Sexism, ageism, speciesism: To fight one -ism, must we embrace others?

Would you card this woman?

Kathleen Stachowski     Other Nations

It was sheer curiosity that drove me to it. Honest! Saw a link, clicked, ended up at PETA Prime scoping out the “Sexiest Vegetarian Over 50” contest. As a vegan over 50–and a curious one at that–it made perfect sense to check it out. Perfect sense, and who’s abashedly defensive?!? Ha ha.

But what is PETA Prime, I wondered–AARP for animal rights activists? The Baby Boomers’ PETA? Although any mention of age is hard to find, the model at the top of the page has laugh lines and silver hair, and at the “about” page there’s this: “Let’s celebrate the wise people we have become and learn to make kind choices together.” Ah, yes, “the wise people we have become.” Collecting all that wisdom took us around the block a time or two.

I checked out the entrants. Plenty of women, a handful of men. Again, out of curiosity, I took a look at the entry criteria and found this: “Do you still get carded when ordering a drink? Do people mistake you and your son or daughter for siblings? If so, you might just be our new sexiest vegetarian over 50!”

My mood soured just like that, crabby old woman that I am. Geez Louise, how clueless (or blind drunk) do you have to be if you can’t discern that a 60-year-old has reached 21? What does it take (scalpels? lasers? injections? all of the above?) for a 55-year-old to be mistaken for a peer of offspring three decades younger? Who wrote that ad copy? Get real!

Though never a PETA member, I’ve sat on the sidelines cheering them on with every new undercover investigation, every ground-breaking victory for animals. I’ve used and credited their research and information and linked to their website again and again. I’ve even enjoyed the silly–nay, ludicrous–stuff, knowing that it’s meant to get people talking, meant to raise awareness.

A few years back, PETA contacted school officials up in Whitefish, Montana and suggested they change their name from Whitefish High School to Sea Kitten High School. This would encourage greater compassion for our cold-blooded, water-dwelling brothers and sisters, and remind folks that fish feel fear and pain just like kitties do.

“Most parents would never dream of spending a family weekend torturing kittens, but hooking fish through their mouths and pulling them through the water is just as painful as hooking a cat’s mouth and dragging him or her behind a car. … We’re hoping that this name change will encourage people young and old to start treating these gentle ‘kittens of the sea’ with respect – and show them the kindness they deserve.”
~D. Shannon, PETA assistant director

Attacks on fishing don’t play well in Montana (or Alaska, according to NPR), even overtly tongue-in-cheek attacks. Many folks miss the tongue-in-cheek approach and just rail away at PETA and animal rights activists (and make dumb comments about vegetables having feelings, too) while others chime in to support animals. And that’s when you can figure that PETA accomplished what they set out to do and give ’em their props.

But sexism doesn’t play well with lots of women, and PETA’s use of naked females and double entendres to make their point feels like the unliberated Bad Old Days (we have come a long way baby, right?).  I don’t see anything tongue-in-cheek clever about selling a woman’s body to sell an idea or a product. Neither does Leo Hickman of the Guardian, who objects to the “blatant sexism” of PETA’s latest ad.

It is insulting on a number of levels. First, we have a woman being used as a piece of meat to urge people not to eat pieces of meat. Perhaps this is some kind of post-modern, cultural subversion thing that has gone completely over my head? But, sorry, I just don’t see it.

Second, Peta and Laflin are utilising a clichéd Playboy-style pose and milieu – male locker room, pushed-out buttocks, turned head, one foot on tip-toes etc – that not only belittles and objectifies Laflin, but also implies that a man might only want to become a vegetarian because he “wants” Laflin’s body.

Had I not run up against the ageist promotional copy in PETA’s over-50 vegetarian contest, I suspect the sexism would have continued to run as an undercurrent (albeit a grating one) that I’d attempt to ignore. Likewise, had it not been for the sexually exploitive ads, perhaps the insensitive age stuff wouldn’t have had much impact.  But suggesting that the over-50 winner should conform to an artificial, unattainable standard of youth adds insult to injury. The message? Healthy, fit vegetarians/vegans who look their age won’t win. This would certainly include my first heartthrob, PETA supporter Paul McCartney, whom PETA frequently touts as a “sexy vegetarian who (has) passed the half-century mark.” At 69, I bet Paul neither gets carded nor mistaken for a sibling of his kids. Sadly, shallow ideals of youth and physical perfection still prevail–even amongst justice seekers.

Like millions others, I truly value the important work PETA does for animals; in many instances, no one does it better. But sexism, ageism, and speciesism are all cut from the cloth of exploitation. Why must they persist in fighting one -ism by embracing others?
Note to other “curious” vegetarians or vegans: The contest deadline has been extended to Tuesday, 6 September 2011.

