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.