“I Love Boobies” and Showtime’s The Big C


In a day job where I come into contact with a lot of teens, I’ve noticed a great number wearing rubber bracelets – thicker and broader, more physically substantial in all ways than the once-hot yellow Livestrong wristbands – reading “I love boobies.” That is, they say that in a voguish shorthand, the “love” replaced by a big heart with a smaller heart stenciled inside. Underneath the smaller stenciled heart is a protuberant pair of sideways parentheses, hanging low: the heart, here, is the less significant organ.

I asked a teen girl, confusingly wearing one, what the bracelets meant, and she told me they were for a good cause. I Googled “I love boobies” and the first result, curiously (though certainly not the first result under Image Search – my mistake!), was for a rather amateurish-looking charity website, one that autoplays a Phoenix song and advertises plaster casts of cancer sufferers’ breasts as “Treasured Chests.” Breast cancer is no longer just a fatal disease that can metastasize through the body – in order to hold interest, it is a disease that threatens, specifically, “boobies.” He he he!

The Keep-A-Breast foundation, per their website, was founded “in response to the growing need for breast cancer programs to educate young people.” Its founders were self-proclaimed experts in “fashion design, photography and event production.” The group raises funds for sustaining its own, loosely defined “awareness-raising” agenda – its homepage lists a variety of youth-oriented events like “Boobalicious Vancouver” and the “Malibu Surf Classic Pre Party,” as well as information on environmental toxins. The site links to a shop where one can buy one “I love boobies” bracelet for $3.99, or a pack of 100 for $299.99. That’s a lot of awareness!

I was reminded of the recently debuted Showtime series The Big C in browsing this site, as I recalled Laura Linney’s character as having been diagnosed with breast cancer. My mistake only demonstrates the feminizing and infantilizing penumbra that Barbara Ehrenreich sees swirling around breast cancer.

Linney’s character, instead, has melanoma, and reacts in a Showtime-protagonist-y way – like the “I love boobies” bracelet, the show sensationalizes cancer in its way. In The Big C, cancer is very explicitly not that which much of the self-help discourse indicates. In response to group therapy, Linney tells off the assembled evangelists: “Cancer sucks! Put that in your God damn inspirational poster!” (She would hardly fit in with the “Treasured Chests” crew, whose testimonials tend to focus on all terminal illness has taught them about themselves.) She is set on grabbing adulthood and reason, even if that reason yields a fatalistic conclusion, from the smiling jaws of inanity.

Necessarily, The Big C is nihilistic, perhaps to a fault. Its premise leaves Linney’s character not only bereft of the dubious support provided by the emotional-industrial complex of non-scientific cancer charity, but totally alone – she has not told anyone, not her family or friends, of her diagnosis. (She in fact seems to have no friends, perhaps unsurprisingly.) “I don’t want a lot of people… taking care of me,” she says, instead choosing to spend her last days on earth an unchained id, chain-smoking and buying expensive consumer goods.

There are links in Linney’s character’s untrammeled post-diagnosis behavior with the Treasured Chest-manufacturing “Keep-A-Breast” group, and these are the worst elements of the show. She, for instance, is finally free to ask her doctor to evaluate her breasts – aesthetically, not medically. Samantha from Sex and the City was a more adult cancer patient than this – no matter how sex-obsessed she may have been, she was a few years before the full-scale equivalence of “cancer” with “boobies” (not “breasts” but “boobies,” though The Big C’s doctor uses “rack”) for the women of fiction.

The Big C’s fiction, though, is far more consciousness-raising than that of “Keep-A-Breast,” though it is sure not to reach many teenagers. All its flaws – its being centered on a sociopathic lie told by a mother to her son and a wife to her husband, its replacing a happy set of clichés with an angry one – come not from a design collective or an events-planning committee or an image-consultant and teen-branding expert, or whoever keeps the “Keep-A-Breast” crew in raised funds. They stem from a person’s humanity. Even when Linney’s character exposes herself to her doctor, you look past her, ahem, boobies – she gives cancer an idiosyncratic, compelling face.