The PETA Complex: On post-feminist activism, gender, and veganism
Is it just me, or have we all been drinking the post-feminist Kool-Aid?
I can’t help but cringe when I see news reports about the relatively new Ukrainian “activist” group, FEMEN — composed of attractive, thin, young women who protest topless.
What’s going on? Meghan Murphy points out that women shouldn’t have to be sexy and naked in order to get the attention of the media (yet they do) and that this just perpetuates the idea that women are to-be-looked-at. Why do women (and not men) need use their “sexy” bodies to bring about awareness to serious issues like homophobia, dictatorship, sexism and racism?
I’m going to call this the PETA-complex. You might know of the organization (the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that is) — and not necessarily because of their anti-animal cruelty stance, but because of their use of naked stars like Khloe Kardashian and Pamela Anderson who apparently think of anti-animal cruelty as a gig. While I’m not claiming that PETA started the trend of using women’s bodies to bring “awareness” to issues, I am saying that PETA is normalizing this trend by using celebrities who are staple figures in our culture to distract us from seeing the ridiculousness of using women’s naked women’s bodies to bring light to ethical issues.
PETA perpetuates the myth that, in order to raise any type of awareness about ethical issues, they must either objectify women or link it to a type of sex that men enjoy.
We see this everywhere — in advertisement, film, and even wellness campaigns. Recently, for example, there was a campaign at my school (I’m a grad student), that used “sex” to promote water drinking… The campaign was called “SWALLOW.”
Not only is advertising saturated with this post-feminism ideology, but activism is as well. We’re all aware of sexist marketing campaigns that rely on women’s naked bodies to “shock” people into “caring” about a cause. PETA’s anti-fur ads, for example, show celebrities who would rather go naked than wear fur, even though some of these “celebrities” are porn stars who already go naked for reasons completely unrelated to PETA. Not particularly shocking…
Now PETA has a new site out called “Lettuce Ladies” which features attractive (mostly white) women who wear lettuce bikinis and talk about the sexual benefits of becoming vegan. They call themselves as the “Vegan Vixens.” PETA has now aligned their organization with the sex industry by using 2008 Playboy’s Playmate of the year, Jayde Nicole as one of their premier Lettuce Ladies. They’ve even set up a section where women at home can upload pictures of themselves in their own home-made lettuce bikinis.
The featured Lettuce Ladies go out into the streets in their lettuce bikinis and hand out vegan hot dogs while acting “sexy”. What this tells us is that being sexy IS activist work for women. This sentiment is evidenced on the “Lettuce Ladies” website where each Lettuce Lady is interviewed in a video about why they became vegan. One woman states: “I never have to worry about keeping this body up…and not killing a bunch of animals.” The priority is looking “hot” first; then worrying about animal cruelty.
This “sexy” tactic not only alienates vegans who are not thin or don’t aim to be thin, but also women of colour, as we are generally not granted entrance into the “sexy” or “feminine” spheres (as evidenced via the low pay rates women of color receive in pornography).
So, what do we make of groups like FEMEN and PETA who thrive off of the myth that white women’s sexy bodies automatically equate to awareness and subsequently, activism? I believe these groups advertise anti-feminist ideas to women — namely, that being “pretty” and showcasing your sexiness equates to political work.
What’s worse is that these protest groups aren’t interested in challenging structural issues behind these “isms.” Animal cruelty is not separated from patriarchy, racism, sexism, classism, and other “isms.” That’s actually why so many of us feminists have become vegan or vegetarian in the first place. We see how these seemingly isolated oppressions are connected to one another structurally – Attempting to end racism by using sexism, for example, seems highly contradictory. Similarly, to use ironic sexism to end speciesism is just stupid and means that many feminists and vegetarians feel alienated by PETA’s marketing campaigns.
