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Feminspire | April 19, 2014

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PETA Sexualizes Women & Uses Rape Culture Imagery to Raise Awareness For… What?

PETA Sexualizes Women & Uses Rape Culture Imagery to Raise Awareness For… What?

| On 28, May 2013

Trigger warning for depictions of violence against women and hate speech.

With summer upon us, animal welfare organization PETA has been drawing attention to the dangers of locking dogs in cars with a commercial featuring model Elisabetta Canalis dying of heat stroke. PETA’s promotional website graphically describes Canalis’s death, calling it a “scorcher”:

As the car heats up, Elisabetta experiences the agonizing symptoms of heatstroke. As panic and anxiety set in, Elisabetta’s condition deteriorates rapidly with the addition of excessive thirst, lethargy, lack of coordination, and a rapid heartbeat. Scared and alone, she desperately attempts to escape the car, which is quickly heating up like an oven.

Essentially, the video shows a scantily clad Italian supermodel locked in a car against her will where she suffers and dies. PETA exclaims: “Italian supermodel Elisabetta Canalis knows what it means to be hot!”

Nowhere in the commercial or on the promotional page is a dog ever shown. At all points, the “dog” referred to is the woman. Even the tip sheet listing appropriate actions for dogs found locked in cars shows an image of Canalis dead in the front seat.

PETA Hot Car

PETA defends the sexualization of this woman’s violent death because “sexy celebs” attract more viewers.

PETA Rape Culture 3

If attracting more viewers is the goal, it’s certainly working. But if educating the public on Nonhuman Animal issues is the intent, the message seems to be lost on many. For example, the top two comments on the commercial’s Youtube page read: “Again, PETA has to resort to over sexualization in order to get their message across” and “Wouldn’t have happened, if she stayed in the kitchen.”

PETA Summer Scorcher Top Comments

Similar comments characterize the public’s response:

dog damn! I have never realized how sexy it was to let a dog closed in a car for a few minutes!!!

I want to get trapped whit (sic) that dog in the worst summer day god ever create (sic) if you dont (sic) mind.

i think this video is a great lesson to all women everywhere on the dangers of leaving the kitchen.

yay im going to do this to females, thank you peta for the idea


mmm let me get in that car too n heat thangs up a bit more /licks lips

I bet this ad would have been cooler if she de-robed!

This did not teach me or change my mind on anything about animals…just made me want to fap it

never leave ur bitches in the car…got it…

This video has backfired in 2 ways: 1, I now regard women as dogs, 2, now I have a heat exhaustion fetish

And yet PETA insists the model is sexy, not her suffering and death. The point of the video, they reassure, is to “show how wrong it is to lock a living being in a car.”

PETA Rape Culture 2

I suspect the real point of this video is to exploit sexualized violence against women to bring attention to PETA. Depicting a panicked woman locked in a car against her will is obviously drawing on imagery of kidnapping, rape, and murder, an all too common occurrence for women. I can’t even say I’m convinced this is intended to draw attention to dogs at all as dogs are completely absent from the entire campaign.

PETA Summer Scorcher Rape Culture

PETA’s intentions may be good, but their irresponsible facilitation of rape culture is unmistakable. A lot of money and time goes into advertising campaigns—these images were intentionally chosen to trigger particular cultural knowledges. It is not an accident they chose a “sexy” woman pounding on the windows in a desperate attempt to escape as she dies trapped in a car. The sexualization of rape and violence against women is a cultural norm, it’s something we respond to.

But aggravating violence against woman is not a valid justification for advocating on behalf of dogs or other animals. As evidenced in the viewers’ responses, trivializing the oppression of women to challenge the oppression of other vulnerable groups is not effective. People tune in for sexy misogyny, and exactly what they get.

Written by Corey Lee Wrenn
You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog, The Academic Abolitionist Vegan.

  • Jennifer Elford

    I don’t even take PETA seriously. They have never been for the welfare of animals, in fact they regularly kill hundreds, maybe even thousands of them. All they’re after is shock value – their only value.

