On "fur hags" and "fucking bitches."

January 25th, 2009 4:04 pm by Kelly Garbato

PETA - PETA2 (Fur Hag Tear Sheet)

Of all PETA’s campaigns, I think I find the “fur hag” meme most offensive. While feminists can (and do) disagree on whether nudity and porn can ever be empowering for women, “fur hag” is a rather obvious gender-based slur, and draws upon a number of age-old stereotypes about women – which PETA further elucidates with their “fur hag” artwork.

To be fair, I have no idea whether PETA actually invented the term “fur hag” – but they’ve certainly been quite influential in launching “fur hag” into the mainstream. Wherever fur-wearing celebs are trashed – on gossip blogs, in fashion show protests, or even on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, “fur hag” is inevitably bandied about as an insult. Oftentimes by other women, who apparently see nothing sexist about denigrating women they dislike with misogynist slurs.

Let’s start by looking at the word “hag.”

Dictionary.com defines “hag” as:

1. an ugly old woman, esp. a vicious or malicious one.
2. a witch or sorceress.
3. a hagfish.

The first definition is obviously problematic: a hag is “an ugly old woman, esp. a vicious or malicious one.” While I have no qualms about calling people (women and men) who wear fur “vicious” or “malicious,” the term “hag” also attacks the fur wearer’s physical appearance and gender – a “hag” is “an ugly old woman.” In fact, the primary aspect of this definition involves appearance and gender – a “hag” is “an ugly old woman,” especially [but not necessarily] “a vicious or malicious one.” “Vicious” and “malicious” are somewhat extraneous to this definition; a “hag,” then, is chiefly “an ugly old woman.”

Which begs the question – why should one’s gender and physical appearance be used as insults? A person’s outward physical appearance has nothing to do with her moral and ethical character, or her value and worth as an individual. To call upon physical attractiveness (or perceived lack thereof) as an insult is, well, insulting and prejudiced, not to mention misguided and deceptive. Further, when you stop to consider what constitutes physical attractiveness in Western culture (thin, white, young, “all-American”), such judgments are usually racist, ageist, and sizeist as well.

The size of Beyonce’s ass, for example, says nothing about her as a person. It’s irrelevant.

In this first definition, “hag” is also a gender-based slur – inasmuch as it, by definition, refers to a woman – and an ugly one, at that. Because for women, who are judged largely on their physical appearance (and to a much greater degree than men), there is nothing worse than being ugly, unfuckable, unlovable. We are the sex class, mere objects for the male gaze (and receptacles for their holy, magical sperm).

Since it’s a gender-based slur, “hag” can never be applied to men – unless, of course, it’s used to emasculate a man by equating him with a woman (as is done with “bitch”). Such a use of the term relies on the idea that women are somehow inferior – to call a man a woman is to take him down a peg in our patriarchal hierarchy. Again, this usage just reinforces “hag” as a sexist slur.

The second definition is no better – a “hag” is “a witch or sorceress.”

Let’s look at dictionary.com’s definition of these terms:

Witch

1. a person, now esp. a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic, esp. black magic or the black art; sorceress. Compare warlock.
2. an ugly or mean old woman; hag: the old witch who used to own this building.
3. a person who uses a divining rod; dowser.

Sorceress

a woman who practices sorcery; witch.

As with “hag,” both “witch” and “sorceress” refer primarily to women – and ugly and mean old women. Because Dog knows that women (as opposed to men) are mean and ugly, and our meanness and ugliness only multiply as we age.

Then there’s the use of “witch” as a euphemism for the even more offensive “bitch,” which I’ll return to later.

Finally, the third and last definition offered for “hag” is “a hagfish.”

Hagfish are

marine craniates of the class Myxini, also known as Hyperotreti. Myxini is the only class in the clade Craniata that does not also belong to the subphylum Vertebrata. That is, they are the only animals which have a skull but not a vertebral column.

Despite their name, there is some debate about whether they are strictly fish (as there is for lampreys), since they belong to a much more primitive lineage than any other group that is placed in the category of fish (Chondrichthyes and Osteichthyes). Their unusual feeding habits and slime-producing capabilities have led members of the scientific and popular media to dub the hagfish as the most “disgusting” of all sea creatures. Although hagfish are sometimes called “slime eels,” they are not eels at all.

