Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Farmed Animals and Femininity

“The concealment of breastfeeding rests equally, if not more, on squeamishness relating to bodily function: the fact that food comes out of our bodies is an unsettling thought in a culture that rarely remembers food growing on trees”
--Fiona Giles Fresh Milk [

“Separate lexicons suggest opposite behaviors and attributes. We eat, but other animals feed. A woman is pregnant or nurses her babies; a nonhuman mammal gestates or lactates. A dead human is a corpse, a dead nonhuman a carcass or meat”
--Carol Adams “Foreword” to Animal Equality[

The human breast is a battleground. It is a cultural site at which pervasive dominant discourses in western societies demarcate “nature” from culture and politics, “woman” from man, “Man” from “animal,” spirituality from sexuality, and altruism from self-interest. Just as breasts (generally) come in pairs, so do their culturally conscripted “natures.” The powerful emotions that may be evoked by the sight or touch of the breast may not be solely aesthetic; they may also signify deeper subconscious anxieties over our very identities as men, women, humans, animals, straights or queers.

Further, the female breast has been the site of national and racial politics in which “Others” are to be subordinated to the public pursuits of white men. Within certain practices of “wet-nursing,” some of which continue today, the bodies of poor, black, and “foreign” women as well as dairy cows have been commodified as resources to nurture a new generation who will inherit a great nation, almost always at the expense of the health of such “Others.” Both conceptually and materially, public life, men, whites, and H. sapiens in general are privileged over private life, women, people of color, and “animals.”

Farmed Animals and Femininity
In light of modern Western humans' will to knowledge, power, and meaning, it is not so surprising Carol Linneaus chose to highlight humans' capacity to reason (sapien) as that which separates the men from the animals. Though reason is what makes humans an exceptioanl animal, Linneaus deliberately chose the breast as a marker of human beings' continuity with the animal kingdom. Shiebinger notes that "Linneaus created the term Mammalia in response to the question of humans’ place in nature" so that while "a female characteristic (the lactating mamma) ties humans to brutes... a traditionally male characteristic (reason) marks our separation."[51

Breasts, as organs of the body that function to nurse children, have been historically marked as part of a person’s Species being, a matter of her facticity, or determined nature. As popularly expressed by Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking book The Second Sex (
1949), “giving birth and suckling are not activities, they are natural functions; no project is involved” (94*). Unlike transcendental projects willed by individual human consciousnesses, breasts are more often associated with the immanence of the body because of their relationship to reproduction and the perpetuation of the collective species to which women are forced into servitude. The situation of the (feminine) body even constitutes a detriment to those human projects. “Nursing is also an exhausting obligation,” she writes, as “the nursing mother feeds the newborn at the expense of her own strength” (95*).

In contrast to a male’s freedom and expression which increase with the complexity of their species, a female animal “feels her enslavement more and more keenly, the conflict between her own interests and the reproductive forces is heightened… woman is of all mammalian females at once the one who is most profoundly alienated” (26, 33). As mother, woman is “like a phase of a species… her individual and separate existence merges into universal life. Her individuality is derisively contested by generality” (184). Women, in other words, lose their autonomy and individuality when their bodies conform to their biological function, becoming subsumed into the general species. Though, many feminists may no longer share Beauvoir’s attitude toward the female body today, her attitude generally reflects the metaphysical and material prejudices of modern Western culture.

Perhaps more than people realize, the Species being of women and the construction of femininity are intricately wrapped up in cultural constructions—both material and conceptual—of farmed animals. Just as women have been subsumed by the Species within patriarchy, so have farmed animals within specieisism.

Carol Adams highlights that species is gendered, animals are feminized, and women are animalized.[
52] Particularly, all members of species exploited for their feminine bodies (i.e. eggs, milk) “carry the attribute of the female of the species... unless specifically identified as male.”[53] As Beauvoir stated before her, Adams writes “[t]he generic, unlike mankind, is female… Man transcends species; woman bears it. So do the other animals.” Joan Dunayer likewise notes that
“Whereas other species’ names appear as plurals (‘palm cockatoos’) or follow the (‘the palm cockatoo’), man does not. Frequent capitalization literally elevates Man above other animals. Functioning like a proper name, Man personifies our species as an adult male (13*)
Linguistically, the privilege accorded to “Man” is a site in which sexism and speciesism intersect. While “Man” is proper and particular, women and animals live mere generalized existences. “Man” is unified in his dignified individuality, while women and animals are interchangeable units in a collective.

