The Sexual Politics of Meat: How Sexism and Animal Cruelty Coexist
Carol Adams's The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory is a pivotal feminist text in which Adams calls upon her readers to see the exploitation of women and the exploitation of animals as part of the same system of oppression. This is an analysis that is still as crucial today as it was two decades ago, when the book was originally published.
Adams explains that the cultural obsession with women's "parts" (breasts, thighs, butts), evident in advertising and pornography and played out in everyday rituals and conversation, is inextricably linked to our culture's tendency to value animals as nothing but sources of beef, bacon or veal. In both cases, beings are reduced to objects available for consumption. They are subject to fragmentation and dismemberment, their individuality rejected and their individual and collective power quelled. Adams contends that a system that values any beings, human or nonhuman, only for the money they can reap for those in power will never be the right foundation for women's equality. Instead of distancing themselves from animals in an effort to reject the points of crossover linking them as victims of oppression, women, and especially feminists, have a responsibility to place animal rights at the center of their activism.
In the 20 years since the original publication of Adams's award-winning work, women have made gains in equality, and vegetarianism and cruelty-free farm practices have moved toward the mainstream. And yet, we continue to find that even well-meaning activists have yet to make the connection between the two movements. In a recent ad campaign, Pamela Anderson, clad in a bikini, perches on a bed in a classic pin-up pose. Her body is segmented and labeled by part -- ribs, round, rump -- butcher-shop style. It's similar to the vintage illustration featured on the cover of The Sexual Politics of Meat, intended to blatantly connect the dots between the exploitation of women and that of animals. In fact, Anderson agreed to the pose in the name of animal rights; the ad -- which reads, "All animals have the same parts" -- is for PETA (an organization which, significantly, has a long history of conflict with feminists for using women's bodies in their advertising). But it's clear that the reason she was placed in that position had nothing to do with connecting feminist dots. When the ad was banned in Montreal for being too risqué, she told reporters that she felt it was "sad that a woman would be banned for using her own body in a political protest over the suffering of cows and chickens." In imploring people not to eat meat, Anderson offered herself in exchange. One object for another, a breast for a breast: an equal trade.
It is of course common to see women's bodies being juxtaposed with animals' and "used" for reasons that make no attempt to be high-minded. KFC recently kicked off an ad campaign of their own for the Double Down sandwich, paying college women $500 apiece to hand out free samples on campus while wearing sweatpants with "Double Down" printed across the seat. Adams provides plenty of examples of this sort of objectification, from Burger King ads to album covers to restaurant menus.
The Absent Referent
Each of these images deals in a concept Adams refers to as the absent referent. Since the college women handing out sandwiches are valued for only their butts, their personhood is absent from the scene. The sandwiches they hand out have an absent referent, too: the living animal who existed before being relabeled meat. It's no accident that all these reduced parts are interchangeable, with both the sandwich and the women's butts sporting the name "Double Down." As Adams writes, "we distance whatever is different by equating it with something we have already objectified."