Misogyny and Misery on the Menu
IMAGINE YOU ARE in the Netherlands and find yourself driving behind a transport truck for pigs. For most pigs in transport, this is their first time outside. They are being moved from one place of captivity to another—their final destination. On the truck, they receive neither water nor food. You see one plaintive snout sticking out from the truck. In your car, you might begin to think: What is it like for them, penned up inside? But then you see the image on the back, a pig, languorously stretched out, sexually posed; breasts and a plump rear grab your attention. And your visual senses say, “That’s funny,” distracting you from what is inside. The image is a mask, re-presenting what is happening to the animals inside the transport truck. The visual cues announce that what is happening to the pigs is okay. In fact, they suggest the animals like it; they want you to consume them.
Chickens don’t fare any better. For more than twenty years, “Rosie the Original Organic Chicken,” in her red high heels, necklace, and hat, has proclaimed her “organic” nature to consumers in California. She, too, wants to be consumed. As does “Cackalack’s Hot Chicken”. There she is: wearing high heels, stockings, and a bustier. She poses seductively, her eyes meeting yours. “Come and get me,” she invites. “Come and eatme,” she means. A similar image advertised “Fred’s Chicken” in Turkey, a chicken with her rump plumb in the center of your view, eyelashes curled, breasts jutting out, inviting the viewer to come and eat. In Israel, a cartoon showed a man in a car, pulling over to the sidewalk, calling out to a chicken with a purse and curled eyelashes, saying in Hebrew, “What’s up Kapara? Do you want to go out with me to a round?”
Seeing is Believing
We don’t realize that the act of viewing another as an object and the act of believing that another is an object are actually different acts, because our culture has collapsed them into one. Through images, misery is made sexy. Advertisements and other representations are never only about the product they are promoting. They are also about how our culture is structured, what we believe about ourselves and others. Advertisements appeal to someone to buy something. In this, they offer a window into the myths by which our world is structured. Ads advance someone over something. All of these images, and a panoply of others, accept the sexualized object status of women while presenting the consumable nature of domesticated animals.
In these advertisements and images, farmed animals who are actually in bondage are shown “free,” free in the way that “sexy” women have been depicted as free—posed as sexually available, as though their only desire is for the viewer to want their bodies. Sometimes the images show a hybrid woman/animal wanting to be consumed. In Italy, a restaurant’s ad depicted two beings in bed: a human man with his arm around a woman’s body with a cow’s head. Osteria La Capannina removed their Amanti della Carne (Meatlovers) ad after protests that it was sexist.
Barbecues often present a hybrid woman/pig desiring consumption. These images and advertisements, such as one selling the “Best Butts in Georgia” collapse the ideas of consumption and consummation. With the images, what you see is what you get—visual and literal consumption of the “full-bodied” female body.
A “bum burger” advertisement in 2013 in Australia showed a woman’s rear end as buns for a hamburger and was challenged for being sexist. The Advertising Standards Bureau Case Report summarized the problem: “The advertisement features a woman lying on the beach in a bikini. The photo is focused on her bottom which has the contents of a burger including lettuce, tomato, cheese, and a meat patty between the cheeks of her backside. The text reads: ‘Goodtime Burgers’ and ‘The freshest fun between the buns.’ ”
One of the complaints explained, “A burger patty and accompanying lettuce etc is lodged in a woman’s private part, the woman’s body and private parts are objectified as something for people (probably men) to consume.” Carl’s Jr., the US burger chain, did a similar ad, but in the United States there is no mechanism for challenging it. Indeed, challenging a misogynist ad usually results in promoting it.
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence created a campaign that said, “It’s not acceptable to treat a woman like one.” One public service ad showed a punching bag. But another showed a side of “beef” hanging from a hook, clothed with a tank top and short denim skirt. In other words, it is not acceptable to treat a woman like a piece of meat, but it is acceptable to treat a nonhuman animal as one. European human rights campaigners, including Amnesty International, have created several public service ads against human trafficking, showing women covered with cellophane as though they were packaged like meat. Again, the message is “don’t treat women like meat animals, but you don’t need to disturb your treatment of meat animals.”
