In honor of International Women’s Day, Dr. Corey Wrenn presents this 35 minute lecture on the history and contemporary politics of the vegan feminist faction of the animal rights movement. Gender is, and always has been, central to the claimsmaking, mobilizing, and efficacy of animal rights activism.
By Antonia Georgiou
In a society that has thrived upon the degradation, humiliation, and eroticised subordination of women, it is no surprise that other beings considered as ‘lesser’ in the capitalist hegemony are exploited and abused for mass consumption. Capitalism habitually reduces women to the sum of their parts, be it through normalised misogyny in the media or advertisements designed to titillate. This is intrinsically tied to the objectification of animals. The culture of misogyny naturalises depictions of violence and female discomfort as being erotic, glorifying the threatening as arousing. Subsequently, the culture of meat has normalised violence against non-human animals – the worst kinds of torture imaginable – and glamorised the gruesome outcome through attractive packaging and enticing marketing ploys.
Therefore, veganism is a feminist issue. In her book The Pornography of Meat, Carol J. Adams explains the concept of the ‘absent referent’: ‘We do not want to experience uncomfortable feelings about violence, butchering, suffering, and fear. This is the function of the absent referent—to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal who was butchered, to keep something (like hamburger) from being seen as having been someone (a cow, a lamb, a once-alive being, a subject.)’. Accordingly, Adams argues that ‘nonhuman animals become absent referents through the institution of meat eating. Through socialization to sexual objectification, women become absent referents as well.’
The meat industry is adept in its subterfuge, selling murdered flesh by convincing consumers to separate the cruelty of the slaughterhouse from the finished goods. Once the dead animal is packaged up it is no longer a once sentient being, but a product. A chicken stops being a creature with feelings, who suffers from the same pain a human would, but a breast, a leg, a thigh. Advertisers depict meat with pornified glee: the KFC website boasts of ‘Our simple, succulent 100% chicken breast fillet burger’ beneath a gaudy image of oily, fried chicken.
These images belong in the canon of what is known as ‘beauty sadomasochism’. Coined by Naomi Wolf in her 1990 book, The Beauty Myth, the concept of beauty sadomasochism is highly salient to the meat industry. Beauty sadomasochism ‘claims that women like to be forced and raped, and that sexual violence and rape are stylish, elegant, and beautiful’. Likewise, the grinning, winking cartoon chicken adorning numerous chicken shops invites us to tear at its flesh; the carcass is beautified, eroticised. The morbid sexualisation of meat parallels the depiction of the female body in advertising: the female body as an acquiescent, inert, available product for the male gaze is comparable to images of the passive, lifeless limbs of animals for human gratification. Women, like pieces of meat, are viewed as objects to be consumed and spat out.
Veganism and feminism are harmonious causes. This is no truer than in the case of the dairy industry which is built upon the exploitation and enslavement of cows and hens for their reproductive organs. Just as women’s bodies are commodified in the capitalist industry so are the bodies of non-human animals. Take the defenceless cow who spends her days attached to the automatic milking machinery that steals her calves’ milk. Her organs are services to be utilised and consumed until she herself is no longer of value and cast aside, butchered, murdered. Surely there is nothing more degrading, more heart-breaking, that the image of the helpless bovine mother, strapped and captive in the confines of the cold metal pumps and vacuums, with no possibility of escape? One would have to be made of the same steel as the sterile milking machinery to remain unmoved by such abuse. But the sad fact is that this level of animal abuse has been so normalised in our culture that people can indeed look at the suffering of these animals with apathy. Capitalistic exploitation hardens the human spirit and erodes compassion, whereby humans seek gratification by any means, at any cost: capitalism thrives on self-centredness.
Recently there has been a slew of criticism levied at vegans. Contrary to the belief of the critics, veganism is not arrogance. At the core of veganism is compassion. Such fervent derision of compassion is intrinsically tied to objections against the supposed feminisation of society. When M&S announced that their Percy Pig range of sweets would now be gelatine free, there was outrage from the vegan-bashing contingent. The power of capitalism misleads people into believing that the pig gelatine in their sweets is somehow separate from the cuddly cartoon pig on the sweet packet.
