PETA and the Trope of “Activism” (Aphrodite Kocięda)

This presentation was delivered in 2013 during the first Sistah Vegan Conference, focusing on “Embodied and Critical Perspectives on Veganism by Black Women and Allies”.
Follow Sistah Vegan if you want to learn more about these issues.


Breeze
: Our next speaker is Aph Kocięda – I’m hoping I pronounced your last name right. She is a graduate student down in Florida and she does amazing intersectional work. Critical race studies, critical feminism and critical animal studies and  looking at PeTA. So Aph if you can introduce yourself to the audience that’d be great. Are you there?

Aph: Awesome – alright good morning or good afternoon wherever you are. My name is Aphrodite Kocięda – Breeze you were almost there – and my presentation is titled “PETA and the Trope of Activism: Naturalizing Post-feminism and Post-race Attitudes through Sexualized Bodied Protests”.

And I have a lot of images, so I apologize for those of you who are on the phone. I would urge you to look at the recorded version so you can actually see the slides. Also, I’m going to send out a quick trigger warning that i have some nude images of women, so, well it looks like it’s already starting – let me go back. 

Alright, so women’s activism has increasingly been attracting mainstream media attention. The re-emergence of public interest in women’s resistance to systemic
oppression can be seen in recent new reports about the Ukrainian feminist activist groups FEMEN – who state that they’re raging a topless revolution – as well as the mainstream media attention about Slut Walk – which has grown to an international movement where women and men fight against rape culture and protest the idea that women are responsible for their rape and victimization. And I’m actually writing my thesis about Slut Walk, so. 

In each instance the practice of using the white sexualized bodies of women to engage in public conversation about a particular oppression is normalized. Although scholars have discussed the sexist tactic used in PeTA’s marketing campaign, there’s a small amount of literature on women’s feminist activism in a post-feminist, post-race climate. 

So PeTA is the world’s largest anti-animal cruelty organization, with over three million members. Scholars attribute PeTa’s increasing popularity to their provocative advertising tactics that use celebrities as spokesmen and spokeswomen. PeTA has several campaigns that I will briefly be looking at in this presentation.

They have the “I would go naked than wear fur campaign”, which features white celebrity women, who display their nude bodies with the actual text that states “I would rather go naked than wear fur”. PeTA also has a Youtube channel called Official PeTA, where they interview these women who participate in the nude campaign. 

I will also be focusing on PeTA’s “State of the Union UN-Dress” campaign, which is a play on the president’s State of the Union Address. I will specifically be focusing on the State of the Union UN-Dress in 2010, that featured the first African-American woman in the ad. Before her, they only featured white women. 

I will also be looking at PeTA’s ‘Lettuce Ladies’ campaign where “attractive” women go around in lettuce bikinis and promote the vegan diet. They even have their own website where they call themselves the “Vegan Vixens”. 

Before I begin my analysis, I want to briefly explain what post-feminism and post-racism is – so this is a very, very general definition. There are different articulations of these ideas. I went with the most mainstream: post-feminism is the idea that feminism is no longer needed. In fact, personally, I like to call it a “popular feminism” – the mainstream de-politicized, watered-down fun feminism – women are no longer constrained by sexism or systemic inequality and the most important tenets in post-feminism is individual empowerment.

Post-racism also works in conjunction with post-feminism – post-racism or post
racial attitudes suggests that we are colorblind. I’m sure many of you have heard people say  “I don’t see race.” Really problematic. In this people of color are no longer constrained by structural racism; everyone is equal; economic opportunity; and the focus is on the depoliticized subject or individual.

In both post-feminism and post-racism there is a focus on individual empowerment. Individual empowerment is used as a strategy in PeTA’s marketing campaign, which rely on women claiming to be personally choosing to go nude or strip for animal rights, so that conversation surrounding female objectification is blocked. 

And it’s really important to note that there is this huge myth circulating among women today, especially in parts of the third wave and post-feminist factions, that because women individually choose to be in objectifying positions that they are no longer objectified. And that’s the main logic running through PeTA’s ad. 

In my first example, I have a model and housewife on the show The Real Housewives of Miami. Her name’s Joanna Krupa (I don’t know how to pronounce her last name). In the PeTA Youtube video where she’s being interviewed about her ads, she states “I’m a huge animal lover. I’ve been for years and it’s my third PeTA campaign and I’m proud to be doing it. I wanted to do this campaign to keep talking to people about how bad fur is.”

