Keeping breast cancer awareness clean

21 Oct

Gilbert High School in Arizona supports breast cancer awareness… just watch your mouth(http://www.azcentral.com/community/gilbert/articles/2011/10/13/20111013gilbert-high-school-calls-breast-cancer-t-shirts-inappropriate.html). School administrators banned cheerleaders from wearing t-shirts that read: “Feel for lumps, save your bumps.”

The arguments for and against the t-shirts are not surprising:

The cheerleaders assert their right to wear the shirts, arguing, “We’re not saying anything a doctor wouldn’t say,” while the school has expressed its full support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and “age-appropriate” student activism.

I think two separate issues need to be untangled for the conversation at Gilbert High to move forward meaningfully:

  • On one level, this struggle over “feeling your lumps” v. “performing breast self-exams” is about effective messaging: saying what we have to say about breast cancer (or Wall Street, famine or drone warfare) in a way that facilitates people actually hearing us. If we’re always preaching to the choir, perhaps it’s because we only ever sermonize. Expanding our literal or metaphorical congregation might be as simple as trying a Q&A, a blog or a provocative slogan.
  • Simultaneously, this debate is just another instance in a normative dialogue between teenagers exploring their sexuality and adults trying to provide parameters for this process of self-discovery. Although the cheerleaders and their supporters downplay the controversy (“All we want to do is support the cause and raise money for breast-cancer research”), I can’t imagine that they aren’t thrilled to ride the line between serious and sexy… for a good cause. They get to be provocative (from within the safety of a group all sporting the same teaser t-shirt) and stand for a cause in a hip, young way (as opposed to handing out glossy brochures in front of the supermarket). While the causes are very different, the crusade to “feel [our] lumps” reminds me of the SlutWalk protest marches. While the marches have a very legitimate and serious  mission of “enforc[ing] the truth that those who experience sexual assault are never at fault–no exceptions” (http://www.slutwalkchicago.org/), it’s also evident that supporting the cause has a thrilling and fun side for supporters: play-dressing like a “slut” with the immunity granted by a good cause:

Whether you agree with the advocates or the critics of provocative activism, I think it’s helpful to recognize the complexity of the provocation. It serves two intertwined functions in allowing both the official cause and the social expression/engagement/individuation of the activist to assert themselves and evolve.

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