For the past twenty-five years, readers of my book The Sexual Politics of Meat have sent me images like the ones reproduced here. These images illustrate my argument that the oppression of women and the oppression of animals, especially those used for food, are linked. Women are animalized or represented as meat, and animals are sexualized and feminized. Interestingly, the first edition of my book presented only two visual examples of what I described: an image of a woman cut up as though she were a side of beef, and a pig posed as though she were in a Victorian brothel. But by showing how women were represented by reference to animals’ fate and how animals were represented by reference to women’s sexual consumability, I offered others a place to stand to reject these images.
The Reproductive Politics of Meat
Current examples might be the Safari Showclub announcing “Free Range Grass Fed Strippers”—the woman animalized. In Manchester, England, “Filthy Cow,” a hamburger restaurant, depicts a cow in a necklace, stockings and heels (again with the stockings and heels), saying, “Come upstairs and eat me.” The animal sexualized.
Consider “Lisa,” a part of a pharmaceutical exhibit at the annual convention of “pork producers.” (The sow is—against her will—the real “pork producer.”) “Lisa,” a buxom cartoon pig with stockings, heels, garters, and lipstick, fondles the medicine that is being advertised. The large exhibit announces, “Lisa gives you one more pig per year.” For “Lisa,” production and reproduction are the same act, and her body is the raw material of production. Kept in gestation crates and then farrowing crates, captive reproduction deprives sows of expressing their maternal instinct, which is to nurse and care for their piglets away from humans. But in these images, the sow is burdened by sexist cultural representations that show her wanting to be dominated, pregnant, and consumed.
While the image of “Lisa” commits discursive violence, it exists to support a material form of violence. Sows who have been kept captive find it difficult to move from one place to another and have been prodded and poked and violated and beaten to get them to move. One undercover activist took a photo of a sow in a gestation crate, and next to her number (#21288; no name), was scrawled, “Fat Selfish Bitch”. Here, too, we find a fluidity of movement between references to women and references to sows.
From a sexualized female who “wants” to give you another baby through reproductive captivity to “Fat Selfish Bitch,” the arc of the narrative being told about the childbearing sow enforces on their lives and perpetuates some of the painful regressive stereotypes applied to women. Fat selfish bitch? Maybe she wanted to stretch.
Cows, too, according to the narrative of the pharmaceutical companies advertising in agricultural magazines, want to be pregnant, want to be milked. Bovi-Shield Gold presented a photograph of a cow with a pheasant in her mouth; in front of her poses a hunter with a gun showing off four other pheasants he shot. In large print: “If she can’t stay pregnant, what else will she do?” In smaller print: “Keep your cows pregnant and on the job.”
I’m intrigued by this way of framing female reproductivity. During a time when reproductive rights for women are being rolled back, an advertisement like this carries cues about cows and women. Cows spend nine months of each year both pregnant and lactating. The yield of milk of cows in the twenty-first century is close to four times what they would “naturally” produce. This effort is equivalent to jogging six or more hours a day. (See Élise Desaulniers’s Cash Cow: Ten Myths about the Dairy Industry.)
Bovi-Shield Gold issued another ad in the series that asks the question, “If she can’t stay pregnant, what else will she do?” This one showed a cow sitting in the front seat of a fire truck. The answer: She might be taking your job.
Out of the day-to-day suffering inflicted on female farmed animals arises a contempt that those who suffer for us are beneath our notice; names associated with the female reproductive system become insults: Cow, pig, sow, hen, old biddy, and bitch all have negative connotations. These are all terms for women derived from females who have absolutely no control over their reproductive choices. The fluidity between discourse, representation, and treatment becomes embedded in our cultural discourse.
The Absent Referent
In The Sexual Politics of Meat, I introduced the concept of the absent referent to explain how oppressions may be interconnected and yet go largely unacknowledged. Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the nonhuman animal whose place the meat takes. The function of the absent referent is to keep something (like a hamburger) from being seen as having been someone (a cow). We do not see our meat eating as contact with another animal, because it has been renamed as contact with food.
