Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Trading Breasts for Rights: The Hypocrisy and Pyrrhic Victory of Objectification



Feminist.

What a reassuring word to my ears, three little syllables in a row, intricate but with a potent little punch at the end. It is also clearly a loaded word, one that carries a lot of cultural biases and baggage: depending upon the interpreter, the word brings a whole host of presumptions that touch down on everything from the state of one’s armpits to one’s attitudes about men. I know that I’m weird but despite society’s often negative connotations with the word, I have embraced it ever since I first heard it.

This is where things get muddled, though. Unlike veganism, which has a pretty specific definition and application (though still a myriad of differing views and approaches), feminism is much more open to personal interpretation. In other words, it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Ask ten self-identified feminists what the word means to them, and you are likely to get as many unique answers. Women are judged by some as selling out to the patriarchy for wearing lipstick while those who don’t are often considered angry and strident by others. (Hilariously, lipstick and body hair seem to still be the main cultural identifiers through which society discerns “how far” one takes her feminist convictions.) As women - whether we are mothers or not, whether we are feminists or not - we really are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but that is a different story for a different day.

This is all to say that I don’t claim to have the final word on what is and what is not feminist behavior. I only have my word. I know what works for me and what makes me uncomfortable and that is pretty much my barometer and compass. Thus, with so much being subjective and personal in this realm, speaking about feminism is a challenging undertaking. I can only speak of my views but, as a feminist, I also trust that they have value and merit.

Could I just get to the heart of it, already? Yes, I can. I need to talk about objectification, specifically in the vegan movement, and how being in a liberation movement with people who still believe that objectifying women is acceptable deeply hurts.

This is spurred by something written by a man who I respect quite a lot for his measured and consistently thoughtful posts. Because of this, frankly, those words felt like a punch to the gut. In a post about misogyny in the vegan movement, he posited that “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism.” What? What? Insert the word racism: is this statement still acceptable? Given how consistently focused on justice and equality most of his work is, this felt like a true betrayal. Being rather used to disappointment in my fellow humans, it is rare that I cry about such things but I cried about this one. This was a fellow vegan, a thoughtful one, too, and he was waffling about sexism for “the greater good.”

This is the part where I think I will start coming across as angry, I fear. There is little that I dislike more than arguing with people but I am hoping that this will help facilitate an honest dialogue about the subtle and overt diminishing of one another that we still engage in as people who should be helping to bring about a deeper consciousness that is not framed in objectification.

Objectification is the same pathway through which we allow living beings to become burgers and nuggets. Objectification segments. It reduces. It removes a being from his or her own agency and turns them into products for another’s use. With an objectifying lens, Jews become devils, gays become perverted predators, children become property. With this same lens, women become breasts, thighs, and assorted parts and so do the animals people eat. History has shown that when a group has been objectified, any treatment of them is justifiable, from bullying and harassment to rape and systemic murder.

Why are women always fair game? What is this twisted poker game we are allegedly playing? “I’ll raise you some breasts if you’ll visit this website”? What is the process through which that vegan transformation allegedly happens? Is it something like, “Hmm. Nice tits. She’s telling me to stop eating meat. I think I will.” Is this the trajectory we’re supposed to believe takes place? Is that how veganism – a liberation movement and radical reframing of how we regard one another as whole, sovereign, equal beings - is supposed to take hold? The more I think about it, the more nonsensical it becomes, and the more I think about it, the more my heart aches for what should be a movement of people leading the way to challenging the privileges of the status quo. The notion that we can trade one groups objectification for another’s is a mirage and it’s an oppressive one, too.

Do you know what happens when feminists bring up the hypocrisy of objectifying some to other vegans? We are told to shut up. We are told that we are a bunch of whiners. We are told that we're prudes. We are told that it is small potatoes compared to what the animals face. We are told that we don’t matter. How many men have accosted me and countless other women because we live in a culture that reduces women to the sum of their parts? When the guy sitting next to me on the train was rubbing his crotch with one hand and trying to lift my skirt with his other, why did I just shrug this off as a normal part of the daily experience? How many women have been raped because we have only been valued by our worth to the rapist? Objectification tells the viewer that the observed are not autonomous beings of their own worth – they are whatever you want from them. Well, I’m here to say that we matter. Objectification harms, objectification kills and we matter.

