As recently as the early 1970s, millions of Americans couldn’t say the word “cancer” out loud, let alone “breast.”
Although All in the Family had broached the taboo topic in 1973, it was still a big deal a year later when new First Lady Betty Ford announced matter of factly that she’d undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer. She urged other women to get tested for the disease. They did, in droves.
Whether or not this is a net positive depends upon your opinion of 20th-century allopathic medicine: Either “countless daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were saved from certain death just in time” or—uttered in one’s best Dr. McCoy voice—“who knows how many women were poisoned and tortured by glorified witch doctors to add a few miserable, mutilated years to their lives? Dammit, Jim!”
And since those particular years encompassed the subsequent Carter Administration (plus the Pet Rock, Dr. Scholl’s Exercise Sandals, and KC and the Sunshine Band), I’m kinda with Bones on this one.
Luckily, not all of Betty Ford’s campaigns achieved such traction. (Remember the Equal Rights Amendment?) Nevertheless, she helped propagate a freak mutation of old-fashioned civic duty that’s outlasted Earth Shoes and Billy Beer: that species of empty-calorie activism known as “raising awareness.”
Ford’s original low-key yet candid breast-cancer campaign now seems quaintly Shaker-like in its simplicity. Inevitably, that particular cause has metastasized into a tacky, inescapable industry it’s tempting to dub Big Boob, a subsidiary of the Bourgeois Disease Complex.
Old and tired? Little pink lapel ribbons and the occasional fun run. New hotness? “Limited edition” pink cars, Cuisinarts, and other deeply dubious “fundraising” goodies.