Send nudes: PETA, misogyny, and animal welfare

By now, we’re all familiar with the basic substance of a PETA shock campaign: Naked woman, reference to animals, snappy tagline. Maybe she’s wrapped in saran wrap and lying on a piece of styrofoam like a cut of meat. Perhaps she’s rolling around on some lettuce leaves like some sort of weird animal rights-themed porno. Maybe she’s fat and we’re all snickering at her because she’s gross and obviously eats meat because otherwise she would be a svelte, sexually appealing vegan (fat people aren’t sexually appealing, of course).

So a few weeks ago, a really strange PETA campaign crossed my dashboard.

It featured a person standing in the middle of a flock of sheep. The piece was about how there are lots of alternatives to wool and you can wear a very nice, snappy suit that doesn’t use wool. The person, oddly, was wearing a suit. I say ‘oddly’ because I have a hard time thinking of other PETA campaigns featuring people in clothes, as apparently being a militant animal rights activist comes along with an aggressive allergy to all things fiber.

But then again, the person wearing the suit was a male celebrity.

My immediate takeaway here was that apparently, when men get involved in animal rights activism, they are allowed to keep their clothes on — something not afforded to women, including celebrity women. Pamela Anderson would rather go naked than wear fur, but this nice, respectable male celebrity would rather wear a wool-alternative fiber in a snappy suit than…wear a wool suit. This is a profound disconnect and a stark illustration of the sheer level of misogynistic contempt PETA holds for women. Need me to make it plainer? The female celebrity involved in the same campaign was forced to go naked.

The use of naked female bodies for shock value in animal rights campaigns builds upon layers of complicated social attitudes. The female body is shocking, transgressive, and upsetting, so naturally seeing a naked woman is designed to catch the eye. Some activists use this to break down notions about the body and address the culture of body shaming and hatred that surrounds women. PETA, on the other hand, very consciously plays on these social memes — the organization’s notorious campaigns work so well precisely because they rely on fear and hatred of the female body. Here’s a woman so desperate to avoid wearing fur that she will expose her naked, sexualised, gross body to the public. Here’s a woman so firmly committed to eating vegetarian that she will traffic on her body to sell lettuce.

If the female body was an unremarkable thing, these campaigns wouldn’t work. If PETA cared about women, and misogyny, and the complex cultural factors that surround women, they wouldn’t reinforce these with their supposed animal justice campaigns. But in fact they do know about these memes, and they want to use them ‘for the greater good’ while ignoring the fact that the problem with treating a woman like a literal piece of meat is that…people actually already treat women like literal pieces of meat. A campaign designed to provoke shock by suggesting that humans and animals are equivalent and it is disturbing to think about people buying and parting up women kind of falls flat in a culture where people do commodify women’s bodies, albeit usually not to that extreme.

Sure, some women are allowed to wear clothes in PETA adverts, just as some nude or mostly-nude men appear in other campaigns. But broadly, across the organization’s campaigns, you see a theme of men wearing clothes and women not wearing them. Sometimes the disparity is very, very, uh, naked.

Karina Smirnoff appearing nude in a peta ad with a clothed man.

This is one of the many things that frustrates me about PETA. In the name of ‘radical animal activism,’ the organisation routinely demonstrates complete and utter disregard for other social issues — alienating people who might actually care about the cause. Over the years, I’ve seen racist, misogynistic, disablist campaigns from the organization, making it clear that to them, the only thing that matters is shock campaigns intended to ‘save the animals.’

The thing is that a lot of people do care about animals, though not necessarily to the degree that PETA wants them to. Personally, I’d rather that people start thinking about how they relate to animals and whether they want to change than not do that at all, or be actively put off by PETA campaigns. If consumers drive reforms to how farm animals are cared for and handled, for example, that’s a net gain, even if none of them go vegan. If people decide to cut back on the animal products they eat, that’s also a net gain. PETA lives for absolutist, all or nothing campaigns, but do they really accomplish goals? If they do, is it worth it?

PETA argues that human and animal lives are equivalent. If that’s the case, I rely on my perennial comment that liberation for some is justice for none. If we liberate animals — in PETA’s world, that means not eating them or their milk and eggs, not using animal products in clothing and other goods, and not having pets — surely we must also liberate humans at the same time. Failure to do so is a failure of respect, and of intersectionality. The lack of compassion in PETA’s treatment of humans also betrays the cause, for to care about animals, one must care about humans — like the agricultural workers who handle animals, for example, including women subjected to endless sexual harassment and assault, people with repetitive stress injuries from industrial agriculture, and others who suffer alongside the animals PETA is so quick to defend.

Image: Sheep, Katriona McCarthy, Flickr