The Sexual Politics of Meat
Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat explores the many similarities between vegetarianism and feminism. Through literary, cultural, and historical examples, Adams seeks to align the two movements, maintaining throughout the book that women and animals hold similar subordinate and exploited roles.
Early on in the text, Adams examines the link between masculinity and meat-eating, concluding that passivity has long been associated with women, and when vegetables came to be associated with women, they too came to be regarded as passive foods.
“A complete reversal has occurred in the definition of the word vegetable. Whereas its original sense was to be lively, active, it is now viewed as dull, monotonous, passive. To vegetate is to lead a passive existence. Once vegetables are viewed as women’s food, then by association they become viewed as ‘feminine,’ passive.”
She concludes that men who become vegetarians “challenge an essential part of the masculine role. [...] Men who choose not to eat meat repudiate one of their masculine privileges.”
In her chapter “The Rape of Animals, the Butchering of Women,” Adams investigates striking comparability between how animals are slaughtered in the meat industry and how women are typically assaulted or murdered. By studying the common phrase “I felt like a piece of meat” and consumption as a metaphor for rape, Adams explores the particular ways female bodies are brutalized (often dismembered, left on the sides of roads, or open fields). Adams supports her observations by citing common practices in slaughterhouses; the methods used to slaughter animals are often interchangeable with the most frequently used tactics to kill women.
Adams’ most prominent and fascinating literary example is her look into Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, asserting that Frankenstein’s monster (sometimes interpreted as a symbol of women’s alienation in society) was a vegetarian himself. She cites the passage from Shelley’s work with her analysis:
“ ‘My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human.’ The Creature’s vegetarianism serves to make it a more sympathetic being, one who considers how it exploits others. By including animals within its moral circle the Creature provides an emblem for what it hoped for and needed — but failed to receive — from human society.”
The link between the Creature’s dietary choices and his alienation as “not man” is, according to Adams, a feminist one.
Adams’ theory, though, becomes somewhat far-fetched when she points out the vegetarianism of several notable feminists. In what feels like a last-ditch effort to legitimize her many literary and cultural claims, Adams scrambles to point out that Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross), Matilda Joslyn Gage (an editor of The History of Woman Suffrage), and suffragists Jessica Henderson and Anne Gvinter were all vegetarians. Although this can serve as a women’s studies fun fact, these examples seem to detract from Adam’s larger argument, as she cites minor exceptions along much more insightful observations.
The Sexual Politics of Meat, overall, is a very perceptive read on a notable, and yet rather undocumented, cultural intersection. Adams undoubtedly drives home her theory that patriarchal values have been institutionalized in the meat industry and that meat can, atleast in a literary sense, function as an appropriate metaphor for women’s oppression.
To read more about Carol J. Adams, click here.
Tags: animal slaughter, Carol J Adams, exploiting women, feminism, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, meat, meat industry, patriarchy, rape, rape consumption metaphor, veganism, vegetarianism, women's suffrage
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