So she highlights her personal impetus for wanting to go nude, demonstrating that individually choosing to strip her clothes for PeTA, she has an active personal agency and empowerment. In fact, all throughout her photo shoot for PeTA – and there is a lot of video imagery of it – she acts as if she’s having fun and actually feels like a porn set. She was laughing in front of the camera the whole time and was pampered throughout the whole entire photo shoot. 

Through these ads PeTA showcases how using your body as a woman becomes a serious form of activism that is both fun and sexy. Activism becomes a way to give women immediate agency, attention, choice and empowerment. This trope of activism is used to bolster a particular type of femininity – a femininity that’s lean, sexy and fun. In fact, here’s actually a screenshot from PeTA’s Lettuce Ladies website which states why they’re vegetarian, and it reads “A vegan diet gives you a lean, sexy body. Vegans are on average 10 to 20 pounds lighter than adult meat-eaters.”

Therefore, PeTA is advertising something I call a “post-feminist femininity”, which is usually thin, white, able-bodied, heterosexual and relies on a porn chic  aesthetic. That basically means that PeTA draws upon porn convention and looks to advertise femininity. In fact, PeTA is known for using sex workers, porn stars and playboy playmates in their campaigns. 

PeTA even featured the Suicide Girls in an anti-fur campaign. The organization, Suicide Girls, is an online community that celebrates women’s “alternative beauty and alternative culture”, characterized by heavily tattooed punk women with an embrace.  Scholar Shoshana Magnet wrote an awesome article that problematizes the Suicide Girls. And so Suicide Girls attempt to represent themselves as different from the mainstream conception of beauty, even though they also reproduce white supremacy and patriarchy – they just have dark hair and tattoos.

PeTA’s Youtube channel features an interview with Missy, who’s one of the cofounders of Suicide Girls, and she states “It was something that I feel so strongly about that I decided to bare it all for the first time to the camera. Anything that I can do to help out with the cause.” Therefore, “baring it all” becomes a theme for activism, for PeTA’s activist women. PeTA couples “baring it all” with activism in order to authentically enact personal agency and empowerment. 

Also, although men pose for PeTA anti-fur ads as well, their bodies are not sexually styled as womens are – in fact, when naked men are used in the ads, they’re either trivialized – and you see to the left, David Cross is a comedian. But he looks funny as he’s standing in a feminine position with the hands on his hips and the audience is reacting to that – or men are cast as dignified, masculine, god-like figures. And I have an image to the left, with the central focus is on their muscles and power. And if you want more analysis on men in PeTA’s ads, I direct you to a website called Vegan Feminist Network that I co-run with Corey Lee Wrenn and Corey has a really awesome article on this site about men in PETA’s ads and how that representation is very different from the ways in which women’s bodies are used.

Also, “baring it all” because the theme of activism for women of color in PeTA’s ads as well. However, I would argue that there are different implications for women of color. This post-feminist idea of “baring it all” relies on a particular type of post-feminist femininity that women of color have been excluded entrance into. 

PeTA attempts to be post-racial, meaning that they cast racial differences aside. PeTA therefore casts Black women in the exact same position as white women, as if their bodies will be consumed publicly in the same way. PeTA never explores how food production and consumption is a racialized, gendered class terrain. They only use different-raced women’s bodies interchangeably, without mentioning the nuanced differences between cultures. This form of public sexualized femininity excludes women of color, who’s brown bodies have been historically devalued.

Therefore, I would argue that brown womens’ bodies do not hold the same social weight as white bodies. In terms of sexuality, women of color have historically occupied a lower social status and are thus hyper-sexualized and devalued. In their hyper-sexualization, bodies of color have become public property. And this is exemplified in the wage-gap between Black and white women in pornography and other sex work positions where the lower pay rates for women of color reflect their devalued status.

And also, this is why if you guys remember during the VMAs everybody had something to say about Miley Cyrus. There was a lot of public conversation centralized on her hyper-sexualized public performance,  but there was little to no mainstream conversation about the Black women who were surrounding her or the Black women that were used and act after her. It was almost expected they were to act in this way, there was no supposed shock-value when women of color were hyper-sexualized in public spaces because they’re viewed as part of the public domain.

