By Corey Lee Wrenn, M.S., A.B.D. Ph.D.
Trigger Warning: Discusses pornography and the sexual exploitation of pregnant women.
Not Safe For Work: Contains discussion of pornography and erotic imagery.
Supermodel Marisa Miller, widely regarded as a “sex symbol” for her work with Victoria’s Secret, Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issues, and Maxim, has posed nude while pregnant for PETA’s SeaWorld ad campaign.
Because the media space is so saturated with sexualized images, pornographers consistently seek to push the edge with more and more taboo or sensational sexualizations.This means that children will be sexualized, grandmothers will be sexualized, pregnant women will be sexualized, etc. This is not to say that children, grandmothers, and pregnant women can’t or don’t feel sexual or enjoy sexual agency–the point is that pornography tries to encroach into spaces where women and girls are traditionally honored and protected from being viewed as a sexual resource to men as a marketing ploy. It is the taboo that sets them apart and sells product. Of course, with, many pornographers taking this route, what was once “taboo” is now accepted and normalized.
There is definitely a connection between SeaWorld’s imprisoned whales and women in PETA’s ads, but it is not the connection PETA hopes we will decipher: vulnerable demographics are exploited for gain, and this exploitation is seen as entertainment.
We, the viewer, are invited to feel good by consuming, to feel good by gazing at a naked woman and then (maybe) donating to PETA, and to feel good by gazing at a trapped whale and paying admission and buying stuffed Shamus. More importantly, we see it as something the participants “enjoy” doing, and we are discouraged from thinking about the ugliness that lies behind the scenes. In all likelihood, Miller probably did enjoy it, being a supermodel is a career for her. However, we should consider how pornography hurts vulnerable women who do not have the same privilege and access available to wealthy white women. It is important to acknowledge how capitalist framing can obscure the exploitation involved with consumption with imagery of choice, independence, individualism, enjoyment, pleasure, and other good feelings. SeaWorld uses the same rhetoric to justify the imprisonment of their whales: they love what they do. They’re enjoying themselves, so sit back and enjoy the show.
While lacking a feminist critique, Jezebel covers the campaign and admits similar confusion:
A pregnant Miller chilling in a tub makes me think SeaWorld is a place where pregnant Orcas chill in tubs. While that’s by no means a great life for an orca, it’s not exactly the right message.
But maybe the image isn’t meant to be a metaphor at all. Maybe it’s just a continuation of PETA’s long-used tactic of stripping celebrities down as a way of titillating their audience into some kind of low-level version of awareness.
OK, fine. It’s probably that. But it’s still a crappy ad.
Indeed, the level of awareness is quite low. Social psychological research demonstrates that using sex to “sell” ethics backfires. Protest observers actually find the degradation of women to be a serious turn-off. Outside of social movements, research also finds that “sexy” advertising can distract an audience to the point where they don’t even know what was being sold to them.
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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If you spend enough time reading vegan blogs, websites, and social media, or if you frequently participate in vegan forums, you will inevitably encounter vegans making arguments against human procreation. Invariably these arguments are premised, at least in part, on the assumption that the world is overpopulated with humans and that the size of the human population is the primary driver of just about every ecological and social crisis we are facing today. Often the people making these arguments go even further, suggesting that there is no ecologically acceptable place on this planet for humans because humans are destructive and parasitical by nature. Some vegans will even go so far as to declare that procreation is decidedly not vegan because, given all these obvious problems caused by human overpopulation, the decision to add to the surplus of humans harms countless nonhuman animals.
These simplistic arguments – that “there’s too many people on earth, just look at all the destruction humans cause to the planet” and “obviously 7 billion humans is too many because that’s a really, really big number” – are typical among the vegan and non-vegan anti-procreationists/populationists, but if we examine them we can begin to see how they are deeply flawed and how they necessarily obscure much more than they reveal.
