I SPONSORED A PUSSY: Cabbage Chicks and the Politics of Vegan Sexism

Cabbage Chicks

Sexist advocacy is normalized within the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Most readers are likely aware of the infamous PETA campaigns that use the naked bodies of women to grab attention, but sexually objectifying vegan women “for the animals” might now be the status quo. Case in point: the Cabbage Chicks.

In 2013, a grassroots group based out of Milwaukee tabled the city’s PrideFest featuring two young white women, topless save for a pair of cabbage leaves glued to their breasts. Their nudity was exploited as a teaser to attract visitors, and they awarded stickers to those who took the bait and donated. The stickers read: “I SPONSORED A PUSSY.”

When criticized, the organization insisted that it was unaffiliated with the campaign. Apparently, these women came up with this idea on their own to “help draw attention” to the tent, and “they had fun doing it.” The organization’s president assured that dressing up in vegetable costumes was “empowering.” PETA takes a similar position in response to feminist critique.

Cheers to them, of course, if they indeed had fun and felt empowered, but this is far from an individual act. Naked protesters frequently represent an organization, and organizations clearly condone these stunts by promoting the women’s semi-nude images on social media accounts. Individualizing women’s protest, however, removes culpability and risk. When campaigns succeed, the organization can reap the benefits. When they falter, the individual volunteers can be blamed.

Defending the Campaign

What if men get naked sometimes, too? One organizational representative noted that one man also took his shirt off and helped out: “There was a male dressed up as well, not sexist.” Yet, in our deeply sexist society, the bodies of men and women are not interchangeable. Men’s bodies are interpreted differently, generally in ways that empowers them and reasserts their dominance. Women’s naked bodies have yet to be divorced from the larger structure of degradation and sexual objectification. Again, PETA also deflects with this false equivalent when pressed by feminist critique.

The organization’s president also stated: “I’m not completely making the connection on how this is any different than wearing a swimsuit at a public beach.” Of course, beaches can be sites of oppression for women as well, but for the most part, wearing bathing suits on the beach is not going to draw attention to women in the same way wearing cabbage leaves in an information booth would. While PrideFest is arguably much more nudity-normative, it should be considered that women dressed as food reinforces the notion that women are consumable commodities (isn’t treating vulnerable persons like edible things exactly what activists are hoping nonvegans to get move away from?). The double entendre of the “I SPONSORED A PUSSY” sticker only reinforces the misogynist message.

Contextualizing the Campaign

This stunt is only one of several other problematic campaigns. In another, they had a young woman stand by the side of the road with meat cuts drawn on her naked body. The organization suggested that it was less problematic because it’s “not really sexy,” but using a naked woman’s body to emulate violence against animals is arguably worse.

In another campaign (not staffed by the organization itself, but promoted on its Facebook page), two bloodied women lay prostrate on the ground with a metal pipe by their bodies. A man in black (drawing on the imagery of the stereotypical rapist or murderer) stood over top their “corpses” brandishing a woman’s animal hair coat. This campaign targets female consumers (the primary wearers of “fur”) by drawing on imagery of violence against women. The organization’s response? “AWESOME! Thanks for all that you do for the animals! <3”

The PETA Effect

I share this incident to demonstrate that something systemic is at work here. The use of naked or nearly naked young women (usually white and always thin) and the use of women’s bodies as stand-ins for dead Nonhuman Animals are both increasingly popular tactics resulting from the hegemonic presence of PETA. As the largest Nonhuman Animal rights organization, PETA has the cultural power to define what types of advocacy are popular, expected, and legitimate. Ultimately, PETA is reflecting popular advertising techniques from the business world, those that are developed by men for patriarchal purposes (i.e. “sex sells”). In other words, it is not simply about women’s personal “choice.” Instead, there is a more powerful movement structure working to narrowly define what choices are available to female activists.

Regardless of individual women’s choices, activists should be concerned about the larger implications for women as a demographic. Western society trivializes and even condones rape, and according to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 2 seconds (most of these are victims are women). Psychological and sociological research has shown that sexual objectification of women and trivialization of violence against women is correlated with the devaluation of women and increased violence against women. It even leads women to self-objectify and achieve much lower levels of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is important, not only in fighting against one’s own oppression, but in feeling worthy enough to participate in social movements . . . including Nonhuman Animal liberation.

What is more, this kind of advocacy does not solicit the desired effects. The tools of misogyny only build more misogyny.

Criticizing these tactics isn’t about policing women’s behavior. Vegan feminism is instead responding to the rape culture that Nonhuman Animal rights organizations perpetuate to the detriment of women. Organizations must accept responsibility for the wider implications of this type of advocacy. Nude campaigns are mostly legal, just like rape jokes are legal, but that does not exempt them from criticism. Shutting down well-meant discussion about the hurt that sexist advocacy causes women is problematic. It is also indicative of how toxic the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has become for women and other vulnerable groups. The bottom line is that activists cannot articulate a clear message of anti-oppression for other animals so long as the movement uncritically exploits and aggravates the oppression of other vulnerable groups.

