Feminism and Veganism: An Interview with Carol J. Adams, Part 2
After a score of years in print, what is the cultural score on the feminist-vegan message about meat-eating? This is the second in a two part interview with Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, in which Carol talks with Ann Dunnewold, Ph.D., about the progress–and lack thereof–in a patriarchal society, in which women are animalized and animals are sexualized.
Dunnewold: What progress have you seen in cultural acceptance of your theory? What issues have changed in the twenty years that the book has been in print? What stayed the same?
Adams: I am shocked that people so fear the word feminism. A young woman said “I wasn’t going to read your book, because it had the word feminism in it. And then I saw your slideshow, and realize that I want to read your book.” This resistance is to a word that encapsulates so much of how we’ve gotten where we are! Progress on women’s health care, rape crisis centers, battered women’s centers, sexual harassment laws, reproductive choice, all is because of feminism. Yet, all the progress the feminist movement achieved has been massaged in such a way that the feminist roots are lost.
Meanwhile, veganism is now “hot.” This is a shock and a thrill. It makes travel easier and more enjoyable. There are vegan restaurants everywhere I go, all around the globe. That is the wonderful part. But so much of veganism hasn’t recognized the way our culture has structured the sexual politics of meat. Many vegans seem to believe we can leave ideas of masculinity undisturbed and still end meat-eating. But it won’t work. There are vegans who are complacent about the sexualization of women. Some say, “so what if a guy is really macho, as long as he’s vegan.” That complacency is dangerous. The sexual politics of meat is what stays most unchanged. It finds new iterations; ads that may be tongue-in-cheek about men needing to eat meat, for instance, but they still convey the same message: men believe it is more masculine to eat meat, still, and that this is their right. Some men who are vegans have called themselves ‘hegans’, as if the word vegan itself is tainted by being associated with women. Given the association of women and vegetables, some vegan men appear to feel a need to recoup threatened maleness.
You asked what has stayed the same. I didn’t think that the sexual politics of meat would be both so intransigent and so mobile. It’s versatile. When it comes under attack, it’s like water finding its own level; it is just expressed in a different way. All around the world, advertisements and newspapers articles presume the normativeness of the sexual politics of meat, and here it is, 2010!
And you asked what is most changed? The sexualization of animals in images has actually increased, as the sexualization of our culture overall has increased. What Hustler magazine perpetrated against women in the 1980s, meat ads do to animals in the 21st century. In The Sexual Politics of Meat I argue that all animals in our culture are rendered symbolically female. But I never realized how strongly that trend would be expressed through images. I also didn’t expect the animal rights movement to be so sexist in their attitudes and their activism.
Dunnewold: Can you elaborate on that?
Adams: PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sexist campaigns are the most visible ones; and have probably alienated more feminists from animal activist messages than any one organization. A January 2007 example was PETA’s “State of the Union Undress” (available at YouTube for anyone who verifies they are 18 or older), a video in which a young white woman is depicted (through the magic of video intercutting) addressing the US Congress on the subject of animal exploitation–as she slowly strips off all her clothing. And then when Obama was elected, PETA decided they should do the same thing but this time, in 2010, they used an African-American woman. Equal opportunity sexism. One of the implicit, if not explicit, messages of such advertisements is, “Yes, we’re asking you to give up animals as objects, but you can still have women as objects! You can become aware of animals’ lives, but you don’t have to give up your pornography.” Thus, rather than challenge the inherent inequality of a culture structured around dominance and subordination, the ad instead tries to leverage sexual inequality on behalf of the other animals. In fact, every time PETA uses a naked or nearly-naked woman to raise concern for animals, they not only benefit from sexual inequality, they also unwittingly demonstrate the intransigence of species inequality.
But the problem of sexism in the movement is much deeper than PETA’s ongoing commitment to sell animal rights by using women’s bodies. In the animal movement, men still predominate as leaders and speakers, women as the grassroots workers doing the day-to-day work. Just as the Gross National Product does not measure housework, it does not measure volunteer hours. Unpaid labor is more likely to be provided by women than men, whether in the animal movement or at home. Yet, while animal activism needs women’s labor, it also disowns the very labor it needs! For the past twenty years, a variety of male leaders of the animal rights movement have been quoted as saying, “We aren’t a bunch of little old ladies in tennis shoes.”
Such statements are truly acts of confining the feminist-vegan message and messengers by focusing or actually not wanting to focus on the aging female body. I take this ongoing denial of women’s contributions personally. I am hoping to live long enough to qualify to be a little old lady!
I don’t think the animal rights movement is able to acknowledge its indebtedness to the feminist movement and feminist theory.
Dunnewold: What events have made you happiest and/or proudest, in relation to getting your ideas out there?
