Animal Rights Activism, Sexism & the Parable of PETA

When I was about eleven I snuck into my mother’s closet and hunted down all her fur items. I then put them all in a pile and left an angry letter on top, which stated that if she did not get rid of her fur, I would no longer be her daughter.  My rage was sparked by a video I saw on PETA’s website of a fox being skinned alive for its fur. As an animal lover and a child with too much free access to the internet, I stumbled upon the website while googling ‘how to save animals’. However, as I grew up I realized that PETA’s tactics are really not the most conducive to saving animals, and are actually harmful to people.

I am still thankful to PETA for sparking indignation in me at the sight of suffering animals, and I strongly believe practices of violence toward animals are unnecessary and horrifying. However, I am also angry with PETA. For years they were my heroes and in my eyes they could do no wrong, but as I grew older I became disturbed by their advertisement tactics.

Their goal is too scare, guilt, or seduce people into either donating to them or adopting their views. In order to achieve this in their campaigns they resort to sexism, shock tactics, and shaming.

Wendy Williams in PETA’s “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” Campaign

The first series of campaign advertisement that caught my attention was the “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. Now, I don’t want to undermine the hard work of anti-fur activists everywhere, and their success in bringing fur sales down. There is also nothing wrong with nudity, and in the 90s the PETA campaign was quite beautiful and pretty non-exploitative. However, the more recent ads they’ve spewed out are remarkably similar than the overly touched-up images of ‘ideally beautiful’ women that we are so constantly bombarded with everyday. By all means PETA, use nudity in your campaign, but don’t be exploitative.

The issue is not naked bodies; what PETA is presenting us with are not naked bodies, they are trimmed, airbrushed, touched-up bodies. In these more recent ads of the campaign PETA is no better than the people who use women’s insecurities in make-up ads to get women to buy their products, and PETA hates most of these companies because they use animal testing. PETA, if you pride yourself in being a radical organization, promote radical self-love as well instead of banking on the insecurities drilled into us by magazines and media. The ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur campaign’ is not the only example of exploitative media use the organization is guilty of.

In many of their campaigns PETA has used women’s bodies to get their message across. Another I found particularly disturbing was their use of women’s bodies in their spay and neuter campaign. They consistently used pictures of scantily clad women sitting on silky bed sheets and staring sultrily at the camera to get people’s attention. Let’s stop and think about that for a second. Sure, a picture of a naked women will get people to read the message “have your cats and dogs spayed or neutered” but will the image make people rush home to get their animals to the vet? I think not. PETA also features men in some of these ads. A man in one ad is surrounded by cats and is accompanied the message “Too much pussy can be a bad thing”. Another man in one of these ads is holding a dog, and next to him is the text “Fix your bitches”.  Both ads use terms commonly used in popular culture to refer to women and their body parts in possessive and negative ways, and use violent language. Thanks PETA, for making me feel like a sex object that needs to be ‘fixed’. Oh, did I mention their fatphobia and their love of ridiculing cross-dressing?

PETA’s abuse doesn’t stop there. In another ad campaign against fur coats, PETA resorts to pubic hair shaming. Their ads feature attractive women in lingerie with hair protruding from their underwear. With the line FUR TRIM = UNATTRACTIVE stamped on top of them in a font reminiscent of the red REJECTED stamps often used in cartoons. In smaller letters is the phrase: “don’t ruin your look with fur trim”. This ad perpetuates unhealthy attitudes toward something that is frankly quite natural, and only leads to body shaming, and a raise in sales for Gilette.

If you thought PETA’s only offense was perpetuating oppressive beauty standards, prepare to punch your laptop screen. In a campaign that seeks to turn all of its viewers Vegan, PETA has managed to disregard and make fun of domestic violence. They created a video that features a beaten up woman with a neck brace walking down a street with a forlorn look. The narrator of the video informs us that she looks this way because her boyfriend recently went Vegan and is now some sort of abusive sex god. The woman is said to be in pain, and looks nothing but miserable in the whole thing. Yet PETA’s associate director of campaigns and outreach, Linsday Rajt said: “She had vigorous sex, so she looks disheveled. But the bottom line is, she’s coming back from the grocery store with an armful of vegetables because she enjoyed it so much… It’s meant to be humorous.”  But it’s not humorous at all, and perpetuates the misconception that good sex is supposed to be a painful experience for the woman, and that hurting women in sexual encounters is ok because they all ‘like it rough’.

An Image from PETA’s “Holocaust On Your Plate” Campaign

Women, although the focus of this article, are not the only group of people PETA has offended.  In 2004 PETA launched their campaign ‘Holocaust in your plate’ which featured pictures of animals in terrible caged conditions next to pictures of Holocaust victims in death camps. PETA, however, defends itself with the fact that the creators of the campaign are Jewish. If they were ok with it, surely no one else will find the campaign horrifying or distasteful, right? Wrong.  PETA received copious amounts of backlash and angry letters from survivors and people who had lost loved ones who found the campaign trivializing and degrading. In 2005 issued an apology that to me seems a little bit dishonest that sounds more like “sorry, we’re not sorry.” They said that they apologized if the campaign caused any pain and that they always try to act with integrity. However, the recent campaigns I have mentioned don’t reflect a very strong effort to do so.  Some people have expressed that the fact that the campaign has been seen as dehumanizing because of the comparison with animals is proof of our speciesism. But their points can be made in ways that don’t offend or hurt people.

In 2009 PETA had a couple of its cough white cough members dress as the KKK in order to protest the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. They say that selective dog breeding and the favoring of breed traits is the same as the Ku Klux Klan advocating white supremacist believes. They even have a quiz on their website that seeks to further strengthen this comparison.  Something I find ‘funny’ is that PETA blamed the American Kennel Club for being responsible of the millions of dogs killed each year in shelters, while putting down an estimated 92% of the animals that come into their shelters. Their defense? That these animals were brought in such terrible conditions that they had to be euthanized. I find that hard to believe when the nationwide number of euthanized animals in the nation is 50%, and find it harder to believe when a veterinarian testified that he had handed over two adoptable kittens to PETA only to find out they had them killed. And how can they draw the comparison between the KKK and the AKC when they advocate the killing of pit bulls? They say the breed is inherently violent and dangerous, yet studies from behavioral observations to genetic analyses have revealed no evidence. In fact, pit bulls were once considered wonderful ‘nanny dogs’.

PETA terrorizes minorities who have collectively suffered terrible atrocities in the hands of men to advocate the saving of animals, be it animals used as a food source or for research. Yet PETA kills perfectly adoptable animals every year in their shelters for the super important reason that they simply ran out of room.

Are their campaign tactics actually helping animals? It’s hard to believe. Imagine if the money they use in their publicity stunts and terrible campaigns were used instead in making an actual effort of finding animals homes. Or that instead of berating people for wanting a pure bred dog; they focused all of their power instead on closing down puppy mills, like the ASPCA is doing. It would also be great if they stopped fighting against ‘spay and release’ policies for feral cats and stopped saying that the morally right thing to do is to take feral cats to the vet and have them put down. The wellbeing and rights of animals is very important to me, but I cannot condone an organization that promotes harmful standards and makes light of the suffering of others. And I especially can’t condone an organization that on top of doing all these things doesn’t practice what they preach. Even if they weren’t duplicitous and if their form of activism were conducive to enacting change, at what cost would this come?

By Maria Orbay-Cerrato, Blog Editor

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