Here’s a radical notion…what if women didn’t have to be sexy cabbages to advocate for the end of violence against animals? What if women got to be persons? I think a person makes for a better activist than a cabbage any day.

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. 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.

whyveganism.com

The Neoliberalism Behind Sexy Veganism: Individuals, Structures, and “Choice”

Not Safe for Work:  Contains a pornographic “pin-up” drawing.

Woman sitting on street holding PETA sign. She is naked except for underwear. "SOUP BONE" is written along her thigh. Men are gathered around her, one is taking a picture with his cellphone.

Some time ago, I published a piece with Feminspire on the spread of sexualized Nonhuman Animal advocacy. In doing so, I spotlighted a small organization in Wisconsin that had either encouraged or otherwise allowed two young women—naked from the waist up with cabbage leaves fastened to their breasts—to hand out “I SPONSORED A PUSSY” stickers to passerby who donated.

I wrote the article for two reasons. First, the “cabbage chicks” stunt demonstrated how normalized the sexualization of female volunteers has become in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. In fact, I suggest that this tactic amounts to little more than prostitution (these women are displayed as sexual objects in public places without compensation to raise money for the organization they represent).

I also published the piece to reopen the dialogue. You see, the organization had blocked out any discussion of the wider implications of its tactics. As is often the case in the movement, these important conversations are shut down.

Shortly thereafter, the president of the organization, who had blocked myself and my colleagues from participating in a polite (no, really) discussion on its Facebook page, visited the Vegan Feminist Network Facebook page along with one of the female volunteers. They took our criticism of their approach to be, among other things, an individual attack. The president reassured us that the young women who participated in this promotional stunt were doing so of their own personal choice.

CUFA sticker that reads: "I SPONSORED A PUSSY"

But social scientists implore us to understand that there is no “choice.”

This isn’t about the individual. Instead, this is about systems of oppression and social structures that shape our behavior and limit what choices are available to us based on our social identity.  If you are a young, thin, white woman advocating for Nonhuman Animals in a pornified, hyper-sexualized society, one choice stands out loud and clear:  get naked.  It’s supposed to be empowering, and we think maybe it helps animals.

As sociologist Gail Dines puts it, women can either be “sexy” and visible, or “unsexy” and invisible. Therefore, women and girls are under intense pressure to be “sexy” because, honestly, who would want to be invisible? Also, we mistakenly believe that this requirement for visibility in a patriarchal world also holds true in the public’s social justice schema. In other words, if activists aren’t sexy, they must be invisible. If so, that can’t be good for the cause, right? However, research clearly shows us otherwise. The public is less likely to support anti-speciesism when it is presented by naked women, because they understand that sexually objectifying women is unethical.

Women who support the tactic justify naked protest because it is considered “empowering.” But this framework begs the question: is our participation about individual women’s experiences? Or is it about the systematic torture and killing of other animals? Choice feminism makes this distinction unclear. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s strong desire to make violence a turn on is also problematic. I suspect that this relationship speaks to society’s tendency to juxtapose women with violence. The sexualization of violence against women and other feminized social groups like Nonhuman Animals is evidence to the rape culture we inhabit. It follows the script of patriarchy and oppression.

Regardless, “choice” is often thrown into the dialogue as a means of deflecting critical considerations of systemic violence.  If it’s all about your individual choice, then only you are responsible and only you are to blame.  Anyone who has a problem with that must be judging you as a person. So often, our advocacy is framed as personal choice or an individual expression.  If you aren’t vegan, that’s your “choice.”  If you want to have sex with vegetables and have it filmed by PETA, that’s your “choice,” too.

“Choice” in this context is actually a co-optation of anti-oppression activism in a neoliberal structure of exploitation.

Neoliberalism is all about “freedom”:  freedom from government, freedom from regulation, freedom to buy, freedom to sell, freedom to reach your full potential, etc.  It’s about individuals out for themselves. Individualized competition in supposedly “free” social spaces (the market in particular) is foundational to capitalism. Ultimately, however, this freedom afforded to a privileged few comes at a cost to those who will inevitably be exploited to pay for that “freedom.”  The ideology of neoliberalism and individualism works to benefit the privileged when individuals can attribute their success to their own individual hard work (when, in reality, they had considerable help from their race, gender, class, ability, and age privilege).  Importantly, this ideology also works to blame those less fortunate for their supposed failure.  We call them lazy, “stupid,” or bums. We overlook the extensive barriers placed in front of them.

This myth of freedom and meritocracy is actually pretty toxic for social movements.

This myth of freedom and meritocracy is actually pretty toxic for social movements. If we fail to recognize how structural barriers impede some, while structural privileges benefit others, we will find it difficult to come together as a political collective.  When we absorb neoliberal ideology and begin to understand social movements (which are inherently collective endeavors designed to challenge unequal power structures) as something done by the individual, for the individual, then we’ve lost the fight right off the bat.

