Over the weekend, PETA’s Bruce Friedrich was the featured guest on ARZone’s weekly live guest chat. (You can find a full chat transcript here.) While the primary focus was on veganism and welfare reforms, a few participants dared question PETA’s feminist cred – specifically vis à vis its sexual objectification of women – with, ahem, interesting results. Case in point: Friedrich’s assertion that “PETA is about as feminist as it gets.”
My initial instinct, of course, was to pen a 10,000 word, line-by-line rebuttal of Friedrich’s statements, but just the thought damn near gave me an aneurysm. So not worth the stress! Instead, I decided to pop the vegan maraschino cherry on my Anti-Feminist Vegetarian Bingo card.
The game? It’s on like Donkey Kong, bitches!*
Anti-Feminist Vegetarian Bingo: Bruce Friedrich/ARZone Live Chat ed.
FYI: A plain-text version of this card, complete with links to refutations and debunkings, is available here.
SO CLOSE! We were SO CLOSE to scoring a big fat sexist bingo! Next time, maybe. Probably. Most definitely.
Anyway, let’s take a look at of some of the “feminist” nuggets Friedrich dropped during the chat. The “hits” are labeled with the appropriate square; the non-hits, to be incorporated into v.2!
Square B-1: “Sex sells.”
Regarding our use of sex in our campaigns:
2) Sex sells and isn’t offensive to most people. That’s the super-brief reply to that question.
Oh, the old “sex sells” cliché! Such a classic, that one.
99.9% of the time, when people say that “sex sells,” what they really mean is that women’s sexualized, dehumanized, objectified, dismembered, and all-around pornified bodies sell. Or, put more succinctly: “sexism sells.”
Speaking of GQ magazine’s recent Glee spread, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency breaks down the difference between “erotic or sexual images, stories, and video of people engaging in healthy sexual lives and experiences” and “the patriarchal objectification and sexualization of womens’ bodies.” (Transcript here.)
The images in which PETA trades don’t commonly involve healthy depictions of female agency and sexuality, but rather women posed and performing for the male gaze; usually invisible or implied, but sometimes – as with PETA’s 2011 soft-core porno/Super Bowl ad, which is discussed in more detail later on in the chat – fully present, leering, sneering and degrading. Almost all of PETA’s naked women ads are suggestive of mainstream pornography, what with their emphasis on thin, white, conventionally attractive models, bent and contorted into submissive postures, vulnerable, vacant, and ready for a good fuckin’. Bonus points for faux lesbianism for het male enjoyment!
Square G-3: “PETA objectifies / sexualizes / exploits men, too!”
1) We use anyone famous who is willing to do it. Our most recent shoot was with Baltimore Ravens star Willis McGahee (which delighted me, because I live in Baltimore). We’ve used as many men as women, perhaps more.
While it’s true that PETA’s celebrity spokesmodels split roughly 50/50 men/women, a) a vast majority of the men get to keep their clothes on, while women are just as likely to appear partially or fully naked as not and b) when men do appear in the nude, their ads tend to be fun, funny, humorous, and full of personality – in direct contrast to the women, many of whom could easily be mistaken for Real Dolls.
(Also humorous is Friedrich’s insistence that,
As noted previously, PETA uses men and women in our adverts and our street campaigns; for the former, it’s anyone famous. For the latter, it’s anyone who wants to do it.
Uh, yeah. It’s not like PETA screens us no-name rubes for fuckability or anything. *snort*)
Along these lines is Square I-3, “Makes violence against women look sexy.” Though not directly addressed in the chat, there’s an especially pernicious subgroup of PETA’s imagery that does just this (and Friedrich’s blanket defense of PETA’s tactics makes this square fair game, I think).
In order to stress the similarities between human and nonhuman animals, PETA (and, increasingly, other animal advocacy groups) sometimes swaps human for animal victims in common scenes of animal exploitation.