I have dedicated my life to making life better for the animals. I became a vegetarian in high school and a vegan in 1995 because this matters so much to me. We need to get clear on something, though. A liberation movement that encourages or accepts the objectification of some is not one I will be participating in. And when women are fair game for being reduced into consumable parts, guess what? We are still looking through the binary lens that allows for valuing some over others and segmenting whole, complex beings into consumable parts. This is the lens through which some can see a bucket of chicken and not see the individual birds stuffed inside. This is the lens through which dairy becomes isolated from the mother cow who produced it for her calf. This is the lens through which we say that another’s agency is an acceptable sacrifice if we get what we want out of it.

No, “a little sexism” is neither acceptable nor is it a trade that works. We are worth much more than that. Our movement deserves more than this, too.

49 comments:

  1. As Flavia Dzodan said, "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!" I feel the same way about veganism. Cheers, Marla!

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  2. Thank you. This is a wonderful spot-on post.

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  3. I hope you posted this to the referenced blog! (If you didn't, I would be happy to do so with your permission :-) )

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  4. Yes yes yes!!!! Thank you so much for this post. I couldn't agree more. I've written about this myself, as well. Here's an excerpt that I believe echoes your sentiments:

    "When we objectify women in animal rights campaigns, we give society permission to continue objectifying all beings because we cannot eliminate the objectification of one group by perpetuating the objectification of another." ~ http://veganrabbit.com/2013/02/15/sex-in-animal-rights-activism/

    You write:
    "Do you know what happens when feminists bring up the hypocrisy of objectifying some to other vegans? We are told to shut up. We are told that we are a bunch of whiners. We are told that we're prudes. We are told that it is small potatoes compared to what the animals face. We are told that we don’t matter. How many men have accosted me and countless other women because we live in a culture that reduces women to the sum of their parts? When the guy sitting next to me on the train was rubbing his crotch with one hand and trying to lift my skirt with his other, why did I just shrug this off as a normal part of the daily experience? How many women have been raped because we have only been valued by our worth to the rapist? "

    I have experienced being sexually harassed in public, a few times when I was still in high school by men on the street, and do you know what the people standing by did? Usually nothing. Sometimes though, though, they would laugh. LAUGH. They could see I wasn't comfortable with it, but it amused them.

    The amazing thing was that when I was younger I actually felt like speaking up or saying stop was rude. RUDE! To the person who was sexually harassing me!

    This is what happens in a sexist society that refuses to acknowledge that sexism exists, is objectifying and oppressive. It took a lot for me to finally be able to speak out and not be the acquiescent female body with a neon sign over me saying "use me as you will". Pretty much all of my confidence had to do with learning about feminism and its link to animal rights.

    So when people say that "a little sexism" is okay if it's used to advance animal rights, they're basically saying that "a little sexual harassment", "a little child molestation", and "a little rape" are also acceptable.

    If we believe that oppression is wrong, we can't pick and choose which ones are acceptable and which ones aren't, just like we can't choose which are worse than others. As a white woman, I will never understand what a black man goes through, and saying that what he endures is somehow less "wrong", is wrong in itself. But it's very hard to get someone to recognize oppression they benefit from, which is why I think your friend said what he did.

    Anyway, thank you so much for writing this. So glad to see someone else who GETS IT.

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  5. I am shocked. I saw McWilliams' original piece that was critical of the sexy vegan contest and was excited to see others taking on this issue and shared it in my blog. Now he retracts it? Expect a full writeup on this next week. Thank you for covering this.

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  6. I am so sick of all the excuses men come up with to promote T & A. Sexism is rude, uncomfortable and mostly dangerous. Do we still believe that men are so shallow as to be won over to a cause, such as Veganism because they get to see naked girls?

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  7. Jackie, it's not only men who promote T & A to "sell" animal rights. Unfortunately there are a great many misguided women, generally those who are completely closed-minded to any criticism of PETA, who also think either that there's "nothing wrong with a little sexism 'for the animals'" (as if seeing naked women is going to cause anyone to question animal exploitation) or even think that there's nothing sexist about it. Truly sad. As the blog entry points out, nobody would EVER take this attitude toward racism.

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  8. If one is an extra-special feminist, one can end up being criticised both for being "too hairy" AND for wearing lipstick.