Although de Beauvoir writes that “The term ‘female’ is derogatory not because it emphasizes woman’s animality, but because it imprisons her in her sex,” she later goes on to describe anthropomorphic vices men have used to describe various female animals—sluggish, eager, artful, stupid, callous, lustful, ferocious, abased—all of which men project unto women (3). Indeed, Dunayer in “Sexist Words, Speciesist Roots” (as well as many other feminist thinkers) have analyzed the intersections between misogynistic and speciesist rhetoric. Terms like catty, shrew, dumb bunny, cow, bitch, old crow, queen bee, and sow are intended, at least originally, to denigrate women, mostly through their analogy to constructions of farmed animals. Women and their lifestyles are also trivialized in the way in which the lives of animals are trivialized. For instance young women are often called chicks while more mature women are said to be old hens who are cooped unless they attend hen parties with their brood.[

The distinction between women’s animality and her imprisonment within her sex is very fine since our understanding of female sexuality is partially influenced by human reproductive management and regimes for female farmed animals. In her essay “Thinking like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection,” Karen Dawn notes that while many people valorize and sympathize with the plight of “wild” animals, there has been a “culturally-conditioned indifference” toward “domestic” animals. Keystone environmental thinkers have privileged those animals that are “natural, wild, and free” over farmed animals which have supposedly been “bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency.” Though many men have
traditionally admired and even sought to emulate certain kinds of animals, even as they set out to subjugate and destroy them… they have not traditionally admired or sought to emulate women [or farmed animals]… men essentially give to themselves a new lease to run with the predators, not the prey, and to identify with the "wild" and not the "tame."[55]
Women and farmed animals, both who have been domesticated and valued for their feminine docility, are too boring and slavish to admire and emulate; they lack all that is most valued in modern patriarchy: freedom, power, and intelligence.

Ultimately reduced to edible commodities, farmed animals—even more so than “wild” animals—are also dispossessed of agency and particularity. In being reduced to “meat,” farmed animals lose their particularity, “someone has becomes something, an object with no distinctiveness, no uniqueness, no individuality” [
56]. As Carol Adams observes, “When you add five pounds of hamburger to a plate of hamburger, it is more of the same thing” [56b]. Further, farmed animals lose their agency through the story of meat and milk eating in which “we reposition the animal from subject to object by making ourselves the subject of meat-eating" [57]. Similarly, because of the stories we tell about dairy cows, the embodied subjectivity of cows is elided: “Milking is done to her rather than by her” [54]. No wonder the minds behind Barnyard chose a male gender for its udder-ed protagonist: “the people producing this film didn't think it was possible to have actual female cows being humorous or wild”, after all, cows are dull and boring.[58]

Through the values and prejudices of patriarchy, women have been marked with animality and thus face a similar negative treatment as animals do. At least metaphorically, women too become exchangeable objects whose agency is evicerated through the objectifying, fragmenting, and consuming male gaze. Adams explains that through the metaphor of being “treated like meat,”
[f]eminists have used violence against animals as metaphor, literalizing and feminizing the metaphor…Whereas women may feel like pieces of meat, and be treated like pieces of meat—emotionally butchered and physically battered—animals actually are made into pieces of meat… [this metaphor often results in an] occlusion, negation, and omission in which the literal fate of the animal is elided [57b]
While many people feel that the objectifying and exploitative treatment of animals (i.e. being “treated like meat’) is unjust when applied to human animals, they uncriticaly accept that it is “natural” and right to treat “animals” as such. By doing so, these people do not challenge discrimination, objectification, and exploitation themselves, but only that these acts not be performed against a certain class of privileged subjects.

Beauvoir and the majority of more contemporary femininsts cannot simply elide the risks of dehumanization (a speciesist word) by supporting their defense on the metaphysical foundation of liberal humanism in which humans are either other-than or more-than “animals, but never “mere” animals because they possess self-consciousness. By creating a negative zone of exclusion, the animal body, of which humans transcend, biologist Lynda Birke warns that
we are inevitably going to face problems [because] analogies are drawn between human society and that of other species… if animals are ‘mere’ biology, puppets of their genes, then there will inevitably be inferences made about the mere biology at the heart of human nature.(11*)
The animal body which modern Western people have abjected to form the sanctity of its subjectivity will continually beseeche them, as the abject ceaselessly threatens to collapse the demarcation between it and the demarcating subject.[59] As long as human subjectivity relies upon the abjection and occlusion of “animal” and corporeal subjectivity, those who are marked as closer to animality and corporeality will likely face abject treatment.

This essay was previously posted on HEALTH in the third post in a series on "The Identity Politics of Breasts"

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