For example, women might be shown symbolically “carved up,” with dotted lines painted onto their bodies in order to indicate different “cuts” of “meat,” in much the same way that butcher shop posters depict cows and other farmed animals:
While others, chained, bloodied and beaten, function as stand-ins for imprisoned “circus animals” such as elephants:
Additional acts of violence inflicted on women (and the occasional man) in place of nonhumans include vivisection, imprisonment in cages (bonus points if it’s a person of color), factory farming, and force-feeding, such as this especially disturbing campaign poster designed in protest of foie gras:
(Forced fellatio, anyone? I MEAN FOR SERIOUS!)
My issue isn’t with the comparison of women to animals – we are animals, after all, and there’s no shame in this – but rather with the conflation of sex and violence. These ads – and others like them – are part and parcel of the “Sexy Dead Woman” trope, described here (with transcript) by Anita Sarkeesian:
(Yes, I am a huge Feminist Frequency fangirl. Guilty as charged.) A small number of the images – such as those featuring sexy female corpses who/that would rather be caught dead than in fur – are literal representations of this meme.
That PETA unironically and with little self-reflection churns out images designed to both repulse and arouse by making violence against women look sexy is appalling. Doubly so when you consider that we are a culture steeped in violence against women – not just in the imagined realm of pop culture, but in the “real world” as well. Hundreds of women are beaten, raped and murdered every day in the U.S. alone; why does PETA feel it necessary to reinforce this abuse visually, and to further couple it with gratuitous T&A?
Returning to Square B-1, if this is PETA’s idea of “sex,” we’re all fucked.
Square O-4: “Accuses vegan feminists of trying to control / oppress / veil other women.”
Really? I thought it [PETA’s “banned” 2011 Super Bowl ad] was funny. Anyway, the women at PETA who conceptualized and shot the ad would suggest you’re telling women what to do with their bodies, which could be seen as more “reducing them to things” than the ad (I think).
Certainly the women who volunteered to be in the advert would suggest that they didn’t feel like “little more than flesh and blood sex toys.” And they would wonder at your desire to tell them what to do with their bodies.
Ah, yes! Because criticizing PETA – as an institution and social justice organization** – for perpetuating arguably sexist and misogynistic memes is EXACTLY THE SAME as telling individual women that they cannot be seen in public unless 75% of their skin is covered by clothing. EXACTLY. Vegan feminists are like the American Taliban in this way, dontchaknow.
Feminism 101 FAIL: “Women can’t be sexist.” / “Women are de facto feminists.”
First: feminism—Two of PETA’s three board of directors are women; the other is a gay man. PETA’s top two people (Pres and Exec VP) are women, and are four of our top six people (the other two are gay men).that was supposed to be “as are four of our top six people” (of course).
So is Friedrich suggesting that women and gay men (“Gay men,” WTF! that’s a new one for me! Sex and the City stereotyping, holla!) aren’t socialized into the same sexist and misogynist culture as are the dudebros? Or that we’ve some magical immunity to the indoctrinating powers of our collective social institutions?
As if. Women and gay men can so be sexist/misogynist/anti-feminist! See, e.g., Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly, Jill Stanek, Naomi Wolf, and Kate O’Beirne. (Shall I keep going?) Also: Andrew Sullivan and the Log Cabin Republicans.
And it’s worth nothing that even the “best” of feminists fuck up sometimes.
LOL FAIL: [Insert strict patriarch joke here.]
Brooke Cameron [again in response to the aforementioned Super Bowl ad]: You thought simulating oral sex, with men behind the cameras sneering at them, funny?
Do you have daughters, Bruce? How would you feel if they began simulating oral sex with vegetables because it was deemed “a fact of life”?
Bruce Friedrich: I did think it was funny, yes. I don’t have daughters, no. I do know a lot of young women who think it’s great (and none, including the ones in the ad who didn’t like it). I am sorry that you don’t like it though.
