Disturbing images: Peta and the feminist ethics of animal advocacy. Ethics and the Environment, 13, pages 35‐76

By Maneesha Deckha

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), is an animal welfare organization that advocates better living conditions for animals. In this reading, the author highlights the gendered and racialized representations of female sexuality used in two prominent PETA campaigns; the anti-fur ads and Milk Gone Wild campaign. While the author identifies and criticizes PETA’s usage of media images that continues female objectification as undermining feminist ethics, the author also argues that some representations need not be read as sexist. The reading focuses on welfare-rights debate and how to best go about the ethics of animal advocacy.


PETA’s Sexualized Campaigns

  1. Anti-Fur and Skin Campaign The campaign ads features famous or emerging celebrities and models, posing nude with messages on how ‘uncool’ using animal skin for fashion is. PETA’s Fur is Dead campaign uses play on words connected to the social meanings and visuality ascribed to the white female body for the male gaze. The reading gives numerous examples of ads and deconstructs the images and texts following them.
  2. Milk Gone Wild (MGW) Campaign
    A political parody of the Girls Gone Wild (GGW) phenomenon, PETA uses the juxtaposition of female sexuality explicitly, shockingly and rather controversially to bring attention to the abuses involved in the dairy industry and the unnaturalness of consuming dairy.  A quick Google search will direct you to their website though I must warn, very NSFW.


Welfare-rights Debate

PETA has become the organizational face of animal advocacy for the public. It’s public relation strategy to garner attention to its campaigns includes celebrity endorsements and provocative campaigns. Their “Holucast on Your Plate” and “End Slavery” campaign was short-lived as it was met with recoil and accusations of violating human dignity by reducing the atrocity of those oppression and equating Jews and African Americans to animals. The ongoing “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign has been criticized by feminists for relying on sexism to advance animal issues. These campaigns and responses highlight the ethical question of how a group which advances a social justice agenda may interact negatively with other social-justice causes.(whether by disregarding or exploiting).


Incomplete Advocacy

Taime Bryant explains that it is an enormous task for activists in any social justice movement to wholly dedicate to speaking truths while undertaking all other forms of oppressions that are related to it (Bryant 2006, 114). For example advocates against exploitation of animals for food production are unable to fully cushion minority workers whom jobs would be lost as a result of their activism.

Another example can also be taken from the documentary Food Inc, is the difficult task of lobbying against the unethical agribusiness of corn for it’s effects on health and the environment (full video can be found here: Food Inc.)


Objectification and Minimal Impact

The usage of objectifying race and gender in PETA’s campaigns is rationalized that by connecting and highlighting human-based oppressions with animal-based oppression, or by using images of animals and women as stand-ins for each other, it would persuade those who know about human rights and oppression to take interest and care about animals.

However, it is also argued that ads that are too shocking, explicit or graphic can have counter-effective reactions or minimal impact on it’s audience. Instead of increasing attention to the cause and influencing positive behavior, people might be offended and go into perceptual defense to filter out the messages (Hellriegel & Slocum 2007, p79).



The presence of female sexuality in PETA campaigns should not be read immediately as sexist and problematic and may instead be productive and subversive for an intersectional feminist ethic. Through the nakedness as sexualization of the female body, the ads not only captures attention but also create an explicit association between the discursive text message and the image of white women.

Personally I was shocked to discover that MGW was even a legitimate campaign by PETA. While the video (which was banned from being aired at Superbowl) was sort of hilarious, I mostly found it highly distasteful. After reading further, I understood how the MGW video ad actually offers a productive type of use of female sexuality. Though I still find it distasteful, the video did affect me positively as I found myself to agree that milk is just another highly commercialized product and to have adult humans drink them is unnatural and unnecessary.


Bryant, Taimie L. (2006) Trauma, Law, and Advocacy for Animals. Journal of Animal Law and Ethics 1:63–138.

Food Inc (2008) Documentary, Magnolia Pictures. Available at http://vimeo.com/30620523 (last accessed 11th Oct 2012)

Decka M. (2008) Disturbing images: Peta and the feminist ethics of animal advocacy. Ethics and the Environment, 13, pp 35‐76.

Hellriegel, D., and Slocum J. (2007) Organizational Behavior, Thomson South-Western, 11th ed, USA.