It is telling that one of the most prominent purveyors of anti-vegan vitriol is Piers Morgan. Morgan bestowed upon the Veggie Percies the same level of ire that he reserved for actor Daniel Craig when the James Bond star was spotted carrying his baby in a sling, a gentle act of parenthood deemed emasculating by Morgan. Similarly, Morgan was incensed when he discovered that chef Gordon Ramsay had, like Daniel Craig before him, not only carried his baby in a papoose but had begun expressing vegan sympathies, too. Ridiculing Ramsay on Twitter, Morgan grumbled, ‘Gordon Ramsay, the caveman of the kitchen, has now become a vegan-slavering, papoose-carrying numpty… You know why he can’t carry his own child? Because he’s eating vegan food. He’s not strong enough any more (sic).’
The fallacy that Morgan so vehemently espouses – of veganism being indicative of the feminisation of society – is characteristic of what philosopher Jacques Derrida termed carnophallogocentrism. Carnophallogocentrism is the notion that carnivorousness is inherently linked to masculinity and thus male sexual prowess. The concept of the emasculated male living on plants is directly interconnected to misogynistic discourse, as animals are viewed as yet another means of phallocentric conquest.
Ultimately, ‘toxic veganism’ is a myth, as is the propagation of the irate, misandristic ‘feminazi’: both are spawned from the same hegemonic system, which is mindful that there is money to be made out of the miseries of those regarded as subaltern. Perceptions of the self-righteous, middle class, white vegan are mere distractions from animal welfare, as people refuse to confront their harmful dietary choices. A carnivorous diet is not a simple personal choice when said choice involves a victim. A person’s right to eat meat does not trump an animal’s right to live. No animal should be oppressed and made to suffer because of humans’ selfish need for creophagous satiation.
Antonia is a London-based writer with degrees from Queen Mary University and UCL. She is culture editor at New Socialist where she writes primarily on film from a feminist perspective. A lifelong feminist and animal welfare advocate, her other areas of interest include mental health, disability rights, and an end to austerity
Why Animality Matters
In Ko & Ko’s 2017 publication Aphro-ism, the sisters critique popular applications of intersectionality theory, identifying that what has traditionally been defined as “human” has always been categorized as white, male, and European, while racial and ethnic minorities, women, and other marginalized groups have been dualistically constructed as “animal.” Thus, “animal” is not so much a catch-all category meant to refer to nonhuman species, but to all manner of disenfranchised groups, humans included.
Animality is, they insist, endemic to the colonialist project, providing justification for social control and suppression. The Kos argue that anti-racism activists, feminists, and vegans all have a stake in challenging the false divide between human and animal, and, more specifically, challenging the category of “animal” itself.
Without challenging this basic mechanism of oppression, activists are bound to fail in their efforts for liberation. In fact, they merely embrace the same oppressive logic by either ignoring (or rejecting) the relevance of animality or insisting that intersectionality praxis stop short of species solidarity. Doing so dangerously preserves hierarchies. As Aph warns: “What hasn’t occurred to many of us is that this model of compartmentalizing oppressions tracks the problematic Eurocentric compartmentalization of the world and its members in general” (71).
Why Race Matters
From the same reasoning, vegans who do not incorporate a critical racial lens are missing the entire point of speciesism: marking particular bodies as distinct from the dominant group based on perceived physical, cognitive, and cultural differences, and then employing this distinction to rationalize oppressive treatment. Racism and speciesism are inherently entangled. Explains Syl: “[ . . . ] the organizing principle for racial logic lies in the human-animal divide, wherein the human and the animal are understood to be moral opposites” (66).
The Kos are careful not to prescribe a “we are all animals” perspective to solve this boundary-maintenance, as this is poised to deprecate rather than accommodate difference. There is little need to push for sameness, and such a push usually maintains the dominant group as the standard to which others should aspire.
Read more of my review of Aprho-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters in Society & Animals here.
Dr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).
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