Ever think about the expression "treated like a piece of meat”?
In many ways, we objectify animals and women in the same way. From reducing women and animals to their body parts to the idea that they’re “asking for it,” advertisements that exploit animals and women abound in a culture that seeks to justify both groups’ oppression. The control of women and animals has always been intertwined — cows traded for brides and the expression "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” are two well-known examples.
The idea that the oppression of women and animals overlap is not new. In her seminal book “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” author, feminist theorist and vegan activist Carol J. Adams explores the topic far more deeply and brilliantly than any one article can. But in an effort to distill some of her ideas, Adams agreed to speak with me and break down some of the many ways animals and women are similarly objectified in advertising.
Ads using women to sell products frequently reduce them to their breasts, their buttocks and their lips. Women are not viewed as individuals but simply a collection of body parts that appeal to men. Similarly, a chicken is not an animal but a “juicy breast” and a pig is not a being but a rack of ribs. They have been stripped of their identity and objectified as merely pieces to be consumed.
“So, when an animal is killed and fragmented for consumption, everything unique about the individual animal disappears, and when a woman is shown fragmented or it’s implied that she is nothing but a piece of meat, her disempowerment is being communicated.” In both cases, reducing women and animals to their parts allows us to perpetuate and normalize their exploitation.
In both cases, reducing women and animals to their parts allows us to perpetuate and normalize their exploitation.
If animals are eaten or used for their milk, they must be asking for it, right? This idea is known as “suicide food.” In such ads, animals are depicted as willing participants in their own exploitation and death. These ads are strikingly similar to those portraying women as wanting to be sexualized or objectified.
“I think some people feel uneasy when they think about eating animals,” says Adams. “They might start to think, ‘Well, what was the animal’s life like?’ ... [This approach] takes that unease and gives it a place to go that’s safe, which is humor from a dominant perspective and comfort: ‘Oh yeah. They wanted it.’ I wanna be your meat. I want to be dead for you.”
Rarely do we see older women in advertisements, unless they are being used to sell anti-wrinkle cream or medications. Their sexual appeal determined expired, older women are all but erased from popular media. Like older women, older animals are considered past their prime.
“We force [cows] to be pregnant yearly,” Adams points out. “We’ve created their ability to produce so much milk that their udders weigh more, and these udders may cause them to be lame in their back legs, their hind legs. We cripple them as a result.”
No one wants to see a used-up cow who’s been exploited for her milk, so her labor and experience are minimized, and she is replaced with a younger cow and eliminated.
Look on many milk cartons and you’ll see nostalgia for the days when cows were raised on open green pastures. In reality, 99 percent of milk today comes from factory farms, where most cows are not given access to outdoors and are confined to spaces so small they can barely move.
Similarly, images of a “simpler time,” when housewives stayed at home and had fewer rights and opportunities, pervade ads that objectify women.
“When people talk about the ’50s [nostalgically], that’s a sign to me that they are against feminism ... and think that women’s role is to be at home and be the nurturers,” Adams says. “This recurring image of the cow on the pasture — and even that show the calf drinking milk from the cow — that’s a regressive political image too, and we’re not registering it as such.” At factory farms, a calf generally doesn’t get to drink his mother’s milk once before he is separated to become veal.
The idea of what it is to “be a man” is often reinforced through the objectification of both women and animals. A “real man” eats meat — not tofu and salads. A “real man” is defined by the women who admire his wealth, strength, and independence. According to Adams, “Women and animals become objects, often treated interchangeably, whose object status is used to enhance the status of men in our culture.”
Like women, animals are victim-blamed: The chicken is mean; the pig is filthy; the cow is docile and stupid. Animals used for food are frequently depicted in demeaning ways that allow us to justify our abuse of them. Even worse, we make their victimization a perverse joke.
“Their victimization is seen as proof of why they should be disregarded,” says Adams. “What that does, in a sense, is it protects the beneficiary, the abuser, the user, of ever questioning their own motives or actions. It kind of becomes their alibi for bad behavior. Their alibi for bad behavior is that this being was of no worth, even though they’re the ones who made the being to be of no worth.” Whether we’re victim-blaming women or animals, it’s all about removing responsibility — and maintaining power.
As feminists, we will never fully dismantle the patriarchy until we destroy the idea that any body can be exploited for profit or pleasure. We have to stop supporting brands that objectify women and animals. Go vegan, shop ethically and point out lies wherever you see them.
Together, we can create a culture where no one is “treated like a piece of meat.”