Meat and metaphors

The wonderful Jenna Sauers of Jezebel posted recently on PETA’s attempts to be edgy and arresting in their support of animals at the expense of women, minorities, and basically all people except thin white patriarchy-lovin’ youngsters. Jenna outlined some of PETA’s worst antifeminist offenses — equating women with meat, putting them in cages, building campaigns on the naked airbrushed bodies of D-listers, basically extra-blatant versions of everything the fashion industry does with a little more subtlety. She also provided examples of PETA’s racist advertising, which equates farming and animal slaughter with slavery and lynching. It’s a thorough and stomach-turning denunciation.

What Jenna doesn’t address, though I’m sure she realizes it, is that PETA isn’t only trying to use shock and sex to get attention — they are also attempting a kind of satirical analogy. (In some of the ads. Some are just gross.) They intend to use our natural tendency to be shocked at cruelty against humans, a tendency they believe they can count on, to make a point by analogy about animals: why aren’t we shocked at similar treatment there? The imagery is (in some cases) not intended to be gratuitous, but to make a point about hypocrisy. I’m generally a fan of that approach — satirical analogy is used to great effect by my favorite political cartoonists, Jon Stewart, etc. So why does it fail here so thoroughly?

For one thing, there’s the naivete of believing that PETA’s target audience of class-privileged white teens is going to reliably experience shock at seeing women mistreated, or seeing historical images of the mistreatment of black Americans. Certainly there are white college students with a deep understanding of cultural pressures on women, an awareness of patriarchy and privilege, and a sense of how historical oppression feeds ongoing inequity, but they’re not exactly the go-to group for such things.

More than that, though, I think this reflects the power of conceptual metaphors. I’m not a linguist, though I sometimes think I should have been, but I’m fascinated by metaphors — both those we build specifically to illuminate, and those that are so entrenched in the way we use language that they actually affect how we view and speak about the world. I will let T-Rex explain.

What people in the PETA demographic fail to realize, or don’t want to realize, is that the WOMAN AS MEAT and POC AS ANIMAL and WOMAN AS PROPERTY and POC AS PROPERTY schema are still absolutely alive and well, absolutely entrenched in our current language and expression and understanding and visual rhetoric. That’s the status quo. I’m not going to go deep into the realm of example, because I think Advanced Blamers will see this as obvious, but just off the top of my head: LeBron James in Vogue, Naomi Campbell and Li’l Kim, gendered food, the entire “Objectification” tag on Soc Images (which includes both women-as-thing and nonwhite-person-as-thing).

This implicit metaphor makes the explicit metaphor fall flat. The PETA ads purport to say, for example, “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is just as bad as treating a woman as meat.” But the idea that a woman is an object for consumption is so ingrained that the analogy reads as “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is just as bad as treating meat as meat” — or, and this is probably more what the experience of viewing the ads is like to many, “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is just as bad as having more or less exactly the same images of women that we always have in every ad we see.” Not exactly a call to action. With the satirical content deflated, what’s left? Just a girl in a bikini in a cage — what the fuck else is new? (And of course, the preponderance of animal-women in PETA ads just reinforces the woman/meat metaphor, making every subsequent iteration even less surprising and therefore less effective.)

Metaphor is a minefield. When wielded well it’s a tool for revelation. When wielded badly, layers of intended and unintended analogy can lead to really stunning outrages (which will instantly be written off as “oversensitive” by people who are undersensitive, of course — part of the reason metaphors are powerful and dangerous is because they’re so often obscured). PETA’s attempt to pretend there’s something subversive about comparing a woman to food smacks of similar hamfisted analogies like “feminism is exactly like sexism” and “whites-only basketball leagues are just like organizations for minorities.” When I see these, my reaction is usually just to bang on whatever’s nearest and yell “it’s NOT the SAME!” This is part of why I am currently the least prolific contributor here — because most of the time I decline analytical writing in favor of the bang/yell approach. But we can, in fact, tease out why things that are NOT the SAME! are not the same. It’s because systematized oppression doesn’t cut both ways. It’s because there is not a finite amount of human dignity, and raising up one group is not the same as debasing another. And often it’s because of unexamined metaphors that scupper the intended one — because of the ways in which we unconsciously compare one group to something less-than or different-from. (For an example of how this can be exploited satirically, see the now-classic videos of people asking pro-lifers how much jail time women who have abortions should receive.)

I want to make clear that I’m talking here about PETA’s rhetoric, not its goals. I don’t want this to turn into a discussion of the value of animal rights activism, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals vs. People for the Ethical Eatment of Animals, or anything. (Joke shamelessly stolen from NPR.) This blog doesn’t have an official position on meat-eating; I believe all five of us do it, none of us do it all that much, we all give a shit about unethical farming and its effect on both animal welfare and the environment because our capacity for giving a shit about important things is limitless, but it’s not our main focus because our energy is not. But the truth is that the messages and images I’m condemning here don’t forward PETA’s agenda whether you believe in it or not — quite the opposite. Here’s what SM said when we discussed this post:

SM: I actually think in some ways we might be MORE shocked by the animal images than by the people images, since there are huge industries dedicated to hiding the cruel aspects of factory farming — but there are huge industries SELLING US the cruelty to humans images.

