Representations of women on Australian breast cancer websites: An Interview with Alexandra Gibson

‘Pink ribbon culture’ dominates understandings of breast cancer in Western societies, but how do other countries define breast cancer culture?

Gibson Photo

Ally Gibson

Ally Gibson teams up with Christina Lee in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland and Shona Crabb in the Discipline of Public Health at the University of Adelaide in Australia to examine how breast cancer is “discursively constructed” in the Australian context. They identified two discourses that appear to shape both pink ribbon culture and understandings of breast cancer: the discourse of individual responsibility and empowerment and the discourse of optimism. They show that the pink ribbon culture operates within Australia in similar ways to other English-speaking Western countries, yet it also diverges.

Ally shares the background of this research and their findings with the Breast Cancer Consortium.

Would you give a brief overview of your research?

Our research examines how the pink ribbon culture of breast cancer portrays women looking, behaving, and responding to breast cancer in very particular ways. Our research acknowledges the benefits of pink ribbon culture for some women, but also raises questions about possible limitations, or limiting effects, of this ‘illness culture’ for women who have breast cancer. Does the culture impact how women may respond to, and make meaning of, this illness? Our first paper ‘If you grow them, know them’: Discursive constructions of the pink ribbon culture of breast cancer in the Australian context’ addresses how materials designed for the general public (pamphlets, newspaper articles, campaigns, books, and information packs) depict breast cancer and women diagnosed with the disease.

What led you to this topic?

When I started this research, I was interested in how people ‘talk’ about cancer in general. Research has shown that how we understand and talk about it changes over time and place, making some of ways of speaking about cancer (and responding to it) more feasible than others. This is especially the case for breast cancer. After reading Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger’s (2000) work on positive thinking in relation to breast cancer, my colleagues and I wanted to explore optimism further, and also focus on women who tend to get overlooked. Women’s experiences may be unique based on their social and economic positions. So we examined the extent to which typical portrayals of breast cancer focus on the experiences of white, heterosexual, middle-class women compared to women from culturally diverse backgrounds, lesbians, and women in rural areas.

How did you go about exploring your research question?

Following earlier critiques of pink ribbon culture, we examined this ‘illness culture’ by taking a feminist post-structuralist approach to analyze the discourses and practices that construct it. Our first analysis explored how breast cancer is portrayed in the Australian context, and how these portrayals mirror the ways pink ribbon culture plays out in other Western countries like the United States. We analyzed the information and support services presented on websites of prominent Australian breast cancer support organizations. Our aim was to show how women with breast cancer were characterized by breast cancer organizations, and to find out whether space was offered to women in minority groups. Then, I interviewed 27 women across Australia to explore how they make sense of breast cancer in light of broader messages about the illness. Because I wanted to understand unique and typically underrepresented experiences, I specifically recruited women who identify as lesbian, as having a culturally diverse background, or as living in a rural area.

What did you find?

Our studies showed a strong focus on the experiences of white, heterosexual, middle-class women and the issues that they face. Women are also represented as having responsibility for their health, for trying to prevent cancer, and even for surviving. Women were often encouraged to take control of cancer and survive by making healthy choices, or by having a positive attitude. As we write:

TV presenter Sally Obermeder (2013) is one example of the prolific number of current celebrities who has published her breast cancer story. Her book, ‘Heartache, hope and some very high heels: Never stop believing’ recounted moving from a glamorous life where she had what we are encouraged to believe is ‘everything’ (a ‘wonderful’ husband and a baby just conceived through IVF), to her ‘fight’ against cancer, to her eventual survival. As the title exemplified, the message was one of hope and positivity, as well as the promise that women can maintain their femininity. The cover featured a photograph of Obermeder as a youthful woman, with no signs of having undergone cancer treatment. This book, like many current breast cancer accounts, celebrated personal endurance and a return to ‘normal’ life.

In the My Journey Kit, which is an Australian resource offered by BCNA (2012)… advice is offered on how to ‘feel attractive’ during and after breast cancer treatment.

The women we interviewed also talked about taking responsibility for their illness and encouraging other women to do the same. As one woman said, “You’ve gotta know your own breasts.” Their talk illustrated how strong this approach to cancer is in our society. Although it can be empowering to some, the focus on taking control and surviving beautifully leaves little room for women with limited resources or different aspirations, or for those with advanced cancer.

What’s next?

These studies made up my PhD research, which I conducted from 2011 until 2014 with Prof Christina Lee and Dr Shona Crabb. I strongly believe in making research findings available beyond the academic context to people who might be affected by, or interested in, the research. Because of this, I wrote two non-technical reports of the findings: one for breast cancer organizations (A Snapshot Account: Organization Report) and one for women with breast cancer (Women’s Experiences of Breast Cancer: A Snapshot Account Report for Women). Now that my PhD is finished, I hope to continue my career as a researcher in the areas of people’s experiences of health and illness in general, and cancer in particular.

Alexandra (Ally) Farren Gibson was recently awarded her PhD in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her dissertation involved a critical examination of the pink ribbon culture and the space provided for women from minority backgrounds. She is interested in social constructions of health and illness, cancer, women’s health, and gender and sexuality.

Recent Articles:

  • Gibson, A., Lee, C., & Crabb, S. (2015). Representations of women on Australian breast cancer websites: Cultural ‘inclusivity’ and marginalization. Journal of Sociology. doi: 10.1177/1440783314562418
  • Gibson, A. F., Lee, C., & Crabb, S. (2014). ‘If you grow them, know them’: Discursive constructions of the pink ribbon culture of breast cancer in the Australian context. Feminism & Psychology, 24(4), 521-541. doi: 10.1177/0959353514548100
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