    I joined a Facebook group, won't give the name as it is now Closed and possibly Secret, where I found out that this combination isn't actually that unusual.

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  9. Thankyou for this Marla, you know I'm with you all the way!

    I do think that for some the disconnect has to do with thinking that 'simply' entering a beauty contest to advocate for animals constitutes 'just a little sexism'...which completely misses the point that that 'innocent seeming' act is tied to the much bigger reality you flush out here in your post, and which I tried to do also on J's blog. Very, very frustrating indeed.

    I couldn't even respond to the comment that excuses sexism as a worthy trade-off on the basis that women aren't 'generally' killed at the end of THEIR oppressed lives. I'm practically hyperventilating just thinking about it!

    In some instances I think excusing sexism perceived as 'on the mild end of some arbitrary scale' is definitely the result of unexamined privilege. And then there's Stockholm Syndrome!

    I have a lot more hope for some than for others when it comes to finally seeing through their blind spots, although the waffling is deeply upsetting to me as well. I hope not naively, I remain hopeful whenever that seems even marginally warranted, because otherwise the crushing pain of betrayal is just too much to bear. I do believe that persistent consciousness raising is worthwhile because eventually progress sometimes happens!

    I'm at as much of a loss though, quite frankly, to understand why more of my feminist colleagues don't yet get the connections, or simply don't seem to want to. I am perplexed about why they just can't see how their speciesist attitudes and behaviours contribute to marginalizing both the horrors so many non-human animals are subjected to, and my own and other vegan activists' efforts AS sisters in the struggle for liberation.

    It helps immensely to know other women like you who will never stop confronting the status quo and working for an end to ALL oppression!!

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  10. I was really sad and disappointed when I read the piece and the comments. Thank you for this post.

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  11. thank you marla... an insightful and wise post... and again you have articulated my view...

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  12. In the animal rights community I'm always disappointed to see the unintended consequences of our divides. As with this one I believe it was unintentional but needed to be inspected nontheless...

    Meanwhile I hear that there's an ever growing force of female cattle ranchers and pig farmers.

    I wish I knew how to fix things that promote and condone inequality. I can only hope calling them out intelligently and thoughtfully is part of that plan. Thanks for doing so.

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  13. Just a side note... Since we're examining how not to use sex to sell animal rights - I'm reminded (again) how sex is used to sell meat. Has anyone seen what Carl's Jr is promoting via x-vegan-broad-breasted-blonde?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FYCJnTqER8

    Is it true that the way to a man's stomach is through his penis? :(

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  14. The website Beautiful Vegan uses "beauty" instead of sex to promote veganism. I would argue that doing it that way is not sexist at all and that it does a better job of getting the message across. PETA's nudes are more like a scantily clad beer commercial - because gratuitous sex sells - but is at the expense that the controversy over their PETA's advertising methods distracts people from the primary purpose.

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  15. an interesting question is if the women are doing the PETA ad's of their own free will, how are they being exploited? isn't it the same thing in the case of a male model who uses his looks to sell a product?

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  16. All the more reason for us women to make ourselves known as living, breathing, unique beings rather than completely inferior, continuously exploitative, and commercially overused commodities! I, and every woman in this world, can only be proud of what we have on the inside rather than what the males perceive us from the outside. You've done it again, Marla! Kudos!

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  17. "Sex does sell, there is no doubt, and perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism."

    Unfortunately, many vegans ignored the key words that then followed the above sentence, I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t., which to my mind changes both context and intention. Plus, it turned the seeming statement into a question.

    Are you suggesting that it would also be unacceptable for me (a self-identified feminist for the past 30+ years) to not always be completely convinced that PETA's tactics are indeed sexist? Because I find the idea of being discouraged from questioning conventional wisdom (whether vegan, feminist, or any other kind) kinda scary.

    But what I find truly scary (and incredibly sad) is the amount of division, antagonism, and infighting within a movement that is supposed to be about love and compassion. :(

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  18. Thank you, Vegan Burnout. I agree!

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  19. Thank you, Vegan Rabbit, for your understanding and your wise words.

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  20. I am not really sure what people are thinking, Jackie. It is very sad and cynical, I think.

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  21. There are seemingly limitless arbitrary standards upon which women will be criticized, Vanilla Rose. :D

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  22. Thank you, Fireweed, and I have the same utter confusion at the lack of most feminists to be able to extend compassion to other animals. It is a sad and overwhelming thing to think about.

