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Is Sexist Imagery Helping or Hurting Animal Rights?

Sexist Imagery and Animals: Hurting more than it helps

A number of articles on this blog have highlighted a very important fact—that all struggles for inequality are interrelated. This means that in our struggle to help other animals we must not forget other struggles for liberation. For example, Paul Mahoney contributed an article that highlights the connections between the exploitation of the earth and animals, the Food Empowerment Project has contributed a number of articles highlighting the connections between animal exploitation and environmental discrimination, and Lara Drew has highlighted connections between the exploitation of women and animals.

Though the connections between struggles of the oppressed are connected, when working within a single movement, the tendency becomes to be single-issue, often to the point of valuing one struggle against oppression over another. We hear this all the time as animal advocates—“How can you care about being vegan while children in Africa are starving?” “There are wars going on, why would I waste my time worrying about animals?” However, even those in the animal rights movement are guilty of the same sort of logic. One of the ways I see this happen often in the animal rights movement is using and sexualizing women as an advertising ploy for animals.

I wrote a paper last year, published in the Brock Review, “Tied Oppressions: An Analysis of How Sexist Imagery Reinforces Speciesist Sentiment.” In this paper I highlight how the use of this imagery is not only sexist, but it also promotes speciesism and reinforces the dominant notion that nonhuman animals are less important than humans. I encourage you to read the whole argument if you have time but  and especially to read a rebuttal to the argument by PETA at the end of the article. You can download a free PDF of the article here. Due to space considerations, in this post I will highlight some of the main points and present one excerpt from the paper.

Matrix of Domination

The term “matrix of domination” was coined by black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins. It is referring to the overarching system of oppression in which all oppressions intersect and mutually reinforce one another. As Collins explains:

“Intersectionality refers to particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and nation. Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type and that oppressions work together in producing injustices. In contrast, the matrix of domination refers to how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized.  Regardless of the particular intersections involved, structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression.”

In more simple language this means that there are not different types of oppression that can be singled out. All oppression happens because the social, political, and economic structure is set up to simultaneously disadvantage most people. This means that in struggles for liberation we must be particularly vigilant to consider the exploitation of others. Take for example eating chocolate; most chocolate comes to us by way of human slavery. Child labor and slavery are regular practices on cocoa plants in West Africa, where a majority of the world’s cocoa is grown. Even so, most vegans, human rights activists, homeless food programs, or feminists don’t think twice before incorporating chocolate into event menus. (The Food Empowerment Project has gone to great lengths to identify  cocoa products likely made without slavery or child labor, so make sure you check the list before you eat a product with chocolate in it).

Not only are social justice movements embracing one another’s oppressions (e.g. serving meat at feminist events, men filling leadership roles in the US civil rights movement in the 1960’s and 70’s and in the animal rights movement today), but in some instances they are embracing others’ oppression to forward their own movement. One of the starkest examples of this is through the use of sexist imagery to promote animal rights. Naked women and sexy stunts are prevalent in the movement and while debates over this tactic often boil down to whether or not the women performing the stunts have agency, the issue is much larger than that.

I argue that yes, the women participating have agency, free will, and good intentions. However, in our society, which is sexually repressive, sexist, and inegalitarian, sexualized women simultaneously sell the idea of sex and reinforce a hetero-normative and sexist ideology. There is a subversive way that these images play on our ideas of both women and nonhuman animals as inferior, making such ploys not only harmful to women but also to the animal rights cause.

To explain this in the paper I walk through two exemplar images. The below is this verbatim excerpt from the article. Please refer to the original article to see the citations that are noted below with numbers and to read a rebuttal to the argument by PETA.

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I highlight two advertisements—one promoting veganism (Figure 1) and the other opposing the annual seal hunt in Canada (Figure 2). The pro-vegan advertisement was released in April 2006 as part of PETA’s promotion of a vegan diet. It features Traci Bingham, naked, back turned to the camera. The copy reads: “All animals have the same parts. Have a heart. Go vegan.” Bingham is leaning on one hand, her head turned so that her profile is visible.34 Her body is sectioned off with black lines. Inside of these lines are words that represent different cuts of meat that correspond with that body part. For example, over the buttocks is the word “rump” and, though none of her breast is visible in this advertisement, the word “breast” is written on her side.

This image is similar to one on Adams’ book, The Sexual Politics of Meat. On the book cover the image is appropriate; it is meant to offend and to highlight the connection of the oppression of both animals and women. The connotations change in PETA’s advertisement. First, the representation Adams uses is a drawing; no specific woman is used. Conversely, PETA uses a photograph of an actual woman, thereby choosing to allow the degradation of a living person, treating her as they argue animals should not be treated. In the process of showing the similarity between humans and animals, PETA does not critique the sexualization of the model as Adams does. Rather, they rely on the sexualization of this woman to sell their message. However, by devaluing the women who is used to sell this message, they devalue the message itself.

Bingham

In the pro-vegetarian billboard, Bingham is visibly objectified. That is the point of the ad— that she is equated to pieces of meat. Bingham also becomes an object in a more subtle way. This ad relies on the most tried-and-true images of a misogynistic society—a naked sexualized woman whose primary value is in her ability to provide pleasure for (heterosexual male) others. Bingham is reclining, actionless, vulnerable and naked. She is an object of desire. This is repeated with Surya Bonaly, an accomplished French figure skater, who is positioned belowthe camera, crawling on the ice, seductively looking up toward the camera (Figure 2).

This ad, released in February 2007, is one of several in which Bonaly appeared to promote opposition to seal hunting in Canada. She is looking up at a camera above her head. The copy reads: “Get the Violence Off the Ice.” This advertisement relies on images that are used regularly in the popular media to control women through subordination and sexual objectification. She is not doing anything, her crawling is merely a seductive position, not a mode of transportation; she is going nowhere. In fact, she is positioned such that if she were to move forward she would be forced to crawl through blood.

