This essay was inspired by Carol J. Adams’ lecture at Towson University, and her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990). Quotes were pulled from both her lecture and her book. Carol J. Adams is an American writer, feminist, and animal rights advocate. She is the author of several books focusing in particular on what she argues are the links between the oppression of women and that of non-human animals.
Welcome to the Wonderful World of Meat. Today’s specials include the Double-D Turkey Breast Sub and our Mother and Child Reunion Breakfast Platter with chicken and eggs. As always our meaty meals come with a hearty helping of deep fried patriarchy, seasoned sexual exploitation and free refills of objectification. Not to mention that all our food is made with special grief-free animal products. And if you are man enough you can supersize your meal.
Alright, I’ll admit it; the Wonderful World of Meat isn’t a real place. But if it was, it would probably be a successful franchise. The fact of the matter is that America is the Wonderful World of Meat, and the government subsidized meat industry is doing a lot more than providing the country with their daily serving of protein. Feminist vegan Carol J. Adams has called out the patriarchal industry for the, “butchering of women and the rape of animals.”
Adams is an activist and has authored many books, including The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. In this novel, originally published in 1990, Adams gives a voice to the voiceless, and illuminates the way that the consumption of meat is a corrupt capitalist venture that reinforces gender relations and results in the violation of animal, women’s and human rights. Adams gives speeches where she shows her Sexual Politics of Meat Slideshows in order to bring attention to this overlooked issue.
“If the words which tell the truth about meat as food are unfit for our ears, the meat itself is not fit for our mouths.”
— Emarel Freshel
You can’t have meat without dead animals. Plain and simple. The concept is nothing new. “Meat eating is a story applied to animals, it gives meaning to animal’s existence,” Adams said. It is a story in which animals are never given a chance. Adams points out that there is a Eurocentric association with eating meat. It is a culture where it is expected that everyone will do it – the question is never “Would you like it with meat or without?” it is “What kind of meat would you like?”
The factory farm has become the standard for meat production. It is an industrial process where animals and animal products are mass produced. The animals are seen as nothing more than a commodity, and as such they are, “bred, fed, confined and drugged to lay more eggs, birth more offspring and die with more meat on their bones.” On some of these farms the conditions are so squalid, quarters so cramped, and treatment so poor that it is a wonder that these animals can live long enough to be killed and consumed.
The statistics are staggering. Two out of every three farm animals in the world are now factory farmed. Worldwide, about 70 billion farm animals are now reared for food each year, more than ever before in history. While a pregnant sow is confined to a gestation crate that is so small that she cannot turn around for her 114 day pregnancy, the company profits from the suffering of her and her kin.
To make matters worse, as consumers we couldn’t care less. Factory farms are no secret, but regardless we want our meat. Something magical happens in the slaughterhouse – that steer or chicken or pig, its identity as a living creature is erased, and it is transformed from someone to something – meat. And just like that consumers can forget about the animal, protect their conscience and enjoy their meal. After all, it’s just meat, right?
If that wasn’t bad enough, then we make these animals seem like they want to be eaten. We have all seen BBQ restaurants with a cartoon pig wearing a chef’s hat and a cannibalistic grin with a rack of ribs on a skewer. It is as if the pig were saying, “Hey, I don’t mind being eaten, just dig in!”
It’s in this portrayal of meat in the media where animal rights and feminist issues overlap.
Women, like the pig at the BBQ joint, are made to seem like they want to be consumed. Although consuming in this case does not involve the literal ingestion of women’s bodies, both animals’ and women’s bodies are objectified and made into a commodity, something that can be bought and sold. Our culture objectifies these groups, denying them of their existence as conscience beings, fragments their bodies (in the same sense that you can get chicken legs, wings or breasts, people divide women into pieces of meat, and may describe themselves as an “ass-man” “leg-man” or “boob-man”) and they are subsequently consumed.
The way we think about women and animals is related to what Adams calls absent referents. Here is what Adams says in her book: “Behind every meal of meat is an absence, the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. The absent referent is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone.”
Absent referents do not only oppress animals, but also women and minorities. They keep something from being seen as someone in order to distance the subordinate from the dominant – the consumed from the consumer. Adams demonstrates how in our patriarchal society women are linked to animals through absent referents; terms relating to parts of women’s bodies and slabs of meat are used interchangeably. Also, many derogatory slang pertaining to women come from terms for animals (e.g. bitch, cow, bitty). If animals are the absent referent in the phrase, “the butchering of women,” then women are the absent referent in the phrase, “the rape of animals.” Advertisements use this in an overt manner, as Adams points out in her Sexual Politics of Meat slideshow.
Many of the images in these ads are so commonplace that generally you wouldn’t think twice. Such as a bikini-wearing supermodel biting into a humongous cheeseburger. Or a sign for a BBQ called “One Sweet Rack BBQ” accompanied by a buxom pig in revealing clothing and lipstick. Advertisements make the process of objectification appear innocent and harmless, nothing more than a big joke. In these images gender assumptions are used to uphold speciesism, and specisism is used to uphold gender oppression. The meat industry relies on this objectification to sell their product, and these types of images reinforce male dominance, encouraging sexual violence and the commoditization of animal’s and women’s bodies. In the sense that fish live in water, Adams’ explains, women and animals both live surrounded by objectification and sexual violence, and this is perpetuated by the way society literally consumes animals and visually and sexually consume women.
