Untying the ‘ribbon culture’

A brilliant new book explores what the relentless rise of awareness-raising ribbons – kitsch fashion items that express the wearer’s fear of disease or empathy with victims – reveals about our morbid, narcissistic society.

Jennie Bristow

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Ribbon Culture is a brilliant little book. Drawing on her doctoral research, Sarah Moore, a research assistant at the University of Kent, provides a cogent analysis of the ubiquitous ‘awareness-raising’ ribbon and its more recent offspring, the wristband. What do these things represent, she asks, and why do so many people wear them? The answers are revealing and disturbing.


Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

‘Since its emergence in 1991, the awareness ribbon has achieved the kind of cultural status usually reserved for religious symbols and big-brand icons’, notes Moore in her introductory chapter. Fewer than two decades on from the launch of the red AIDS-awareness ribbon, which Moore credits with starting this trend, one can buy ribbons in every colour, to ‘show awareness’ for a ‘staggering’ range of causes:

‘… the Oklahoma bombing, male violence, censorship, bullying, epilepsy, diabetes, brain cancer, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), autism, racial abuse, childhood disability, and mouth cancer, to name just a few.’

As there are clearly more causes than there are colours, a particular coloured ribbon could denote a number of different things that the wearer could be seen to be raising awareness of. Not that this potential confusion matters all that much: as Moore remarks, a few of her ribbon-wearing interviewees had to be reminded which causes their ribbons represented, while one teenage collector of wristbands proudly described to her ‘a gold anti-poverty band, a particularly rare wristband that he had given to his girlfriend as a present’:

‘When I asked him whether he thought it a little contradictory that an anti-poverty wristband should be gold, he was genuinely surprised at the observation; absorbed in the task of locating rare bands, choosing which to display and which to give as gifts, he hadn’t given consideration to the meaning of the objects he collected.’

In many respects, Ribbon Culture is an analysis of several apparently contradictory aspects of contemporary culture. The ribbon is, explains Moore, ‘both a kitsch fashion accessory, as well as an emblem that expresses empathy; it is a symbol that represents awareness, yet requires no knowledge of a cause; it appears to signal concern for others, but in fact prioritises self-expression’.

The great strength of this book is the way that it unpacks these different features of ribbon-wearing, in an account that is both sympathetic and critical. Nowhere does Moore mock the intentions or practices of her ribbon-wearing interviewees, though sometimes she must surely have been tempted: ‘When I asked one of the young female interviewees who wore a pink-ribbon t-shirt what made her choose to wear the garment on certain days, I was seeking to understand whether there were certain situations, relationships and experiences that prompted her to show her awareness of breast cancer. Her keen reply took me by surprise: “I think ‘it’s got pink in it, what goes with pink?’ Actually I wear it with this skirt quite a lot …”.’

For Moore, this is not an example of individual silliness, but a reflection of the extent to which ‘the pink-ribbon campaign is a thoroughly commercial exercise’, which carries the risk ‘that the products will fail to communicate anything meaningful about breast cancer’. It is the commercialisation of causes, which both empties them of all content and transmits messages that are negative and misleading, that Moore sees as problematic. In seeking to understand why the individuals she interviewed wear the ribbons or wristbands that they do, Moore’s account stands out through her refusal to pander to the rhetoric of ribbon culture, which emphasises ‘awareness’, ‘caring’ and engagement with a cause. In reality, these positive rhetorical sentiments mask an anxious, self-obsessed, depoliticised culture.

In a chapter discussing ‘charity tokens of the early twentieth century’, Moore acknowledges that the looped ribbon, as a charity symbol, has ‘possible historical precedents’ in the form of such well-established symbols as flags, stickers and the Armistice Day poppy. However, she argues, those older symbols were born out of established norms and values, symbolising unity and commemoration: the flag day appeals of the First World War ‘provided a means for the men “at home” to consolidate their identity as protectors of the nation, and to align themselves with the men taking a more active role in fighting the war’, while the ritual of poppy wearing ‘constituted an expression of loss as well as a statement of belonging’.

Ribbon-wearing, by contrast, has its roots in the counter-culture of the Sixties and Seventies, where national pride was challenged by a growing disaffection with establishment values and traditional institutions, and self-expression superseded collective action in the quest for achievement and meaning in life. The red and pink ribbons, which ‘[grew] out of the gay liberation movement and the feminist movement respectively’, suggest ‘a faintly oppositional stance towards mainstream society’, argues Moore.