This becomes problematic in relation to activist work, because women of color do not have access to the mainstream white-centered articulation of femininity that PeTA uses, considering this femininity relies on a white supremacist aesthetic. Blackness is positioned as the opposite of the ideal, feminine beauty. 

In an article titled, “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Towards an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body”, the author uses Black feminist disability theory to demonstrate how Black female bodies have historically been regarded as grotesque, strange, un-feminine and obscene. The buttocks is usually the main characteristics associated with Black women’s bodies and the author states that because of this Black women are usually ridiculed, not admired. And for those of you that can see this, it’s a cartoon image of Saartjie Baartman, or the Hottentot Venus, who was a slave and was courted to Europe and put on display. A lot of European populations had this scientific fascination with the different proportions of her body to that of European womens’ bodies. 

And I’m gonna warn you have a nude image coming up. So when PeTA cast their first African-American activist woman to completely strip in their  “State of the Union Un-Dress” – which just happened to coincide with Barack Obama taking office as the first African-American president – they attempted to position the Black body in equal relation to the white body, ignoring Black women’s particularly troubling relationship with sexuality in mainstream America. Additionally, this video was edited so that it would appear as if she was speaking to actual political representatives, who happen to predominantly be white. The racial politics involved makes this video very different from the other white nude women who are speaking to the same white audience.

Although PeTA attempts to be post-racial by trying to treat all of their women activists the same – by sexualizing them – they just happen to use signifiers of race to conjure up difference. So now PeTA is in a contradictory position: they cast all their women in the exact same position, they don’t even mention race. Yet in reality, they only use women of color as signifiers of difference, to look diverse. So in attempting to be post-racial, PeTA strategically need women of color so that their organization will look different in a very superficial way.

And actually, PeTA has a blog titled “The PeTA Files Blog”, where they document their own activism with their own words, and one of their writers wrote a post about the “State of the Union Un-Dress”, with the new African-American woman (without ever mentioning the word ‘African-American’), the writer stated “When will PeTA’s annual State of the Union Un-Dress be aired, and will the bodacious speaker reveal the naked truth?”. The term “bodacious” was never used in reference to the previous “State of the Union Un-Dress”, which featured only white women. 

So the writers are using this discourse of Blackness as a marketable, edgy signifier of “diversity”, without actually catering to diversity. So instead of showcasing different vegan sizes, PeTA uses Black women who align with the Eurocentric standard of beauty, and just uses Blackness as an edgy signifier. 

There’s actually an article titled “Fiercely Real”, by Jessalynn Marie Keller, who explores Tyra Banks’ successful mobility through a hegemonic white femininity. Tyra uses “Black speech” to authenticate her Blackness in acceptable white frameworks. So if you’ve seen her show in the past, you know that Tyra usually speaks in a way that resonates with young white women – in fact most of her audience members are white in the show. However, whenever that white framework wants to see “ethnic diversity” in a really superficial way, she immediately employs “Black speech” to conjure up “authentic Blackness”. So, she’ll be speaking like I do right now, and then when whiteness kind of wants to feel diverse, she’ll be like “Hey girl” and she’ll add in this “Black speech” to kind of look “authentically Black”, in a really commodified way. Therefore, Tyra can successfully be white when audiences need her to be white, and she can be “diverse” when audiences want to feel edgy and “ethnic”. So Keller states, “Such a performance of ‘authentic Blackness’ is not a liability but often a necessity for non-white celebrities. This performance also works within the logic of post-racial discourse, framing racial markers as edgy, ethnic marketable accessories for a mainstream audience, creating something just a little more different.”

So this idea of “marketable, edgy commodified Blackness” is also seen in talk show host’s Wendy Williams’ interview for her PeTA ad that they made a Youtube video for. She was interviewed about this specific anti-fur ad and she stated, “My hair stylist custom-built this wig for me, specifically for this shoot. It’s fantasy hair –  inches long.” She continues to say “I have a little, you know, jiggle – but jiggle is what separates the men from the women, and if this is a sexy ad, I must tell you: jiggle is sexy.” So Williams’ reference to her wig specifically aligns with yet again another marketable signifier of Blackness, which resides on hair politics. 

Some natural hair proponents in the African-American community state that Black women in America our faced with a white aesthetic, which forces them to change their hair texture to have more visibility or power. It’s become increasingly popular for African-Americans, especially on white television shows, to reference their weaves or their wigs, again another commodified marker Blackness. 

