Newly establishing vegans face a number of hurdles in their transition, but not all of them have to do with changing palates. New vegans must also contest with the gender politics of food and activism.
Reading by Dr. Corey Lee Wrenn; music by Lucas Hayes.
This is an installment of Vegan Feminist Network’s podcast series, making popular essays more accessible through audio recording. You can access the original essay by clicking here.
Image from Animal Freedom Fighters Unite Facebook group
More so than other factions of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, the “liberation” or “direct action” faction (frequently associated with the Animal Liberation Front) often engages symbolism of human-to-human love, intimacy, and sex in its activist narrative.
Consider Love and Liberation: An Animal Liberation Front Story, a romance novel following a young female activist who falls in love with another direct action activist, the two of them bonding over illegal actions in the name of anti-speciesism.
Consider also the direct action comic, The Liberator, male-created with a male and female protagonist. The female-bodied hero, however, tends to be drawn for the male-gaze, large breasted and sometimes bra-less.
More than other factions of the movement, the direct action faction relies on narratives of heroism, machismo, and domination. As with any hero’s tale, the “girl as reward” must be present. In a previous essay, I note the “Liam Neeson effect,” whereby Nonhuman Animals are feminized and their plight exploited as a plot device to excuse hypermasculine vigilantism and violence. “Direct action” activism hopes to attract members and new recruits by creating an opportunity for boys and men to prove their manhood and become real life superheros. Steve Best, a leader of the ALF faction, has stated that it will be the media coverage of this type of activism which will motivate and inspire viewers to take up arms, so to speak. Love and sex must be part of this opportunity, as becoming a “man” necessitates power over the feminine.
Relatedly, ALF activists also frequently pose with Nonhuman Animals as loving and thankful. Most of these survivors are undoubtedly relieved, but we must keep in mind that media is not created by accident, and images are carefully chosen to convey a particular message. I see in this thankful animal trope the same patriarchal or paternalist concept: man as liberator and benevolent leader, woman and animal as grateful and dependent. Savior narratives, well meaning though they may be, are inherently disempowering to the marginalized (this is a major concern in ally politics).
Social movements consciously strategize in their media representations, using particular codes that the audience will be expected to accurately and favorably interpret. The ALF and other direct action collectives bank on our cultural literacy with misogyny and patriarchy in order for these scripts and codes to make sense. I question as to whether or not this hypermasculine script will translate for an anti-oppression future if we’re still speaking the same language of domination.
Dr. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network. She is a Lecturer of Sociology and Director of Gender Studies with Monmouth University, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory.
As a woman, I am constantly aware that I am a woman. While that may seem unnecessary to point out, consider that I have to be aware that I am a woman before I am aware that I am a person. Imagine a neon flashing sign on my forehead that reads “FEMALE,” and never ever goes off. When I wake up in the morning, I go on the internet and see the hate and inequality we accept as normal. I have to watch what I say and what I post, so as not to be deemed “crazy” or “emotional,” among worse things. When I walk to my car, I feel the eyes burning into me. I worry if my shorts are too short or if my top is too low cut. In class, eyes roll and people snicker if I am too opinionated on a subject.
When I get lunch, I have to make sure that I am not eating too much or too fast and that I am taking small bites and chewing with my mouth closed. I also have to try to sound as far from pretentious as possible when asked why I’m not ordering what everyone else is ordering, because saying, “I’m a vegan,” tends to cue the eye rolls. When I meet new people, I have to give a handshake that is not too strong or I will be viewed as manly and intimidating, but not too weak or I will be viewed as a joke. When I walk to my car at night, I fear the catcalls and the men who utter them. I fear what could be hiding around the corner or behind the bush. I am hyper-aware of each and every move I make throughout the course of a day. Being a woman is exhausting, and the worst part is that men have absolutely no idea.