3 comments so far

  1. agneslpy on

    As mentioned by glassleaves, I’m also shocked to find out that the MGW was actually a legitimate campaign by PETA. Although it is rather controversial as felt by many with the use of images of women to bring attention to certain issues highlighted, it does indeed draw attention to the campaign at first. Response that comes after the campaign varies according to how the audience reads the message. It can be justified or rationalised by connecting and highlighting human-based oppressions with animal-based oppression as mentioned but I would think that not many people would actually know the ‘reasons’ behind these campaigns.

    The “Holucast on Your Plate” and “End Slavery” campaign draws images of African Americans and Jews from America’s cruel past of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The forum on PETA had many people voicing out their opinion about the ad and only a small number of people agrees or sees the anti-speciesism message that PETA was trying to achieve. I think that PETA campaign strategies may have failed to give a historical context which they draw from and why certain images are being used. If the historical context is given, more people may be able to embrace the concept or message behind the campaigns. Else, those images only triggers emotional pain from people which may lead them to go into perceptual defence to filter out the messages.

    • glassleaves on

      I believe that people were aware of the historical context of “Holucast on Your Plate” and “End Slavery” campaigns, thus the outcry.

      While people may argue over the subjectivity of ethics, Dr. Gordana Vilovic from Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb, says that there is something called an “ethical common sense” in which effort is required to be made to promote tolerance and the language of tolerance. Ethical common sense needs to be applied “especially in communities still recovering from the consequences of war and inter-ethnic conflict”, such as African-American slavery or the Holucaust. In that sense, one can see how the images used for PETA’s “Holucast on Your Plate” and “End Slavery” campaign is considered more unethical than PETA’s use of the female body in their campaigns.

      This is not to say that the ethics with regards to using female bodies in American campaigns will always be taken less seriously or considered less offensive as compared to the above-mentioned examples. One example that can demonstrate this is the Rodarte’s “Juarez” collection by the makeup company MAC. The designers who put out the collection drew their inspiration from Juarez, Mexico. Juarez is an impoverished factory town known for its revoltingly high violence against women who have been raped and murdered with little or no response from the local police or federal authorities (Livingston 2004).

      Strong outrage emerged because of the choices to name shades “Factory”, “Ghost Town”, products designed to emulate streams of blood and using images of dead-looking models (inspired by women workers there making their way to their factory jobs in the middle of the night) to promote the collection (Hing 2010). The makeup collection was subsequently cancelled and an apology was made.

      Campaign blunders like these could have been avoided if the executives who came up with PETA’s “Holucast on Your Plate” and “End Slavery” or MAC’s Juarez line had applied ethical common sense and sensitivity towards related social issues.

      Hing, J. (2010) MAC, Rodarte Say Sorry for Juarez-Inspired Makeup, Colorlines, 16 July 2010. Available at: http://colorlines.com/archives/2010/07/rodartes_unfortunate_line_of_juarez-inspired_cosmetics.html [accessed 20 October 2012]

      Livingston, J 2004, ‘Murder in Juárez’, Frontiers: A Journal Of Women Studies, 25, 1, pp. 59-76, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 22 October 2012.

      Vilovic, G. (2004) ‘Ethical Aspects of Reporting on Ethnic Minorities’, Media Online. Available at: http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/untc/unpan018518.pdf [accessed 20 October 2012]

  2. rururu143 on

    I find this article insightful and provide an alternative perspective to what most viewers considers of the Milk Gone Wild campaign – perhaps distasteful. It is clear that PETA rides on the bandwagon of controversies and provocativeness to publicize its causes. I find myself agreeing with the author that MGW campaign relying on sexuality to construct its counter-narrative should not be condemned outright. Importantly, the campaign offers a transgressive (Read: In your face) representation for women with respect to breastfeeding, motherhood and sexuality. On this basis, it makes sense to acknowledge the work that sexualized images of women can enact for the benefit of animals (as well as women).

    The fact that many celebrities choose to pose for this campaign suggests that they too, believe in this cause and the way it is to be executed. If this is true, these celebrities are free to do whatever they wish with their bodies. This campaign will reach the attention of the public regardless of how strongly feminists oppose. From PETA’s point of view, as long as they managed to spread awareness to their cause, it is not a lost cause. At worst, negative publicity is better than no publicity. PETA’s cause is really to spread awareness and get people to stop drinking milk and consuming animal and animal-derived products (in the case of MGW campaign). They do not have evil intention. Instead of choosing to view this campaign negatively, why not embrace the underlying values that it can represent – and that is respecting motherhood and sexuality, and of course, for people to stop consuming animal and animal derived products.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: