Monday, May 25, 2009

Why vegetarian feminists are upset with PETA

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, founder and editor of Equal Writes

You wouldn't think that feminism and animal rights activism would be mutually exclusive ventures, but even if they offered me a job, I would never work for PETA (and in this frosty economy, no less!). This is not because I love fur, leather shoes, or pepperoni pizza - with the possible exception of my vintage cowboy boots, I could, and do, live happily without all three. In fact, I'm a lifelong vegetarian. I've never eaten beef or pork (except for the occasional hot dog when I was 5, before my father told me that they eat cat in Africa and I made the Lisa Simpson connection between lambs and lamb chops), and I stopped eating all meat when I was 10, so I think I have pretty good vegetarian street cred. I cried in the middle of a cafe earlier this year while reading a Michael Pollan article about cattle raised for beef (read it - it made me go vegan for three months before I got anemia from my college dining halls) - it's incredibly easy to get me worked up about animal rights issues, and if there were more than 24 hours in the day, I would be devoting time to animal rights activism.

But I'm also a lifelong feminist, and I have been increasingly shocked and horrified by PETA's casual exploitation of gender stereotypes and objectification of the female body in an effort to raise support for its activism. If you've seen any of PETA's ads, you know what I'm talking about. This commercial was banned from the Super Bowl, for obvious reasons (surely there are ways to convince people to go vegetarian without showing a scantily clad woman preparing to fuck a bunch of asparagus), but PETA has repeatedly launched advertisements which throw respect for women (or, for that matter, for men) out the window in the name of animal liberation. Just a few examples: Alicia Silverstone stripped naked for a PETA ad, with the tagline "I'm a vegetarian" above her obviously airbrushed body. The strippers of Rick's Cabaret posed nude for another ad campaign, which declared "We'd rather go topless than wear fur." In a demonstration last year, PETA used a pregnant woman in a cage as part of a demonstration against mistreated pigs. And just to prove that they could perpetuate damaging male stereotypes as well as sexualizing women, PETA produced an ad last year featuring Mickey Rourke, who inveighed upon viewers to "have the cojones to fix your dog." Sometimes they like to use a psuedo-feminist, "love your body" type of rhetoric to mask the fact that they're blatantly exploiting women's bodies (tagline: "Be comfortable in your own skin: don't wear fur"). But usually, PETA throws itself behind campaigns that unashamedly objectify women in the service of "justice."

This is similar to problems that I have with other methods used to encourage people - usually women - to go vegan. On Princeton's feminist and gender issues blog, Equal Writes (shameless plug: I'm a co-editor), I wrote a post about the "Skinny Bitch" book series, which play on women's insecurities about their bodies to shame them into changing their diet. Another post on this blog points out the obvious problems in encouraging girls to stop eating meat because it will "make you fat" (another one from PETA - it boggles my mind that they're not called out more often for this shit). The really aggravating thing for me, though, is that vegetarianism is in many ways a healthier diet. So why tell women that veganism is the way for them to become a "skinny bitch" rather than a "healthy woman"? Because it's easier to play on women's existing negative self-image. Our culture has done a great job of laying the groundwork for anyone to shame women into eating proscriptively, and rather than helping women feel better about their bodies - and at the same time, work for animal rights - PETA and other activists take the low road.

The problem, at the most fundamental level, is that we're not acknowledging intersectionality. This is not something that's limited to animal rights activists - American Apparel is a great example of a company which uses women's bodies to sell clothes that were made under decent working conditions - apparently, we can't have happy workers and desexualized models (for a more in-depth rant, I've written two posts, linked here and here, about American Apparel on Equal Writes). Why can't we humanize animals in the attempt to make people care about the way that they're mistreated, rather than dehumanizing women?

Animals, women and workers are frequently denied full rights as living creatures. But using women to gain rights for animals is not really progress. And what does it say about the movement itself if the only way to convince people to treat animals with respect and dignity is to sex it up? Why not show images of slaughterhouses, rather than assuring us that greased-up naked women don't eat meat (and please, just because Playboy does it, doesn't make it ok - they're not trying to take some kind of moral high ground)? Why not tell people that it's actually healthier to eat less meat, rather than telling women that it's the only way they'll get skinny? It's desperate and tacky and offensive to promote justice for one cause at the expense of another. And it makes it impossible for me to respect an organization that logically I should love.

I'd also like to note that PETA's advertisements have recently strayed into the realm of racism (beyond the fact that the vast majority of their nekkid models are white). Last year, there were discussions of renting ad space on the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico, for billboards that equated a carnivorous diet with the border patrol. The billboards, in English and Spanish, would offer the caution: "If the Border Patrol Doesn't Get You, the Chicken and Burgers Will - Go Vegan." I'm not sure what the status is with these ads, but the very idea that this is an acceptable strategy is totally unbelievable. The images on the billboards are definitely racist, and content aside, what the hell is the idea behind giving the U.S. government money to support its fucked-up immigration policies?

I'd love to see the day when animal rights activists acknowledge the connections between abuse of animals and abuse of women. But I will never get behind any organization that so flippantly disregards health, self-esteem, and the female body. Thanks, PETA, for trying to promote your issues through misogyny and racism. And until it's willing to take the road of basic decency and stop using tired stereotypes and "sexy" advertising tropes, I'll keeping throwing up in my mouth at the mention of its name. I don't know how many converts PETA's gotten from these ad campaigns, but it's definitely lost my support.


  1. Great post, Amelia. I was once a member of PETA, but have stopped sending them money at least in part due to the sexism issue (I also fine a lot of their campaigns, like "Sea Kittens", inane, and am frustrated with their playing down the importance of veganism). I've long felt that the animal rights movement must figure out how to promote the interests of animals alongside those of humans, rather than exploiting humans to stop animal exploitation.

    That said, I'm curious if you think that feminist organizations are similarly out-of-line for their (almost) wholesale indifference to animal suffering. Obviously, NOW isn't going to put out an add that shows them slaughtering an animal, so the case isn't entirely analogous. But certainly, few feminists pay any heed to Carol Adam's argument that the processes through which women and animals are closely connected. Moreover, some feminists promote a female body image that requires serious animal abuse. To take an example, "The Vagina Monologues" on campus mentioned wearing Mink Fur coats as an example of a woman taking good care of herself and loving her body.

    I think that the sexist tactics used by PETA are as morally repugnant as they are ineffective. While this isn't an attempt to apologize for PETA, though, I think that the root of their indifference to womens' issues is not entirely that they are single-minded misogynists. It is also - at least in part - a product of the rest of the progressive community's general indifference to animal issues.

  2. @Alex:

    I think you're absolutely right - the feminist movement has definitely not embraced intersectionality in the way that it should - although I wouldn't quite hold up Eve Ensler as a mouthpiece for the entire movement (I directed this year's production, and I would have cut that line if there wasn't a strict policy about changing any part of the play - I have my own issues with almost every one of the monologues). Within the progressive community, there's a distressing tendency to focus single-mindedly on one issue without exploring the ways that racism, sexism, animal rights abuses, etc, are interconnected.

    But I do think that PETA is more reprehensible than other progressive organizations, because it's been repeatedly called out for its tactics but its spokespeople remain unapologetic about the offensiveness of the ad campaigns. Take a look at the interview in Mother Jones last October with PETA president Ingrid Newkirk - she first tried to distract the interviewer by claiming that feminists are objecting to the treatment of the models, which is not the issue, and then trotted out the tired old "sex sells" argument, saying that the only way PETA's going to get people's attention is by using Alicia Silverstone's naked body. I don't think, though, that we're getting anywhere by saying that women are more important than animals, because all of these issues are connected - it's like forcing people to choose between race and gender as an issue, which the feminist movement has tacitly forced people to do by ignoring the ways that racism and sexism intersect.

    The thing is, though, that we all have trouble finding enough time and energy to tackle everything that we want to change. I wish I had time to devote to animal rights activism, just as I want to do environmental work and agitate against torture and a million other issues. But I do think you're right that animal rights activism often slips to the bottom of progressives' priorities, and that's incredibly unfortunate and should be changed.

  3. PETA is stupid. So is Skinny Bitch. It doesn't get anyone to care about animals, only to change their diet. And quite likely not to change it permenantly unless girls make the connection simply because they're eating vegan. In other words, they get into it through Skinny Bitch and then start reinforcing their lifestyle by justifying their decisions other ways (which is a good thing because there are very good reasons for being vegan that don't involve BMI).

  4. Although I agree that some of the ads are bordering on a bit obscene (nudity seems to be their favourite), I still think that if it gets people to sit up and notice veganism a little more then it's not such a bad thing.

    Most people, when they think of vegans, think of anaemic, half dead hippies. If we can get them thinking of beautiful, healthy, sexy women, then that's a more positive association, and might encourage them to give veganism a go.

    Just my two cents, as a woman and as a vegan.

  5. You all make me sick