My interest in reviewing documentaries for you beautiful, naïve, sophisticated new-born babies is primarily to break up the notion that documentaries are like those after-dinner History Channel specials (why don’t they just call it the “WWII and Nostradamus Conspiracy Channel?”). Not only for you, but, uhm, for myself.
I know documentaries aren’t like that. In fact, in the past years, they’ve revolutionized politics and culture, and rejuvenated conversations around particular issues (Food Inc., Super Size Me, and Inconvenient Truth being some of the most notable/popular). Indeed, the topics of documentaries, often about an underground art or culture scene or some version of activism or awareness, are made for people like me. Hell, because of a lack of information in the medical field, I learned about my own disease via documentaries. Yet, when I sit down at night, when faced with the choice of what to watch, I invariably go, “That documentary I meant to watch years ago?” — as I have still not seen any of the aforementioned popular documentaries — ”oooorrrrrr…. Yup, I think I’ll rewatch The Breakfast Club for the 80 billionth time.” So, this review is a challenge: choose knowledge! And help me choose knowledge, too (at least in-between the 80 and 81st billionth re-viewings).
Credentials and Logistics
Writer and Directors: Francine Strickwerda and Laurel Spellman Smith
Overview: Tracing the cultural trail of “breasts,” broadly focusing on the way that our sexualization of breasts is culturally relative and impacts women from adolescence throughout their lives, while specifically focusing on culture surrounding breastfeeding women and breast cancer and the families it affects.
Warning: the remainder of the article (as well as the film) contain images of a mastectomy that may be triggering for those who have been touched by the trauma of illness.
The worst part about the film is that it’s 57 minutes long (I know! I was shocked, too). Though I don’t exactly mean this in the “omfg I could have used an hour and a half of exactly more of this!” What I do mean is that most of my critique — that the film touched on a wide variety of topics and in some cases didn’t go into near enough depth, therefore reductively handled complex sentiments in a way that is problematic — would most likely not have been an issue had the film been longer. I say “most likely” because, hell, who knows what someone would do with twice the time and twice the budget, but the filmmakers displayed maturity alongside their disarming honesty on the topics.
For example, they connect the way our culture sexualizes ”our” (as in, mine, at least) breasts and how it affects adolesence. This is true, most obviously, of the relationship we have to our own developing bodies. They take the time to point to the effects on the relationship between a mother and daughter — not well, and by a man (author of a book about fathering; I say this not to discount his POV, which is not wholly wrong, but is indeed reductive to a very complex relationship that I feel like quickly ends in blaming the mother of being jealous of her beautiful, young daughter)…
The film offered wonderful POV pieces. The man just mentioned offered a brief account of the father’s place between a rock and a hard spot with his developing daughter, one of utter confusion, not only in the sort of person she is (child?! adult?!) but also in how to, say, help with bra buying and other activities. One woman gave an account of her father’s reaction to her breastfeeding her newborn: with the first, he’d stand in the next room, and they’d converse from there; the second, he’d managed to get in the doorway, but never making eye contact; with her third child and her confronting the issue with him, he’s finally become comfortable enough to inhabit the room. Another experience is of a young (twelve-ish) woman going bra shopping for the first time with her mother (whom we gather is an activist of some sort…), which highlights conversations of generational experience (“Back in my day, they were called training bras. Well, what were we training for? My boobs were there!”) with shared experience (“It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?”). The young adult mentioned that, though her dad knew all about this stuff because he had an older sister, she’s much more comfortable talking with her mom about such things. She also noted that even though it seems like a big deal now, she’ll probably look back on it and not see what the big deal was all about.
Oh yeah, all the kids in this movie are really fucking wise.
