Dr. Harper’s New Book, “Scars,” Brings Intersectional Theory to Life

I recently had the pleasure of reading Dr. Breeze Harper’s new fiction publication, Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England and feel confident recommending the book for newcomers to intersectional theory, undergraduate students studying feminism, critical race, and other social justice issues, and seasoned advocates and scholars who might enjoy a fictional break that speaks to their interests. A trigger warning is in order because, as the title warns, Scars deals with many uncomfortable topics and visceral experiences, including racism, domestic violence, child molestation, and rape.

Although the concepts that shape the book are acute, Scars is an engaging read that both entertains and educates. The main character, Savannah (Savi), is a young college student that we can all look up to. As a poor white girl from Appalachia, I sat mostly silent in the classroom, absorbing what I was taught without question.  So, for me, Savi instantly becomes a hero of critical thinking as she challenges the white male normativity of the privileged world around her. She courageously speaks out against post-racial ideologies and the micro-aggressions of her more privileged peers, even when her friends and classmates resist. Savi is a little radical, and I love it.

Harper

Dr. Breeze Harper

But Savi isn’t a perfect superhero. She is certainly human, facing many structural barriers due to her race, class, and sexual orientation. Brave in some situations, she is scared and vulnerable in others. Her experience with racial slurs as a small child is heartbreaking. Her terrifying experience with a sexually aggressive customer alone in the gas station where she works brings chills. Her debilitating concern for her mother’s health and the constant burden of bills and cold temperatures reminds readers of the stark realities of difference in America.

There is also something to be said of the tension Savi faces in experiencing oppression. At times she is scrappy and outspoken, tackling challenges head on. Oftentimes, however, confrontation is pushed onto her and she feels quite helpless. We see this when she is engaged by her white male classmate who seeks Savi’s counsel in understanding his privilege, but we also see it with her struggle to come to grips with her lesbianism and the pressure to “come out” before she feels ready. Rarely does she feel comfortable admitting weakness and accepting help.

The book’s primary strength relies in its ability to carefully tackle the intricacies of oppression. Her best friend, who is hearing disabled, often engages his male privilege and abuses their friendship with near constant pressure for a relationship, seemingly unable to understand that no means no. Savi herself faces a considerable level of structural oppression, but she comes to recognize that she also maintains some degree of privilege as a human and as a Westerner. She learns that Coca-Cola is responsible for serious social and environmental injustices, but doesn’t want to give it up, so she creates rationalizations. Though she is lactose-intolerant, she continues to eat animal flesh and balks at the thought of giving up McDonald’s.

CocaColaInjusticeNone of the characters are perfect in understanding oppression; everyone is still learning. We see this in Savi’s heavy use of sexist and disableist language, the fetishization of animal bodies as food by most of the characters, and her vegan friend’s wool clothing. Oppression is never straight forward, and Scars helps readers to navigate these complicated concepts and relationships.

When all is said and done, Scars is not a doom-and-gloom story. Harper is careful to point out bright spots, altruism, and room for hope. There are characters that are willing to learn, and many individuals seek to disrupt violence in any way they can. Although there are definitely hierarchies of privilege, no character lives unburdened from some sort of systemic barrier or personal tragedy. Everyone has scars, but everyone has the potential to heal.

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology and past Director of Gender Studies (2016-2018) with Monmouth University. 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).

What’s Wrong With This Soap?

Three hula dancers

Hugo and Debra Naturals is a high-end vegan soap company that touts food-grade, ethically sourced, cruelty-free bath and body products.  To promote their new Creamy Coconut line, which it describes as an “exotic blend” of oils, exfoliants, and scents, the company has been posting a vintage image of three Hawaiian hula dancers (pictured above) on its Facebook promotional page.

Sociologists have noted that the hula girl is a symbol of western imperialism. She is the accessible ethnic woman ready to serve and please the colonizers.  In fact, the hula dance as we know it today is an adulterated version of a men’s storytelling dance.  Colonizers morphed it into a sexualized dance for “exotic” women to perform in front of white tourists.

When Hugo and Debra Naturals draws on the image of the sexualized, tokenized, and colonized brown woman to sell “exotic” products to wealthy (and primarily white) customers, it is drawing on a history of white imperialism and the “othering” of the oppressed.  Dr. Breeze Harper has often commented on the “whiteness” preserved and protected in vegan consumption and the concealment of human suffering behind many so-called “cruelty-free” vegan products.  The white-dominated vegan community has largely failed to welcome people of color, often alienating them and tokenizing them when convenient.