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  23. Thank you so much, proud womon...

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  24. Thank you, Bea. I do think it's important to examine these places where we are selling one another out so we can be a true liberation movement.

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  25. Thank you, CM. I look forward to exploring that site. Showing a diversity of "beauty" is valuable, and, I hope, showing males as well. :)

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  26. Anonymous, yes, they are doing it of their own free will, Of course. Does this then justify objectification? I have a friend who is a "little person" also known as a dwarf. Back in the 1990s, he launched a campaign against a bar that had weekly "midget tossing" events because it reinforced the idea of little people as objects and because it was violent. The little people who were being tossed said that it was their right, that they were making money, that they were not disempowered. I think we need to look at deeper implications of our participation in objectification all the time. Regarding a male model, well, he doesn't live in a climate of sexism, so these are isolated incidents as opposed to reinforcing more of the same objectification. Thanks for your comment.

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  27. Anonymous, yes, they are doing it of their own free will, Of course. Does this then justify objectification? I have a friend who is a "little person" also known as a dwarf. Back in the 1990s, he launched a campaign against a bar that had weekly "midget tossing" events because it reinforced the idea of little people as objects and because it was violent. The little people who were being tossed said that it was their right, that they were making money, that they were not disempowered. I think we need to look at deeper implications of our participation in objectification all the time. Regarding a male model, well, he doesn't live in a climate of sexism, so these are isolated incidents as opposed to reinforcing more of the same objectification. Thanks for your comment.

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  28. Thank you, Cat! Beautifully said.

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  29. Thank you, Have Gone Vegan. I have to respectfully disagree. I noticed his comment about not knowing but to me, if we replace the words "a little sexism" with "a little racism" we have our answer. It is not justifiable for a liberation movement to reinforce the objectification of some of us AND, I would argue, it's not effective anyway. I don't think all of PETA's tactics are sexist and I never said as such; the campaigns that rely on objectifying and segmenting women are the ones that concern me from that point of view. I'm not really sure what you mean with your next sentence, because objectification *is* the standard practice and "sex sells" *is* the conventional wisdom, so yes, I am questioning it indeed. No need to find that scary.

    As far as your last sentence, if women are considered fair game for objectification in this movement, then it needs to be questioned and it needs to be heard. Unity doesn't magically happen, HGV: it happens with us all working at it, not by suppressing our voices. If you can show me any ad hominem attacks within this essay, please do. It was written in the spirit of moving together more and I am sorry - and sad - if you think we need to shut up in order to work better together.

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  30. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  31. What annoys me about PETA's portrayal of women is that they are almost invariably cast as "sexy", "victim" or "sexy victim". This is such a narrow reflection of women. Yes, most women are sexual, some of the time. Yes, sadly, a lot of us have been victims of crime at some stage. And it is only right to acknowledge that.

    But there is also so much more to the experience of being a woman than just sexiness or victimhood. And if PETA were more creative, it would see some of the other ways in which it could use images of women in order to give a more balanced picture.

    It's also troubling that an educated man like McWilliams suggested that "a little sexism" was fine. He could have taken the approach that the beauty contest was not sexist at all, and given his reasons. But for him to acknowledge that he believed it to be sexist, and yet to endorse it ... that is alarming.

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  32. "Sex does sell, there is no doubt, and perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t.”

    I don't see McWilliams "endorsing" that "a little sexism" is fine at all. "I don't know" --> *not* equivalent to endorsement.

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  33. Anonymous, you are probably responding to Vanilla Rose but for me, the sentence “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism,” was what I took issue with. As I said in the piece, I respect James McWilliams quite a lot so this was especially troubling to me. I feel that we can and should do better than accept sexism in a liberation movement.

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  34. Hi Marla,

    I realize that statement is what you and many others found troubling, but as HGV stated above, the immediate words following it (“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t”) are incredibly significant: for they imply that we shouldn’t read McWilliams’ “a little sexism” statement as a view that *he* holds. Again, McWilliams neither endorsed nor defended the view that if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism, then that’s okay--though Shayna Wise, btw, did. I think suggesting he did is very unfair (not saying you did this, but others certainly have – and that was wrong).

