Saturday, March 28, 2009

Eye Candy (by Phila)

I'm sure that everyone here is aware of PETA's "pro-animal" ad campaigns, which almost invariably present nude women in various exploitative situations. There are countless reasons to oppose such tactics, but one of the most obvious ones is that exploiting women in order to protest the brutal treatment of animals a) doesn't really work; and b) would be unjustifiable even if it did. There's nothing "liberating" about having naked women stand in for dominated animals in a culture that already tends to conflate them, ideologically and legally. Instead, it alienates potential allies, while confirming the basic assumptions of the people who are hostile to feminism and animal welfare.

A new (to me, anyway) PETA ad "attacks" bullfighting by showing a nude woman with three spears in her back (it's a very disturbing image, but you can view it here, if you want to).

Oddly enough, the model in this ad doesn't seem to be suffering; she remains poised and elegant, with an expression that could represent anything from arousal to holy martyrdom; obviously, she doesn't feel it like "we" would. Still, I have no doubt that the ad will shake this hypermasculine tradition to its very foundations, by presenting an equivalence that never would've occurred to any of its devotees. (If eroticizing suffering and death doesn't put an end to bloodsports, what on earth will?)

Unfortunately, PETA's approach seems to be catching on. Also in Spain, protesters against Canada's annual seal hunt recently stripped nude, drenched themselves in fake blood, and lolled around playing dead in a public square. This protest seems to have included some men, for once, but even if all of the protesters were male, equating nudity with vulnerability or abjection or violence still isn't a very good tactic (or a very good metaphor for animality, for that matter). When compared to videos or photos from the actual seal hunts, the protests clearly trivialize real suffering: it seems more like a game than anything else, with the thrill of being naked in public as a central motivation.

To certain limited extent, this approach reminds me of the old argument that men should respect women because they may be mothers or sisters. It's one of those "enlightened" arguments that reinforces the founding concepts of the domination it claims to challenge: Be careful how you treat women, because some of them have value, thanks to the relationship in which they stand to men. The respect that PETA claims to have for animals is undercut by its belief that people — people of a certain age, gender, and physical appearance, that is — can and should represent their suffering in strictly human terms; never mind that those terms are part of the problem, if not its source.

PETA's use of nude female models is justified, allegedly, by its founder's belief that people don't want to see photos of slaughterhouses; the corresponding belief that they do want to see photos of a naked young woman with spears in her back is apparently not suggestive of anything at all. And so in one exceptionally ugly gesture, these ads ignore the political implications of offering images of suffering women as eye candy, and deny animals virtually the only "power" they have in their situation, which is to represent their own suffering.