The truth is that most of us 7 billion humans are not endangering the planet; The primary drivers of environmental destruction, pollution, resource shortages, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, climate change, and many other pressing problems often attributed to “too many people”, are, in reality, our unjust political and economic systems -controlled by a small minority of humans- and the military industrial complex that allows them to function and expand. The tragic irony of the blame-the-“breeder” position is that the vast majority of humans are actually the victims -not perpetrators- of this profoundly exploitative system in various ways.
We need to understand that our materials economy is designed to create an endless supply of “cheap” disposable stuff merely for profits gained by a small percentage of humans (think about the “1%” articulated by the Occupy Wall Street movement), and not for the needs and well-being of humans or other animals, for the health of our ecosystems, or to create sustainable and equitable social systems. Rampant ecological destruction that negatively affects the lives of many humans (particularly marginalized groups) and countless other animals is inherent in this infinite growth economic model, from the extraction of materials and resources, to the production, distribution, and disposal of all this stuff, much of which is intentionally designed to become obsolete after a very short period of time.
Additionally, it has been reported that the US Department of Defense is “responsible for the most egregious and widespread pollution of the planet” and that “This impact includes uninhibited use of fossil fuels, massive creation of greenhouse gases, and extensive release of radioactive and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and soil”. Futhermore, “the Department of Defense … produc(es) more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. Depleted uranium, petroleum, oil, pesticides, defoliant agents such as Agent Orange, and lead, along with vast amounts of radiation from weaponry produced, tested, and used, are just some of the pollutants with which the US military is contaminating the environment”. It should go without saying that the vast majority of people on this planet are not included in any decision making process within the US DoD.
Many people challenging anti-procreationist/populationist arguments often attempt to shift focus and blame onto individual consumption choices, and in some ways this also misses the point. According to Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff, 97.5% of solid waste in the United States comes from industrial operations, not household waste, and up to 97% of all energy and material that goes into manufacturing products is simply wasted. This is not to say that individual consumption choices don’t matter, but clearly the vast majority of us have little or no immediate control over, or even any say in the decisions made that use the most resources, produce the most waste and pollution, and cause most ecological destruction.
Moreover, populationists often tend to overlook or ignore substantial inequalities, and thus disparate levels of consumption, even within rich nations. In reference to individual greenhouse gas emissions, David Satterthwaite writes that “…the lifetime contribution to GHG emissions of a person added to the world’s population varies by a factor of more than 1,000 depending on the circumstances into which they are born and their life choices…”
On top of all this, it’s downright silly for vegans, of all people, to argue that the planet is overpopulated with humans when it is estimated that “livestock” systems occupy nearly half (45%) of the global surface area. This is a true overpopulation problem for the planet: we breed billions of land animals into existence every year -roughly 8 times the human population- just to exploit and kill them for unnecessary purposes, misusing vital resources and causing widespread pollution and environmental catastrophe. Not to mention the many billions of aquatic animals unnecessarily killed every year, brutalizing our oceanic ecosystems.
Can we seriously maintain that the size of the human population (or even human existence), in and of itself, is the main driver of the destruction of our world? The issue of human “overpopulation” is, and historically has always been, a huge distraction.
Note that none of what I have mentioned above even addresses the fact that the human population is not currently exploding as many populationists claim. Rather, it is experiencing a global trend that will likely result in stabilization, if not decline, later this century. Nor did I address the inherent racism, classism, and misogyny in an argument that focuses blame on women’s bodies and on folks that still have rising populations: mainly poor people of color. Nor have I begun to address the history of the “too many people” position, or what groups of people have constructed these arguments to justify elitism, racial supremacy and oppression, or how overpopulation theory has been, and is currently, put into horrifying practice.
If anything is “not vegan” or unethical, it’s attempting to shame fellow vegans (or anyone else) for their reproductive choices and relying on flimsy “overpopulation” arguments to validate one’s own shallow misanthropy. Now that’s a real shame, and we should not tolerate such nonsense if we are truly concerned about challenging oppression and promoting social justice…
This post was originally published by Our Vegan Pregnancy on January 8, 2013.