So ironically PeTA casts all women in the same way, but make sure that they focus on markers of “diversity” and “difference”, especially when they’re on their women of color ads. So in the ads that I actually searched through, I could really only find one that featured an African-American woman with a hair texture that wasn’t straight or silky, and she was not featured alone. Therefore, the actual aesthetic of Black womens’ bodies must be altered in order to even be featured in these ads. And I have a few images… Here’s another one – and this recent one with Tia Mowry, where she’s stylized like a white ‘s house-wife with blonde hair. 

So Williams’ focus on her buttocks as being “jiggly” represents another marketable signifier of Blackness, characterized by a protruding buttocks which represents the 
authenticity of Black femininity. The African-American musical girl-group, Desiny’s Child, was known for creating a song called “Bootylicious”, where the booty became the sexualized stamp of Blackness for Black womens’ bodies. So, even though most of the Black women featured in PeTA’s ads have body types and sizes that align with the other white models in the ads, the Black models and PeTA writers allude to the large buttocks constantly to conjure up images of authentic Blackness, which helps PeTA look diverse without actually changing the white framework.

In fact, body size is a very contentious issue for many communities of women in America. In some African-American communities, being heavy and curvy is a signifier of womanhood, and also a direct expression of non-compliance with the white, thin, feminine framework. Mo’nique, who is a comedian and an actress, wrote a book titled “Skinny Women are Evil: Notes of a Big Girl in a Small-minded World”, where she criticizes the promotion of skinny women in mainstream media. 

And then you have that popular book called “Skinny Bitch”, written by two white women who discuss the vegan diet as a tool to achieve a “sexy, skinny body”. In fact, in their book they explicitly say that being skinny is healthy and being fat is unhealthy. And even in 2011, when actress and singer Jennifer Hudson lost over 80 pounds, she also received some negative feedback from the Black community. Huffington Post – they have a Black Voices section – they stated “One might argue that it’s just a Black thing – we love our curvy chicks and when they get too thin, we joke about how they need a sandwich.” When Star Jones turned to gastric bypass for her massive weight loss, eventually the attention turned to how droopy and hungry she began to appear. Even “Skinny and Evil” actress Mo’nique has started to lose some weight, citing health reasons, but insists she’ll never truly be thin because “she loves who she is.”

So the different cultural connotations of beauty becomes problematic for PeTA marketers, who correlate the thin body to veganism and activism. And here’s a screenshot from the “Lettuce Ladies” website which states, “Why We’re Veg: Vegetarian celebs are hot! Just look at the sexy body of Alicia Silverstone, Natalie Portman and Kristen Bell. Yep, they’re all vegetarian.” And I’d add “Yep, they’re all white.”

Therefore, PeTA disciplines women to associate a thin, white vegan body to individual empowerment, which is a space that women of color are not granted entrance into unless they also conform to the white aesthetic. So veganism, through PeTA, merely becomes a signifier for whiteness. 

In conclusion, PeTA uses activist rhetoric to bolster ideas about femininity. A femininity that’s white and exclusionary of meaningful difference. PeTA disciplines femininity so that only particular bodies can participate and can be celebrated. Furthermore, they advertise the idea that constantly catering to commodify porn chic femininity is the only political way women can contribute to social justice campaigns, even though this particular articulation of femininity satisfies our rape culture’s desire to see women humiliated and vulnerable.

In these spaces, women can only ever be post-feminist, post-racial billboards for the hetero-sexist gaze. PeTA advertises the idea that women can’t meaningfully participate in social justice campaigns without catering to a type of narcissistic femininity that satisfies the status quo. PeTA tells women that we’re only granted visibility when we comply with patriarchy and white supremacy, and they keep shoving the “ideal woman” in our faces so that we can no longer resist, that we can never truly become social justice activists. The most that we can apparently do as women in a political movement is cater to our individual selves in a commercialized sexuality. 

In reality, PeTA is one of only several campaigns and organizations attempting to co-op women’s potential for resistance, packaged as popular, fun, individual, sexy liberation. They act as though women are just free autonomous agents, wandering through a white supremacist patriarchy, who just happen to objectify themselves freely. Liberation should not look like objectification. 

As Ariel Levy said,
“It is worth asking ourselves if this bawdy world of boobs and gams we have resurrected reflects how far we’ve come, or how far we have left to go.”

Thank you.
That’s all I have.

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