While it’s certainly possible that PETA and anti-fur protesters are referring to the “ugly” hagfish when calling Lindsay Lohan a “fur hag,” I highly doubt it. But hey, let’s just say they are. Using “hagfish” as an insult is speciesist – it draws on negative associations about an animal species, for doing/being what it was designed to by evolution. It’s no better than calling a cheating husband a “dog,” a dirty roommate a “pig,” or a tattle-taley sibling a “rat”: all reinforce negative stereotypes about a particular animal species. These stereotypes, in turn, affect how we view and treat these animals. For example, it’s easier to exploit animals that are perceived as ugly, unlovable, alien or subhuman. PETA knows this: hence their “Sea Kittens” campaign. Words matter.

“Hag” as short for “hagfish” is also a slur which attacks a person’s physical appearance, rather than her moral character. As I said above, this is inaccurate and prejudiced. And again, it’s also a slur that’s more likely to be applied to women than men, as a woman’s worth more often rests on her so-called physical attractiveness.

The artwork that PETA uses to illustrate their “fur hag” materials are a “lovely” illustration of the above. In keeping with the dictionary definitions of “hag,” PETA’s “fur hags” are primarily women – ugly, old women.

In addition to the ad I included at the beginning of this post (which depicts the “fur hag” as an older, obese, conventionally unattractive woman), consider the following:

PETA (Anna Wintour)

PETA (Donatella Versace)

While we can argue over whether Anna Wintour and Donatella Versace are conventionally attractive women, I think it’s obvious that PETA took care to select the least flattering photos of each woman to grace these “fur hag” ads. Again, each are depicted as old, ugly, witch-like women. The ads’ copy goes further, explicitly declaring that “Fur is worn by beautiful animals and ugly people.” While the adjective “ugly” could apply to Ms. Wintour and Ms. Versace’s moral characters, I think the unflattering, deliberately ugly portrayals of each belie PETA’s real intent: to attack their looks in addition to/instead of their personality flaws. Also, while PETA claims that fur is worn by “ugly people,” this is really a disingenuous stab at gender neutrality, as most (if not all) of their anti-fur/”fur hag” ads 1) target women and 2) employ gender-specific slurs.

(I should note that PETA also produces the “Ink, Not Mink” anti-fur ads, which do include some male models. However, I don’t think these qualify, for reasons I’ll explain in a later post. The short answer, though, is that they don’t make sense – comparing “ink” to “mink” is like comparing apples to golf balls. Rather than making a legitimate, logical point, I get the impression that PETA just needed another rhyme for their latest celeb campaign.*)

PETA’s recent treatment of the Ollsen twins (or the “Trollsens,” in PETA’s own words) takes the “fur hag” stereotype to hateful extremes, portraying the twins as painfully ugly trolls.

On the “Trollsens” portion of their website (http://www.peta2.com/Trollsens/), PETA features cartoonish graphics which portray the young women as old, ugly, trollish witches – “fur hags” to letter:

PETA - Trollsen Twins 01

PETA goes even further, by nicknaming each twin: “Hairy Kate” for Mary-Kate, and “Trashley” for Ashley….

PETA - Trollsen Twins 02

(“Hairy” is yet another insult which plays to gender stereotypes, as women aren’t supposed to have body hair…even though we’re the same primates as our male counterparts. “Trashley” is spiteful, but rather gender-neutral.)

…and inviting the audience to dress them up in “fatal fashion.”:

PETA - Trollsen Twins 03

This last screenshot is by far the most disturbing of the bunch – and the worst extreme of “fur haggery” that I’ve seen. Here, the Ollsens are stripped nearly naked, their barely clothed bodies a horror to behold. The young women are imagined as old and, well, haggard – their bodies, wrinkled and aged, covered in liver spots. They are old, ugly, practically corpse-like – nightmarish trolls and witches, the both of them.

Worse still, PETA also hits a body image hot spot by making the twins impossibly thin – in a word, anorexic. Given the high incidence of eating disorders among women in Western nations (and, increasingly, in non-Western nations which are slowly adopting Western standards of beauty), this is not only hateful – but fucking irresponsible, to boot. Women already receive conflicting and impossible messages about their self-worth and bodies, without a social justice organization adding to the toxic cultural milieu. It’s the classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario” – women are either too thin or not thin enough (the Ollsens are ridiculed for their thinness, while Beyonce is ridiculed for her “fat ass”); spend too little or too much time on their physical appearance (it’s a fine line between frumpy and vain); etc., etc. etc.

In fact, Mary-Kate has been diagnosed with anorexia, and it’s rumored that Ashley suffers from an eating disorder as well. To attack the twins on such a personal level – deriding them for caving under the crushing weight of society’s impossible beauty demands, to the point where one or each of them suffers from a psychological disorder – is shamefully cruel.