Brooke Cameron: I am sorry that you find it acceptable, but thank you for your response
Bruce Friedrich: The eternal struggle of fathers continues, BTW. :-) Of course.
YOU’RE GOING TO WEAR WHAT!? :-)
In which Friedrich responds to Cameron’s concerns that women are being sexualized and objectified – and simultaneously, literally mocked and degraded, i.e. verbally by men – by cracking a joke about fathers who attempt to control their daughters’ sexuality and sexual agency out of fear and disgust (and a vague, retro sense of ownership, no doubt).
Kind of like this uber-obnoxious Tide commercial (appropriately titled “Too Short“), which is currently in heavy rotation and makes my stomach curl every time I see it:
So not funny, dude.
Finally, for the coup de grace (if not the win), Square O-3: “Responds to criticism w/ Can’t we all just get along?; We’re on the same side here.; etc.”
While I totally support an open dialog about anything and everything (why I like ARZone and am on again), I do wish that we could spend less time arguing (okay, to be totally honest, I wish people would stop using their precious time to criticize other animal activists); on the one hand, open discussion is great.
This argument assumes that we are all on the same side, all united against a common evil, namely: speciesism and the oppression of animals. And that’s one big fucking assumption. ‘Cause you see, there’s a lot of inequity in this old world, and not all of it is based on species membership. Some is rooted in gender and sex; some in sexual orientation and identity. Still other forms of oppression stem from differences in race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, size, physical attractiveness, and the like. Some authors and activists posit that all these bigotries share a common link or mechanism, such as the willingness of humans to categorize their fellow beings into “us” and “the other” based on meaningless, arbitrary criteria. (Intersectionality, look it up!)
Even though speciesism is the most pervasive and destructive (quantitatively speaking, that is), I find all “isms” equally abhorrent. Vegans who perpetuate discrimination against marginalized humans in the name of “animal rights” are no more “on my side” than are, for example, feminists who engage in speciesism.
Also, why is everyone so down on criticism? A little self-reflection now and then is healthy – it helps you to grow and evolve, as a person and as an activist. Most of PETA’s critics operate out of a sense of love: not for PETA itself, but for the nonhuman animals on whose behalf we are working.
To continue with the above quote:
On the other hand, if we make our points and the other side disagrees, there’s a lot to be said for saying “maybe they’re right.”
It seems to me that a lot of people in this (and every other, of course) movement are totally convinced that they’re right, and they denigrate people who disagree.
Well, that certainly cuts both ways, doesn’t it? Listen, Bruce (et al.): if a cadre of angry women (and assorted male allies) keep telling you that they are offended by PETA’s sexist campaigns, perhaps it’s best to STFU and listen to them? Seriously consider their arguments? Read an intro to feminism book or take a women’s studies course, maybe? It’s obvious from your comments above that you’ve quite a bit to learn about the subject, my friend.
Look. There was a time when – as a newbie vegetarian and a seedling feminist – I uncritically supported PETA’s campaigns and tactics. I donated to PETA, proudly wore its tees, even still have some of its ’90s-era magnets plastered on my spare freezer. (I actually do like some of PETA’s campaigns, absent their larger context.) And then I became engaged in feminism and transitioned to veganism, and had many of my beliefs and assumptions challenged. My positions on these (not to mention, a whole host of other topics) changed and evolved. Continue to evolve. For me, my views on human rights and animal rights go hand-in-hand; one influences the other and vice versa. And I simply cannot accept the ways in which PETA treats women (and other marginalized groups) in the supposed service of animals. It’s an affront to veganism, frankly. We’re all animals, yo!
The point is, I didn’t always think this way. I was not “totally convinced that [I'm] right.” Even now, I understand and accept that my views will continue to change and evolve. I welcome it, because it means that I’m growing.
I think it high time that PETA stop digging in its heels and do the same.
* Don’t hate, reappropriate!
Update, 3/2/11: This piece has since been crossposted on the ARZone blog – so feel free to join the discussion over there as well!