Wednesday, March 14, 2012

PETA, I Am Not Convinced

I've written about PETA's degradation of women in the past. For some other commentary on PETA's issues with misogyny, you can look at the F-Word, Feminist Looking Glass, Viz, and Bitch Magazine.

And if you're in doubt that PETA is exploiting women, just look at their ad campaigns and publicity stunts:

PETA has (again) come out in defense of their decisions in an interview, claiming that they only use these images of women's bodies to get attention and that it's really the media's fault for portraying the misogyny over all of their other good work. In this interview, they directly address the issue of their campaigns and feminism:

First of all, I’d just like to point out that our president and co-founder is a woman, and she considers herself a feminist. And if you look at our staff, especially compared to other social justice campaigns, it’s a lot of women.

And you know, any of the women who appear in our ads are volunteers, who want to use their bodies and their pens and their Facebook, and their Twitter, and their voice to help animals and promote education on these issues. And we think that’s great! No one’s making them do it. They want to help, and that’s how they do it.
Years ago, it was disgraceful for women to show their knees and we all laugh at that today. And I think that some day, nudity will stop being interesting…and when that happens, we will stop using that tactic. But right now, it’s a really fun way to grab attention, and get people on the site. And that’s why we do it.
I think a lot of other people who are critical of that tactic maybe don’t notice how much we use men in our ads, too. And I think it speaks to the fact that the media really loves it when we use women. For example, we had [an anti-fur ad] with a man and a woman sitting up in bed together, and we did it around Valentine’s Day, and they were like, right next to each other. And then one media outlet actually cropped the man out and wrote about how negative it was to women. So, that’s an example of how the media looks for PETA’s sexism, even when it isn’t there.
I don't buy this argument. Yes, PETA's tactics "work" in the sense that it brings them attention (in fact, I'm inadvertently helping them right now by writing about this). But if they truly want to be known for their resources and the programming they do, aren't these tactics a distraction? And if they truly want to work to end speciesism (which this post uses to call feminists who are against PETA's misogyny hypocrites), then shouldn't they care if their approach is alienating large segments of their potential audience?

PETA admits that when nudity "stop[s] being interesting," they will "stop using that tactic." To me, this means that they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo that places women in the role of sexually objectified playthings. After all, they've got a whole arsenal of tactics that only work as long as women continue to be degraded by the society at large. They're right to point out the role the media plays in this objectification, but that doesn't make them mindless pawns in the system. They are making conscious decisions to exploit women because they have access to media outlets that reward that exploitation. They ignore any moral repercussions of that decision even as they purport to be a foundation based on extending moral protections to all living creatures.

I'm particularly interested in PETA's claim that these women are volunteers who want to use their bodies to spread a message that's important to them. In some ways, I see this argument as the flip side of the debate about burlesque that I wrote about a while back (which produced some very enlightening comments). The question then was "can burlesque be feminist?" I definitely see the complications in this question, and the debate in the comments teases out a lot of those problems, but for the sake of simplification, one of the main issues is one of rhetorical positioning. If we give the audience the full power to determine what a burlesque act is for (that is, if we allow men who watch women perform in order to objectify them to determine the meaning of the exchange), then burlesque cannot be empowering. It denies the women (and men and transgender people) who perform burlesque the right to have authorial control over their message. When the role of authorship is negated, it essentially takes away the power of a performer. If a woman cannot feel empowered by her own sexiness in performing burlesque, we admit that the audience has more power, and that her job is to submit to that power by not performing (because her performance can never mean what she wants it to mean).

I don't buy that argument, either. I think that authorial control over a message is important. If a woman performs burlesque to communicate her own empowerment, that matters. That means something.

But PETA makes it clear that we can't ignore the audience, either. Here, PETA's argument is that because the women whose bodies are exploited are willfully exploiting themselves for a cause, then no harm is done. But that completely ignores the reason exploiting their bodies works to begin with. Painting their skin and squatting naked in a cage isn't an effective tactic because of the strength of their message; it's an effective tactic because women's bodies are a commodity. These ads work to reinforce that system.

In order to determine the way that a message works, we can't make sweeping generalizations about the author or the audience. We have to look at the contextual elements surrounding both. And in PETA's case, those contextual elements are highly disturbing.

Yes, PETA, in a world where women's bodies are no longer offered up like a buffet for consumption, you probably will stop using these tactics, but--in the meantime--you're going to work awfully hard to make sure that's not anytime soon. 

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