Infantilization: To treat or condescend to as if still a young child.

See Also: Language; Sexual Objectification; Trivialization

Five-Year Survivor Teddy Bear with Pink Ribbon T-Shirt

Welcome to Cancerland

In her landmark essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” published by Harper’s in 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich detailed her experience with breast cancer.

She was surrounded by pink ribbon teddy bears and given a box of crayons in her cancer care bag. She did not fully grasp why an adult woman diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease that offered miserable and often debilitating treatment options would be surrounded by such child-like imagery and paraphernalia. Even the color pink, especially the pastel version associated with the breast cancer ribbon, is a color earmarked for little girls, indeed the color of girl baby gifts.

Ehrenreich famously pondered whether the pink trinkets were a nod to the idea that toxic cancer treatments could send a person into a state of childlike dependence. But this conclusion did not ring true. Regression to such a state would not put anyone in a frame of mind to endure prolonged and toxic treatments. Besides, “men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.”

She finally suggested that the pink ribbon and teddy bear obsession could be the manifestation of a broader cultural norm, one that assumes femininity by its very nature to be “incompatible with full adulthood — a state of arrested development.” The infantilization of women diagnosed with breast cancer — the pink ribbons, teddy bears, rubber duckies, and frolicking goofiness — may be exactly that.

Example 1: Rubber Duckie

Pink Ribbon Rubber Duckie is available in two shades of pink and has a breast cancer ribbon on its breast. The vinyl ducks are part of Oriental Trading Company’s trademarked Sharing Smiles for the Cure campaign, and they cost only $5.99 per dozen. From June 2010 to June 2011, the company pledged to donate $3.00 from each of the sales to Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. With a guaranteed minimum donation of $100,000 the campaign motto is, “Buy Pink Ducks & We’ll Give 3 Bucks!”

Pink Ribbon Rubber Duckie

According to a quote in Stock Analyst from Oriental Trading’s CEO, Sam Taylor, the company has been committed to breast cancer awareness and research since 2006, when it first included “pink awareness products” in its catalogs. According to Mr. Taylor the pink products show consumers that the company “care[s] about them, their family members, and their friends who have been touched by this disease.” The article reminds readers that with’s over 30,000 products, gift cards, and how-to videos, “Planning an awareness event or event of any kind can be done quickly, easily and affordably.” Why would breast cancer fundraisers need such party favors?

Example 2: Ty Teddy Bear with Pink Ribbon and Whimsical Rhyme

Pink Ribbon Teddy Bear from

The sing-song Teddy Bear label includes a poem that reads:

To give support and do what’s right

For special Women to win the fight

Working hard, one thing is for sure

Someday soon, we’ll find a CURE!

Since rhymes are used as an early childhood learning device, one could discern the key lessons meant for this infantilized adult audience of women diagnosed with breast cancer.

(line 1) Supporting the cause (by purchasing the bear) is a moral action;

(line 2) Women who survive breast cancer are “special.” Those who die are not;

(line 3) Consumption based action guarantees . . .

(line 4) . . . the inevitability of a breast cancer cure in some near but undefined future.

The superficial awareness message of the pink ribbon bear is not unlike the messages found in everyday awareness campaigns that use emotional appeals and simple messages to lull consumers into casual participation in the pink ribbon industry.

Example 3: Pink Sock Monkey

The lighthearted children’s gift not only trivializes the experience of breast cancer in a light-hearted manner, adult and children are literally interchangeable in its product description.

“Cute-as-can-be pink sock monkey wears a pink ribbon tie-dye t-shirt! Classic plush toy joins the breast cancer awareness cause and features pink/white marled yarn, a bean-filled midsection and soft stuffed extremities and head.

Topped with a red pom hat, the pink ribbon sock monkey makes a lighthearted gift to anyone on their breast cancer journey.

As sock monkeys are loved by children and adults alike, it also makes a thoughtful gift to a child whose relative’s been diagnosed with breast cancer.”

Example 4: Paint the Country Pink with Little Dog Ruby

To show support, send a smile and spread her sparkle in cities across America, little dog Ruby paints inspirational images for women affected by breast cancer. “Ruby wants to paint the biggest and pinkest picture possible, but her paws only go so far. She needs your help to paint the country pink. She’ll be there fighting by your side and spreading breast cancer awareness to save millions of lives.” Watch the video.

Brought to you by Dress Barn.

The trite concept, imagery, and voice-over are a perfect example of how common breast cancer awareness campaigns make light of the breast cancer epidemic even while using words like “fighting” and “saving lives.” [See also trivialization.]

Fight Like A Girl Stick Figure

Example 5: Fight Like A Girl

The phrase “fight like a girl” plays on gender norms that assume women’s physical capabilities are substandard to men’s. A sure way to insult a boy is to say he throws or fights “like a girl.” The youthful stick figure with big smile, large pink boxing gloves, and an awkward stance (right) paint the picture.

Yet a good public girl fight (colloquially called a cat fight) provides sensational footage and news fodder for a society obsessed with what Lyn Brown and Mark Tappan call, “erotically tinged violence” common in mud-wrestling and porn magazines.

Jerry Seinfeld explains it this way in his sitcom, Seinfeld. Cat fights are appealing to men because “men think that if women are grabbing and clawing at each other, there’s a chance they might somehow kiss.” To reclaim their bodies, some have tried to reclaim the phrase “fight like a girl.”

The subversive potential of the effort is easily subsumed in a commercial culture that reduces the identity to a t-shirt or in a context of infantilization and sexual objectification that continues to undermine women’s full potential.

See the ad (below) for Boob-a-palooza.

Example 6: Frolic for the Cure

The homoerotic qualities of the girl fight take on a jovial quality in others kinds of awareness advertisements that display women merrily frolicking together.

Image Source: Self Magazine;

A brief outline of screening guidelines in the October (2012) issue of Self magazine features two nude women presumably ocean-side, smiling, goofing around and holding their breasts.

The magazine’s nod toward providing women with “information” about screening guidelines — captured with the headline “Yes, you should get it” followed by a brief list including mammogram, pap smear, and colonoscopy– fails to address why screening protocols for breast cancer are in question, why the guidelines have been controversial for over a decade, and how women might actually make sense of contradictory advice from major health organizations.

Instead, Self Magazine’s Women’s Cancer Handbook makes light of the decision while depicting women as both child-like and sex objects.

Example 7: Babies for the Cure

The adorable “Find a Cure Before I Grow Boobs” baby gear may also be doing more harm than good. The cutesy image intended to raise awareness and encourage more people to support the cause blends into a broader culture environment that trivializes breast cancer and in which sexualization and infantilization continue to blur the line between childhood and adulthood for women.

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