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.

In which I am defeated by a billboard

I hate this ad.

Doesn't this make you want to... buy a dress?

I stood waiting for a bus the other day while another bus idled in front of me. It had this ad on the side, bigger than life. I stared at this passive, anonymous woman, done up all ’80s-retro so you can pretend she’s not even in the present, much less someone with thoughts and desires that might conflict with your own.

There are a lot of reasons to hate American Apparel. So, so many (NSFW on all those links). But for some reason, seeing this image around town — even though the woman in it is more clothed than many others in AA ads — makes me especially sad and especially angry. To me, this looks different from the usual despicable American Apparel visual language for women’s clothing, which is of amateur porn; this looks like a woman impersonating a blow-up doll. She’s ready for you (and by you, of course, I mean Manly Straight Man You, not Woman Who Might Want to Buy a Pencil Dress You) to climb right on top of her and yank that ponytail to kingdom come. And you don’t even have to look her in her stupid eyes — they’re conveniently covered up to disguise any trace of personality!

Women are represented as sexual objects so frequently in our culture that it often barely registers for me; I walk past ads with tits and ass galore and just go “hmmph” as I go about my business. But every now and then, some image wakes me up temporarily to just how fucking disposable women are in ads, in songs, in films, in books. I take off my “just make it through your day blinkers” and look around me in horror. I don’t know why image in particular jolted me any more than another — it might have just been the amount of time I had to look at it — but I can say unequivocally that seeing this image in public made me feel unsafe. There’s no other way to put it.

This ad, like so many others, has a message: women are here for your sexual amusement. Stare at them. Talk to them. Touch them. They’re just waiting for you to do it; they put their hair up so you can grab it. They wear heels so you can ogle their legs. They’ll do whatever you want, and you don’t even have to look them in the eyes.

Whom we talk to when we talk about fat

I would really love to ignore PETA, just in general, and their latest fat-hating billboard in particular.


But there’s something about this one I haven’t yet seen addressed in the various denunciations of it*: the language. Specifically, that the “lose the blubber” bit is talking to fat people, but the “SAVE THE WHALES” bit is talking about us.

So it’s not only that it’s complete bullshit that vegetarianism = thinness, as the many fat vegetarians and vegans in this community know too well. It’s that they’re furthering the idea that thin people have a duty to stop fat people from being fat, even though the solution they propose could not remotely effect that change anyway. The point of the billboard, in theory, is to tell fat folks to go veg and “save” ourselves, one by one. But that’s not what it fucking says. It says “save the whales” — as if, once again, fat people are a problem to be solved, not actual individual human beings capable of caring for our own damn selves.

The following line might indicate that it’s a campaign aimed at fat people, suggesting that vegetarianism would make us thin and therefore improve our lives (both specious premises, even setting aside the wisdom of trying to appeal to a demographic by insulting it), but the overall message is clearly aimed at people who are not fat. People who hate, fear, and ridicule fat. People who, in their most “charitable” moments, assume we’re a bunch of ignorant slobs who need to be rescued from our own lack of discipline, because they can’t be bothered to think about fatness in anything but the most simplistic and prejudiced terms.

In other words, the language doesn’t make any fucking sense. If you’re talking about the “whales,” not to us, then there’s no way that a thin person’s individual decision to stop eating meat might “save” us. If you’re talking to us — “lose the blubber!” — then what the hell is the point of recycling a 40-year-old slogan that indicates fatties are not, in fact, whom you’re addressing?  “Whales, save yourselves” would have been far more logical — and clever, for that matter — if no less offensive.

So, basically, this billboard is not merely fat-hating and based on false premises, but completely nonsensical. And in its nonsense, it’s echoing a trend in most of the public discussions of fat, food, and health that take place in this culture — speaking about fat people as if we’re not in the fucking room and have nothing to say on the matter. As if we’re merely a problem for thin people to solve. The only time journalists and advertisers speak to us is when they’re trying to tell us how to lose weight. When they’re discussing THE OBESITY CRISIS in the abstract, then fat people ourselves get abstracted, too — every article and advertisement presumes that the reader/consumer is someone concerned about the existence of fat people, as though fat people aren’t part of the fucking audience.

