Friday, August 17, 2007
The Sexual Politics of Meat
I'm pretty sure this book did not mention the 1972 movie "Prime Cut", in which Lee Marvin finds Sissy Spacek naked, in a pen full of hay, in a barn, about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. But it sure should have.
Title: The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 1990)
Author: Carol J. Adams, who has a masters in divinity and an extensive career as an activist outside of her academic writings. She's not affiliated with an academic institution, so far as I can see, but guest-lectures at many, and seems to travel extensively, giving a slide show based on this book. Other books she's written include Help! My Child Stopped Eating Meat (2004); The Pornography of Meat (2004); and Living Among Meat Eaters (2003). Adams lives in Dallas, which is brave on many levels, considering her political commitments.
My review: Adams hopes to make the point that the act of eating meat has been persistently gendered male, and that the inherent assumptions of meat-eating are similiar to the assumptions of woman-oppressing. What are these assumptions? Adams argues that the "sexual politics of meat" include "the idea[s] that the end justifies the means...the objectification of other beings is a natural part of life...and that violence can and should be masked" (24). Adams uses the concept of the "absent referent" to anchor the various implications of these assumptions or ideas. For her, the act of eating meat obscures the life of the actual animal, just as the acts of objectification or violence or misogyny obscure the life of the actual female. Both the woman and the animal are unimportant in the greater system of meaning constructed by the patriarchy. (For this reason, Adams advocates inserting a "[sic]" after any sentence in which an animal is called "it", just as we would after a sentence in which "he" is used as a universal pronoun.) (See chapter "The Rape of Animals, the Butchering of Women", p 50.)
Adams wants to restore what she sees as a lost history of associations between feminism and vegetarianism, arguing that first-wave feminist activists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century recognized the connections between their own struggles for political recognition and the choice to be vegetarian. She also uses a wide array of literary sources, including utopic novels such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915; see Bryson entry); Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906); and children's lit such as Charlotte's Web (1952). She recounts anecdotes from her experience as a domestic violence counselor. She also uses images collected from advertisements and (very interestingly) from publications internal to the meat industry.
"Truck Accident" (2004), by artist Sue Coe, whose Dead Meat is a book of paintings and writings about slaughterhouses.
This book can be difficult for one who lies on the other side of the divide between meat-chewing and meat-eschewing. To her credit, Adams seems to know that the conversion to her "side" can be one that is so absolute as to be almost mystical. But there are moments in this book that feel disingenous, as when she cites a description of a snuff film but neglects to write that the film in question was not actually a snuff film at all (see Snopes.com's debunking of the matter - thanks to Nick for telling me that this was an urban legend and rescuing me from many nightmares); or when she suggests that the school shooters of the 1990s may have shot kids because they were hunters so they were "used to it". Not only that, but the book, I think, assumes too much when it comes to correlation vs. causation. Just because, historically, men have been given more meat to eat even when women require the protein for breast-feeding, does that mean that meat is inherently patriarchal? Did English laborers of the nineteenth century really participate in patriarchy by giving the male members of the family more meat to eat? Should they have tried to find a nice mix of quinoa and kale to serve up instead? Is my skepticism or pickiness about this book derived from some deep guilt about or ambivalence about my meat-eating, which will some day be unearthed in a flood of veganism? Only time will tell.
Reviews of others: In Environmental Ethics, Deborah Slicer wrote that the book should have been written in clearer, easier-to-follow language (it didn't seem too bad to me!) and that Adams' analyses of race and class issues were unnecessarily truncated. (This is true - there was an interesting bit on Western imposition of meat diets on colonized cultures, but it was brief and undeveloped. There's plenty of room for further investigation in this area - and of the questions of diet imposition in general. The Inuit, for example, eat plenty of meat, but American and English explorers still found their diet disgusting.)
Apparently, in a later book Adams addresses the abhorrent PETA ad phenomenon.
Books to follow up on: Primary: Henry Salt, ed., Killing for Sport: Essays by Various Writers (1914); the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.
Secondary: Linda Birke, Feminism, Animals and Science: The Naming of the Shrew (1994); Gena Corea, The Mother Machine: Reproductive Technologies from Artificial Insemination to Artificial Wombs (1985); Mary Douglas, "Deciphering a Meal", in Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (1975); Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England (1985); Carolyn Steedman, "Landscape for a Good Woman", in Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing Up in the Fifties (1985).
Additionally, the book's bibliography is helpfully separated into subject areas, including "Vegetarian Writings", "Animal Concerns and Animal Defense", "Feminist Writings", "Sexual and Domestic Violence", "Literary Criticism", "History, Autobiography, Biography", "Fiction, Poetry, Drama", "Medical and Nutritional Writings", and "Other".