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Women and meat linked in advertising
In feminist-vegetarian classic, 'The Sexual Politics of Meat,' Carol Adams analyzes ads that depict women as food
“I was not born a vegan feminist,” Carol Adams announced in her recent talk at Stanford about her landmark book “The Sexual Politics of Meat.” Adams recalled how, as a young woman in the 1970s, she realized that vegetarianism and her radical feminism intertwined.
Feminism and vegetarianism were both premised on the eradication of inequality, explained Adams—inequality between women and men, inequality between humans and animals. Feminism and vegetarianism both attempted to remedy these inequalities and were, in a way, very similar political projects. Both sought freedom and liberty for the oppressed. And both demonstrated how, in the famous words of the feminist movement, the personal is always political.
Adams argued that if feminism and vegetarianism are linked in their resistance of oppression, then masculinity and meat-eating are also linked in their pursuit of domination.“Men eat meat,” she said, arguing that meat-eating has long been associated with virility.
According to Adams, Western culture has privileged the “white man… over the animalized woman and the dead animal.” In response, Adams has devoted her activism to studying the links between women and animals in advertising.
“We live in a visual culture,” Adams told her Stanford audience, displaying image after image of women depicted as food for men’s consumption — as cakes, as juicy steaks, as fluffy “chicks.”
Adams argues that seeing a woman “as a piece of meat” is one of the first steps towards victimization and oppression.
Adams warned that the images of women as food might promote (or at least reflect) general violence against women. Seeing a woman “as a piece of meat” is one of the first steps toward victimization and oppression, according to Adams.
“Cultural images of sexual violence, and actual sexual violence, often rely on our knowledge of how animals are butchered and eaten,” wrote Adams in her book. The bondage equipment of hard-core pornography, she argued, suggests the control of animals. According to her claim, then, even the most pedestrian images—such as barbeque restaurants who show cartoons of pigs in bikinis — are forms of hate speech that legitimate sexual violence.
Pigs in bikinis
Adams showed dozens of pigs in bikinis in her presentation. Used to advertise barbeque joints, these pigs smile coyly at the camera, displaying their pink curves and plump legs.Adams argued that these images are among the most insidious of them all. Barbeque joints are a bastion for male meat-eating, and they use the pretty pigs to advertise that their meat, like women, are men’s for the taking. Because these images collapse people and pigs into objects to be consumed, Adams believes they reinforce the object-nature of women. The pig on the plate, she contended, is like the prostitute on the street — ready to be consumed by fork or by phallus.
The equation of women and meat, Adams argued, hurts both women and animals. In a chapter titled “The Rape of Animals, the Butchering of Women,” she explained how the two-way metaphor legitimates violence to both women and animals in one fell stroke. According to Adams, we must move beyond seeing both women and dead animals as pieces of meat.
The pig on the plate, says Adams, is like the prostitute on the street — ready to be consumed by fork or by phallus.
To illustrate this point, Adams showed a photograph of a provocatively posed pig named “Ursula Hamdress.” Reclining on a lush couch, Hamdress’ hooves reach towards her silken panties, eyes closed and head thrown back in a strange, titillating image of invitational, masturbatory ecstasy. Hamdress originally appeared in an odd pornographic magazine titled “Playboar: The Pig Farmer’s ‘Playboy.’” By conflating the two beings — one animal and one human — the image of Hamdress will cause the viewer to wonder if the pig is “inviting someone to rape her or to eat her,” said Adams.
Ursula Hamdress, at least, was represented whole. She had a head, four legs, and a piggy nose. Many women represented in advertisements are not so lucky. Adams investigated the common practice of “body chopping,” an advertising technique that displays parts and fragments of women’s bodies. A long set of legs here. A particularly beguiling arm. A lovely ankle. A forest of eyelashes. Two mounds of cleavage.
By chopping women up in advertisements, our visual culture denies them mind and soul and restricts them, like the animal, to simply the flesh of the body.
This practice leads, Adams argued, toward the “piece” part of seeing women as “pieces of meat.” By chopping women up in advertisements, our visual culture denies them mind and soul and restricts them, like the animal, to simply the flesh of the body.
Criticizing the critic
Some feminists have wondered about the implications of Adams’s fundamental claim — by putting the rights of women and animals on equal footing, is Adams merely confirming the sexist attitude she objects to? That is, rather than arguing that pigs are as deserving as women, is she arguing that women are no better than pigs?
Adams contends that it is part of the sexual politics of meat to show consumable animals as consumable women. But some women, especially women proud of the beauty of their bodies, question this argument — pigs, they say, should consider it a privilege to be represented as women. Women — not pigs —should be the only ones offended by the comparison.
Adams, however, would respond that violence is mutually reinforcing. Adams argues that an interlocking form of oppression is at work, one in which animals are feminized and women are animalized. Her point is that these processes are happening together and reinforce each other — that they cannot be untangled. After all, it is not feminist-vegans who make the comparison between women and domesticated animals. Rather, it is advertisements for barbeque, hamburgers, and the like. In this light, violence against animals is violence against women. Simply living in the encompassing culture of objectification and slaughter may lead to violence — whether expressed against women or animals, it is violence all the same.
Meat-eater, vegetarian, vegan, or something in between, Adams’s work provides a compelling look at the surprising intersection of gender, violence, and meat in contemporary Western philosophy and contemporary advertising.
Carol Adams's talk was sponsored by Appetite for Change and was co-sponsored by the Women's Community Center, Department of Modern Thought and Literature, American Studies Program, Program in Feminist Studies, Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, and ASSU Undergraduate Senate.
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Carol J. Adams has written around twenty books on the links between the oppression of women and that of animals, domestic violence, sexual assault, and the ethics of diets. Her book "The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory" drew international recognition for its examination of the historical, gender, race, and class implications of meat culture.
Adrienne Rose Johnson is a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature. She studies American popular culture with particular attention to the body, labor, and the landscape, and has done research on the history of American vacationing, frugality, and dieting. She is a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team.