A woman in a neck brace walks, or rather hobbles, slowly down a street, she is clearly in agony, wincing as she goes. She limps up some stairs, presumably to her home, where her boyfriend is waiting inside, clearly the perpetrator of her injuries. This isn’t a video to raise awareness for domestic abuse, it’s a PETA ad. PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, are well-known for their shock tactics when it comes to their campaigns, and this particular ad did not disappoint. The ad was met with negative feedback, which they (PETA) predictably set aside, it’s all ‘banter’, right?
In a previous blog post, I addressed the damaging exploitation of female bodies in PETA campaigning, today, I want to discuss the men in PETA ads. As much as PETA’s depictions of women are horribly limited through their blinkered assignment of women’s worth through sex appeal, their portrayals of men are equally depressing
PETA men are portrayed as typically tough and aggressive. Figure one shows Chris Birdman Andersen, basketball player, with his arms stretched out wide and in each hand he holds a basketball. His heavily tattooed body is muscular and solid; his face set, with an equally steady and hard stare into the camera. He coincides with masculinity norms of dominance and aggression, his wide-armed stance means he literally takes up the entire image, and there is a threatening implication with his expression and stance. Where women are painted to be passive beings, Chris is depicted as in control, aware of meanings tied to this image. But is he? And is this damaging to men? I argue it is because of the strict limitations at play here for what acceptable masculinity is, and what it isn’t. Control is masculine, dominance is masculine, but where does that leave men with more stereotypically ‘feminine’ characteristics? They certainly don’t, it seems, belong on your average PETA campaign, as a quick scroll through PETA campaigns can confirm for anybody curious.
Mike Sorrentino, from the television programme Jersey Shore, can be seen in figure two, on one knee, surrounded by cats and shirtless. He wears a baseball cap backwards, and is accompanied by the caption ‘Too Much Pu**y Can Be a Bad Thing’. The painfully explicit innuendo here is typical PETA ‘humour’, riddled with sexual connotations and predictably protected from critique through the employment of ‘banter’. Figure two plays with the word ‘pussy’ to dually connote feline animals, and women’s genitals. A superficially playful advertisement, this ad condones the use of language commonly used to undermine and denigrate women to object status, and subsequently encourages men to view women through a solely sexualised lens. Further the ad toys with a playboy image of men as sexually promiscuous, and consequently promotes heterosexist ideals for accepted and acceptable male sexuality.
(Figure Three: ‘Only Cowards Abuse Animals’)
Figure three shows Tattoo Artist and star of television show Miami Ink, Ami James, posing with Bella, his pet dog. He is squatted down next to Bella, and accompanied by the caption ‘Only Cowards Abuse Animals’.
What this image conveys to its audience is that animal abuse is cowardly (true), and through the employment of a male advocate for the campaign (Ami), men are depicted as not being cowardly. (Masculine) men are bold, dominant and tough; they are not cowards, they are not weak. This ad can be interpreted as a play on phrases like ‘be a man’, and ‘man up’, as it calls on its male viewers to ‘speak up’ not simply about animal abuse, but to prove their manliness through action over passivity, and a seemingly compulsory veneer of toughness. The ad perpetuates outmoded male ideals of dominance and by proxy relegates those in contention with these ‘manly’ qualities to a less-than-manly status.
When it comes to their representations of men, perhaps what troubles me most with PETA campaigning is their fixation with the phallus. If we refer back to the beginning of this post where I mentioned a PETA campaign which inappropriately attempts to make light of the serious issues of domestic abuse, the website meant to go together with this campaign BWVAKTBOOM – Boyfriend Went Vegan And Knocked The Bottom Out Of Me – puts extreme focus on the promotion of a vegan lifestyle because of the potential impact it will allegedly have on men’s sex drive. The ‘erotic consequences’ (BWVAKTBOOM, 2013) of veganism are ‘humorously’ listed as benefits. Because who wouldn’t want to give their partner ‘whiplash, pulled muscles, rug burn, and even a dislocated hip’ (ibid)? PETA’s attention to the phallus aims to tap into the worst fears of the (allegedly) average man – impotence. PETA relies on the stereotypical imaginings of manliness and masculinity as inextricably linked to an overactive sex drive, and utilises this as the key reason for going vegetarian/vegan, sidelining and marginalising key ethical concerns that should be the focus of their pursuit of vegetarian/vegan promotion. And they don’t stop there, as they scare-monger pregnant mothers by instilling fears of small penises for unborn male babies with meat-eating mothers – as if this will be the key cause for concern with mothers-to-be, thus placing male worth in the size and stamina of their sex organs.
A plethora of PETA campaigns are explicitly sex-centred, ranging from the outright pornographic to the downright ridiculous. Indeed, PETA created an extra special video in honour of this year’s World Vegan Day, which they claim is a ‘wink to the sexual health benefits’ of a vegan diet (PETA, 2013). If you watch the video, it soon becomes blatantly apparent that this supposed ‘wink’ is considerably more – the video is filled with men thrusting their vegetable embellished groins at the camera like there is no tomorrow. A carrot adorns the pair of shorts of a sinisterly suggestive young male who opens the video and sets the tone for the rest of the campaign, which also features an older man with a marrow attached to his trousers. A young mechanic enthusiastically and rhythmically bounces his banana-and-two-limes ensemble before another young male, complete with baseball cap, and corn ‘phallus’ dances around three young women, jiggling his bits uncomfortably close to the women and biting his bottom lip in an incredibly creepy fashion, while he points proudly at his.. corn. The video instructs: ‘Increase your sexual stamina. Go vegan’ and ends.
PETA’s obsession with sex completely overshadows the more pressing and important issues at hand for nonhuman animal exploitation and mistreatment. Maybe PETA do have honest intentions with their campaigns, and maybe they do genuinely care about the welfare of nonhuman animals. But there’s a fundamental flaw in their advertising style, and that’s before we even consider what they actually do do in their campaigns. It’s what they don’t do. Nonhuman animal suffering is typically ignored and overlooked in PETA campaigns, which further marginalises nonhuman animals, and naturalises their subordination and exploitation through the continued prioritisation of human animal subjects in PETA campaigning. If PETA’s key aims are to increase male sexual performance, purport very specific understandings of masculinity and femininity and to continually undermine and sexualise women, they’re doing a great job, but it isn’t so great for the rest of us.
PETA, ‘Ink not Mink’, Chris Birdman Andersen, < http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/Images/Main/Sections/MediaCenter/PrintAds/chrisandersenHORIZ72.jpg> [accessed 30th August 2013]
PETA, ‘Only Cowards Abuse Animals’, Ami James, < http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/igc/PETA-Ami-James-mc.jpg> [accessed 3rd September 2013]
PETA, ‘Stay Firm and Fresh’, <http://action.peta.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=5&ea.campaign.id=17198> [accessed 4th September 2013]
PETA, ‘Too Much Pu**y Can Be A Bad Thing’, Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino, <http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/igc/situation-peta-sexy-ad.jpg> [Accessed 30th August 2013]
Amy is a recent graduate of Lancaster University, where she completed her BA English Literature with Media and Cultural Studies. She is due to start her MA at Lancaster in October of this year, studying Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology. Her research interests surround nonhuman animals, activism, food anthropology, meat, femininities, masculinities and sexualities.