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Hi Jennifer, thank you for your comment.
      Yes, unfortunately, PETA has a very high kill rate (Nathan Winograd regularly whistleblows for The Huffington Post, I highly recommend checking him out for anyone interested). PETA also routinely degrades women and promote a rape-culture. For these reasons, I *do* take them very seriously!

      Because they are a large, professionalized organization, their focus shifts to fundraising and keeping themselves afloat. Unfortunately, the interests of the animals are often lost–animals become objects to fundraise behind and nothing more.

    • Karl

      When PETA kills animals, this is done for their welfare. It is done because it is the most humane option.

      It is wrong to let an animal starve to death when you cannot afford to feed it or find someone else to do so. The humane thing to do in this case is euthanasia.

      • Jeff

        Just not true, Kari, not true at all. PETA has an extremely low adoption rate for the animals they take in, much lower than even most kill shelters. As Corey says, check out Nathan Winograd’s site and articles.

  • Deejay

    Thank you for this article. I really dislike PETA. This video is exactly why.

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Thanks Deejay

  • Agatha

    So basically “We did it because we need views”, instead of “We did it to raise awareness of the dangers of leaving your pets in the car.”. Also,another hidden message seems to be “women are b*tches (aka dogs).

    PETA hates women.

    • Wendy Lint


    • Karl

      The whole function of the woman in this advert is to elicit sympathy for dogs.

      In other words, the viewer is expected to be horrified by the pain of an attractive woman, and this horror is leveraged to win sympathy for dogs. Dogs are being raised up to the level of women. Women are not being lowered down to the level of dogs.

      • Cyrene

        She doesn’t really look all that afraid or uncomfortable in the video. This imagery, of a human being trapped in a car dying of heat exhaustion, could be a great way to draw attention to the suffering of dogs trapped in cars during the spring/summer months. Unfortunately, she doesn’t at all look like she’s actually panicking (and anyone who has had an actual panic attack associated with an honest fear of death can tell you that). PETA is once again making women’s suffering look hot to supposedly draw attention to a good cause. They’re a horrible organization for rights of all species.

        • Karl

          She’s making various pained faces and desperately kicking at the door. Look at the screenshot shown on this very blog. That’s a pained expression.

          You should probably watch the video again.

  • neptala

    I’m confused, is the problem the sexualization of women? That certainly can’t be a problem, unless you have a problem with Canalis’ day job, which extensively involves the sexualization of women. So perhaps the problem is the “rape culture” imagery. I’m confused about in what sense the imagery is “rape culture” imagery. For instance, if there was a male model in the car, would it be “rape culture” imagery? It seems like it’s just imagery that plausibly displays what would happen if a person (male or female, woman or man, or genderqueer, or queer, or what have you) was stuck in a car. It does it, of course, with some sexualization (which would be true regardless of the gender identification of the actor, so that the video could get more views, in so far as the actor was attractive). So in what sense is this “rape culture imagery”?

    • captainthecapn

      Are you seriously blaming the sexualization and objectification of women on women? That reaches a whole new level of misogyny, buddy. Listen, we live in a society that values women solely for their bodies, and since the fashion industry is made up of mostly males, it’s no surprise that female models are used in such ways. This, however, doesn’t make the sexualization of women this particular’s woman’s fault because, hey, she could be a model WITHOUT all the objectification attached (see: male models).

      This is rape culture imagery because it shows a scantily clad woman being locked in a car against her will and left to die- this drudges up images of kidnapping, murder, and rape (because, surprise, surprise- when you’re kidnapped, murdered, and/ore raped- this is ALWAYS AGAINST YOUR WILL). If a male model were used, no, it wouldn’t be rape culture imagery because rape culture is specific to women, not men. This isn’t to say that men don’t experience rape (because I know someone will bring it up)- it just means that these kinds of things happen to women more often, and that women are unjustly blamed for their own rapes all the time. Men are too, no doubt, but let’s remember that the people blaming men for such things are other men.