Using a symbol of racial colonization and sexual domination to sell “cruelty-free” “exotic” soap demonstrates the white normativity of veganism.  Obviously, products that are free from Nonhuman Animal ingredients and testing are a major improvement, but we should be cognizant of how human suffering often goes overlooked in ingredient sourcing and, in this case, product promotion.  The intention seems to be to romanticize luxury soap items by drawing on Hawaiian imagery.  In many ways, however, it is colonization, sexual conquest, and systemic racism that’s actually being romanticized.

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. 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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Vegan Body Shaming: Analyzing the Evidence

Trigger Warning: Fat-shaming.Vegan Body Image Shaming

By Corey Lee Wrenn

After coding data for an upcoming publication on demographic representations in vegan media, I was utterly shocked to discover that nearly all analyzed subjects were undeniably skinny.  Over a twelve year span, the two magazines included in my study featured only a handful of subjects (mostly men) who were noticeably athletic, toned, or carrying “excess” body fat.  Only one female subject appeared to deviate from the thin norm, but she was also wearing baggy clothing, so it was unclear.

Vegan campaigns sometimes go beyond this otherwise indirect connection between veganism and weight loss and blatantly suggest that if you want to be “hot” and “fit,” you need to go vegan.  Freedman and Barnouin’s Skinny Bitch is a prime example, as is PETA’s “Save the Whales” billboard campaign. The overwhelming representation of thinness in our movement is a problem in itself, but our fixation on veganism as a weight loss miracle carries with it several implications that target vulnerable populations:  women, people of color, and “obese” persons.

PETA Fat Shaming

Body shaming is especially problematic for a movement whose largest demographic is women.  When we promote veganism as a means to lose weight, we normalize thinness as the ideal body type.  This alienates those vegan women who do not fit within this ideal and it denigrates non-vegan women who do not fit it either.  Research has shown that veganism is indeed an important variable in reducing excess body fat, but one 2005 medical report found that as much as 29% of vegans are overweight or obese.  That means about 1/3 of our vegan community does not reflect the idealized thin body that represents us on magazines, websites, videos, and other lifestyle or outreach literature.

Idealizing thinness is really the idealization of higher socioeconomic class.  It oftentimes takes considerable income to have access to fresh vegetables and fruits.  Vegans without that luxury must rely on cheap, carbohydrate-heavy grains like flour, pasta, and potatoes.  Fresh fruits, vegetables, and even spring water tend to be far more expensive than their processed counterparts.

We cannot forget that socioeconomic status is not simply about economic resources, but social resources as well.  In the United States, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, a result of centuries of oppression and continuing inequality.  They are also disproportionately located in areas with limited availability for healthful foods (rural areas and segregated inner city neighborhoods); these are known as food deserts.  In The Inspired Vegan, Bryant Terry, who advocates for improving food access for disadvantaged peoples, notes that in 2007, Oakland California housed 53 liquor stores, but not a single full-service supermarket.  Those living in food deserts might not have a car, could lack access to public transportation, and they may lack the time to travel out of town for healthier groceries due to work and childcare responsibilities.

Finally, the demonization of “fat” in the United States has very real and disastrous consequences for those humans unfortunate enough to fit within that socially constructed category.  “Overweight” humans (especially women) can face hiring discrimination, are less likely to be promoted or selected for prestigious projects, and they ultimately make less money overall.  And of course, weight discrimination can result in hurtful interpersonal mistreatment as well, like name-calling and objectification.

Skinny Bitch

I can understand that many vegans enthusiastically promote veganism as a weight-loss diet (and I do not deny that some types of obesity can be life-threatening), but we must be mindful that body weight is a complex social issue and the celebration over thinness can be hurtful to others who lack the social and economic privilege that most vegans enjoy.  This movement is about nonviolence, and this principle must extend beyond Nonhuman Animals to include our fellow activists as well.

Vegan media sources, too, should be aware of their influential role.  Consistently portraying a particular body type that is relatively unachievable for a good number of us creates a harmful and unrealistic ideal.  The impact of thinness in women’s magazines is well documented.  When the media is inundated with thin (often airbrushed) figures, this can seriously impact consumer self-esteem and lead to eating disorders. But some magazines like Seventeen have responded with a commitment to picturing “real” people.  This should be a goal for vegan media as well.

As social activists, we should not only be concerned with the well-being of our community members, but we should also recognize that our media portrayals are influential in attracting (or repelling) certain demographics.  If we consistently show thin people (or women, or whites, or higher socioeconomic status individuals), we are framing our movement as one meant for certain types of people, but not for others.  Yet, I suspect that diversity will be an essential variable in achieving social change.  I suggest, then, that we begin to think critically about how our movement is being represented and set our bar a little higher to include all body types and all backgrounds.

