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On International Women’s Day, PETA reaffirmed in a March, 2013 blog post (since deleted) that strong women in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement are those who pose naked and sexualized for the presumed male audience. According to PETA:
“The following brazen beauties used their most valuable asset—their minds [emphasis mine]—to speak up for the oppressed […]”
PETA chose these images as representations of women using “their minds” to speak up for the oppressed. I see instead women who are using their bodies to speak to the oppressors. It’s “Girl power!” PETA exclaims.
Pornifying women (and referring to them as girls) is problematic in of itself, but it becomes especially quizzical when this is done in the name of feminism. In an interview with Bitch Media, a PETA representative not only defends this type of activism as feminist, but insists that those women who criticize it (like those associated with Bitch Media, one of the oldest grassroots feminist organizations in the US) are engaging sexism. After all, women who are sexually liberated are embodying the true feminist spirit, and women who shame that must be conservative, anti-woman prudes.
Of course, I reject that logic completely. PETA’s “feminism” is a corporate corruption of radical social claimsmaking. By slapping feminist rhetoric over the status quo of patriarchal sexual exploitation it, brands itself as cool, hip, and with it while it continues to profit from an unequal system that requires gender inequality. Bitch co-founder Andi Zeisler explores this trend in her 2016 release, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. A decade prior, Ariel Levy examined the corporatization of feminism as well, emphasizing the dangers of rebranding sexism as “empowerment” in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
In any case, it’s a real stretch to position PETA’s pornographic objects as female subjects using “their minds” for other animals. In fact, women seem to be actively discouraged from doing so in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, even vilified or harassed if they dare to voice an educated opinion. Pornifying women in activist spaces only reinforces this sexist culture and must be challenged. This isn’t strength. To the contrary, it is the movement’s greatest weakness.
A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on March 8, 2013.
Readers can learn more about the Nonhuman Animal rights industrial complex and how it capitalizes on gender inequality in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.