      • Mary

        Wow you don’t have to go on the attack!! I also wondered what the ad had to do with rape. The ad is terrible, but there is no reference or allusion to rape anywhere

        • Corey Lee Wrenn

          Hi Mary,
          Consider that kidnapping women and transporting them in a car to a location where they will be raped and murdered is a common theme in violence against women…as is storing their dead bodies in cars.

          • Karl

            That’s quite a stretch. But even if it were true, the viewer is not supposed to endorse what is done to this woman. On the contrary, the viewer is supposed to feel sympathy for the woman.

            The whole premise of the advertisement is that the woman is being mistreated. Therefore, even if the imagery alludes to rape, it does so to condemn rape.

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Hi Neptala,
      As we do not live in a postfeminist society, replacing a woman’s body with that of a man will not have the same effect. Men and women are still viewed, treated, and understood differently.

      Kidnapping women and transporting them in a car to a location where they will be raped and murdered is a common theme in violence against women, as is storing their dead body in a car. The imagery PETA draws on is intentional. A look at the comments on the commercial’s YouTube link clearly shows that the reaction people are having is that this is “sexy.” Think about it, they’re have a woman suffer and die in a locked car to bring attention to dogs, but they have her wearing hardly anything and sweating and writhing around sexily. Why is that necessary? How is that responsible given the epidemic levels of violence against women?

      • Karl

        The advertisement is supposed to draw in viewers with sexy imagery. But the longer she spends in the car, the more desperate she becomes and the more pain she experiences. The viewer is supposed to transition from attraction to the woman, into sympathy for the woman who is being tortured. And then the viewer is told to transfer this same feeling of sympathy for the tortured onto dogs.

  • nicola simmons

    PETA do an excellent job. Get over yourselves

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      PETA is doing an excellent job at sexualizing violence against women and degrading women for fundraising, if that’s what you mean. If you mean helping animals? Well, just read the comments from this commercial’s Youtube link…this isn’t about helping animals, it’s about men getting titillated by reenactments of violence against women. Violence against women is an epidemic in this world, I cannot “get over myself” in this regard, it is our duty as human beings to look out for one another and question oppression wherever we find it.

    • JonathanNathan

      An excellent job of not convincing me to go vegan or do anything different in my life. Honestly, there are two groups of people who, if I find out they’re in favor of something, I almost never decide to agree with it: PETA and the Republican Party.

  • Marla

    It’s also, I don’t know, a little obvious that if they wanted to illustrate how a human would suffer if trapped in a hot car as a dog does, they would have covered that person with clothing so it would be closer to comparison with a dog, covered in fur. But that’s difficult to make porn-y and sexxxy, so, oops, nevermind…

  • Katie

    I understand your point but I don’t see what this (awful) ad has to do with rape? Or am I missing something?

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Hi Katie,
      Kidnapping women and transporting them in cars to a location where they will be brutally raped and murdered is a common theme in violence against women. Another common theme is to store their murdered bodies in cars. The imagery here is quite intentional.

  • Travis Alex

    I will never tell your feeling are wrong/invalidate them. I can see how you would interpret this as sexualized and as a means of “Abduction”. However, in my opinion, I think you are blowing this way out of proportion.

    PETA is known for using celebrities to get there message across. This is nothing new.

    What you have said in your twitter post has actually offended me more then PETA being PETA (Which is awful 98% of the time).

    You slut shamming a professional model is not right, especially if you are going to speak up against companies using sexualization tactics. Slut shaming perpetuates rape culture, and you are only adding to what you so vehemently protest.

    Learn to not be so reactionary. Just my 2 cents.

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Hi Travis,
      I have no intention to police women’s bodies–my argument is that sexualizing violence against women is unacceptable. Given the epidemic levels of violence against women (1 in 3 will experience rape or assault), PETA needs to take some responsibility for normalizing this. Women are free to wear whatever they want, but companies should not be free to reenact graphic scenes of violence against women for their fundraising interests.

    • JonathanNathan

      Ugh…why did we ever tell the mansplaining men’s rights activists about slut-shaming?

