You only mention purses a couple of times in passing and no one who didn't know would figure it out. Or is this article only for women, like pink breast cancer ribbons?

  8. Squeaky, that is an excellent question, and I thank you for raising it. I'm going to go investigate and I will be sure to report back what I find.

    If there hasn't already been a study, I hope there is soon. How fascinating that would be!

  9. Good call, Squeaky. I got so wrapped up in the writing that I totally overlooked the omission! Edited to amend the oversight 8:09 pm.

  10. Thank you for posting this. It is one of the best articles I have read in a long time and you have articulated exactly how I feel about this. I look forward to reading what you will post on here in the future!

  11. This is so spot on, thank you. I am bothered by the argument that this is a valid awareness raising campaign because "See here? We're talking about it. It's working!"

    Your analysis refutes that statement so well.

    I had forgotten so quickly about the recent Gladwell article. I rolled my eyes at it and thought to myself that he just didn't get it. And now, just days later, I see that I didn't get it. Humbling.

  12. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    I'm a two-time survivor of inflammatory breast cancer, a huge fan of social media, and this game makes me so angry I can't see straight. Or maybe that's just the chemo.

    I wrote a letter to Salon with my objections as a survivor earlier today; I didn't even get into the objectification of women or the arguments you made. Awesome.

    Thank you for this.

  13. I don't necessarily think that you didn't get it, Marty. With "it" being Gladwell's point. Pseudo activism is a bad thing if it takes the place of real activism. And I haven't seen that it is. According to the research I've seen on volunteerism, people are more engaged now than ever. (I can get a citation if anyone wants it.) now, whether or not this engagement has is a result of social media, we can't say. But let's not discount the effect of getting people slowly engaged through social media. It's been a valid model of engagement used mostly famously by the Obama campaign in 2008 and countless nonprofits and activists alike. Of course, as a new media guru for a nonprofit, perhaps I'm able to see what social media can do to engage people in real life.
    Lots of great points in this article, but you lost me when you dismissed what happens online as pseudo activism that happens because of social media.

  14. That's not to say that I think this stupid little game was a good thing. I just don't think we should toss out the baby with the bathwater. The problem is with this social media campaign, not with people who engage through social media.

  15. That's true, Stephanie. It's not an all or nothing deal. Activism can be greatly enhanced by social media as the Momocrats well know!

    Then there is also the wild card of activists run wild like the "intactivists" who have been attacking the mom in Indiana who lost her 7 week old son yesterday. They have done nothing but smear their cause - that and inflict huge amounts of pain on a family they don't even know.

    But you are right - there are plenty of positive examples of social activism done right through social media. I was tossing the baby ;)

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  17. Marty pointed me to your piece, and for the most part, I'm with you. I think the meme is nonsensical and meaningless. But I don't think it's emblematic of activism in the social media space. To paint all engagement via social media as being as meaningless as this meme is dismissive and untrue.

    Gladwell has a point where it comes to pseudo activism (and where it comes to breast cancer, there's far too much pseudo activism masquerading as genuine engagement), but it's simply wrong to imply that all social media activism is the same.

  18. You are very right to remind us that we shouldn't toss the baby out with the bathwater, Lawyer Mama (I infer your name is Stephanie? Hiya!). All in all (and this is the eventual conclusion Gladwell's piece makes), while social media activism has tremendous potential and is often very valuable, it can not, and should not, be used as a replacement for the older grassroots face-to-face model, but rather, is most effective when used as a supplement to the older model.

    My post here is directed at a very specific kind of social media activism. As Squeakymouse suggested above, I'm going to try and compile some research on how social media activism affects grassroots activism, starting with trying to find out if last year's "bra-color" game affected march turnouts, breast exams, etc. A daunting task, to be sure, and I would very much appreciate any citations you could throw my way.

    Same goes for anyone else who might happen to read this. If you know of any studies/ statistical data sources about social media activism interacting with grassroots activism, please send them my way.

    Thank you, everyone, for sharing your thoughts.

