The sexual politics of meat

Wings, thighs and breasts: menu choices, or an individual who matters so little that her body parts can be consumed for someone else’s enjoyment?

Carol J. Adams
22 August 2016

Button on sale at the Republican National Convention in 2016. Credit: Twitter.

Earlier this month, a three-minute video culled from reporters’ coverage of Donald Trump’s rallies appeared on the home page of the New York Times. The video begins with a warning: “This video includes vulgarities and racial and ethnic slurs.” Amidst anti-Muslim invective, xenophobic references to “build that wall,” racist slurs against President Obama, and violent incidents, we learn that “perhaps nothing draws more ire than mentions of Hillary Clinton.” We hear shouts of “Bitch,” “Tramp,” “Fuck you Hillary,” and “Hang the bitch.” At minute 2:31, a political pin appears with the wording “KFC Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 small breasts…left wing.”

Welcome to the world of the sexual politics of meat. I first saw this reference to Hillary Clinton around 1993 when she was beginning her life as First Lady by working for health care reform and my book The Sexual Politics of Meat had been out for only a few years. When I used the term “politics” in the title, I meant, like Kate Millet, the power-structured relationships of a patriarchal world. Not surprisingly, politics—electing and governing—and sexual politics, the world constituted by everyday actions of misogyny, intersect. 

In 2013 a characterization similar to the one used about Clinton appeared against then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The opposition party held a dinner that included on its menu “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.” Two of the most powerful women in the world, and yet their opponents reduce them to sexualized body parts, participating in the viewpoint that women exist to please someone else, not to act in their own self interest—it’s  not about their programs, their platforms, or their merits or demerits. Such characterizations disempower them: body parts don’t have a voice or a will.

Using language that reduces women to their body parts is nothing new. It is part of the process of objectification. We know that batterers and rapists often avoid language that acknowledges the individuality of the victim (like someone’s first name), and choose instead language that objectifies them, like bitch, c**t, cow or slut. They aren’t alone—violence against another person often begins with such distancing devices, making someone into something to enable their treatment as an object. An individual is unique, whereas body parts are interchangeable.

The language found at that dinner in Australia or on the pins at a Trump rally are only the most noticeable examples of the everyday degradations of this type that many women experience. On landing her plane, for example, the first female pilot in the United Arab Emirates Air Force was referred to by one news host as “boobs on the ground” instead of by her name, Major Mariam Al Mansouri.

Or how about the Chicago restaurant where you can find a sandwich called “Double D Cup Breast of Turkey,” or the Carls’ Jr.’s advertisement that announces that the “large breasts” it serves can’t be shown on television? Kentucky Fried Chicken asks whether you are “a breast or a thigh man?” There’s a steakhouse called “Adam’s Rib,” and plenty of meat-related references to “racks” that imply that it’s a woman’s “rack” and not “a rack of ribs” that’s being consumed. All of these examples express misogyny.

From dead animals’ sellable body parts—breast, thigh, wing, rib and rack—come  the slurs against successful women candidates, or the woman in the seat next to you in the restaurant, or any woman who encounters these ads. The double entendres create the question: just who are we supposed to think is being consumed? They are so deeply embedded in our culture that many people don’t notice their assaultive and objectifying nature. They are just there—a joke. What’s there to notice?

Meat advertisements often employ misogyny. Men will be called “ladies” as a put down by someone who has just eaten a steak sandwich, or a man wearing a pink sweater may be asked “Do they make that for men?” in an ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken. This misogyny extends to how dead animals themselves are depicted: as buxom females asking to be consumed. They want their left wing to be eaten, their thighs and breasts to be consumed. They live—or rather die—to please their consumers.

During the first years after the appearance of The Sexual Politics of Meat it was hard to find a sound bite to explain the ideas in the book. Now I say that it explores, in part, how women are animalized—seen as less-than-human, positioned as animals in advertisements, shown on all fours, and referred to as female animals: bitch, pig, chick, or old biddy.

Animals are also sexualized and feminized; in their metaphoric femininity they want you to consume them. Animals have been made into absent referents who disappear as living individuals to become meat and metaphor. In a patriarchal culture, women too are absent referents. Our agency may be threatening, so by demeaning us that threat is reduced. Together, women and animals become interchangeable absent referents—left wing, breast, thighs and all.

 I have also argued that a link exists between meat eating and notions of masculinity and virility in the Western world. A belief exists that male-identified strength comes from eating meat, and that eating vegetables (and their symbolic representative, tofu) is equated with femininity. The one place where I find even more of an obsession with size than the question of Donald Trump’s hands is in advertisements for meat that emphasize men describing how a burger or a sandwich is “three times the size!”

Various male-identified locations such as steak houses, fraternities, strip clubs and barbecues offer masculine atmospheres that promise both male bonding and meat, guaranteeing an undisturbed freedom of consumption. Perhaps the anxious need to restate the association of meat eating and men suggests its fragility. If the burden of maintaining or upholding gender stereotypes relies on what or who you eat for lunch, then those stereotypes are already pretty shaky. Isn’t there something a little ironic about the fact that equating meat with freedom and strength requires accepting anxious cultural dictates about maleness, being afraid to challenge stereotypes about gender, and benefiting from cowardly ways of raising, traumatizing, and killing animals?

One of the central features of Western existence is the objectification and use of other beings. After forty years of being first a vegetarian and then a vegan, I’ve noticed how people see my decision not to eat animals or animal products as being about them. It’s true that by refusing to see other animals as objects, I’m trying to say something about what kind of subjects we can aspire to be, subjects who don’t need objects to be consumed, subjects for whom compassion does not stop at the human/animal boundary. My veganism is a boycott. There’s a wonderful t-shirt of a piglet saying “no I don’t have any spare ribs”—just as chickens and turkeys lack any spare breasts or wings.

Sometimes I laughingly claim that my veganism has prompted more people to announce their concerns for human suffering than my social activism against human oppression. Ironically, the low status of animals who are consumed forms the basis for a circular argument against considering them as beings of ethical concern. For example, how can I talk about animals when women are being beaten, raped, sexually abused, exploited and harassed, or when there are so many homeless people and refugees? Finding out they might be doing more, non-vegans accuse vegans of doing less.

People want to believe that they are good people and that they care about animals. But talking with a vegan is a reminder that food choices that include meat, dairy and eggs support violence against animals. There is no neutral position here. Many vegans see including animals as an aspect of our social justice activism. Slaughterhouses are deadly for animals, but they are also some of the most dangerous places for humans to work.

Last week, US National Public Radio broadcast a two part series on slaughterhouse workers. Often, undocumented workers are employed and have few protections against a production line that moves so quickly. Female employees may be deprived of bathroom breaks even when pregnant or menstruating. People who live near factory farms often get ill from the effluvia. Among other social justice issues raised by meat and dairy consumption are water pollution, greenhouse gases, the disproportionate amount of grain and other food diverted to feeding animals, and health issues compounded by meat and dairy consumption.

At the heart of our culture is a normalized and naturalized violence that has become so ordinary and accepted that it features daily on our menus. It may be discomforting to think this way, but in relationship to other animals we are like those individuals who, before abusing or killing someone, create distance from their victims by objectifying them. After all, what is a reference on a menu to “wings” or “thighs” or “breasts” but to an individual who mattered so little she could be violently killed so that her body parts could become someone else’s enjoyment?    

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