Dang, that’s smart! The point here is that we do not live in a society where you can make a subversive analogy between women and meat, because that analogy is being used in earnest to sell us things or shut us up every day. These underlying metaphors are often so common as to be transparent, which is what trips PETA up when they make them overt — the image is all the more abhorrent because of the injustice that underpins it, and the satire is completely flaccid because the metaphor is a commonplace.

91 thoughts on “Meat and metaphors

  1. I really agree with that last part. You are more likely to shock me into action by showing me images of cruelty to animals than degradation of women because I’m so accustomed to it (flash back to that American Apparel ad anyone?) that half the time my eyes just glaze over. Which is, of course, extremely sad.

  2. Thank you for this. As a vegan, PETA make me headdesk at a rate of knots! Their “Ingrid Newkirk (PETA’s founder) is a woman, so are methods cannot possibly be degrading or anti-feminist!” rationale drives me crazy.

  3. Great post! Thank you for this as I completely agree! Although I don’t give PETA the benefit of any doubt. No matter what mental masturbatory excuses they and their supporters come up with to defend their ads it’s nothing more than using standard T&A to “sell” their “product” and there’s nothing new about that. So PETA can take their sexist misogyny and stick it right up their patriarchy to which they’re oh-so-firmly entrenched upon! Their ads aren’t new different or enlightening… in fact if not for the their name at the bottom you’d think it was some ad for AA, Diesel, Guess or others of the like. (But that’s just my shy dulcet flower of an opinion.)

  4. “The point here is that we do not live in a society where you can make a subversive analogy between women and meat…”

    That’s exactly why you don’t see men in Peta’s cages. They must already be aware that their metaphor isn’t inflammatory, because they’re not looking to overthrow the paradigm of oppression. Instead, they think it’s more expedient to just work within the system. One of the reasons Peta uses thin white girls and plays so heavily on the “chicks” pun is that – as much as they’re making a philosophical point – they don’t want to disrupt the status quo beyond the question of vegetarianism. Their approach is much more wink-wink-nudge-nudge towards young white straight guys. (More of that tactic can be seen in other commercials of theirs, like the one in which the “mushroom delivery guy” goes home with two porn stars, etc.)

    Of course, the people their ads appeal to feel entitled to both the women and the meat.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this! I loathe PETA with every fiber of my being, not because I disagree with their end goals (like you guys, I eat meat but am concerned with the treatment of factory-farmed animals), but because their methods set off every feminist iota of my being. Saving animals? Cool. Demeaning women to save animals? Profoundly uncool. I imagine a lot of vegetarians and vegans feel about PETA the way I feel about radical evangelical “Christians”: Please, get out of my beliefs and stop making me look bad.

  6. This is some killer sharp writing, right here. “Just a girl in a bikini in a cage — what the fuck else is new?” And I may have to acquire a badge that says “No, you’re UNDERSENSITIVE”.

  7. It makes me wonder what’s wrong with Ingrid Newkirk that she actually thinks these campaigns will work. I mean she’s a woman, she’s fairly intelligent, how can she have gone through life unaware of the quite sincere argument that women really are meat and that’s just awesome that’s being made all around her all the time?

  8. God, you’re so smart FJ. I have tried to to say exactly this, only I didn’t know it was exactly this until you said it. Excuse me, I’m going to go forward this post to a few people who will get it.

    Thanks.

  9. Be aware that if you complain in writing to PETA they’ll put you on their mailing lists. It took some doing to get off of them; they even sent me some of those personal mailing labels like Easter Seals does-ick

  10. This is so good. I have always had such a hard time explaining why, for example, the (possibly now old) cover of The Sexual Politics of Meat is different from the Peta ad showing basically the same thing. I always talked myself in circles; but you nailed it. And Nora’s comment is dead on too, especially here:

    That’s exactly why you don’t see men in Peta’s cages. They must already be aware that their metaphor isn’t inflammatory, because they’re not looking to overthrow the paradigm of oppression. Instead, they think it’s more expedient to just work within the system. One of the reasons Peta uses thin white girls and plays so heavily on the “chicks” pun is that – as much as they’re making a philosophical point – they don’t want to disrupt the status quo beyond the question of vegetarianism.

    Tangentially, I recently purchased some Daiya vegan faux-cheese and, provided you get the temperature right, it’s really good! It actually stretches when it melts. I think it’s made from cassava. (I’m not vegan but sometimes go vegan for short stints, just for grins, to mark the seasons, and for the culinary challenge.)

  11. FJ, this is so exactly what I haven’t been articulating, and here it is, articulated.

    And I think “no, you’re UNDERSENSITIVE” belongs on a button. Or a tagline.

    Incidentally, my computer tells me oversensitive is a real word, but undersensitive isn’t. Hm.

  12. It makes me wonder what’s wrong with Ingrid Newkirk that she actually thinks these campaigns will work. I mean she’s a woman, she’s fairly intelligent, how can she have gone through life unaware of the quite sincere argument that women really are meat and that’s just awesome that’s being made all around her all the time?

    Because the folks doing some of the critiquing are marginalized people and their voices are drowned out by the deep pockets who believe the honorable mission overrides the problematic way the message is delivered, if they even give that consideration at all.