  19. Awesome, I thought I was editing the comment, but in fact I just deleted it...nice...Here's the comment...again...
    My sister and I were railing about this yesterday. What tomfoolerly...seriously. It makes a mockery of people who are breast cancer survivors and the desperate slap in the face fear that arises when you hear that dreaded diagnosis. One of my friends noticed that breast cancer seems to be a "trendy" cancer to have--in that it gets a lot of attention when cancers such as prostate, liver, ovarian, etc. do not. But if that attention is ridiculous and/or misguided then maybe being trendy isn't all it is cracked up to be :-/
    I commented on the blog and finished with this:
    While social media has enhanced many people's ability to engage in activist movements (after the earthquake in Haiti, facebook was the first place that gave me access to places to donate money and supplies), it has still debilitated it as well. I'm thinking most specifically about young people, who have not been taught to take the next step from posting their bra color to opening their wallets or getting down and dirty in the trenches of these kinds of issues. Hopefully there ARE folks who are being motivated by these kinds of campaigns, though (no matter how silly it seems). It would be nice to wrong, at least on that end...

  20. A friend who recently had a radical mastectomy sent me an inbox message requesting that I participate in this "silly little game." I was happy to do so, because it meant something to HER. I am 46 years old. In the last 10 years, 14 of my friends (only one male) have been diagnosed with breast cancer and only one has succumbed to the disease (so far). If I gave it another 10 minutes, I'd probably be able to add 5 or 6 more to that list. More than half of the ladies I've mentioned are facebook junkies, as am I. They have experienced fear and pain and humiliation as a result of their disease. While this campaign may not compel women to activism, it might remind a few women to schedule their mammograms, or to check for lumps in the shower. It is not without merit. It is silly. It is fun. And people who no longer have breasts DO like it on the floor, and in the car, and on the kitchen table, because they are sexy. So take up your fight against people who would refer to breast cancer as "trendy" because people have been made aware of it. Not all activism is grand in scale. The little things also matter.

  21. Interesting and not so surprising. I (rightly or wrongly never do 'round-robins') unusually for me participated in this, 'Like it on the floor' thing to raise awareness of Breast Cancer. I don't see the connection either but then this may not have been designed to raise my awareness I thought.

    In pop culture weird connections are presented to us to successfully market things to us.

    The clincher was that the message, which arrived in my inbox from the US/UK/Italy, said that this game had had a great effect at raising awareness last year. (The colour of my bra?? Surprising but apparently true.) So I did it and folks thought (I think) that it was out of character and so yes have questioned it.
    So two points:

    1, I went to a very proper girls school. But everyone knew that if you wanted to make the whole school aware that you had lost your school book etc you should write a note on the school notice board that went like this:
    "SEX. (written huge) Now I have got your attention has anyone seen...." It worked every time because it insured (if not done too often) that every man, woman, child and teacher would read it, for sure.

    2, if they hadn't instigated this silly game that I too do not think is entirely relevant (at all) would you be writing about Beast Cancer Awareness today? (apologies if you would be, we don't know each other, I am here due to facebook.)

    I am glad to read a well written argument. I am now going to link your text to my page and see what others think.

  22. As a male, let me say what the "where do you leave your purse" campaign did. I first saw it on a friend's Facebook page. Curious, I read a number of comments. The last one was from the poster, who told everyone who had commented what the point was. ZING! I SO GOT IT, and was embarrassed to have thought what I did. But you know made me think about the whole cause, in a way that got through to me. I know the Susan G. Komen Foundation has done an AMAZING job of publicizing breast cancer. But almost too good a job, because I can easily tune out all the "pink" messages without thinking about what they really mean. What "where do you leave your purse" got me doing is THINKING about breast cancer awareness again. For that very reason, I think it did a job that needed to be done.

  23. I'd like to thank everyone who's commenting here for sharing their thoughts. I'm compelled to make a few things clear:

    There is a world of difference between a promotional campaign that sexualizes disease for the sake of marketability, and breast cancer patients and survivors feeling sexy about themselves. While the former may, for some, lead to the latter, by no means should the latter be contingent upon the former. I truly hope breast cancer patients and survivors out there feel like the gorgeous, sexy beings they are all the time, regardless of whether or not they're participating in this game.

    If this game caused someone to become aware of breast cancer when they weren't before, great.