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  35. Thanks, Anonymous. I hear you. I do still stand by my original statement because I don't think one can insert the word "racism" into the sentence and still be on the fence about it. That being said, thank you for your thoughts. I am not someone who would write off James because of a disagreement and it troubles me that he would be given so little benefit of the doubt. I do think that a healthy, honest dialogue is invaluable, clearly. :) Thanks for keeping things civil and not getting personal, as too many from either side of the debate have trouble maintaining.

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  36. Marla, I totally agree about the need for healthy, honest dialogue, and in that spirit, I want to address your post more fully, particularly the argument that if one substitutes "racism" for "sexism," the answer would be clear--actually, I'm not sure it would. But before that, I want to touch on another important issue at the heart of this controversy.

    It isn't clear to me how PETA's "sexiest" vegetarian contest, consisting of an equal number of both men and women, is sexist in the first place. I understand that some think these contests reinforce the objectification of women or encourage the idea that women are merely sex objects, which in turn could lead some males in our culture to internalize these notions and act on them - by committing violence against women. If so, then what is being suggested is that how some women choose to dress/behave has the dangerous potential to encourage some males to harm women, but by this logic, women who choose to make themselves appear "sexy" to the public, such as Shayna Wise, ought to tone it down or cover up - which, I don't think, is the right message at all. Putting moral pressure on women like Wise not to sexually display themselves in "sexy vegan" contests, since it may cause some men to harm other women, strikes me as not very different than slut-shaming victims of sexual assault. In both bases, the harm women suffer at the hands of men is suggested to be the result of how women dress/behave--a view that our society needs to move away from.

    You wrote: "Insert the word racism: is this statement still acceptable?" Yes, it depends. How much racism are we talking about? How much speciesism are we talking about? I know that may sound absurd, but let me illustrate with a hypothetical. Suppose a terrorist will torture and kill billions of people, unless you, Marla, agree to draw a mildly offensive racist picture. Is the idea of drawing a racist picture, in order to save billions of people from being tortured and killed, unacceptable to you? I suspect if that were reality (and not utter fiction), most of us would find it perfectly acceptable. The point here is that if the consequences are horrific enough, some means, which are normally inappropriate or unethical, may be justified.

    Moreover, in regards to PETA's "sexiest vegetarian" contest, assuming it's sexist, there is one important feature about it that distinguishes it from other forms of sexism: it requires the voluntary consent of women, whereas many other forms of sexism don't. McWilliams' remark only referred to the former kind, the one Shayna Wise participated in. I think this distinction matters, because it would not justify the notion that McWilliams is suggesting that "a little rape" or "a little sexual harassment" is okay in order to alleviate speciesism.

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  37. Hi, Anonymous -

    First, thanks for your response.

    I wanted to say that the "Sexiest Vegan" contest is really not one that offends me. Of all of PETA's campaigns, this is one of the more balanced. I was responding to someone who was responding to the contest, in which he said the comment about "a little sexism." As far as I am concerned, PETA has engaged in a lot of objectification over the years. This particular one is not one that registers on that level as far as I am concerned but I was responding to the quote instead of the campaign, if that makes sense.

    I am not one who says that women should "cover up" or look a certain way, though I was accused of this many times in threads regarding this piece. I would like for someone to point to an example of me saying this or even hinting at this. What I *am* saying is that campaigns that objectify are a completely different matter. PETA's horrific "State of the Union Undress" comes to mind (stripping while reciting factoids about cruelty to animals), as do the ads that attack female body hair in their anti-fur campaigns, as well as quite a few others. So, strangely, I was drawn into this debate on a campaign that really doesn't bother me. That being said, could you tell me where I was "slut-shaming"?

    Anonymous, I am not interested in engaging in your hypothetical scenario. As a vegan, I am asked to indulge "hypothetical scenarios" all the time: the chicken on a deserted island; would I eat my dog if necessary; what if the animals we don't eat take over the world, etc. I am not interested. I am interested in living in the here and now and in reality. In reality, I do not see how a woman licking a cucumber suggestively is going to result in people examining their role in animal exploitation, I really don't. I am sorry, but I will not indulge in hypothetical fairy tales. I will say that I don't believe in selling out one to "benefit" the other. (In quotation marks because the benefit in terms of creating more vegans has not been proven to me.)

