PETA — the animal-rights organization whose media strategy seems to be three parts B-list celebrities, one part fake blood, and five parts boobies — co-founder Ingrid Newkirk wrote an op-ed today defending the use of "sexy women in our ads."
Newkirk's organization has long drawn the ire of those who don't see the good in women being treated like meat; Feministing even rounded up five particularly sexist ads and held a "Which PETA campaign do you hate the most?" poll. (This one got my vote.) Whether or not one agrees with PETA's mission statement — "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment" — in whole, in part, or in nought, the manner in which it publicizes these goals is offensive to humans.
There's the breathtaking hypocrisy of its M.O.: Find an actress, preferably one upon whom fame once landed a glancing blow. Get her naked. Airbrush thoroughly. Slap her on a billboard. The actresses get to be seen publicizing a "cause"; more importantly, they look conventionally "hot" doing so (and perhaps the billboard, or the press release, or the media coverage of the billboard and the press release, will remind some producer somewhere of the actress's existence?). Most conveniently of all, the ideological commitment PETA asks of its "faces" is nothing so onerous as to prevent anyone from going about West Hollywood with her Birkin and her Uggs as per usual the next weekend. (Pamela Anderson once claimed that she kept wearing sheepskin boots, despite her long association with PETA, because she didn't realize harvesting sheepskin involved killing sheep.)
PETA's hostility towards women doesn't stop with the highly sexualized portrayals of its spokesmodels, either. The organization frequently holds demonstrations where naked women are put in cages, supposedly to represent the cruelty of factory farming and/or medical research. We get it: sow crates and battery hen cages are disgusting. But so is stripping a woman naked and likening her to an animal.
And there's the acute hypocrisy of its actual mission. While it claims to fight against all animal suffering, PETA has several times been caught euthanizing animals that would otherwise have been eligible for adoption. In 2005, a rash of unexplained dumpings of dog and cat carcasses around Virginia and North Carolina — PETA is headquartered in Norfolk — found its apparent explanation when two PETA employees were arrested while attempting to throw out 18 animals they'd killed after picking them up from a shelter on the promise of finding them homes. The workers were subsequently charged with 31 counts of animal cruelty. A vet who had handed PETA two kittens and their mother into PETA's care told the San Francisco Chronicle, "This is 'ethical'? I don't think so!"
Ironically, when Newkirk was radicalized, in 1972, it was as a result of a similar experience: she had taken almost a dozen cats and kittens, abandoned by a neighbor, to an animal shelter, and was dismayed when the animals were euthanized instead of adopted.
Then there's that uncomfortable racism. Last year, to protest the Westminster Dog Show, of all things, PETA operatives dressed up as members of the Ku Kux Klan. In 2005, the organization stopped a touring exhibition of incendiary photographs that displayed atrocious acts of human cruelty, most of them racially motivated, in diptychs with instances of animal cruelty — such that a picture of black men being lynched was put side-by-side with a picture of a cow hanging in a slaughterhouse. Most of the images are still viewable on the "Animal Liberation" exhibit website, including an image that likens the police beating of black civil rights workers outside a luncheonette to the clubbing of baby seals. Above, I screencapped a comparison of the branding of slaves to the branding of livestock. Below, a picture of FGM, and the sterilization of piglets.
Earlier, PETA had organized a similar exhibition on the theme of the Holocaust. (The creative title: "Holocaust On Your Plate.") They made sure to have a Jewish spokesperson on hand to try and fend off the Anti-Defamation League.
I think I get it. They're trying to "raise awareness." They're trying to be "provocative." They're seeking attention. Don't they realize they're getting it for all the wrong reasons? Plenty of people who are otherwise sympathetic to the cause of animal rights — people who support organizations with some goals in common with PETA, just vastly different tactics, like the SPCA and the Humane Society — are put off by PETA's unimaginative recourse to sexist and racist imagery. The tactics at PETA's stunt-protests, like portable videoscreens showing inflammatory material, giant gory signs, and fake blood, call to mind no other groups so much as those vile folk who parade around outside women's clinics shoving hoax pictures of abortions in people's faces. Sometimes, just like extreme pro-life protesters, PETA targets children — for instance, outside circuses. The ability to speak of "abolition" and "animal slavery" while dressed as a member of a terrorist white-supremacist organization that tortured, raped, burned, and murdered untold people speaks — at best — of a certain impairment of perspective that is far from intellectually appealing. At worst, it smacks of utter moral decrepitude.
As for the sexy women in our ads, the silly costumes, the street tableaux and the tofu sandwich give-aways, in a world where people want to smile, can't resist looking at an attractive image and are up for a free meal, if such harmless antics will allow one individual to reconsider their own role in exploiting animals, how can it be faulted?
Oh, I forgot — they're just harmless antics. How could they be faulted, indeed?
A Pragmatic Fight For Animal Rights [Guardian]
The Extremist [Michael Specter]
Which PETA Campaign Do You Hate The Most? [Feministing]
Better Dead Than Fed, PETA Says [SF Chronicle]
Animal Liberation [PETA]
PETA Dresses Up In KKK Garb Outside Westminster Dog Show [USAToday]
Group Blasts PETA 'Holocaust' Project [CNN]