  13. OH MY GOD! I’m been a vegetarian for 5 years, and it was originally PETA that got me started (with images of cruelty to animals, not this shit) and now they’re just a group that makes me look bad every time someone finds out I’m a vegetarian. The omg is because though I’ve always vaguely gotten that the same old naked lady ads were crap, I never really GOT the beef (terrible pun totally intended) that feminists had with them. This post set a light bulb off over my head, especially this:

    “This implicit metaphor makes the explicit metaphor fall flat. The PETA ads purport to say, for example, “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is just as bad as treating a woman as meat.” But the idea that a woman is an object for consumption is so ingrained that the analogy reads as “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is just as bad as treating meat as meat” — or, and this is probably more what the experience of viewing the ads is like to many, “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is just as bad as having more or less exactly the same images of women that we always have in every ad we see.” Not exactly a call to action.”

    Wow, just wow, it finally clicks into place, I think I actually heard an actual fucking click. Thank you for that. Amazing, just um, well fuck yes.

    Though it can be hard to hear people tear apart PETA sometimes, because people use it so often to attack vegetarians, rarely acknowledging that the sexism in their ads in part of the culture, and in not a single way confined to PETA, much less vegetarians.

  14. What I’m trying to get at is, she’s a woman, right? Is she genuinely not aware of the fact that woman = piece of meat is not in any way a shocking analogy to make, and therefore not a very effective one? I know Newkirk is pretty damn privileged, but you’d think that most women would have at least noticed the way they’re usually depicted. I mean her total lack of comprehension of why the racist ads are a problem makes sense, but her lack of understanding of why the sexist ads are problematic (and ineffective because they’re not really that different from what we see all the time) is wierd. I’m not sure how old she is, but it’s my impression that most women who’re say 45 and under are at least somewhat aware of some feminist ideas.

  15. @Cassandrasays, I think she’s just like any other person who wants attention for her cause/company/lastest music video, she knows if it’s offensive, then people will talk about it. She also she’s to value animal dignity above human dignity. Plus it’s very similiar to the AA ads, they can feel superior because they’re supporting one worthy cause, it doesn’t matter if they screw over someone else. I mean aren’t they doing ENOUGH?!?! *Snark* What more do you WANT FROM THEM?!?!?!

  16. CassandraSays:

    I’ m guessing based on the celebs they use they aren’t trying to appeal to folks who self identify as “feminists” and probably females who are hostile to the idea. Also they think they’re being edgy the way white hipsters who misappropriate poverty culture and POC culture often use “being subversive” as a justification. Conflating provocative with offensiveness if often the domain of folks who don’t know how to effectively convey their legitimate message.

  17. Great post. I’ve never been a huge fan of PETA, not because I don’t think their cause has merit, but because I disagree with so many of their methods. This is just one of many reasons I can’t side with them, and it was incredibly well written and thought out. And I also feel that “you’re undersensitive” should be a button or tagline :). I will probably be stealing that from you, heh. Oh, and I’m reposting this!

  18. Delurking to say that this post is completely and totally spot on. I tried to pick out one bit to emphasize, but there’s too many of them. I do, however, want to plaster “[T]here is not a finite amount of human dignity” on billboards EVERYWHERE in the hopes that it’ll sink in to at least a few people.

    I imagine a lot of vegetarians and vegans feel about PETA the way I feel about radical evangelical “Christians”: Please, get out of my beliefs and stop making me look bad.

    This vegetarian certainly does! Some people (certainly not everyone) get really defensive about meat eating, and having the most public face of veg*ism be PETA makes it really easy for veg*ism to be trivialized. It’s easy for the unsympathetic to write us all off as silly things when the predominant image of veg*ism is that of the dehumanized sexpot. I feel like I’m not articulating this particularly well, unfortunately.

    So basically PETA is the American Apparel of animal welfare movements.
    That sums it up so, so well. I never thought about it, but the parallels…! So apt!

  19. This post = awesome.

    Count me in as another vegetarian (ten years and counting!) who despises PETA’s tactics. You’re absolutely right, their images aren’t shocking when we see similar treatment of women and PoC in more mainstream media.

    I was incensed enough about their ‘Save the Whales’ campaign (what? So fat vegetarians don’t exist now?) to write to them, and got a non-answer of a form letter back. In short, they make me angry.

    But thank you also for that wonderful cartoon! ‘DIRECTION IS A BUCKET THAT PEOPLE KEEP SNEAKING INTO!’ I love linguist humor.

  20. As I’m thinking about your post, I’m realizing that I’ve only ever seen PETA’s ads as offensive and obnoxious, never as effective. This is a perfect explanation of why. Thanks!

  21. You’ve written an amazing article. It’s the rare sort of article that essentially explains to me why I’ve been thinking what I’ve been thinking; I couldn’t articulate it to myself why PETA’s ads seemed both so awful and so non-transformative. I’m bookmarking this to share. Thanks for writing this!

  22. Haven’t read all the comments yet but I will say this –
    The sexy posters of naked women – I think they get attention and a lot of people buy into it just like anything else we sell with sex. We’re selling men and women on the idea that they can sleep with women like this or look like these women by buying what they are selling. Maybe for a lot of people that is effective, I don’t know.
    And even the women in cages – they appear glamorized. I don’t think anybody out there thinks they are shocking us with images of abused women, but rather trying to get our attention and make the subject seem sexy.

  23. that you used a dinosaur comic to make a point increases the awesomeness of this post exponentially. i, too, am often of the bang/yell school of argument (though i’ve been working on that of late), so i’m always grateful when someone articulates what i’ve been unable to, so that i can steal quote their words. there is so much quotable material here, but this:

    It’s because systematized oppression doesn’t cut both ways. It’s because there is not a finite amount of human dignity, and raising up one group is not the same as debasing another.

    needs to be plastered, like, everywhere.