    Regarding consent, people agree to participate in activities that reinforce damaging cultural stereotypes all the time, from minstrel performers in blackface to little people who make money off of "midget" tossing. Yes, there was voluntary consent in all the above cases. Does this not have ramifications upon others, though? Does this not objectify and harm? Is any treatment justifiable simply because of consent? Where do we draw the line?

    I'm sorry but your last couple of lines didn't make sense to me so I can't comment on them.

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  38. Hi Marla,

    When I read your piece, I assumed that you, along with other critics, found the contest sexist. If you could clarify further, although you say you don’t find the contest offensive, does that mean you think it *isn’t* sexist? Both Wise and McWilliams assumed that the contest is sexist, and their remarks should be understood as referring specifically to it--and similar campaigns. I’m not saying McWilliams’ statement can’t be applied to other campaigns, and it’s worth discussing its merits under other contexts (such as some other PETA’s campaigns), but when criticizing McWilliams on this issue, it’s essential, I think, to keep the actual context in mind--for context changes meaning dramatically. Consider the following:

    1. “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism [i.e., PETA’s contest] can help alleviate a lot of speciesism”

    2. “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism [i.e., PETA’s fur campaign] can help alleviate a lot of speciesism”

    3. “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism [i.e., PETA’s State of the Union Address] can help alleviate a lot of speciesism”

    Do you find (1) problematic? If you don’t find PETA’s contest particularly offensive, then isn’t (1) a very different statement than (2) or (3)?

    About slut-shaming, I was commenting generally on the critical reactions to PETA’s contest, and making the point that putting moral pressure on women like Wise not to sexually display themselves in such contests, for fear that it may lead to harm against women elsewhere, seems no different to me than placing responsibility on the way some women dress/behave for their sexual assault. But the point can be extended to other campaigns.

    When you object to some of PETA’s other campaigns, your criticism of them, on the grounds that they objectify and therefore “reinforce damaging cultural stereotypes,” necessarily conveys the moral message that the women who voluntarily participate in them ought not to, that they should not sexually display themselves in the manner that they do in such campaigns. In effect, to my mind, you are telling them: “Don’t act/dress like that, because your behavior may lead to harm against women caused by men.” But is that very different from telling some women to cover up because, if they don’t, they could suffer various harms at the hands of men? And to clarify: I’m not suggesting we can’t be critical of PETA’s campaigns--only that when we criticize them on the grounds of objectification (“reinforce[ing] damaging cultural stereotypes”), we run into that problem.

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  39. A further clarification. I wrote:

    “I think this distinction matters, because it would not justify the notion that McWilliams is suggesting that "a little rape" or "a little sexual harassment" is okay in order to alleviate speciesism.”

    Marla, this comment, which you said didn’t make sense to you, was a response to a suggestion above (from Vegan Rabbit) that “when people say that "a little sexism" is okay if it's used to advance animal rights, they're basically saying that "a little sexual harassment", "a little child molestation", and "a little rape" are also acceptable.” I don't know whether you agree with the latter, but it seems to be a notion that many critics have in mind when thinking about McWilliams' statement. My only point is that, given the distinction between voluntary consent and the lack thereof, his comment should be understood with this in mind.

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  40. 
Hi, Anonymous (any chance you could start using your name or even a pseudonym? This is getting awkward. :D) -

    

I do see where you are going and your point about context. I think, though, that the statement “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism” stands alone as worthy of debate because I do not see how anything oppressive, i.e., sexism, can be justifiable under any context, especially within a liberation movement. PETA has this “Sexiest Vegan Alive” contest every year and it does not cause any kind of ripple within me because it’s the same ol’ PETA shtick and given the context of their campaign history, it is relatively benign and equal opportunity. (Putting aside that we already live in a society and culture that does not objectify men as it does women, but that being said, it’s still comparatively harmless.) So you asked if I found the campaign sexist and my answer is no, not really, especially given what they have done in the past. As I said, what I was responding to was this statement, which, the more I think about it, the more certain I am that it is very much worth discussion. The fact that we are still debating whether “a little sexism” (insert racism, ableism, classism, whatever) is justifiable shows me that we, as a purported liberation movement, has a lot of growth to do and a lot of privileges to reconsider. 

Please do not put me in the category of “slut-shaming” unless you have some proof of this. So many people on various threads made this same accusation but, when challenged, came up empty-handed.

