Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Trading Breasts for Rights: The Hypocrisy and Pyrrhic Victory of Objectification
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.