Adams: At different times over the past twenty years, I would have answered this in different ways. Having an industrial rock group, Consolidated, create a track on their Friendly Fa$cism CD devoted to The Sexual Politics of Meat was pretty great. And as I have said, it gives me great joy when I hear from people who tell me the book changed their lives. The most recent event generates complex emotions, I was both shocked and in awe: It was seeing myself portrayed on Law and Order, SVU, in April 2010. The episode is entitled “Beef.” One of the characters in this episode is clearly based on me: She is juxtaposing slides that depict animals used as meat, and women, and saying, “Our society views women and animals pretty much the same… as cuts of meat.” She then says, “Meat eating and the patriarchal world go hand in hand.” She concludes by saying, “We can’t end the objectification of women until we stop eating our four legged and winged brothers and sisters.” She finishes her slide show and moves to a table to do a book signing, and the cover of the book is that rear-entry, come hither image I described to you. I sat there, fascinated and horrified. Fascinated to hear my words on Law and Order, and to see an image that I have identified and discussed being explained by a fictional me. Simultaneously, I felt both visible and invisible. If Law and Order depicted a fiction writer known for creating a world of young wizards, we’d all know who it is. But, my work doesn’t have that kind of visibility. If it did, I would’ve just been thrilled, because Law and Order conveyed the message nonjudgmentally. These ideas leaped several levels in popular culture into the stratosphere of the Law and Order world. To have that level of visibility was galvanizing. But it was depressing, at the same time. I wish the show could’ve acknowledged that someone actually does show a slide show discussing these ideas or could have identified these ideas as having come from The Sexual Politics of Meat. If only on the Law and Order website they linked to The Sexual Politics of Meat, or credited my ideas. There was a huge debate on my Facebook page. “This is great, it’s homage, you should be thrilled.” And others were saying, “why could they not have acknowledged Carol?” To me, that was a ‘meta’ event, seeing my own fictional counterpart showing my slideshow.
There have been so many wonderful experiences in so many different venues around the world. When I spoke in Buffalo, NY, near my home town, a vegan feminist created a cheesecake for me–and later presented me with a beautifully-decorated, framed, rendition of the recipe. After a reception at Peter Max’s studio, the vegan caterer copied out one of her recipes for me and signed it “I love Carol Adams.”
Dunnewold: What has made you most proud?
Adams: Many different things, like people giving copies of my book to their parents or children. But personally, something happened recently that thrilled me. This summer, my college student son was taking part in a Jazz Camp for high school and college students. One young girl was a vegan, and there were no vegan offerings at a meal. Ben realized this, and brought her a vegan meal from his apartment. When the student discovered who his mother was, she was in awe and raved with admiration. It was fun to hear my son experience, through the eyes of someone else, what it means to have me as his mother. When he was a child, I was busy writing, raising my kids, cooking vegan food for him to share with his friends—that’s what he knew of me, that “Mom.” What this writer mother meant to others, that wasn’t something he knew growing up. What he knew was that sometimes my writing meant I was unavailable to do things with him. For many years, The Sexual Politics of Meat was not well known in my own community, so my sons were not presented with signs of my public role. I think it was meaningful to him, as he realized what I meant to someone I had never met, to be able to integrate these different aspects of his mother–the public self, the writer self, the mother self.
Dunnewold: Are there other points, about this experience over twenty years that you would like to convey?
Adams: Last November, the New York Times Book Review stated that twenty years ago, the book was ahead of its time, but that now it’s essentially of this time. It was lonely to be ahead of your time. I do hope that my ideas are now timely because there are some things that I would really like to see changed.
Meat eaters, whether feminist, progressive, evangelical, whatever their stripes, think that change is hard. What I’ve learned is that not changing is harder. People just haven’t learned that yet. They are working so hard not to change, that they’re unable to discover how easy it is to change. Meat-eaters think vegans are burdened by carrying some sort of rulebook around, or that we’re living lives of deprivation. Those lives of deprivation might occur when we’re eating with meat-eaters, who have picked the restaurant. In my own home, and among other vegans, I don’t live a life of deprivation. I don’t live a rule-based life, filled with obsessing about what I’m going to eat.
There is a statement by the Buddha, “One need not carry the raft on one’s head after crossing the stream.” There is a stage where you learn, and there is a stage where you practice. You’re not always forced to learn, you’re not always carrying a raft. I’ve read that the average person prepares only ten different meals. I believe those ten different meals can be easily veganized: Start with spaghetti: Spaghetti and veggie balls, spaghetti and portobello mushrooms, spaghetti and spring vegetables, spaghetti and summer vegetables. One reason that Patti Breitman and I wrote How to Eat Like a Vegetarian Even If You Never Want to Be One: More Than 250 Shortcuts, Strategies, and Simple Solutions, was to show that it is really very easy to be a vegan.
I believe vegans actually have a wider choice of food than meat-eaters, because we actively try to learn to cook such a wide variety of vegetables. Before I became a vegetarian, I was a lousy cook–I didn’t even know how to seed a pepper –and now I’ve become a really good cook. One reason I end up talking about food with vegans when I travel, is I want to know what they’ve learned. Their rafts were different, and I want to know what they learned. The recipes and insights they have shared with me are wonderful — uses for nutritional yeast, seitan or vegan lasagna recipes, quick ways to prepare leafy greens.
Back when the book first came out, I was told that some feminists announced they weren’t going to buy the book because they were afraid they’d have to give up meat! I don’t think that’s the worst thing that can happen to someone! When you think about it, there are worse aspects of meat-eating, than having to give it up. Most importantly, I think ethically, meat eating violates every aspect of progressive or feminist thought, because it makes someone a means to our end. And that someone isn’t given a choice, to say, “no, I really don’t want to be your dinner.” The ability to widen how we live in this world, and whose lives we pay attention to, is an important aspect of engagement and awareness. Why that should end at the species line, I do not understand. In the 1970s, I wrote, “if we want to live in a world without oppression, where does meat eating fit into that vision?” For those of us living in the Western world, I don’t believe meat eating can fit itself into our vision. The great French writer, Simone Weil, said that attention is the ability to ask “what are you going through?” and being able to hear the answer to the question. My work as a feminist has been to say, “we need to ask that question and listen for the answers from nonhuman animals as well as from humans.”
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