    I completely disagree with the notion that making a statement against objectification of some of us necessarily conveys a “slut-shaming” message: I am speaking out against the objectification and segmenting of women to “sell” animal rights. (Arguably, what PETA is doing is selling PETA because I have never seen any kind of data that backs up their claims of effectiveness. If effectiveness means hits on a website, that is one thing. If effectiveness means getting people to reconsider their privilege and go vegan, that is another.) We live in a culture in which millions of women are sexually abused, raped, and murdered because we are seen as “means to an end” (much like how PETA views women in their campaigns) and because women have been reduced to objects. How many women and girls have had people grab at them and worse because they weren’t viewed as sovereign, autonomous beings of their own purposes? Objectification isn’t damaging? Images and campaigns that reduce and segment women into objects reinforces the cultural norm that females are only worth the value an observer places upon them. This has nothing to do with how a woman dresses and everything to do with culturally normalized misogyny. If you want to paint me as a finger-wagging scold and a prude, I suppose that is your prerogative but it saddens me how often this debate bottoms out on this well-trod path. I am sitting here in a tank top and skirt as I type this. Clothing and nudity was not part of my discussion but objectification and misogyny are.

    Anyway, Anonymous, honestly, I am moving on. I have projects and deadlines that I must put my attention to but I appreciate your feedback. I am also happy to agree to disagree. You will see that, unlike so many people who commented on either side of the debate, I am averse to making things personal. As I said in the beginning, I understand that feminism is fluid and subjective, and I don’t claim to have the final word on it; I would like to speak, though, without being accused of prudishness and slut-shaming. This is too important a topic for people to be silenced about. 

Peace to you...

Marla

    ReplyDelete
  41. (Part I)

    Hi Marla,

    I’ll contact you privately on fb to let you know my real identity. I prefer to keep it anonymous here because, after seeing the outrageous public shaming of James McWillams over this controversy--(and to be clear: I am *not* associating you with that, because your comments, unlike others, focused on substance)--I do not relish the notion of my comments being featured and distorted on some highly aggressive blog post (or on twitter and fb) ostensibly for the purpose of highlighting them as yet more examples of sexism/misogyny within the AR movement. Such shame-tactics discourage honest, healthy dialogue among well-meaning advocates. As someone with a fairly clear idea of my own intellectual limitations, I fully admit that at least some of my firmly held views are probably wrong, but I think it’s important for there to be a safe space to express them openly, and with as much rigor I can muster, without the fear that an interlocutor will attempt to shame me into abandoning them--such as by being quick to charge me with reputation-damaging labels. I hope you understand.

    I sense that our discussion on this topic might be coming to an end, so before I delve into my response, I want to first thank you, really, for engaging me in a very thoughtful and civil manner.

    About slut-shaming, I want to be very clear what my objection is (and be very clear that I wasn’t, in anyway, trying to silence you), so instead of using that highly emotive label, I’ll express my concerns without it and describe exactly what I mean. Let’s focus solely on PETA’s “sexy vegan” contest. Unlike you, there are some critics of James’ comment who think it’s clearly sexist (Gary Francione is on that list), and they suggest that when the women participants objectify or commodify themselves in this manner, it has the dangerous potential to lead to all the various consequences that you describe that go along with objectification.

    My objection to *that* is as follows: criticism of PETA’s “sexy vegan” contest, that it’s an immoral thing to do because it’s sexist, necessarily entails the position that women who wish to participate in it ought not do so, and that the women who do participate in it (like Shayna Wise) act unethically for doing so. But the position that women ought not to participate in the contest because it’s sexist is the position that, by sexually displaying themselves in a certain manner--in order to appeal to men’s sexual impulses and desires—they are helping to reinforce the evils of objectification, which have harmful consequences to other women. Thus, this form of moral criticism of PETA’s contest entails placing responsibility on the way women participants act/dress for the potential dangerous consequences of objectification: it tells them, “By displaying yourselves in sexual manner, specifically to appeal to men’s sexual interests, your actions may lead to harm against other women.” (I can conceive of no other way of making the charge of sexism against PETA’s contest *without* that justification including claims of how women ought to not act/dress in a sexual manner.) And yet, that very reasoning, when used to place responsibility for sexual assault on the way some women act/dress, is strongly rejected. Compare the following:

    Scenario A: Woman A wanders through crowded areas intentionally dressed in a sexually appealing manner in order to appeal to men’s sexual interests. However, she is criticized for doing so: according to this criticism, the way she’s acting/dressing helps reinforce the evils of objectification, which could lead some men to harm her and other women.