 

This post was originally published by One Green Planet on January 30, 2013.

 

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.

 

Why is the Animal Rights Movement so Toxic for Women?

Sexism is all too prevalent in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Anyone familiar with PETA’s advocacy has seen their heavy reliance on female nakedness to garner attention and fundraise. Of course, how they hope to alleviate the objectification of Nonhumans while simultaneously objectifying women is questionable. Their inability to respect the interconnectedness of speciesism, sexism, and other oppressions has been criticized heavily by academics and advocates alike.

PETA Shoe Protest

However, sexism remains indirectly prevalent in other advocacy organizations and activist communities. The problem is so rampant that I would venture to say that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has become a microcosm of patriarchal domination. This is especially bizarre given that advocating against speciesism (which I define as the structural oppression of the vulnerable) is inherently an anti-patriarchy endeavor.

Femininity and concern for other animals have long been linked. Traditional gender roles view women as creatures of nature with an “instinct” for nurturing. Adding to this, the oppression of women often mirrors the oppression of other animals, and many times these oppressions reinforce one another. So it comes as no surprise that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is composed largely of female activists (to the tune of about 80%).

As we know, gender stereotypes are not always so flattering. Femininity is also associated with hyper-emotionality and irrationality. This is a socially constructed reality that women of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement recognize. In an effort to overcome these stereotypes and resonate with audiences, female activists often adopt rational discourse and suppress emotion in their advocacy. Sociological research has found that male Nonhuman Animal right activists are perceived to be so rare and so important to lending the movement credit that women (and other men) will praise these men heavily and readily elevate them to positions of leadership. Women are often relegated to the less glamorous and more mundane tasks behind the scenes.

Clearly, we wouldn’t expect to see organizations like PETA prioritizing female empowerment, but other more “serious” liberation organizations drop the ball as well. Some of these factions are so reliant on rational arguments that feminine perspectives are generally unheard of or are dismissed as unnecessary. Femininity is suppressed in favor of rational, unemotional, masculine discourse. This is especially unfortunate because emotionality is actually an asset in affecting social change. Social psychology has shown emotional appeals to be far more persuasive and motivating than rational ones.

To be sure, race and gender intersect as well. Masculinity and whiteness have become normalized and go largely unexamined. White world views predominate and white, thin vegan bodies have become the ideal. Vegan critical race activist Dr. Breeze Harper warns that this has had the effect of alienating people of color. Likewise, T.O.F.U. Magazine recently published a special issue on the detrimental impact of fat-shaming and privileging thinness.

When recognized at all, people of color are often tokenized. While white activists may draw parallels between speciesism and racist atrocities like antebellum slavery, most fail to acknowledge the ongoing discrimination that people of color face. Many campaigns are designed to sensationalize animal cruelty associated with people of color, exploiting racial prejudice for the cause. Still other campaigns default to the white world view and ignore human rights violations, environmental racism, and racialized food politics. Structural racism is ignored, unless it is something advocates can campaign behind.

Ignoring gender and race has real consequences, consequences that hurt at-risk populations. Women find themselves sexually objectified by organizations like PETA, Animal Liberation Victoria, and LUSH Cosmetics, who see them as nothing more than naked bodies to prostitute for media attention and donations. Women who advocate with their clothes on do not escape these consequences either. Sociologist Dr. Emily Gaarder, author of Women and the Animal Rights Movement (2011) reports that sexual harassment is a very common experience among female activists. By pushing men into positions of power and relegating women to subordinate tasks and stripping, the movement becomes toxic for the vulnerable. As for people of color, they are often left out of outreach efforts altogether. Those who are outspoken about this exclusion risk backlash and accusations of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism.” Like many other critics of oppression, it has even been suggested that I have a mental illness (the exploitation of disability identity in Nonhuman Animal rights advocacy is another topic altogether!).

LUSH-Cosmetics-Sexism-300x228

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement would be wise to consider how gender and race continue to be salient identities that warrant special consideration in a social movement environment that privileges men and whites. Gender and race matter, despite any personal fantasies we may have about a post-feminist, post-racial utopia. Diversity in leadership and advocacy should be encouraged. Femininity and emotional appeals should be given their place alongside rational discourse and the language of rights.

Until the Nonhuman Animal rights movement cleans up its act in its treatment of vulnerable populations within its own ranks, I don’t believe it’s possible to make any real headway for other animals. A coherent battle against oppression cannot be fought so long as the movement’s own oppressiveness goes unchallenged.

By Corey Lee Wrenn

You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog, The Academic Abolitionist Vegan.

This post was originally published on Feminspire on June 11, 2013.