    @CassandraSays and, “So basically PETA is the American Apparel of animal welfare movements.” is just brilliant!

  24. I completely agree with this. I am apalled by how animals are treated in the factory farm system, but PETA’s ads are awful. It doesn’t help me that those I know who are snarky about animal rights can refer to PETA and have an upper hand about it.

    That “Milk Gone Wild” ad drew no reaction from me until they got to the actual parts about animals. And then I just wanted to shut the whole thing off because at this very moment I can only handle one issue at a time. But that is so much more effective. I think telling people, “This is what goes on when your food is produced” and showing them is much better. People have to make up their own minds about it.

    The other downside to PETA’s equating women with meat ads is that this same method is used to sell more meat. So I’d wager that they are probably helping to hurt animals more this way, not only by turning people off of PETA’s mission but also by reminding people that there are tasty snacks out there.

  25. I can’t PETA reason, largely because of the reasons that are enunciated so well here by Fillyjonk.

    I also can’t stand their attitude to companion/domestic , animals and the ridiculous tactics they employ in dealing (or not-dealing, actually) with animals that are not being kept in a way that they deem fit. In fact, I don’t think there is any appropriate ways to keep animals, according to PETA.

    Their end target seems to be that the entire world becomes vegan and stops using any animal products whatsoever. I wonder if they’ve actually thought through the consequences of achieving such an aim, leaving aside the fact that not one culture or civilisation has managed it.

    (Not that I’m dissing veg*nism as an individual choice – I eat a predominantly vego diet myself. But I don’t think it’s the only solution to the issue of animal husbandry and excessive meat consumption.)

  26. I can’t help but think that all the glamazons in the PETA ads would actually do virtually anything, attached to any cause, if it gave them the excuse for rampant self promotion.
    “I’d rather go naked than eat Polar bears”
    “I’d rather go naked than not recycle my Diet Coke cans”
    “I’d rather go naked than have Gingivitis”
    “I’d rather go naked than pay to use a Public Toilet”
    “I’d rather go naked than be overcharged by a mechanic”
    “I’d rather go naked than not get my overexposed chops on the TV.”

    You get my drift. I’m a vegetarian myself so I’m not anti-PETA in any way, but I always suspect that a lot of the people in these ads and others are there more for themselves (not all though of course.)

  27. Something I dislike about PETA’s approach is the desperate “But, we vegans / animal right activists are FUN! We are COOL! We are sexy and we do fashionable stuff and look, this and that model and fashion designers are vegan!”. It’s like, they’re trying to make veganism acceptable to dudebros.

    Going vegan, or vegetarian, or even making a commitment to eat half the animal products of the average Westerner, is difficult and needs a bit of willpower and education. It’s not something that can be sustained just because it’s trendy or someone makes it look cool.

  28. Not just about wanting the attention: these are models and actresses who have a lot of experience showing off their bodies, in little clothing and/or clothing picked by someone else. Personally, I’d rather go naked than not, most of the time, so the whole “I’d rather go naked than…” is about as effective with me as “I’d rather eat chocolate than have TB” would be. But even aside from that: they aren’t showing us people for whom it’s convincing that going naked is any kind of sacrifice or even novelty.

    And it’s definitely gendered here: I haven’t been paying close attention to their campaign (I don’t read most of the magazines they advertise in, for example), but as far as I know those ads only show women–where’s the cool dude sitting naked on his motorcycle, saying “I’d rather go naked than wear leather?” It’s easier to hassle people for fur coats than for leather jackets, much less leather belts or shoes, but they’re officially, and perhaps sincerely, equally opposed to both. But that would actually be urging young men to change their behavior, not just giving them another chance to look at conventionally sexy women and feel superior to someone.

  29. What a great post. This is the most thoughtful feminist analysis I’ve ever seen of PETA. I’m a longtime vegan and animal rights activist, and I’ve always been against PETA’s ads, though it was difficult to explain why. (Not anymore, I’ll just link to this post!)

    What PETA doesn’t seem to understand, and this makes it impossible to take them seriously, is that the animal rights argument is valid and defensible on its own terms. Most people are, or claim to be, against the unethical treatment of animals, and are shocked at pictures of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Most people have emotional connections with animals through their household pets. You don’t have to compare our treatment of animals with the Holocaust or slavery or whatever to make people realize that it’s very bad. Every time PETA launches another stupid ad, it just makes it more clear that they don’t even believe in their own argument.

  30. Sweetmachine…Gingivitis is no snorting matter. I hope to god that the PETA Fembots get behind this terrible scourge.

  31. But even aside from that: they aren’t showing us people for whom it’s convincing that going naked is any kind of sacrifice or even novelty.

    This is another terrific point. “I’d rather be more famous than less famous.”

  32. What PETA doesn’t seem to understand, and this makes it impossible to take them seriously, is that the animal rights argument is valid and defensible on its own terms.

    This is a great point! It’s like the irritation I have with people who are appalled by the idea of child wellness campaigns that don’t focus on weight — like it’s not actually intrinsically valuable to have healthy children if they’re not also thin? Are you sure I don’t believe in your cause way more than you do?