    Scenario B: Woman B enters in a “sexy vegan” contest intentionally dressed in a sexually appealing manner in order to appeal to men’s sexual interests. However, she is criticized for doing so: according to this criticism, the way she’s acting/dressing helps reinforce the evils of objectification, which could lead some men to harm her and other women.

    ReplyDelete
  42. (Part II)

    If PETA’s “sexy vegan” contest is criticized as sexist, as some claim, then that criticism *must* assume something like the reasoning in Scenario B, but that reasoning is no different than the reasoning in Scenario A, which I’m sure we agree is problematic. The reasoning in A is basically saying “cover up/don’t act like that,” so when I see people criticize PETA’s “sexy vegan” contest, that’s what I basically hear them saying--although not intentionally--to women like Shayna Wise. Now I think this objection I raise--against the idea that PETA’s “sexy vegan” is sexist--is likely applicable, I suspect, to many criticisms of PETA’s other campaigns accusing them of sexism.

    Turning back to James’ “sexism” comment, I agree it’s possible--perhaps even desirable--to discuss it as an abstract proposition apart from the context in which it arose, but I don’t think it’s fair to criticize James, or express disappointment in him, for articulating a proposition (which he did not endorse) and not keep firmly in mind the actual context: that he was referring specifically to PETA’s contest, which you don’t find sexist anyway--*unlike* many of his very harsh critics. The context suggests that the kind of sexism he was specifically referring to is one that, in your estimation, isn’t even sexism at all and “comparatively harmless,” so it’s unclear to me whether, on the underlying issue, there is any disagreement between you and James. In your mind, if I’m not misinterpreting, there is a *very* clear difference in meaning between:

    1. “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism [i.e., PETA’s contest] can help alleviate a lot of speciesism”

    2. “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism [i.e., PETA’s fur campaign] can help alleviate a lot of speciesism”

    Moving away from the actual context, you say “I do not see how anything oppressive, i.e., sexism, can be justifiable under any context, especially within a liberation movement.” I provided one possible counter-example using the hypothetical terrorist and racism, in order to illustrate the point that if the consequences are horrific enough, and if certain means, which are normally inappropriate or unethical, would be effective at thwarting them, then it could be justifiable to utilize those means. I’ll provide another counter-example, but this time from real life.

    In the early 1990s, Bruce Friedrich looked very different than he does today--he had a full beard, full shoulder-length hair, and wore “ugly”-looking clothes. His appearance, to the minds of many people, was very unappealing, which led many to write him off regardless of the substance of his remarks. Later on, Friedrich chose to adopt a more “mainstream appearance,” and in subsequent interactions with people, he noticed improvements in conversation quality and the respect of his listeners. Thus, by choosing to adopt a more “mainstream appearance,” Friedrich arguably engaged in a form of “lookism,” by reinforcing the prejudice that one needs to look/dress “mainstream” in order to be taken seriously, and he did so in order to “help alleviate a lot of speciesism.” Is the notion that Friedrich used “a little lookism” in order to “help alleviate a lot of speciesism” really untenable? I don’t think so – in fact, I think it was perfectly justifiable.

    So I think this example illustrates the point that, in some contexts, there can be compromises where a little use of certain “isms” can be justifiably used to help other animals, especially when the consequences at stake are so extreme.

    Peace to you too.

    ReplyDelete
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  45. Hi Marla,

    Sorry for the late reply. Nope, no ad hominem attacks in this essay, and it wasn't my intention to suggest that anyone needed to shut up.

    My last sentence was actually not directed at you (unfortunately my communication is not always as clear as I would like it to be), but more of a general statement of frustration. If anything, perhaps with other certain bloggers in mind who tend to be much less civil than yourself.

    So no, please don't ever shut up, because your voice is badly needed and much welcomed. :)

    ReplyDelete
  46. This is amazing! I happened across this site from a link sent by a vegan feminist friend. And sensible and ethics-based analysis. I will visit your site often.

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  47. I agree with this so much! Thanks for writing such an incisive and thoughtful piece.

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