Which is especially hilarious when half of these discussions start with a reminder that two-thirds of Americans technically qualify as “overweight” or “obese.” I suppose if only the thin third are reading newspapers, that might explain why the industry is dying, but I kinda doubt that’s the whole reason. We’re all just so used to the framing of fatness as “other” that no one bats an eye when people who are actually speaking to fatties only speak about and around us. So the assholes at PETA don’t even notice the logical inconsistency of a directive that goes, “Save the [other]”: “[Take action for yourself.]”

Not that I expect them to notice something that subtle, when they apparently haven’t noticed that fat vegetarians exist, that women are animals deserving of ethical treatment, that immigrants might have greater concerns than potential dietary changes, etc. I mean, railing against PETA is about as useful as railing against right wing radio hosts: There’s no cure for proud jackassery, so you might as well not waste your breath. That’s why in general, I choose to ignore them. But there are a lot of other people out there playing the same game this billboard plays, of humiliating and othering fat people while pretending to be offering us health advice. And some of those people, unlike the PETA folks, might actually have an interest in not being reprehensible fuckwits.

So to them, I say: Fat people are listening when you speak. We read papers and watch news and listen to the radio. We are your fucking audience — two-thirds of it, anyway. So if you’re really so concerned for us, you might try talking to us. You might try recognizing that you are addressing the very people you’re writing about, instead of gearing all of your remarks toward some imaginary audience of The Thin and Deeply Concerned.

I’d suggest that you try listening to us, too, but that might just be too much.

*Note: I started this post a couple of days ago, so people might have made this point 100 times since then. I’m making it again anyway.

The End of ‘Results Not Typical’?

Tari just Twittered about this, and I see Rachel’s already covered it in-depth. I am giddy.

Updated guidelines on ad endorsements and testimonials under final review by the Federal Trade Commission—and widely expected to be adopted—would end marketers’ ability to talk up the extreme benefits of products while carrying disclaimers like “results not typical” or “individual results may vary.”

Instead, companies would be allowed to tout extreme results only if they also spelled out typical outcomes.

How unbelievably awesome would this be, if it actually happens? According to the proposed guidelines,

Consumer testimonials would have to be substantiated and ads would have to include generally expected results. Endorsers, not just advertisers, could be held liable for deceptive claims. “You’d have to say not only is it extreme, but how extreme is it,” the FTC’s Richard Cleland said.

Can you fucking imagine the ads? “Jane Doe wanted to lose 50 pounds, actually lost 10, then gained 15 back! CALL TODAY TO START YOUR NEW LIFE!” “Suzy Smith lost 80 pounds, which is so rare on this program it would be unethical of us to pretend you have any real prayer of doing the same thing, and five years later, she’d gained it all back and then some! DON’T YOU WANT TO BE LIKE SUZY?” “Jared Fogle lost 245 lbs. eating nothing but vegetable sandwiches, and has kept it off for 10 years because his full-time job is now being a paid spokesperson for Subway. You, too, can keep off massive amounts of weight if someone pays you loads of money to eat as little as it takes and spend all your time exercising! TRY OUR FOOTLONG STEAK ‘N’ CHEESE.” 

Please feel free to add your own imaginary advertisements in comments. This is the most fun I’ve had all week.

Read ‘Em

There are about a gazillion things we’ve missed in the last week, so it’s round-up time.

First, though, I have a favor to ask of anyone who can swing it. Al’s friend Peter lost his job last July. He and his partner of 20+ years, Ericka, are now in danger of losing their house — foreclosure proceedings have begun, and a sheriff’s sale has been set for May 8. Making matters more difficult, in this case, saving the house isn’t just a matter of keeping a roof over their heads. Quoting Peter:

Ericka has multiple, chronic, life-altering diseases and Peter is her primary caregiver. We have modified our home to handle her medical equipment and power wheelchair, etc. Things like the added and increased voltage electrical system, the ramp, the bathroom, the enlarged doors and added bedroom door (so the wheelchair and ambulance gurneys can get through) are just some of the things that have been adapted so that Ericka can continue to live in our home.

Peter recently got a temporary job, and they’ve received some donations already, but they’re still going to need more to keep the house. I know everyone is struggling right now, but if any Shapelings have a bit of cash to spare, please go here and use the donate button or bid on one of the items other friends are auctioning off. A bunch of small donations could make a huge difference. Also, if you’re in the Twin Cities area and know of anyone looking to hire a webmaster/information architect/business analyst (I don’t even know what two out of three of those things mean), Peter’s resume can be found here.

