Gender, Illness, and Narrative: A Rhetorical Study of the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women Campaign (2014)

Director: T. Kenny Fountain


By conducting a rhetorical analysis of Go Red’s print- and web-based promotional materials, I argue that the campaign frames caring as a gender-specific practice that puts women at risk for heart disease.

Go Red seeks to address this problem by recasting self-care as part of a woman’s responsibility to others and by urging women to take active roles in health education through practices that I call “discursive caring.” These communication acts primarily include personal storytelling for which the campaign offers rhetorical training through narrative mediation and narrative modeling.

By crafting and publicizing narratives based on women’s personal stories, Go Red privileges values such as success and self-initiative, which in turn shape how women discuss their own experiences. Although Go Red encourages what I call “rhetorical self-efficacy” among women, the campaign’s official discourse and narrative themes provide and invite only limited representations of women’s lived experiences of heart disease.

This project contributes to scholarship in medical rhetoric by considering how social constructions of gender may influence popular depictions and understandings of health and disease as much as, if not more than, medical knowledge rooted in the physical body. The campaign messages that I analyze offer us a chance to explore how health promotion materials draw upon gender ideologies in an attempt to identify with target audiences; we might therefore consider the extent to which such rhetorical appeals reach or exclude those audiences.

This project also contributes to medical rhetorical scholarship by demonstrating that illness narratives publicized as part of a national health campaign do more than attract attention to the cause: they may also shape others’ personal beliefs and illness narratives as well as social conversations about health, disease, and medicine more broadly. As a result, medical rhetoricians should continue to explore the rhetorical functions of illness narratives, particularly in relation to personal identity, in a culture of individuals who increasingly turn to mass media representations of health and disease for knowledge, advice, and social support.

Furthermore, this project invites rhetoricians to consider how online illness narratives – particularly when they are submitted as part of an organization’s website – represent opportunities for users to perform acts of public identification. In other words, personal narrative may function rhetorically as a way into a community – and thereby a way into membership among a group of people, a group-sanctioned set of values, and a discourse community.

Overall, my analysis emphasizes that educational materials aimed at the general public are by no means objective or value-neutral. When disseminating heart disease facts grounded in medical research, this campaign also reflects and perpetuates social beliefs related to gender, language, and the illness experience. We should therefore consider how the promotion of health within society also entails the promotion of certain values that determine individuals’ roles and responsibilities both in health and in illness.


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