PeTA Skin

Melissa kindly mentions my new book here, and notes I've never discussed how PeTA objectifies women.  She discusses the issue here.  So what about it?

I've tried to mind, but the truth is I don't...or not a lot.  But just to be clear: I also don't strongly object to other PeTA tactics that are ethically impure.  For example, I can't work up much sweat over the way PeTA harrasses fur-wearers or sends undercover investigators into factory farms under false pretenses.  That's not to say I am attracted to their celebrity skin campaigns or would get involved in their street theater (the Humane Society is more my style), but I don't object. (Where the undercover investigations are concerned I'll go much further--they're great.)

Should I object?  I got to thinking about this more after having lunch with Carol Adams in November. She's well known for several books that characterize animal abuse and sexism as linked oppressions, including The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat.  After talking to her, I was a bit more sensitized to the issue.

In fact, soon afterward I accidentally ran into some PeTA porn. I had bought a sweater and realized it contained angora rabbit fur when I got home.  I decided to investigate how the rabbits are treated and then return the sweater if necessary.  When I googled some relevant terms, I wound up at a PeTA site that showed a young woman cuddling a soft, cute rabbit against her naked breast.  Plus there was information about rabbit fur farms. (I'd publish the photo, but I can't seem to find it again.)

My response was to feel misunderstood.  I wanted to know about rabbits, not about the bunny-breast dyad, if you see what I mean. It was as if PeTA had heard of guys interested in the bunny-breast dyad, but not middle aged  women (gulp) who worry about cruelty to rabbits.  Why were they privileging the guys' perspective?  It also seemed likely the breast in the picture would distract from the bunny.  You come to the site with one part of the brain lit up, and suddenly there's a power surge somewhere else. Ahem.

I raised these question about invisibility, objectification, and distraction with my Animal Rights class, which happened to be dominated by women last semester, and did my best to get a feminist reaction out of them.  To my surprise, only about a third of the class thought there was a problem with PeTA's use of skin in their campaigns, but two thirds didn't.  People did seem to agree at least about the distraction point. 

Is there really anything wrong with publicizing animal abuse by using women's (and less often men's) bodies?  And why does PeTA do this, to begin with? I take it that attracting skin-seekers to the PeTA website is just one of the goals.  Probably more important is the goal of making concern for animals seem glamorous and sexy.  It's not just men who want to be involved in things that are glamorous and sexy, but women too.  Men's magazines are full of skin, but so are women's magazines. (And so are good liberal websites like the Huffington Post.)

Is there a problem with women posing for pictures with rabbits pressed to their bare breasts?  If they were forced into it, there would obviously be a big problem.  If they choose to do so, that helps a great deal.  Still, we can worry about the choice.  I do have concerns about the impact it has on women to regard themselves as being valued more for their bodies than their brains.  Then again, is that really the message? Many of my female students said "pshaw" (or something like that) when I threw that out as a possibility. And let's admit, Ingrid Newkirk is the biggest PeTA celebrity there is.  And she isn't getting naked with rabbits.

The bottom line is that I like the results that PeTA achieves.  We live in a society where unspeakable things are done to millions of animals, day in and day out.  I see PeTA activists as being like a gang of tiny elves trying to influence a massive giant.  To get the giant's attention, they throw little rocks, say wild things, and take off their clothes.  And amazingly enough, it works!  The pay off is animals saved from abuse, suffering reduced, a more informed population.  Their ethical crimes are rather trivial, considering what they have been able to achieve.

But why commit any ethical crimes or misdemeanors?  Carol Adams asked me--"do the ends justify the means?"  Who would want to say that the ends always justify the means, that X is always justified, if X leads to a very good Y? Not me. However, I think it's true that an action can sometimes be inherently problematic, ethically speaking, and yet justifiable as a means to achieving a very great good.  There are tons of examples.

Kant's famous case of the inquiring murderer:  if a murderer comes to the door and asks if his wife is on the premises, do you lie?  Of course you do, even if that's inherently problematic.  It's worth the lie to save the woman's life.  It's worth telling a lie for much less serious reasons too.  In today's "Ethicist" column, Randy Cohen talks about someone who lost his insurance because he truthfully reported occasionally smoking pot on a health questionnaire. With hindsight we've got to say it would have been fine for him to lie.