The rapid incorporation of this faintly oppositional stance, in relation to the appearance of red AIDS ribbons on the lapel of every respectable politician and the integration of the pink ribbon into everyday fashion designs, is testament to the speed and extent to which disaffection with ‘mainstream society’ has spread. In the Noughties, everybody wants to be counter-cultural – which presumably means that the counter-culture has become the mainstream. Or as Moore puts it:

‘Properly speaking, we see the extension and transfiguration of the countercultural impulse in the contemporary culture, and the awareness campaigns of the 1990s more specifically. Whilst the counter-culture found expression through various consumerist items, for example, the awareness ribbon campaigns are wholly commercial enterprises, popularising dissent and compassion through slick marketing campaigns. In addition, we see the normalisation of self-awareness in the ribbon campaigns of the 1990s, its transformation, that is to say, into an unquestionably beneficial attribute.’

The more that awareness ribbons have become a must-have accessory, the more they have become All About Ourselves. ‘Awareness’ of a cause has become self-awareness of our own anxiety and mortality, and the search for meaning turns ever more intimately inwards.

The increasing orientation towards the self has been theorised by several influential thinkers, including Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Anthony Giddens in Modernity and Self-Identity (1991), Ulrich Beck in Risk Society (1992) and Frank Furedi in Therapy Culture (2004). It is understood to be a product of the breakdown of traditional institutions and relations of solidarity, which lead to a more fragmented, risk-conscious society, in which the quest for meaning takes on a more individualised, uncertain form. Critics such as Lasch and Furedi view this process as a predominantly negative one, leading to a fearful, isolated outlook that rests on a diminished sense of the individual and society, while the Giddens school of thought presents it in a rather more positive, liberatory light.

What is generally agreed, however, is that the privileging of personal ‘identity’ as a route to finding meaning in life is a fraught process, in which a constant state of anxiety becomes the norm: a process which individuals are never expected to resolve, only cope with. This is the background to the explosion of ‘Ribbon Culture’, in which, as Moore suggests, ‘ribbon wearers’ sense of awareness often manifests itself as worry, rather than a process of rational evaluation’.

The most powerful chapter of Moore’s book examines in depth the pink ribbon of the breast cancer awareness campaign, and ‘the implications of “thinking pink”’. Having already established the extent to which the pink ribbon has become a thoroughly mainstream concern and a consumer brand, Moore looks at what kind of ‘awareness’ is generated by the pink ribbon for those to whom it is more than a fashion accessory. Reflecting the group most likely to wear ribbons, Moore’s interviewees were predominantly young, white, middle-class women. Many, notes Moore, were ‘inordinately worried about breast cancer’. Their ‘awareness’ of the disease was such that they massively over-estimated the number of deaths claimed by it and the likelihood of women their age contracting it, and they were scarcely aware that deaths from breast cancer have been falling for several years.

The character of this awareness – which might more properly be called misinformation – is not surprising given the extent to which information produced by the breast cancer awareness campaign, as Moore shows, deliberately overplays the indiscriminate nature of breast cancer – that it could happen to anybody, that everybody knows somebody who has been affected by the disease, and so on. This plays off individuals’ residual anxiety about their health, lifestyle and mortality, causing them to wear their worry, if not on their sleeve, on their lapel. As Moore suggests, it is difficult to see what is gained by this ritualised anxiety:

‘It is… unlikely that cultivating a sense of worry about the illness is particularly health promoting for those women who do not have breast cancer… These women’s fear has manifested itself in burdensome routines and gestures (compulsory self-examination or wearing a pink ribbon, for example) which speak of a nagging, everyday sense of worry which refuses to be resolved.’

To fear death is one thing. To advertise that fear, in the form of a kitsch fashion accessory bought in department stores that is greeted by others as less controversial than wearing socks with sandals, speaks to the thoroughly morbid undertones of our modern culture of narcissism. Moore does a great job of exposing the orthodoxy of ‘awareness’ for what it really is; challenging the sickness of our ribbon culture requires that we think beyond the pink to care about something less selfish instead.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review. Email her at {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”jennie@bristow.com”}.

Ribbon Culture: Charity, Compassion and Public Awareness, by Sarah E.H. Moore is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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