Bonaly

Bonaly is the object of the picture. The viewer, who takes on the perspective of the male gaze, is the subject. The male gaze “directs itself at, and takes pleasure in, women, where women function as erotic objects.”35 The subject accepts the privileged position and Bonaly becomes the devalued object (who is possibly supposed to be “like” a baby seal). Both of these ads reinforce a dichotomous way of knowing by reproducing the subject/object dichotomy. This is the very dichotomy that justifies the inhumane treatment of animals as the object of human consumption.

The valued end of any dichotomy will always privilege those in power and a patriarchal way of being. The animal rights movement can potentially offer and benefit from a powerful critique of patriarchy. Human consumption of animal products and inhumane treatment of animals in the name of capitalist gains or personal pleasure is immoral and wrong to those concerned with animals’ rights because they acknowledge that nonhuman animals have an equal claim to having full lives, free of pain or confinement. However, in privileging the male-gaze subject looking at Bingham and Bonaly, they reestablish the subject/object dichotomy.

Not only do these advertisements make women objects, they make them sexual objects. Bingham is intentionally paralleled to an animal and, presumably, this parallel is supposed to be blatant enough to encourage us to stop eating meat. However, her sexualization reinforces the misogynistic idea that women are sexual objects. The use of sexist imagery is an outcome of patriarchy that supports and encourages oppression by reinforcing both the subject/ object and man/ woman dichotomies.

Sexist imagery is also premised on underlying assumptions of speciesist ideology since women are often positioned as nonhuman animals to visibly convey their inferior status. Bonaly is unquestionably animalized. She is shown crawling on all fours, beneath the male gaze, looking up, in a pose that can easily be compared to that of a loyal dog looking up at its “owner.” One of the ways that the oppressor class attempts to establish their superiority is by demonstrating the inferiority of those whom they wish to dominate. Utilizing the man/nature dichotomy and assigning an “inferior” status to those that are considered closer to nature often achieve this. This is tied into what Norbert Elias describes as the “civilizing process,” an ongoing historical process through which humans seek to distinguish themselves from other animals by monitoring, controlling and distancing themselves from the biological body and drives.36 In examining the historical development of manners and etiquette, Elias found that class boundaries are maintained by developing systems of manners in which the upper classes consistently seek to distance themselves from the lower classes by creating and utilizing more rituals and codes of conduct to distance themselves further from natural bodily functions.

Social boundaries are drawn not only by establishing one’s own distance from nature, but also by asserting that another group is “closer” to nature and nonhuman animals. This is one way that racism and sexism have been maintained historically. Throughout US history, immigrant and minority groups have been compared to animals. Examples abound: slaves were often referred to as chattel and called “beasts”; anti-Chinese sentiment in the late 1800’s through mid 1900’s paralleled Chinese men to rodents and suggested they were barbaric;37 black women throughout U.S. history and at present are often portrayed as hypersexual and wildly animalistic;38 Asian women are seen as ultra submissive and loyal,39 much like the family dog; Latinas are labeled “breeders”.40 All of these stereotypes provide justification for and the perpetuation of racism.

These constructs are used to oppress women as well. The insults that control women are often premised on animal comparisons: old hen, bitch, fat cow, etc.41 These advertisements embrace sexism by turning the women in the ads into objects (versus subjects) and by literally positioning them as animals. Bingham is nude in this ad. Nudity is seen as “natural” and animalistic at the same time that removing a woman’s clothing makes her vulnerable and turns her into an object of heterosexual male desire and control. Bonaly is explicitly positioned as an animal and that is how the viewer understands that she is in a submissive position because of the dominant perception of nonhuman animals as inferior. A sexualized woman can only catch attention to sell an idea or product in a misogynistic culture. Misogyny is rooted in sexism, sexism is a tool of patriarchy, and patriarchy is the very system that oppresses nonhuman animals. By utilizing an image that relies on the viewer’s acceptance that positioning a woman as a nonhuman animal is degrading, these advertisements are inadvertently bolstering the idea that nonhuman animals are subordinate. Embracing sexism actually reinforces speciesism and subverts the aim of any animal rights campaign that relies on sexism.

Accepting these PETA advertisements means accepting the idea that women are objects of consumption and desire even though this is exactly how PETA wants us to stop treating animals. PETA asks us to accept value-hierarchies, oppression and sexual objectification when the objects (not subjects) are women but to reject these characteristics of oppression when the subjects of the debate are nonhuman animals. However, the problem is greater than the fact that “connecting their sexualized bodies to the idea of animals solidifies the trajectory of thinghood.”42 That is because the objectification of women in the ads is reliant on the viewer accepting and embracing that animals are in a position lesser than that of human animals. The sexist images in these ads are not critiquing the typical degrading use of the parallel of human animal to nonhuman animal, rather they are embracing it’s degrading value to produce images easily read as sexist.

[End excerpt]

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This analysis shows the detrimental effect that sexist imagery has for animal causes. As a movement, we need to use this example and apply it more broadly so that we remain careful not to harm others in our pursuits for animals, for this will result in nothing more than a strengthening of the larger matrix of domination that is holding all of us captive.

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carol2011Carol L. Glasser received her B.A. from Tulane University and her Ph.D. from the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, where she is currently a Research Fellow. Carol has been involved in the animal liberation movement as an academic and an activist. She formerly served as the Research Director at the Humane Research Council and has organized and participated in various grassroots campaigns in southern California. Her current research focuses on gender, the intersections of gender and species oppression, and social movements, including the animal rights movement.

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