  33. Yeah, if PETA’s basic argument is that there is something deeply immoral and wrong in the treatment of animals, shouldn’t that be its take-home message? There are lots of things that are cool, many of which I don’t do because, well, when push comes to shove I’ve got other things to worry about. Considering the immense trouble and self-education that goes into starting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, I don’t see “Do it, you’ll be cool” as a super-effective motivator.

    If the idea is to turn the consumption of animal products into something deeply uncool or unacceptable, again, is the message “Alicia Silverstone will not be your BFF” more effective than “This choice is morally indefensible; let us tell you why”? Maybe if you’re twelve. And maybe if every ad for beef or leather or eggs didn’t promote a precisely opposite message. But I see PETA trying to make itself the hip activist cause by distinguishing itself from us Dour, Humorless activists, and this is a basic mistake, since its message, at core, is as dour and humorless and horrifying as social justice messages usually are.

    There’s only so much snazzing up you can do while still talking about slaughterhouses.

  34. This is an amazing post. Seriously.

    I imagine a lot of vegetarians and vegans feel about PETA the way I feel about radical evangelical “Christians”: Please, get out of my beliefs and stop making me look bad.

    This vegetarian certainly feels this way. In fact, yes, this is quite possibly the best analogy I have ever heard to describe exactly why I dislike that organization so much.

    Funny story: A friend of mine once told a story about how a group of friends of hers cooked bacon outside of a PETA office’s lawn. I may not eat bacon, but I strongly approve of this action. :-)

  35. FJ – this is a fantastic post, and has provoked a brilliant comments thread.

    I get that PETA with their campaigns featuring famous people have the objective of making living an animal-product-free lifestyle look cool (although I definitely agree that most of them would sign up for a “I’d rather go naked than have Gingivitis” campaign at the drop of a hat). But as you point out so brilliantly in the post, using a sexually objectified image of a woman does nothing to shock or disturb. I’d be more jolted by shoots styled like high fashion but using products none of which are made from animals – fake fur, faux leather, soya shoes (you can make shoes out of soya, right?), all looking like a Vogue spread. People who stop to look at a poster of a naked woman are probably not going to be thinking, “Wow, I’ll never get with someone as cool as Alicia Silverstone unless I stop buying all this fur”. They’ll be thinking “Fwoarrgh, nudie picture of Alcia Silverstone”. The medium drowns the message.

    Plus I get the impression that PETA thinks it’s done a good day’s work if it’s seriously pissed off other progressive groups enough for them to call it out, thus garnering it more publicity. Never mind whether these other activist groups might share some of their views or be potential allies – screw them as long as PETA gets their spot on the news that night. PETA are pretty much saying “Racism and misogyny and all other oppressions are completely petty and unimportant and should be ignored until ANIMALS STOP DYING!”, and that’s not a winning message to anyone with progressive political views.

  36. Since I’m a vet, animal welfare has always been a cause dear to my heart. Personally I am firmly in the “ethical use of animals with great care for how you do it” camp, and PETA has always really wound me up because their extreme radical stance is both almost unachieveable (I’d much rather have my dogs than them not exist, and so would they, thanks) and tainted with the hypocrisy of their own actions on the ground (as described in the linked Jezebel post.) This post exactly illustrates why I feel like that – their muddle-headed thinking steamrollers all agendas but their own, to the devaluement of their own beliefs and the enragement of all the other groups they trample. Thank you for putting it so clearly, Fillyjonk.

  37. Fantastic post, Fillyjonk.

    PETA has been working my last nerve for years. I was a member when I was a teenager, but their ads, practices, and even some of their beliefs have become incredibly offensive to me.

    More and more, it appears that the leadership consists of people drowning in their own privilege. I think that many of them want to be ‘good people’ who ‘make a difference’, but they look outside of themselves and of their communities at how they can ‘fix’ Other People. There is so much ‘othering’ in their campaigns, and I think even beyond that to some of their very beliefs. They take aim at what ‘They’re’ doing, where ‘They’ are almost always people with less privilege: subsistence farmers, the Inuit, working class people who have families to feed with extremely tight budgets. I think it’s wrong to ignore the fact that vegan products tend to be quite expensive, and while I applaud people who choose those options, it must be asserted that many, many people are not in a position to be able to make those choices. And so, this particular type of animal rights activism adds morality privilege to the long list of forms of privilege already in existence, and is another way to denigrate poor people.

    It’s the thing with the one trick ponies of activism: They pick their cause based on one thing that has no control over them, that does not oppress them in any way, so that they always retain control. This is not like women of colour fighting for equality in a racist patriarchy; rather, it’s like white men in said racist patriarchy trying to get the people beneath them to do what they want them to by declaring themselves the moral high ground. And if their efforts bring about no change, hey, no problem; they’re still going to eat, pay their bills, get into whatever school they want, be employed, live in whatever neighbourhood they choose. There is nothing at stake for them personally aside from their own egos.

    Ultimately, it seems like a way for them to exert their privilege, but remain a ‘good guy’ while doing so.

    I feel badly for all of the members and/or supporters who do believe sincerely in the ethical treatment of animals but disagree with the methods of the leadership. It’s hard to be a leading or deeply-involved member of a giant activist organisation because it’s essentially a full-time job, and people who don’t have a lot of privilege really can’t afford to give that much of their time or money since they just don’t have it to begin with.