In our culture, we tend to feminize veganism and vegetarianism. In advertising, eating meats and other “non-feminine” foods is represented as being part of male culture. The Academic Abolitionist Vegan group recently shared a link that discusses the correlation between sports “game” days and meat consumption. I imagine we’re all familiar with commercials that explicitly showcase men’s eating habits as this rough-tough display of eating fast and hard. The Hungry-Man commercials, for example, promote this idea of eating “like a man” while simultaneously shaming men who don’t eat like this by aligning them with femininity.
Instead of challenging the gendered representations of male eating habits, PETA incorporates it in into their marketing. PETA doesn’t want to challenge the feminization of veganism; instead they try to get men interested by using sexy women in thongs, masturbating with vegetables (as if all men are infantile, heterosexual, creeps who need vaginas in their faces in order to recite the alphabet).
In 2008, Johnny Diablo created the first “vegan” strip club, saying it offers “meat on the pole, not on the plate.” (It’s also worth acknowledging that Portland is a hotspot for hipster culture, which tends to perpetuate sexist ideas “ironically” that go unchallenged because it’s not cool in hipster culture to challenge anything. I can seriously imagine a whole bunch of white men and women in trendy hats and glasses walking into a vegan strip club because they think it’s kitschy or ironic…)
See! Now men’s vegan diets can exist without conflicting with their hyper-masculine identities. But this type of veganism is not permanent because it’s more likely that men will flock to these clubs to see women’s bodies, rather than to eat vegan food.
When you work within a patriarchal structure, having vegan strip clubs becomes a reality. Avoiding animal cruelty by eating vegan foods becomes contradictory when it’s situated within a strip club that is meant to objectify women’s bodies because these oppressions are connected. Including sexy naked women makes the vegan territory safe for men to enter — Men can successfully be vegan without confronting their sexist attitudes. This logic (if you want to call it that) blatantly ignores animal cruelty and all of the conditions that contribute to it.
PETA’s marketing tactics, like FEMEN’s, operates off of the false idea that by working within an already existing oppressive system and catering to it through women’s bodies, you can also make individuals who are not necessarily educated on the issues want to dismantle that oppressive system. So, PETA assumes that when people see naked protestors handing out vegan hot dogs, they will automatically understand why they shouldn’t eat meat and continue this tradition in their homes. I just don’t see that working.
Women seem to be celebrating the fact that we are more tied to our bodies than ever before. This isn’t to say that using the female body in creative ways in protest cannot be effective; I just I don’t think we’re being creative. We’re still buying into the idea that women have to be sexualized in order to be visible. I don’t understand how using a Playmate in a lettuce bikini to talk about animal cruelty is progressive or logical. I don’t understand how using attractive, blonde, topless women to fight dictatorships or patriarchy will be effective. It limits the possibilities for activism and it limits the bodies who can participate. One of the reasons women are aren’t taken seriously in patriarchy is because we have been reduced to one-dimensional, sexualized bodies for male consumption. To use that same patriarchy-mandated sexualized body in order to combat patriarchy and other oppressive systems seems illogical.
We have to be more vocal with our dissent, regardless of the criticism that may come our way. We should question the idea that using the sexualized female body is the ONLY or BEST way to bring awareness to an issue. In not questioning the “sex sells” script, we provide it with power. This tactic operates off of the myth that it is “natural” to objectify women and it appears as if we’ve bought into this, as a culture. We can see this in the numerous news stories that promote the idea that women’s naked bodies are a tool to bring about awareness. We need to start questioning sexism more and challenge the postfeminist celebratory rhetoric that only reifies the individualistic ideology inherent within our culture.
Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs, says it best:
The proposition that having the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture somehow proves that we are sexually liberated and personally empowered has been offered to us, and we have accepted it. But if we think about it, we know this just doesn’t make any sense. It’s time to stop nodding and smiling uncomfortably as we ignore the crazy feeling in our heads and admit that the emperor has no clothes.
Aphrodite Kocięda is a graduate student in Communication at the University of South Florida. Her current research focuses on feminist activism in a postfeminist rape culture climate.