In other words, neoliberalism asks us to focus on the individual, not the collective. It also encourages us to ignore the structural influence of social inequality in shaping our attitudes and behavior. Neoliberalism also prioritizes the market and understands that our legitimacy and self-worth can be found in our resource accumulation and purchasing power (in this case, the belief that “sex sells” rationalizes the support for naked protest). These are all reasons why neoliberalism is so very not good for a movement that prioritizes anti-oppression.

Cartoon of cow facing two doorways, both of which lead to a slaughterhouse

Neoliberalism attempts to convince us otherwise, but our values and actions, successes and failures are not about personal “choice;” there is no personal choice.  Choice is socially constructed.  Who you are and where you come from will influence exactly what “choices” are or are not available to you.  Why are so many young women “choosing” to masturbate with vegetables on film to promote veganism? Why is it just women “choosing” to dance on mobile stripper poles on parade floats to promote kitten adoption?  Why choose sex and stripping instead of some other “choice,” such as leading a protest, composing a song, or writing a book? The answer lies in the unequal allocation of opportunities and possibilities across demographics. Sex and stripping are the “choices” forced on women, while leadership and innovation (activities that respect the personhood of activists instead of objectifying them) are reserved for men.

Making it all about the “individual” also means prioritizing one’s privilege to engage certain behaviors at the expense of other less fortunate groups who suffer as a result.  Middle-class, cis gender, able-bodied, white women represent our movement with their thin, sexy forms, but where are the women of color?  Where are the women of size?  That’s right: they don’t get to be sexy. What about their “choice?” There is none. Not everyone is granted the “choice” to participate in the so-called “sexual revolution.” Women from less advantaged demographics who do participate are disproportionately vulnerable to shaming and stigmatization.

poleRelatedly, the sexual objectification of women and the consumption of pornography is linked to increased violence and rape against women.  Take a guess which women experience the highest rates of violence and rape?  The privileged able-bodied white cis women who dominate naked protest?  Nope, guess again.  It is actually women of color, poor women, lesbian women, trans women, disabled women, and other vulnerable women pay the price of white women’s “empowerment.”  Privileged young white women can enter public spaces, flaunt their sexuality, and find it “liberating,” but it’s the masses of poor and disadvantaged women who are not allowed to participate who also bear the brunt of that “liberation” through rape, sexual harassment, and beatings.

Listen up, it’s a trick. The “individualization” of social advocacy divides.  It masks privilege, otherizes, and excludes disadvantaged groups. Neoliberalism is what created the problem (speciesism) in the first place, so why would we think that digging in deeper with neoliberalism would fix it? Neoliberalizing our movement means we lose our collective power. When we play by the rules of this patriarchy with the bizarre assumption that we can only get people to drop that hamburger if they get a hard on, then we simply reinforce oppression.

We surrendered our power; we repackaged our social justice claimsmaking for pornified Playboy-speak. 

Neoliberalism has co-opted our  movement. We surrendered our power; we repackaged our social justice claimsmaking for pornified Playboy-speak.  Instead of loudspeakers, pens, and protests, it’s thongs, bums, and boobs. This isn’t a social movement anymore, it’s quelled resistance.  Not only are we disempowered, but we’re exploited further because we become another site of sexual objectification. The system not only gets us to shut it up, but it gets us to take it off, too. Take, for example, this Playboy image. Porn? Or Liberation?

White woman in high heels twisting around to expose her buttocks and breasts. She is completely naked except a swirling robe. She holds a wine glass and smiles at the viewer. Reads, "Male Supremacy is alright--but I favor a different position."

The caption reads, “Male supremacy is fine–but I favor a different position.”  The feminist position or a sexual position? Porn? Or liberation?  Having trouble deciding?  You should, because there is no difference.

Feminism is being repackaged in a way that absolutely eliminates any female threat to male power, it is being repackaged in a way that benefits men.  Women are stripping and performing for patriarchy, and they’re doing it willingly.  They’re doing it under the mistaken assumption that they’re liberated, as though they are acting of their own free will and individual choice.

Peta/Playboy ad with two thin white women dressed in lettuce bikinis. Reads: "Lettuce Entertain You"

The cult of “free choice” is so powerful in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement that some of the most ridiculous stunts can be approved of and protected by the movement, even when faced with public feedback and scientific research demonstrating that these tactics do not work, discredit the movement, and hurt women as a group. PETA regularly hires Playboy “bunnies” to perform their pornographic demonstrations.  There’s even a vegan pinup website and a vegan strip club.  It’s liberating!

See the adjacent PETA/Playboy pinup as an example.  “Lettuce entertain you.”  Get it? Veganism or sexual favors?  Which is it?  Serious social movement, or more patriarchal noise in the crowded pornography landscape of Western culture? Confused? You should be.

 


Corey Lee WrennMs. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is an instructor of Sociology and graduate student at Colorado State 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. In 2015, she was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar 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.