  38. I think that my last comment might seem a little off topic, so I just want to clarify that I think that the issue of degrading women and people of colour in their ads is part and parcel of their unpacked privilege: As someone else mentioned, the PETA leadership doesn’t actually want to change the status quo, they just want *you* to stop doing something they don’t like.

  39. Delurking to say: Thank you times a million for this post, the best analysis of the PETA ads I think I’ve ever seen.

    Can we extend this reasoning to include those vegan activists (who are very visible in the vegan community, but not so much outside it) who loudly condemn PETA for being sexist, while at the same time thinking nothing of making elaborate verbal analogies between meat-eating and rape? I find that a hell of a lot more offensive than anything PETA does, and I’m no fan of PETA at all.

  40. I think the thing that bothers me most about PETA’s campaigns are the disingenuousness of what they’re doing.

    I don’t think for a moment that they don’t realize why their comparisons to other forms of oppression (which are still actively tolerated by wide segments of society) are offensive and harmful. In fact, I think they depend on that offensiveness to garner attention for themselves.

    And, mainly, I think they realize that a large part of their targeted audience isn’t going to grok the fairly nuanced underlying theme that “Wow, women sure are oppressed, just like animals!” and are instead going to come away only with “NAKED LADIES, HURF DURF. PETA RULES.”

  41. “And maybe if every ad for beef or leather or eggs didn’t promote a precisely opposite message.”

    Not sure if this is on topic or the type of ad to which you are referring, but has anyone seen those ads for high frustose corn syrup? The ones where they don’t even dare to say that’s what the ad is in support of?

    I think the part I hate most about them is that the arguments that are being made in support of [corn product that we aren't going to name but everyone knows is high fructose corn syrup] don’t have a whole lot of substance to them – the people making the arguments simply win because the people they are arguing with don’t know any of the actual arguments against high frusctose corn syrup. It’s not hard to win an argument when your competition is going “uh, you know, that thing, people say.”

  42. Which SM are you referring to? We need some asterisks, or one of you is a Mac and the other a PC, or something…

    Oh, in the post? That was me. I still like Alexandra Erin’s brilliant suggestion that I be called “SM” and Snarky be called “S. Machine.”

  43. When I see these, my reaction is usually just to bang on whatever’s nearest and yell “it’s NOT the SAME!” This is part of why I am currently the least prolific contributor here — because most of the time I decline analytical writing in favor of the bang/yell approach. But we can, in fact, tease out why things that are NOT the SAME! are not the same. It’s because systematized oppression doesn’t cut both ways. It’s because there is not a finite amount of human dignity, and raising up one group is not the same as debasing another. And often it’s because of unexamined metaphors that scupper the intended one — because of the ways in which we unconsciously compare one group to something less-than or different-from. (For an example of how this can be exploited satirically, see the now-classic videos of people asking pro-lifers how much jail time women who have abortions should receive.)

    Come on and stroke me, Stokely! I just keep coming back to this passage like Lindsay Bluth to Hot Ham Water. Brilliant,

  44. You’re spot on about how PETA fails with this metaphor.

    A better use of the intersection of feminism and animal rights/welfare can be seen in Carol Adams The Sexual Politics of Meat. She basically does a discourse analysis that demonstrates the rhetoric surrounding meat is very similar to how we talk about women and how women ARE treated like animals in our culture. Frankly I think Ingrid would do herself a favor by footnoting Adams occasionally if only to avoid being called an effing plagiarist.

    “I imagine a lot of vegetarians and vegans feel about PETA the way I feel about radical evangelical “Christians”: Please, get out of my beliefs and stop making me look bad”.

    Yes. This. In general people who are really are in the trenches for animal welfare and rights see PETA as a bunch of PITA. Ingrid is obsessed with death. Its that simple. Death is her solution to any problem with animals who don’t live with vegan, white, middle to upper middle class people.

    They’re also fatphobic. Guess what… I’m a vegetarian and I’m STILL FAT.

  45. Oh, in the post? That was me. I still like Alexandra Erin’s brilliant suggestion that I be called “SM” and Snarky be called “S. Machine.”

    What about SM and SnM, or SwM and SnM?

  46. “Can we extend this reasoning to include those vegan activists (who are very visible in the vegan community, but not so much outside it) who loudly condemn PETA for being sexist, while at the same time thinking nothing of making elaborate verbal analogies between meat-eating and rape?”

    Hmmm I haven’t encountered that in our veggie/vegan community but I have gotten the lecture that eating eggs and dairy is the equivalent of eating menstrual products. So I sympathize with you.

  47. Oh. Jesus. I cannot BELIEVE that quote from Bauer. I thought the PETA ad linking female genital mutilation and something about pigs was The Worst, but now I have seen a new worst in less than twelve hours. It is time for 2012 – apocalypse now, please.

  48. I just wanted to third the recommendation to read The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams, which was what convinced me to go vegetarian (and later vegan) over a decade ago by putting its importance in a feminist context. It does an excellent job of explaining why animal welfare should be important to feminists and is an interesting read to boot.

    I’ve always thought that PETA was antifeminist and practiced single-issue politics, and they really lost me with the “save the whales” billboard (hello, as a vegan I can tell you with absolute certainty that veganism is NOT a magic path to weight loss; I reached my heaviest adult weight ever as a vegan).

