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
- 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.
- 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.
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).
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.