Trigger warning for images of simulated violence against women.
Many of us are aware of the infamous PETA campaigns that use the naked bodies of women to grab attention, but I want to emphasize that sexist advocacy is actually normalized within the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Meet the Cabbage Girls.
Citizens United For Animals, a group based in Milwaukee, recently posted an image taken at PrideFest where two young white women, topless except for cabbage leaves glued to their breasts, were used to draw attention to the CUFA booth. The women gave donating visitors stickers that read: “I SPONSORED A PUSSY.”
A colleague of mine who is a vegan activist living in Wisconsin brought this to my attention. Along with a few other vegan feminists and allies, we raised our concerns on CUFA’s Facebook page about the detrimental impact this type of advocacy might be having. At first, CUFA engaged our comments. Unfortunately, their responses fell into two categories: 1. Denying responsibility, and 2. Defending the campaign as not sexist.
CUFA insists that they were not a part of this campaign. Apparently, these women came up with this idea on their own to “help draw attention” to the CUFA tent, and “they had fun doing it.” CUFA’s president assured me that dressing up in vegetable costumes was “empowering.” Cheers to them if they had fun and felt empowered, but this is far from an individual act. These women are representing CUFA’s organization. CUFA okayed the stunt and is now promoting it on their Facebook page. Blaming it on the women seems to be an attempt to skirt accountability.
Defending the Campaign
CUFA commented that one man also took his shirt off and helped out: “There was a male dressed up as well, not sexist.” As we know, in our deeply sexist society, the bodies of men and women are not interchangeable. Men’s bodies are interpreted differently, generally in ways that empowers them and reasserts their dominance. Women’s naked bodies have yet to be divorced from the larger structure of degradation and sexual objectification.
CUFA’s president also stated: “I’m not completely making the connection on how this is any different than wearing a swimsuit at a public beach.” Of course, beaches can be sites of oppression for women as well, but for the most part, wearing bathing suits on the beach is not going to draw attention to women in the same way wearing cabbage leaves in an information booth would. While PrideFest is arguably much more nudity-normative, the image is presented on the CUFA Facebook page outside of this context. We should also consider that women dressed at food reinforce the notion that women are consumable commodities.
Silencing Feminist Voices
At one point, the president of CUFA agreed that this campaign would probably not be done again due to the “backlash,” and noted that it would come to a vote at their next meeting. She even invited us to vote. Within an hour, however, all of our comments had been deleted, save the one solitary comment that supported the demonstration (though later CUFA invited one of the participants to comment, who stated that she couldn’t believe “how many people are anal about nudity”). We were banned from commenting further.
This stunt is only one of several other problematic campaigns. In another, they had a young woman stand by the side of the road with meat cuts drawn on her naked body. CUFA suggested that it was less problematic because it’s “not really sexy.” But using a naked woman’s body to emulate violence against animals is arguably worse.
In another campaign (not done by the organization itself, but promoted on their Facebook page), two bloodied women lay prostrate on the ground with a metal pipe by their bodies. A man in black (drawing on the imagery of the stereotypical rapist or murderer) stood over top their “corpses” brandishing a woman’s animal hair coat. This campaign targets female consumers (the primary wearers of “fur”) by drawing on imagery of violence against women. CUFA’s response: “AWESOME! Thanks for all that you do for the animals! <3”
The use of naked or nearly naked young women (usually white and always thin) and the use of women’s bodies as stand-ins for dead Nonhuman Animals are both increasingly popular tactics due to the hegemonic presence of PETA. As the largest Nonhuman Animal rights organization, PETA has the cultural power to define what types of advocacy are legitimate in our fight to liberate other animals. Ultimately, PETA is reflecting popular advertising techniques from the business world, those that are developed by men within a patriarchy. We might think of it as women’s personal “choice” to engage this type of advocacy, but actually there is a more powerful structure working to narrowly define what choices are available to female advocates.
Regardless of the individual women’s choices, we should be concerned about the larger implications for women as a demographic. Our society is one that trivializes and even condones rape, and according to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 2 seconds (most of these are victims are women). Psychological and sociological research has shown that sexual objectification of women and trivialization of violence against women is correlated with the devaluation of women and increased violence against women. It even leads women to self-objectify and achieve much lower levels of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is important not only in fighting against one’s own oppression, but in feeling worthy enough to participate in social movements . . . including Nonhuman Animal liberation.
What’s more, this kind of advocacy doesn’t result in the desired effects. Recall the responses I documented in my piece about PETA’s commercial depicting a sexualized woman dying in a car? Use the tools of misogyny, you get the result of more misogyny.
Criticizing these forms of advocacy isn’t about policing women’s behavior. We are speaking out against the rape culture CUFA and other organizations perpetuate because we are deeply troubled with the status of women. CUFA silenced our polite and professional dialogue within an hour, refusing to accept responsibility for the wider implications of this type of advocacy. Nude campaigns are mostly legal, just like rape jokes are legal, but that does not exempt them from criticism. Shutting down well-meant discussion about the hurt that sexist advocacy causes women is problematic. It’s also indicative of how toxic the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has become for women and other vulnerable groups. The bottom line is that we cannot articulate a clear message of anti-oppression for other animals so long as the movement uncritically exploits and aggravates the oppression of other vulnerable groups.