    The thing about PETA that is annoying to animals rights activists in the trenches is that they are almost universally brought up when having any kind of discussion about vegetarianism with an omnivore as a reason why being a vegetarian is stupid. They obscure the good that they actually DO achieve and manage to make the rest of us look silly with their ridiculous ad campaigns. Let me be clear that I am in no way saying that anyone on this blog has done this; it’s just a problem in the larger world that we live in.

  49. Thank you! I came to be a vegetarian not because of PETA but because of Frances Moore Lappe’s writing about food distribution, land use, trade imbalance, and world hunger. As someone whose goal in eating low on the food chain is to help decrease human suffering and inequality, I have no use for campaigns that rely on subjugating women and people of color in all-too-familiar ways.

  50. RE Starling’s point about coolness – thank you. Also, the thing about trying to make causes cool is, it tends to backfire. I was old enough to be aware of such things when the album Meat Is Murder came out, and it didn’t make the sort of hipsters-the-80s-version who loved Morrissey convert to veganism because it was suddenly cool, all that happened was that many of said hipsters began to label him as uncool, because really caring deeply about things makes you such a drag, you know? I think it’s inherantly impossible to sell any sort of social justice movement as “cool”, because cool as a concept requires not taking things too seriously and not appearing to care too much about anything.

    Now the videos of factory farming practises they used to show in biology classes back then, those made a few converts. But they weren’t cool, and the thing is, the kind of people who care about social justice issues don’t care if they’re cool or not, and the kind of people who only care to be involved with issues that are deemed (temporarily) cool aren’t going to stick with your movement anyway.

  51. I just keep coming back to this passage like Lindsay Bluth to Hot Ham Water.

    I just in the last month finally watched all AD seasons – am I just seeing references to it everywhere now because I recognize them, or is it a weird coincidence, or is it on people’s minds more now since they just announced the movie (again)? OT, I know, but it’s crazy – I’ve seen like 10 in the last week.

  52. “Hmmm I haven’t encountered that in our veggie/vegan community but I have gotten the lecture that eating eggs and dairy is the equivalent of eating menstrual products. So I sympathize with you.”
    Well, technically, eggs kinda are…anyway! ;)*

    PETA’s “Go veggie! It’s hip!” approach has definitely made things a little harder for me as a vegan. Many people have trouble believing that I – as a 20-sommet woman – have motivations for my choices that do not include fashion and misplaced rebellion.

    @Jerome: “I’ve always thought that PETA was antifeminist and practiced single-issue politics, and they really lost me with the “save the whales” billboard (hello, as a vegan I can tell you with absolute certainty that veganism is NOT a magic path to weight loss; I reached my heaviest adult weight ever as a vegan).”

    Thank. You. I have astonished a small segment of the medical community with my inexplicable ability to experience meds-related weight gain while vegan. It’s as if I eat food or something!

    I know the request was made in SM’s piece, but I’d like to express my appreciation for the fact that this discussion hasn’t descended into “I’m gonna eat some bacon!” or “Vegematarianism is a borderline eating disorder!” silliness.

    *I’m here all week. Try the dhal!

  53. I think one of the things which annoys me about PETA (as someone who abstains from popular culture, and therefore doesn’t voluntarily partake in their advertising) is that they do tend to be very didactic about things. One of their recent campaigns which annoyed the heck out of me was a boycott of Australian-sourced wool, because of the use of mulesing as a preventative measure for fly strike in the Australian wool-growing industry. Basically, someone at PETA discovered that mulesing happened, threw a tantrum, stamped their little feet, and threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue (or thcream and thcream and thcream until they were thick) unless all the Australian farmers stopped doing it Right Now, so there!

    That one annoyed me because firstly, there was no thought given to addressing the initial issue (namely, fly strike[2]) and how to prevent it in a way which was firstly less cruel than mulesing (which I’ll grant isn’t a particularly nice process[1]) and secondly at least as cost effective as the existing treatment[3]. Secondly, there was a strong sense of an ultimatum being offered – you WILL do this, preferably without inconveniencing us in any way, shape or form (so no raising the price of Australian-sourced woollen goods), or else. It struck me as a supreme piece of didactic, overbearing, imperialist crud. Their implied argument appeared to involve Australian wool farmers doing this purely because they wished to be wantonly cruel to sheep[4]. The strong implication was one of purposeful, systematic, deliberately sadistic behaviour on the part of all Australian farmers, an implication only strengthened through their purposeful simplification of the whole complicated argument down to “hurting animals[5] is Always A Bad Thing”.

    [1] Mulesing is a process which is largely used on merino sheep (the backbone of the Australian wool production flock) and consists of removing the wool and skin around the anal area of each sheep. Merinos tend to need this because their skin is effectively two sizes too large, and grows wrinkled (creating a larger area of fleece per animal, but also providing a greater area for fly strike). This removal is typically done without anaesthesia or aseptic conditions, as part of the regular maintenance of the flock.
    [2] Fly strike is where flies lay their eggs in the faecal remnants which cling to the fleece of a sheep. The maggots hatch out, and consume the faecal matter, then move on to destroy the nearby wool and in many cases start eating the actual flesh of their ovine host. It’s physically painful for the sheep, and economically painful for the farmer.
    [3] It should be pointed out Australian farming conditions are such that the best Australian farmland would be considered marginal property just about everywhere else in the world. Farming only becomes economically viable when sufficient economies of scale are achieved (or in other words, we have large flocks on large spreads, rather than large flocks on small spreads).
    [4] Okay, I can understand someone wanting to be cruel to sheep, if only because I don’t consider them very inspiring animals in their pre-mutton stages.
    [5] Domestication is implied to be hurting animals too… an attitude which makes me wonder whether anyone involved in the organisation has actually studied animal biology (or indeed any biology).