    If this game caused a survivor or patient to feel sexy and/or good about themselves, great.

    If there are some people who run marathons for cancer and think the game is silly and fun and that criticizing it is evidence of being uptight, so be it.

    None of these things mean we should cease to critically reflect on the game and the manifold, contradictory, and not-entirely-reconcilable ways in which it effects us and our world.

    Just a warning, folks. I invite debate and disagreement, but I will delete any comments doing so using disrespectful language.

  24. Mare, I think you are trying too hard to turn something simple and fun into a senior thesis, and your subject lacks substance. The posts irritate you. If there is one thing that having a serious illness will illustrate, underline, high light and actually change in your life, it is the knowledge that it is important to remind yourself to not take yourself so seriously. You may not agree with this today, but give it 10 or 20 years. I reiterate; take that fire that burns so passionately within you and focus it on a thing more relevant than a cheerful little game. I have one I'd love to read your thoughts on:

    Facts 2 and 3 infuriate me. Breast cancer and prostate cancer have received enough attention to improve survival rates exponentially. Despite the highly publicized celebrity cases of pancreatic cancer (Patrick Swayze, Steve Jobs, Ruth Bader Ginsberg...) it is a mere blip on most people's radar. We all know that cigarette smoking causes not just lung cancer, but has been linked to a variety of other cancers. Is anyone aware of the fact that many of the behaviors that lead to Type 2 diabetes also contribute to pancreatic cancer?

    You present a furious argument opposing a trifling topic. Toss us some righteous anger about something intolerable and heartbreaking. I can't wait.

  25. An interesting article, I too noticed a lot of I like it ... posts and then went to find out what was going on, which presumably is the intended effect.
    By the way, the corresponding male prostate cancer 'fun' awareness campaign is called 'movember' and is a huge phenomenon in both the UK and Australia. However it does require more effort on a participant's part, as it asks men to grow a moustache for the month of November.

  26. Great blog post on a less than effective awareness campaign. Having watched my mom's 10 year battle with breast cancer, I can honestly say that this campaign would not have saved her and probably will not even make any research money for the Komen "search for a cure" folks either (a campaign I generally despise). I guess my question back though is that if the "I like it _____" campaign is an ineffective social awareness campaign, then what are examples of effective ones? Sometimes I feel like the government, non-profits, business and doctors alike fail miserably at connecting with the "average Joe" out there, no matter what they are selling. Americans as a whole have become more difficult to reach. With the overload of information, the ever vigilance we have to not get ripped off, fooled or misled, the lack of time we have to devote to any one issue, is it any wonder that awareness campaigns don't work?

  27. i don't think this is a ~trifling topic~ at all. women get pigeonholed into this "sex: now that i've got your attention" stuff way more than men do. as for the why, see 'sexism' for details. there is nothing wrong with wanting to be sexy and desirable or to celebrate the female form, but there comes a point where this overshadows other aspects of the female experience. it's not about whether posting about this issue is as serious as the fact awareness of other cancers is lower. to be honest, i doubt that the points about pancreatic and ovarian cancers would have been brought up in response to a less substantial post on breast cancer month, such as "i like it on the counter at subway"

  28. Yes! "Keep motorboating alive"...really? Kudos to you for a great post.

  29. As I read this article and the accompanying posts, I found myself mentally ticking off from a list of points that subconsciously bothered me about this campaign. Personally, I participated in the 'game' after a lengthy period of resistance. In the end I updated my status because "everyone else" was doing it - but I held some reservations.

    What a rich vein you have provided me with to mine with my Secondary English classes as we explore critical literacy and the responsible use of social media!

    However, after mentally ticking off my list of concerns, I was left with just one not touched on here where gender and sexualisation are the themes. The item I refer to is security. Why on earth would we publicise so widely the location of our handbags in our house? (my status update was cryptic on this point). Facebook is not as secure as we would all wish and I certainly don't advertise in status updates when my house will be empty, when I will be away for a few days or what my contact details are. I have no interest in tempting fate (or light fingered opportunists).

  30. @SqueakyMouse we men are not as dumb as you seem to think. Even one mention of the purses was enough for me to understand the concept.