Now, on to the round-up.

The Meghan McCain thing
Backstory here. FJ e-mailed about it this morning and all she said was, “Just in case you needed another reason never to pull that “last acceptable prejudice” shit…” No kidding.

Nevertheless, I replied that I was reasonably pleased with McCain’s response, overall — although yeah, the “last acceptable prejudice” thing NEEDS TO FUCKING DIE, and it also seemed like there was a little too much, “But I’m not fat!” going on, even though she had the decency to acknowledge that the criticism would be bullshit even if she were. I also admitted that a small part of me quite likes what I’ve seen of Meghan McCain (which is not that much, I hasten to note) — that is, the part of me that thinks deep down she’s a Democrat who’s just a little too green to get why her youthful energy and optimism almost certainly won’t make the Republican party any less hateful in the next few generations — so I might be giving her too much benefit of the doubt. FJ is not similarly impressed. What say you, Shapelings? Is her message refreshing to see, or undermined by the way she articulates it? Or both?  

Attack of the fat babies
There are reports out today about a new program  designed to keep pregnant women from gaining too much weight. Once again, the reporting suggests that fat moms have fat babies because their fat uteruses are fucking obesogenic environments, not because fat is hereditary. As I’ve said before, I don’t think genetics are the only reason why some people are fat, and I don’t entirely discount the possibility that a woman’s fat cells themselves could potentially affect her eggs or fetus(es). I do, however, think that when we’re talking about fat moms having fat babies, and no one ever says, “Hey, you think maybe that’s because fat is hereditary?” William of Ockham starts spinning in his goddamned grave.   

Also, check out Lauredhel on how the supposed upward trend in babies’ birthweights is horseshit. 

Brain surgery to cure teh fatz
Today, BFD  got around to highlighting Withoutscene’s fabulous rant on the brain surgery for obesity story we still haven’t gotten around to discussing. Discuss.

A good old fashioned blood-boiler
(via Shapeling Judith) Please enjoy this essay, in which Mindy Laube compares fatness to crime AND admits straight up that health is beside the point: Her whole argument is that fat people should rightly hate ourselves on aesthetic grounds alone. Money quote:

When teenage girls are willing to flaunt their oversize bellies in bikinis only one conclusion can be drawn: human nature is in flux. At some point during the last couple of decades, we seem to have misplaced one of the healthiest of human traits: vanity.

Yes, folks, once again, fat is fashionable and thin people are being persecuted by the millions and millions of fat-accepting folks, who are drowning out the noble few still fighting for a thin beauty standard.

The louder crowd insists that slender women are bizarre anomalies who ought to be force-fed into obese conformity because the rotund figure of the average Australian woman is “normal” and thus ideal.

Wow. I know American public schools don’t do such a great job of teaching geography, but I am 34 years old, and until this moment did not even realize that Australia IS ON ANOTHER FUCKING PLANET.

If you’re fat, you should be standing up to burn calories anyway. (If you can’t stand up, fuck you.)
A fitness club in The Netherlands has installed these high-tech bus shelter ads with a scale in the bench that produces a digital readout of your weight up in the usual ad space, where everyone can see it. As Liss says, “Not only fat-hating/shaming, but deeply hostile to the physically disabled, who have to exchange their privacy and dignity for their basic comfort just to wait for a bus.”

Leave more in comments, y’all. Self-linking encouraged.

WTF of the day: Fling candy bars

Andy Wright at Mother Jones nails everything wrong with Mars’s new candy bars for the lady market so perfectly, I can’t even add anything. I can only quote:

Predictably, one of the hot selling points for the Fling bar is that “at under 85 calories per finger, it’s slim, but not skinny. Indulgent but not greedy. Naughty but nice.” In other words, the candy perfectly straddles the contradictions of the angel/whore dilemma in a way its intended female consumers never will…. The PR packages that went out to media outlets contained sheer T-shirts that read “Try It In Public,” equating the act of women consuming sweets in front of other people with being as taboo as committing sex acts in front of them. 

Seriously, read the whole thing. Then come back here and scream.