How could they? Cisgendered, able-bodied, (typically) white men live in a harshly contrasted world. They have never needed to be aware of their gender, or live in fear because of it, because they are on the opposing side of the struggle. They are able to take everything for granted because their ignorance is bliss. They do not realize what obstacles women face in every aspect of daily life, and because they don’t realize they exist, nothing changes. When women do speak out, men hush us and tell us to stop being dramatic (playing on those stereotypes which hold us down). The system and institution were built against us, to keep us in a role of submission. Because of this, men today don’t even realize their ignorance. This way of life is so widely accepted as normal and never questioned that it is ridiculously difficult to get men, and even some women, to open their eyes and realize the imbalance of power, control, and comfort.
College did not gently shake me on the shoulders to make me see clearly, it beat me over the head with a two-by-four and ran me over with a steam roller. I was unaware of the issues with this system until recent years. Of course, I knew that women were treated like this, but I never understood that it was a systematic mistreatment, built into the very foundation of our society, and not grounded in any truth or evidence. After repeatedly being treated like I was a lesser being in society over the years, I began to question what was actually going on here. From attending too many misogynistic frat parties in grimy basements and getting treated like an object to be controlled and won, getting educated about and involved with feminist groups online, and then taking a Gender Studies course at my university, I finally realized that this is disgusting and needs to be fought against.
On top of all of this, I am a vegetarian and transitioning to veganism. I have been a vegetarian my whole life, which has forced me to learn to deal with the criticism. This adds a whole other piece to the feminist struggle. Not only do people typically see it as a silly life choice, but they never seem to understand why. They joke about it and shove meat in my face, asking if I want any. I don’t do this because I feel like a special snowflake, which is what they all think. I do this because the treatment of animals at farms is disgusting and unacceptable. I share the graphic videos and images online, then get harshly negative feedback from my Facebook friends that it is inappropriate and too sickening to watch. Do they not realize that they are living it and contributing to it every time they eat one of these animal products? The dissociation is so severe that they do not even realize the huge role they play in those videos. They are why the events in those videos happen. Without a consumer, there would be no market for these products. Why do I get taunted for my compassion?
A link between my feminist struggle and my vegan struggle is that animals are objectified the way I am. People don’t see a hamburger as the remains of a dead cow in the same way they do not see me (a woman) as a person. They ultimately understand that they are the same thing, but there is no instant, conscious link between the two ideas. As Carol Adams discussed, the idea of the absent referent plays a prominent role here. It requires thought to understand that they are one in the same.
This mistreatment and misrepresentation is something that now, after getting an education on the inner-workings of the system, I am fighting. I no longer second guess what I say or do, I am unforgivingly opinionated and outspoken. I will eat what I want and stand up for those without voices. I dress how I want and do what I want. I am not sorry for being a woman. I am not sorry for having a mind and a voice. I do not care if you have something to say about it. I identify as a woman and that is not something I should spend my life asking forgiveness for.
Christine is a senior Elementary Education and English major at Monmouth University. She has been a vegetarian since age two and an animal rights activist in training since shortly after. In her teenage years she became increasingly involved in the animal rights movement, and is now transitioning to veganism. Since college, Christine has discovered her growing interest with the feminist movement and discontent with society’s inequalities.
Diversity matters in the vegan movement for three reasons.
First, social movement research indicates that a diversity of representatives will be more likely to resonate with a diverse audience, and a diverse audience is needed for social change.
Second, a diversity in leadership provides role models, which attracts and nurtures a diverse activist pool. Social psychological research supports that marginalized people find a sense of agency and belonging when they see people like them doing important work.
Third, a white-centric/male-centric movement relies on the very same hierarchies of power that facilitate speciesism. As Audre Lorde famously stated, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Here is my challenge to you. Try going an entire week without citing, referencing, or promoting a male leader or a male-led project. Replace them with women/of color doing similar work. Highlight diversity instead of spotlighting privilege.
Then, expand your practice. Make it a habit to promote diversity in Nonhuman Animal rights spaces instead of defaulting to the status quo of men, all day, everyday. Double-down on your anti-speciesism politics by maintaining an intersectional lens.
Dr. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network. She is a Lecturer of Sociology with Monmouth University, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory.