6 Responses

  1. Excellent post! PETA does very important work but I am continually upset with the sexism and ageism that is perpetuated by the organization. I am for eliminating all -isms, and until PETA embraces these values I can not fully support it.

  2. First, exploiting a person, a sex, an animal or anything is not an -ism. An -ism simply an irrational belief that one group is inferior to another. So although a naked body on an advertisement may be controversial, there is nothing -ism about it.

    Second, and again, soemthing that is sexy is not sex-ism or age-ism. In fact it would be more age-ist if PETA did not have a sexiest vegetarian over 50 right? That would imply that anyone over 50 could not be sexy; this is true age-ism.

    Third, individuals who complain about PETA’s use of the human body are similar to environmentalists who smoke cigarettes or vegans that complain about trace amounts of milk in their food. They are all similar because they all miss the point. Many animal rights groups preach to the choir. I mean lets be honest how many current vegans really find Pamela Anderson attractive? Not many. How many frat guys, sorority girls, and cheesy business men find her attractive? 100%. Further, how many frat guys, sororiry girls, and cheesy business men are vegan? Very few.
    How many current vegans find Waka Flaka Flame attractive? Sorry, hold on, how many current vegans even know who Waka Flaka Flame is? Probably none, because he is a rap artist. Wake Flaka Flame was in a PETA INK NOT MINK ad a while back. This was not sex-ism, or any other ism, it was advertsing to a population the “white” vegan movement has spent zero time on. Yes Waka was naked, but the point of the ad was not to imply anyone was inferior to Waka, it was simply a way for PETA to influence a wider range of people.

    Fourth, not sure if intent is important to you, but it is very clear that PETA has no intention of creating distinctions between groups of people or even between animals and people. In fact on their ads they label the parts on the human body as the peices of meat that people eat. They do this to destroy the distinctions between animals and humans that humans of have drawn. So no -isms.

  3. doug, plenty of people, both men and certainly women, find it sexist. Did you read L. Hickman’s column? Check here, as well: and here
    These are just a few of many where there’s plenty of anger about the sexist nature of these campaigns.

    Just as denying that animals are thinking, feeling beings makes it easier to exploit them as mere *things*, objectifying women always has and always will lead to further exploitation. Why do women STILL earn less than men? Geez, I’m stumped…

    As for your 2nd point, it’s hard for me to agree that there’s no ageism there just because PETA Prime offers such a contest for the over-50 crowd. doug, read the promo text again–their idea of a good-looking vegetarian over 50 is one who looks three decades younger. What’s so forward-thinking about that?

    Even if, as you claim, PETA is marketing to frat guys, sorority gals, and cheesy business guys, and even if their ploys are just publicity-seeking stunts, they’re still using good old oppression to do it: presenting women as sex objects. (And how many frat guys, sorority gals, and business men & women are slapping their foreheads and rushing out to buy tofu cuz they saw some butt-naked woman in a girlie pose?) If I sound like someone who’s been dealing with social justice issues for decades, it’s because I am. And it just kills me that young girls are coming of age in a culture where exploitive sexist crap like this still abounds. And it feels doubly bad coming from a group seeking justice for animals–a group whose side I should be on, and who should be on mine, too.

    So thanks for expressing your point of view; you and I will just have to disagree this time around. Thanks to you, too, Karen. Sounds like we’re on the same page.

  4. I’m a female and I have never understood the sexism argument when it comes to advertisements like this. Why can’t we think about it as celebrating something that is visually appealing, much like women or gay men might equally enjoy seeing a picture of a semi naked man. Would having a man pose nude also be sexist? If there was a caption above this woman’s head that has a brief synopsis of her personal beliefs or intelligence, or something insightful she wants to say, is this still objectifying her? People are appreciated for many things, from personality to appearance, which is obviously a subjective standard. But with visual advertisements its hard to find ways to focus on personality and intelligence characteristics which are obviously not tangible to see, so why is it so wrong to focus on the physical. Beauty is something we appreciate as a species, (give me an example of someone that is married or dating someone that they find physically repulsive), so why is it wrong to point this out. As a straight female, I find women to be the more attractive of the two genders, and I appreciate seeing pictures of beautiful women. So why can’t we consider this a salute and celebration of something beautiful, and a gender that is beautiful, just as we also salute and celebrate intelligence. Why do we have to look at the negative and consider this objectification of women, instead of looking at this in a positive light as appreciation of beauty?

  5. Not only are PETA’s tactics offensive to many, I would argue they’re ineffective. As I noted in a blog post a couple of years ago, PETA’s tactics were useful to raise awareness, but now they’re obsolete and probably hurting perceptions of animal advocates.

    The Problem with PETA:

  6. Thanks, Che. You argued two years ago that it was time for PETA to employ some ‘new approaches’ — well, here it is, though I doubt it’s what you had in mind: PETA porn.

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