The bigger the potential gain, the more that indiscretions can be justified. So I don't think PeTA should automatically be condemned if some of their tactics are ethically impure.  What I do wonder about is which of their tactics are effective.  How important are the sex ads? Could they be even more successful by adopting a tamer Humane Society style?  I don't know for sure, but I'm not prepared to wave my magic wand and make them change their ways. 

All that being said, I'm a consumer of animal abuse information--in fact, I'd call myself a pretty big buyer.  So PeTA should care about my reactions. When I want to learn about rabbit abuse I just want to learn about rabbit abuse. I prefer the way the Humane Society (for example) sticks to the subject at hand.  I personally don't want to be distracted or titillated.

As to the rabbit facts: I read (at a different website, though PeTA does have lots of information) that 90% of "angora rabbits" are housed in factory-farm style in China.  It all sounded pretty revolting, so I returned the sweater.


s. wallerstein said...

Almost all media in contemporary society stereotype women. If one insists on not stereotyping them, one will be accused of being weird, of being retrograde (living in the 60's), because boobs (and bacon according to some) are back. So if PeTA wants to influence the mainstream and not be seen as weird, it probably makes sense for them to show a couple of women in stereotyped poses. However, there might be other ways of reaching the mainstream, and maybe in any case, reaching the mainstream at the cost of promoting stereotypes about women isn't worth it. At times, one should take a moment of silence and wonder what is worth it.

Melissa said...

Thank you for discussing the topic, Jean!

I really do not have anything new or interesting to add, just an opinion. PETA is what it is, however I remain convinced that Ingrid Newkirk is a deeply misanthropic woman who hates humans more than she loves animals.

Re your comment: "We live in a society where unspeakable things are done to millions of animals, day in and day out."

True. And are there not unspeakable things done to women day in and day out as throughout history? But how PETA's campaigns such as "Milk Gone Wild," and "Your Mommy Kills Animals" influence popular culture and the status of women is open to debate. There are plenty of adult women who support PETA's campaign tactics, so while I may have my own opinions and sensibilities I really have no interest in imposing my views on others.

But imagine if the campaign were "your daddy kills animals."? Now that would be controversial. Women are easier targets/pawns.

I see Ingrid Newkirk in the same light as Matthew Scully views Hugh Hefner:

"But as to the public legacy of Hugh Hefner, he should have no illusions. All of us have our share of faults and sins to account for. But the lowest of vices and “strangest secret of hell,” as G.K. Chesterton called it, is the desire to pervert others, to coax and corrupt them and drag them down with you."

Jean, I don't suppose you'd be willing to comment on Peter Singer's essay "Heavy Petting?"


Jean Kazez said...

Melissa, I wrote about "Heavy Petting" here--


I react very differently to Ingrid Newkirk. She visited my Animal Rights class last summer and I/we loved her. She had a warm, intense, respectful quality that was very appealing--besides being a great speaker.

I find her appealing in the movie "I am an Animal" and don't really "get" why some don't. She's a strong woman with an intense focus. In my book that's good.

Do PETA campaigns complain about women more than men? I had not noticed that. By all means though, there's a lot that's in bad taste. I'm not prepared to say "do it differently" because they are successful at what they do, and it's not clear to me what's behind the success. Maybe, to some extent, it's partly due to their willingness to be gross and outrageous.

Tom said...

Okay, so this is completely tangential to the point of your post, but what is it with the skin (and other stupid celebrity/gossip stuff) on the Huffington Post? I'm sure that gets them lots of extra hits but at the cost of serious cred. How can they expect to be taken seriously when the top-viewed post reports on Lindsay Lohan's forgetting her bra...with photographic evidence (of course)?

Jean Kazez said...

Tom--Maybe it's the same thing in both cases. Arianna Huffington wants to make liberalism seem sexy--so displays lots of skin and stupid celebrity stuff. Ingrid Newkirk wants to make Animal Rights seem sexy--so displays lots of skin and stupid celebrity stuff. Call me boring, but I like the Daily Kos and the Humane Society websites.