While meat eating requires violence, the absent referent functions to put the violence under wraps, like the saran wrap that surrounds the dead being for sale in the grocery store. Being both there and not there, present in one form and absent in another, overlapping but absent referents form a structure linking violence against women and against animals. In Brazil, an issue of Playboy showed a woman with lines on her body as though she were to be cut up like a piece of meat. The advertising campaign displayed the magazine among cuts of meat in a meat display. The name of a restaurant in New Jersey, “Adam’s Rib,” raises the question: Just who is being consumed? Women’s commoditization is both there and not there. In 2013, a new Israeli steakhouse in Haifa and Ness Ziona called “Angus,” promoted itself with the image of a blond woman’s naked body (the photograph is from the side). Her body parts are labeled in Hebrew as though she were meat. The ad asks, “Do you ever have the desire to bite a choice piece of meat?”
Perhaps you join someone for lunch in Chicago. You consider the sandwiches and see “Double D Cup Breast of Turkey Sandwich. This sandwich is SO big.” (The turkeys are now bred for such large breasts that they can’t walk to be slaughtered; they topple over.) But if you protest, you might be told, “It’s just a joke.”
Yet, there are “breastaurants” like Hooters or Twin Peaks, Burger Girl, and the Honey Shack that invite men to experience a fantasy of consumption. The message: it’s okay to create a restaurant around the objectification of women and talk about them in double entendres. Twin Peaks announces, “Better Grab a Pair.”
In 2015, at a Los Angeles branch of Trader Joe’s a poster placed above the meat department announced, “Finest quality cuts that ‘meat’ everyone’s approval.” It shows men leering at a woman who has meat tied to her hat with a ribbon. It offers a voyeurism of voyeurism, teaching others how to consume.
The sexualized pigs and chickens, or the “Skinny Cow” who advertises low fat milk (no “fat cow” there, even though we are the ones who have made the cows “bovine” by immobilizing them and keeping them in milk production year round), makes the degradation and consumption of women’s images and of meat appear playful and harmless.
Because of the absent referent, no one is seen as being harmed, so no one has to be accountable. Everyone can enjoy the degradation without being honest about it. “We’re just looking at a pig.” “It’s just a chicken image, for goodness’ sake!” “It’s just a menu item.”
We might ask, “Why?”
These images insulate meat and dairy eating while intensifying misogyny. Sexual references massage the dead meat into a doubly consumable object, because women are fragmented as well: “piece of ass,” “breast man,” “leg man.” Better to think of oneself as enjoying a breast, or a thigh, or a rack than the fragmented body parts of slaughtered animals.
These images heighten the inevitability of meat eating and dairy consumption. Rather than acknowledging that ways to structure our world exist other than by dominating and eating animals and objectifying women, these images offer the imprimatur of normalcy. What appears to be a feature of life is actually a one-sided construct. The point of view of the entire culture, reiterated through advertisements and newspaper illustrations, a melding of pornography and popular culture, is actually only a particular point of view.
These images provide a safe outlet for feelings of unease when one thinks about the miserable lives and deaths of animals who are consumed for food or whose reproductive products are taken from them. We are discomforted by uncomfortable feelings but titillated by sexual references.
The absent referent serves our desire not to know about the violence behind what we are eating. But the function of the absent referent not only kills the animal who ends up on our plate, but a part of our spirit, too, because it keeps us disconnected. It helps us live with lies and allows the continuation of forms of violence that could be stopped.
These images prevent a specific kind of seeing, a specific kind of representation, the representation of the real lives and deaths of farmed animals. They bolster entitlement to consumption. It is understandable that we might want to keep things hidden away when they are in violation of our spiritual awareness of connection with others. But those things that are hidden often erupt into view. This is the insidious part of the sexual politics of meat: When those who have been hidden do make their appearance, they are dressed to be killed, with all the accoutrements of sexual consumability. So they enter the oversexualized climate of our culture and meld in. Rather than disturbing our conscience, they reassure.
With the sexual politics of meat, privilege creates perspective. Then the privilege disappears and what it allows access to—fun with the bodies of others—is seen as a personal choice. Thus misogyny is simultaneously both inscribed and denied, and eating animals remains business as usual. Inequality, already made sexy, has also been made tasty.
(To return to the Spring 2016 Table of Contents, click here.)
Tikkun 2016 Volume 31, Number 2: 30-34