One thing the Animal Rights movement is not short on is statistics. We have stats so exact, we have what is called “kill counters”, that tell you exactly how many marine animals, chickens, ducks, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, geese, sheep, goats, cows (and calves), rodents, pigeons (and other birds), buffalo, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys (and mules) and even camels have been killed, within seconds that it took to view a page on the internet.
And as we watch the numbers on the counter rapidly increase, taking less than a minute till the numbers are in the thousands (for many animals), what is the animal rights activist to do with that information?
Does one nod soberly, acknowledge the truth, and say something like “there is much work to be done. We keep fighting.”
Or does one intensely focus on the staggering statistics, the numbers that just … keep… rising, and say “There is no time to waste! The animals need us now!!!” This is The Urgency, (the activist panic) that if one is not careful, can swallow you whole.
And while The Urgency says “do… something! Hurry up! Go! Go! Go!!”, is the default answer to take immediate action? Can we remain mindful and aware that because we are in a state of urgency, that it is very much possible that it’s clouding our judgment, as to what constitutes as a good idea for the cause?
After all, when we are in a state of panic (activist or otherwise), often the dominant motivation is a strong desire to experience catharsis, to get relief from said emotion (whether we are conscious of that or not). This is not to say that an action can not be both cathartic and effective, this is to say that just because it feels good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are reaching beyond the choir.
Is it possible to be mindful in a state of urgency, that we can either tell someone “Fuck you!” or we can try to educate them, reach out, but that we can’t do both? That as activists we have to decide what we want to accomplish and ask ourselves : will this action, will this behavior, will these words work towards or against the goal? We all want to say “Fuck you!” sometimes, but what happens when we mistake this for effective activism? #KnowTheDifference
Can we, in our state of urgency, remain aware of triggering language? Can we remain aware that, yes while “holocaust” is defined as “destruction or slaughter on a mass scale”, and thus when we use it to describe the animal agriculture industry, we are using it in an accurate fashion, but it’s what the word is commonly associated with (the slaughter of humans on a mass scale), that will matter more in our outreach related conversations?
Can we be aware that having the truth is not enough? Can we be aware of vegan consciousness (and the varying levels of), and that it is simply not always realistic to expect nor demand instant vegan consciousness (that matches our own), knowing that the unlearning of deep rooted speciesism is a process, not a moment. Can we remember in a state of urgency, that unless we were born vegan, there was a time when we didn’t get it either?
Or in our state of urgency, is there no time to be aware of such things? And if that is the case, what exactly are we doing? Are we really helping the animals or are we just yelling “Fuck you”?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was written with no intention to disparage or attack anyone in the community. The article was also written with no intention to put down anxiety or suggest that an anxious state is an inferior state. It is not. There is no inferior or superior emotional state and as with all emotional states, it is to our benefit (when possible) to be aware of how it may be influencing our thought process. This article is also not suggesting that the activist should be perfect at all times. No one is, as perfection does not exist. The only reason I am able to write about The Urgency (aka: the activist panic) in such detail, is because I have often experienced it myself in my own activism, and it is only when I stopped to examine my own behavior, and questioned what was I really accomplishing, was when I realized how The Urgency can impact one’s judgment, despite having good intentions. The article is also not written with the intention of telling anyone how to do vegan activism. It is merely asking questions for discussion. I still struggle at times, with how to reach beyond the choir, but I have learned that activism without self care is just a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
EDITOR’S NOTE: “The Urgency” is frequently used to divert from pro-intersectional, critical thinking in advocacy spaces. It is also highly gendered in its expectation that women must put others first, thus shaming them for considering how urgency-based tactics could be hurtful to other women. Read more in the essay, “What Are You Doing to Help Animals Right NOW?” hosted on Coreyleewrenn.com.
Michele Kaplan is a queer (read: bisexual), geek-proud, intersectional activist on wheels (read: motorized wheelchair), who tries to strike a balance between activism, creativity and self care, while trying to change the world.