The act of eating meat itself has become a symbol of male dominance. BBQs and cookouts are epicenters of “male bonding.” Advertisements for meat products are often targeted towards men, and in Western culture meat eating is simply what men do. Women are often depicted as the ones serving meat to men. Many meat ads are hostile towards feminism, and vegetables are associated with passiveness; it is okay for women to be vegetarians, but a man who doesn’t eat meat is probably a homosexual (a German ad campaign called tofu “gay meat”). Meat eating and the media representations repeatedly demonstrate that animals and women exist to serve the needs of men.
Furthermore, many of the methods of production for animal byproducts are most definitely feminist issues. It basically boils down to sexual slavery: chickens’ reproductive system is used to produce eggs and more chickens (the male chicks are sorted out and disposed of, while the female chicks have their beaks removed before being crammed into a cage), and dairy cows are impregnated every few months so that they will continue to lactate. These gentle creatures are not regarded as living, breathing beings, but instead are utilized like a machine, another unit of production providing capital for the meat industrial complex.
The negative effects that stem from these issues are not limited to women and animals – they can be extended to the world at large. Men are exploited by assimilation into traditional male stereotypes, and their diets also pay the price. Meat production increases the demand on the Earth – Adams says that 32% of the worlds arable land is used to produce meat, it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat and many methods used in meat farming cause terrible pollution and are a threat to public health. Adams says that the way we look at meat is much more than, “what you eat for dinner, it’s the way you look at the world.” The way we consume meat desensitizes us and conditions us for violence and exploitation.
So, as you can see, when it comes to meat there is a lot on our plates. This “rape of animals and butchering of women” is something that is so ingrained into our culture that it seems nearly impossible to turn back now.
But here are some ways that you can push back against the powers that be:
1. Eat less meat
Carol J. Adams would say “stop eating meat,” but I understand that’s a tall order. If you are able to make the transition to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, more power to you. “Veganism is a boycott,” according to Adams; by eliminating meat and animal products from your diet you are removing your support of the cruel system of animal exploitation for profit. Adams notes that you can do more to reduce your carbon footprint by cutting red meat out of your diet for one day a week than if you eat locally farmed foods every day.
It is time that we stop “consuming death” and start “embracing life.” Adams asserts that, “people fear they are giving up pleasure,” by cutting meat out of their diets, “but they aren’t.” The protein that we get from meat preexists the animal, Adams explains, because it all comes from plants, rendering the mass slaughter and consumption of animals unnecessary as far as Adams is concerned. Rather than accept the notion that animals are here for us to eat, we should include animals into our “moral circle of consideration,” and accept that these are living creatures with a right to life just as much as you and me. Imagine if the treatment that these farm animals undergo were to be applied to your favorite pet. Or, better yet, imagine that someone wanted to eat you.
2. Embrace grief
“People are afraid of grief,” says Adams, and she believes this is the “reason people don’t like to know about meat.” Ignorance may lead to personal bliss, but in this case ignorance also results in the perpetuation of an interconnected system of violence, objectification, exploitation and discrimination. Adams insists that, as humans, “we have the potential to care.” She says that we must be willing to engage in what is happening to others, which she connects to the feminist ethics of care. In the western world we feel rather apathetic towards the animals on our plates; they are seen as creatures with no intelligent thought, no soul and no purpose other than to fill our bellies (and, you know what they say, fish can’t feel pain). The absence of guilt spills into gender relations and allows patterns of violence and apathy to thrive.
In such a meat-oriented culture, of course we avoid grief like the plague. But, if you ask Adams, “grief is a beautiful thing, and it doesn’t kill you.” If anything, Adams’ says, “it makes you more human, not less.” Surely if the world accepted the cruel and shameful reality that comes along with the consumption of meat, people would push back against those responsible. But we have to be willing to realize that we have blood on our hands as well. Although we may not want to acknowledge our role in this atrocity, it would be truly heartless to let the slaughter go on. One of Adams wishes is that one day the world will “understand that grief is a part of life,” and there is no sense running from it.
3. THINK when you eat
“How we look at animals effects how we look at everything,” Adams says. So what does it say about us when meat eating is the most frequent way in which we interact with animals?
The next time you look down at your steak dinner, chicken noodle soup, hot dog, glass of milk, or scrambled eggs, take a moment and think. Don’t take for granted that what you are about to eat comes from an animal. An animal that was forced to surrender its life or its freedom. Don’t be fooled by the smiling cartoon cow on the sign outside. The next time you see an image of a feminized animal or an animalized woman, question the ethics and implications it might have. When you see an ad for a fast food restaurant featuring a scantily clad model, think about the objectification involved instead of how good that burger looks. Tell your friends, start a conversation.
Towards the end of her speeches Adams asks the audience to, “challenge the structures of oppression.” The structures seem to be set in stone, but this is an illusion that the slaughterhouses want you to believe. Indeed our society and the culture we live in mold our lives and make us who we are. But it is a two-way street. We have the power to construct our own realities and make a lasting impact on our culture. We can’t stop objectification if we don’t stop eating our four-legged friends and using sexual exploitation to market death. Adams says that we need to work to stop the federal subsidies of the meat industry and support laws against cruelty to animals. The meat industry, “thinks change is hard, but not changing is harder.”
The beautiful thing about capitalism as a system that worships money is that we, as the customer, are the ones with the power. We can choose how we spend our money. As long as we continue to consume meat products en masse, the butchering of women and the rape of animals will never stop. It is our duty to be conscience consumers and show that we will not stand for a culture of male dominance and violence. You are free to take your business to the Wonderful World of Meat, or you can join Adams working towards a, “world of peace and equality.”
If you want to check out more What Weekly essays, go here.