While I’m disappointed and angry with PETA for promoting gender stereotypes and misogynist slurs through the “fur hag” campaigns, my heart breaks a little every time fellow animal rights advocates – especially women – refer to it approvingly, thus further perpetuating dis-empowering gender roles. The slur “fur hag” attacks women, simply for being women. A woman’s actions and intent are secondary, merely icing on the cake. “Hags” are vilified for their femaleness – a femaleness which grows more offensive the “uglier” and older they become. In using the term “hag,” women are not only hurting the fur-wearer, but themselves as well.

Ditto the term “bitch,” which is also bandied about in the animal advocacy community with glee. And with increasingly frequency, natch, in the wake of the highly misogynistic 2008 election cycle. Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin may be awful people, but they’re awful for their views on non-human animals, the environment, etc. – not because they’re women who hold these views.

Again, let’s see what dictionary.com has to say about the word “bitch”:

1. a female dog.
2. a female of canines generally.
3. Slang.
a. a malicious, unpleasant, selfish person, esp. a woman.
b. a lewd woman.
4. Slang.
a. a complaint.
b. anything difficult or unpleasant: The test was a bitch.
c. anything memorable, esp. something exceptionally good: That last big party he threw was a real bitch.

Here, as with “hag,” “bitch” primarily refers to an unlikable woman. As with “hagfish,” it can also refer to an animal – a female dog – so using it in this manner is speciesist as well as sexist. (Three of my best friends are bitches, in point o’ fact, making bitch-as-a-slur that much more offensive to me.)

Bigger feminist bitches than I have tackled the b-word, so rather than rehash, allow me to quote liberally.

Andi Zeisler, co-founder (with Lisa Jervis) of Bitch magazine, as quoted in Shakesville:

Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use the term for a woman on the street who doesn’t respond to men’s catcalls or smile when they say, “Cheer up, baby, it can’t be that bad.” We use it for the woman who has a better job than a man and doesn’t apologize for it. We use it for the woman who doesn’t back down from a confrontation.

So let’s not be disingenuous. Is it a bad word? Of course it is. As a culture, we’ve done everything possible to make sure of that, starting with a constantly perpetuated mindset that deems powerful women to be scary, angry and, of course, unfeminine — and sees uncompromising speech by women as anathema to a tidy, well-run world.

From Bitch magazine’s ‘about us’ page:

The writer Rebecca West, back in the day, said, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” We’d argue that the word “bitch” is usually deployed for the same purpose. When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment, thanks.

We know that not everyone’s down with the term. Believe us, we’ve heard all about it. But we stand firm in our belief that if we choose to take the word as a compliment, it loses its power to hurt us. And if we can get people thinking about what they’re saying and why when they use the word, that’s even better.

And last, but certainly not least, “bitch” describes all at once who we are when we speak up, what it is we’re too worked up over to be quiet about, and the act of making ourselves heard.

Used as an insult, “bitch” is a misogynist term: it applies to women who are loud, ambitious, outspoken, opinionated. (It’s also worth noting that the threshold where these traits turn from an advantage to a liability is much lower for women than men.) Uppity women are “bitches,” and “bitch” is the patriarchy’s way of telling them to STFU. As members of the patriarchy, socialized in its woman-hating culture, women can be (and oftentimes are) misogynists, too – along with men, many women are foot soldiers, seeking to reinforce and enforce gender roles, or self-haters, denigrating the “unwomanly” traits they see in other women. Women can be sexist, just as people of color can be racist, gays and lesbians can be homophobic, etc., etc., etc.

On a personal note, as a vegan and animal liberationist, I sometimes find myself employing speciesist terms (“dehumanize,” “pig” as an insult, etc.). As someone who was raised and exists in a highly speciesist culture, I’m not immune from unconsciously engaging in speciesism myself. The most we can do is recognize, apologize and learn from these mistakes.

So comes a plea for the animal advocacy community, men and women alike – please stop using sexist terms such as “hag,” “bitch,” “cunt,” “slut,” etc. as insults. Ditto other slurs which rely on various “isms” for their power. Fighting one oppression by engaging in another is both unethical and counterproductive.

Likewise, if you’re a woman, and you feel comfortable doing so, reclaim “bitch” and “cunt” as your own. You can do so by using them in a positive and complimentary way – “Bitches get shit done!”

It’s time to recognize “fur hag,” “fucking bitch” and the like for what they are – attacks on women, attacks which have no place in a social justice movement.

Hate is hate, violence is violence, oppression is oppression – and enough is enough.

(Crossposted to.)

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* Update, 1/25/09: Duh, me. Somehow I neglected to mention PETA’s other anti-fur campaigns, “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” and “Turn Your Back On Fur.” While neither rely on sexist slurs, they do primarily include women celebs – which irks me, since men wear fur, too. As with the “Ink, Not Mink” campaign, I’ll address these in a later post.