  54. I think one of the things which annoys me about PETA (as someone who abstains from popular culture, and therefore doesn’t voluntarily partake in their advertising) is that they do tend to be very didactic about things.

    Seriously! This.

  55. I am gratuitously skipping reading most of the comments, so hopefully someone has already said this, but smarter.

    This just helped me articulate why always feel so complicit when I look at a PETA ad. As a slightly kinked bisexual, when I look at the ads, I don’t think even “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is just as bad as having more or less exactly the same images of women that we always have in every ad we see.” I think “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is… kind of… hot… she’s cute and tied up and looks like she’s having fun/inviting the viewer…”

    And then I think about factory farming and I feel confused and icky.

  56. This is so lucidly put. I have never, ever liked PETA, mostly for this reason, but I’ve been unable to articulate exactly why they bother me THAT MUCH. It completely makes sense now, though. In a similar way, this idea made me think of a conversation I had with someone earlier about how certain animated programs on a certain late-night time slot that are meant to appeal to an 18-30-year-old male demographic but are mostly watched by a 10-25-year-old male demographic are actually incredibly harmful to the viewers’ thinking, for this very reason. He was insisting that they’re just trying to shock by joking about controversial issues, but I was trying to drive the point that jokes about things like rape don’t come across as satirically funny when we live in a rape culture already. They come across as just echoing what the viewers are seeing everywhere else all the time. It’s exactly the same with PETA. Like SM said above, I’m much more shocked and upset by the photos and videos of the animal treatment alone.

    Not to mention that the really pathological semi-eating-disordered part of me is kind of freaked out imagining myself and my loved ones as “meat,” but I didn’t need PETA to put that idea into my head.

  57. Kate –

    “I think “treating a nonhuman animal as meat is… kind of… hot… she’s cute and tied up and looks like she’s having fun/inviting the viewer…””

    This is exactly it – women being degraded is such a common thing used to titillate and excite in mainstream culture that the ‘shock value’ that the ad pretends to aim for is completely ineffective. What the ad is really selling is the idea that PETA is fun! And cool! You should join us now and you can have sexy fun times with meat-women too! While being a Good Person Who Cares! Isn’t PETA fucking awesome?!

    The fact that your personal inclinations (and I’m not judging you about that, seriously) are on the same – or similar – page as the average straight man just makes you succumb to the real message behind the ad as much as PETA’s target market does.

    And *that’s* the problem. Because, how does this actually help animal welfare? Of either the non-human or meat-woman variety?

    That, afterward, you “think about factory farming” and then you “feel confused and icky” suggests that the ad is working backwards for you: Instead of seeing meat-women, feeling horrified and then thinking about how bad it is for animals, which is what the ad purports to aim for, you see the meat-women, get aroused, and then later have your arousal ruined by thoughts of animals undergoing degrading and abusive treatment. I think this is probably the key difference between you and the young, straight privileged boy target market, since you already know about factory farming and how awful it is, and already care.

    It actually makes me think that, for some more sensitive people, the ad works better as raising awareness about misogynist representation, since there is actually a lot more anger and horror about abused animals at the cultural level than there is about abused women. Do you remember that discussion surrounding that athlete (sorry, I don’t pay much attention to professional sports, and I can’t remember the names) who had a dog-fighting operation? There were serious comments about how that was worse than rape. Even among the most privileged of the privileged, who are never made to identify with a victim or an object, there is a sensitivity, a concern and a love for Rover and Fluffy, for majestic whales and charming seals, maybe even for mistreated cows and chickens. But women? Can suck it.

  58. I’m not slightly kinked, I’m very kinked, and my kink is informed by the society I live in, which includes the “women are meat/women as objects of consumption” meme. That’s how I have come to be in a position to say that there are men who regard PETA’s ad campaigns as not an odd echo of pornography but actual pornography.

    And I shall say nothing more on the subject.

  59. A little late to the party, but I just wanted to say that I loved this piece so much. Your analysis is dead on.

  60. this post is made of awesome, FJ. i simply must weigh in that it does, you have done said it all, sister. THANK YOU.

  61. Now we know why the South Carolina legislature looked at Mark Sanford and said, “We could impeach him, but then we’d end up with Andre Bauer.” It’d be like impeaching Nixon and being left with Spiro Agnew–out of the frying pan and into the fire.

  62. “Basically, someone at PETA discovered that mulesing happened, threw a tantrum, stamped their little feet, and threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue (or thcream and thcream and thcream until they were thick) unless all the Australian farmers stopped doing it Right Now, so there!”
    `
    *standing ovation*

  63. I imagine a lot of vegetarians and vegans feel about PETA the way I feel about radical evangelical “Christians”: Please, get out of my beliefs and stop making me look bad.

    ^^ Word.

  64. I am an environmentalist and PETA makes me every time they come out with a new campaign. They are so irritating! I don’t think they advance the environmentalist / vegetarian / animal rights cause one iota and could be doing more harm than good.

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