I’d like to share with you a few more moments of the film, but before I do, here’s my official review:
Though the history of “breasts” and the cultural relativist stuff seemed redundant to me (touching on foot binding, how in some cultures big booties are sexualized, and different times in different histories made different breast sizes ideal/the norm), where the movie REALLY shines is the discussion of breast cancer and commercialization. Moreover, our cultural disposition and sexualization of breasts disrupts our health. It shames mothers who breastfeed in public. It makes it difficult for other women to breastfeed (by not providing, say, lactation nurses in hospitals and instead giving out free formula, not to mention the way that body image plays in here). It makes “touching ourselves” a sexual act, rather than a way to prevent or detect early stages of breast cancer by a self-examination. Overall, I thought the film — even in 57 minutes — was able to make bold points about the disastrous results of commercialization and fetishization.
The personal XP with breast cancer is portrayed as disarmingly honest and palpably heartbreaking. It’s also intimately connected with body image…
The filmmaker, whom we follow in the documentary, has gotten some opinions of young women on the boardwalk, but wanted to see if there was a generational gap as to how the topic was approached. She goes into a VFW (which from my understanding is a bar for Veterans of Foreign War, like a legion hall is a gathering place, but… a bar + gathering place) and encounters a couple in their 50s (?). She approaches the man who says, “My wife here is a school teacher so, you know, if you don’t do it right the first time, you have to do it again.” And he and his wife just get giggling. Love it, a healthy sexual relationship. (Though I will note that 97% of men in the video, even when making a lovely point about breasts, were still doing so around the notion of sex/sex object..) Then, shit gets real.
Wife: What would you do… what would you do…
(At this point I can only assume it’s going to be an “if I didn’t have such ample breasts” conversation, given that it followed a sexual comment.)
…if when I go get this tumor removed, they have to do a [mastectomy].
Husband: You know, my first wife died of breast cancer… What would I do? I'd still be there. Of course.
He then notes that, why would he care? He loves her, they’ve been married x years, etc.
Wife: See, this is a man's perspective. This thing is going to happen within the next month. And the point is, I'd feel like less of a woman, and I'm very frightened, but I have to face it, and go through it. There's decisions to be made. [to her husband] Will you be angry with me if I'm told it's cancer and I tell them not to remove the breast? only the tumor? Just don't take off the breast.
They interviewed someone involved with an (unnamed) breast cancer foundation and, as soon as they mentioned the campaign “Obsessed with Breasts,” I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s do this, let’s talk about purses and sexual innuendos. (Persephoneeers have posted on it here, here, oh yeah and here, and here.) But they offered a different story. The “Obsessed with Breasts” campaign was largely supposed to be led with this image:
The interviewee notes that, unsurprisingly, only a handful of this posters made it up, a mere fraction of the intent. She struggles with Breast Cancer Month and the way it was initiated by the industry: ”pink-washing” products for women. For her, this softens the point of the foundation she’s involved in, making everyone seem aligned. “Well, we’re not all one on this issue.” Teddy bears, for example, are an exacerbation of the fact that breast cancer conjures up images of “death, sex, and motherhood,” but all tied up in a pretty pink bow. Further, commercialism as such kills.
Kids are brilliant, strong, and wiser than we think. In ten to fifteen years, those fuckers are going to take over the world.
One story — that I just can’t spoil too much as it alone is worth sitting through an hour of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s pink-lidded yogurt commercials — displays precisely this.
While I won’t spoil how outstanding this woman’s two little girls are, I will end with an anecdote from her husband (who was equally charming, wise, and humbled by the entire experience).
“I didn’t know how big a breast was,” he said. He didn’t mean size — like, cup size. He meant, literally, he did not realize the way the breast wraps around, or how high up on the chest it goes. I think, too, he was realizing the impact of the breast — and of losing it — for his wife, and for other women battling not only breast cancer but the way that our boob-centric culture has reduced a life-threatening (and even when it’s not, still utterly dibilitating and traumatic) illness and treatment to a “save the tatas” “I like mine somewhere on the floor between the bunny cages and the bench holding all of our misplaced hardware”* campaign.
* I currently have two purses. One is big enough for a book, the other is a more formal one, whose Facebook update would have read “I like it hanging on the door handle to my closet,” which makes about as much sense as “shit ton” is a measurement.