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13 Responses to “On "fur hags" and "fucking bitches."”

  1. ARPhilo Says:

    Wow, I had no idea peta had these campaigns going. I can’t say I am surprised. I have always noticed an extreme lack of education in many of peta’s campaigns. Sometimes I believe there must only be shock and attention as motives there. They would do well to have someone who knows a bit about science, feminism, and ethics on their teams. I am surprised they don’t.

    Anyways, I won’t act like I have never said “Fur Hag” in passing amongst friends and I won’t deny that I have ever used the word “bitch” or “chick” or “dude” or whatever. The idea of using it for an actual campaign is simply tasteless and useless. But, you do bring up a very good argument for eliminating it from my vocabulary completely.

    I am far from being a politically correct. It’s just my nature (even as a feminist), but I do see how fur hag being directed only towards women and the focus being on women definitely goes against feminism.

    Thanks for the entry.

  2. Kelly Says:

    I get what you’re saying about PETA employing shock value, ARPhilo – sometimes it works (I loved their campaign over the summer wherein they placed ads for “free new puppy gifts” in pro-breeding dog mags – the “gift” being a body bag, to symbolize the shelter dog who is “euthanized”), sometimes not so much. I do wish they were a little more open to criticism from within the AR community, especially since they’re so influential with teh youngsters.

    Re: language, I’m still working on phasing out certain terms, myself. As humans, I think we’re all never-ending works in progress, so many of these “isms” are just hammered into us from birth.

    I think you’re safe with “dude,” though – to me, it’s like the male equivalent of “gal” or “lady.” :)

  3. easyVegan.info » Blog Archive » ARA PSAs: Women, Men and Fur Says:

    [...] January’s “fur hag” post, I’d like follow up with several examples of anti-fur ads that I like – albeit, with a few [...]

  4. Smite Me! [.net] » Blog Archive » ARA PSAs: Women, Men and Fur Says:

    [...] January’s “fur hag” post, I’d like follow up with several examples of anti-fur ads that I like – albeit, with a few [...]

  5. easyVegan.info » Blog Archive » easyVegan Link Sanctuary, 2009-04-02 Says:

    [...] to your readers.” [Incidentally, I'm disappointed to see the Anti-Fur Society use the term 'fur hag' in its action alert, i.e., "We are going after local fur hags and their adepts, starting with the [...]

  6. easyVegan.info » Blog Archive » Lettuce be thankful! Says:

    [...] bounds of legitimate criticism, but insulting their physical appearance, usually through the use of sexist slurs), it shows the audience from whence their fur came. Namely, once-living, breathing, sentient [...]

  7. Ask not “Are Animal Lovers Sexist?,” but “Can Animal Lovers be Sexist?” (Answer: duh.) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    [...] build upon my previous argument. If you haven’t already, please go read last January’s On “fur hags” and “fucking bitches.” before continuing on; doubly so if you’re surfing on over here from change.org. (Also [...]

  8. Crystal Says:

    I’d say that there’s nothing wrong with making Mary Kate and Ashley uber thin because that’s how they look in real life.

    I like the “fur is worn by ugly people…” as an idea because when I hear it I immediately think “ugly on the inside.” However, I don’t think it was well carried out.

    And I actually love the ink not mink ads even though they make no sense because I like some tattooed eye candy once in a while. There’s aren’t enough shirtless tattooed guys in my every day life. I guess that’s objectifying guys a little but I think it’s okay to objectify strangers in certain contexts, so long as you aren’t objectifying people whose traits and personality you know.

    re: dude. Dude is not gender specific! Take if from a California girl.

  9. Intersectionality ‘Round the Interwebs, No. 14: Human(ity, or lack thereof) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    [...] get yer kyriarchy blaming on! Go forth and infight, vegan bitches! (And I mean that in a totally empowerful way, I might [...]

  10. The easyVegan Weekend Activist, No. 27 » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    [...] Win a Vegan Coat From Vaute Couture [Deadline: November 20] (Note to PETA: could we lose the “fur hags,” please? It’s so [...]

  11. Intersectionality ‘Round the Interwebs, No. 3 » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    [...] hello! – In addition to being a gendered slur, “bitch” is a speciesist slur as [...]

  12. Intersectionality ‘Round the Interwebs, No. 1 » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    [...] euphemism for “bitch”; 1b) “bitch,” when used as an insult, isn’t misogynist; and 2a) “witch” isn’t also a sex-based slur, inasmuch as one never hears a man [...]

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