  • Rayne

    Has anyone stopped to think that this ad is making the suffering of dogs more relatable by using people? People are largely more empathetic towards their own so using a person would be able to make a greater total of the population understand more what it is like to be an animal locked in a hot car. Did they have to use woman let alone a model? Probably not, but would this article even exist if PETA had used a man?

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Hi Rayne,
      Recall that we do *not* live in a post-feminist world. Men’s and women’s bodies represent two completely different things in a world that systematically degrades and discriminates against women. Violence against women is at epidemic levels. Using a man’s body would not have the same effect, no, and I would not have needed to write an article about it. PETA routinely exploits women’s bodies and sexualizes violence against them, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

  • Rayne

    If anyone thinks that a woman that is locked in hot car is sexual, their is something wrong. This article has managed to miss the entire point of the campaign and make it about their own views.

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Hi Rayne
      Actually, I am a vegan and animal rights activist of 13 years…I understand completely what their campaign is supposed to be about. But as a woman who faces the reality of violence directed against me based on my gender, I cannot ignore the intentional sexualization and trivialization of violence against women conjured up in this campaign. We can raise awareness about animal suffering without aggravating the suffering of other vulnerable groups–it’s not that difficult.

  • Judah Harvey

    I really can’t see why this is an issue.

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Hi Judah…can you explain why? Are you aware that violence against women is at epidemic levels? That about 1 in 3 women will be raped or assaulted?

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  • TJ

    At the risk of being called a troll, because that seems to happen a lot here, let me say a few things.

    1) Violence against women? Is it happening, yes, but you’ve heard of war right? Violence against men happens at a much higher rate, sorry.
    2) I’ll repeat this last bit for rape. You complain about rape and rape jokes, but when a guy goes to jail, it’s “hey say hello to Bubba when he’s fucking you in the ass”, and then everybody laughs.
    3) Stop seeing everything as something else, it’s exhausting.

  • Sam

    I don’t think it’s fair to use YouTube comments as evidence that the actual message of the video is lost on its viewers. There are over 400k views, and 211 comments – that’s less than 1% of the views. Moreover, even those leaving snide comments may have gotten the message subconsciously (“fuck…never thought about that”) while choosing to leave a sexist response just to look cool.

    This happens often in the animal rights community: our message is met with anger, insult, disgust, and later on the person who was so virulent about dismissing the idea is silently mulling it over, not vocalizing their thoughts (“hey, you have a point”) for fear of reprisal from their peers.

  • Shmalkandik

    PETA seems to believe that the (imaginary) righteousness of their cause gives them license to threaten and encourge felonies. Can any one explain where they got this idea? In the interim I hope the ladies avoid PETAphiles for these people clearly intend you harm.

  • Daisy

    Rape? Murder? What kind of PERVERT sees THAT in some advertisement about heat in the car? Yes, I’m female too, but it didn’t even come to mind when I watched this video. Of course they are using a famous human instead of a dog; so other humans can relate to what dogs endure more easily. A dog panting in a car might look like he’s “smiling” to a lot of people but he actually feels the way this woman in the video does. See? This is why I hate women rights extremists. Instead of complaining about actual violence towards women in Iran and India, they whine about some lame posters of sexy women (while not complaining about posters of sexy men) or a woman in a video who shows what dogs experience when left in hot cars. They used a famous models to draw attention from everyone, including the animal abusers who leave their dog in the car. If they used a dog instead, those people wouldn’t have bothered clicking on the commercial and would probably continue to leave their dog in their car.

    I bet you wouldn’t have complained if PETA used a man for this commercial instead of a woman (which they often do!). So maybe you’re the sexist ones yourself! Do you also complain about women being shot/killed/shred to bits in horror movies or action movies? Should we ban all movies where a woman suffers or is among the group of people that get killed by a monster? Should we only allow men to be killed in movies? I bet you’re the kind of people who claim that stuff like the Teletubbies sexist too because in an episode Lala couldn’t play along with the other tubbies. Geez, get a life already!

    I’m not even with PETA, in fact, I don’t support them at all but you’re way more extreme than they ever will be.