The Biotic Woman: What Big AR Gets Wrong

I've got to confess: as a vegetarian for more than half my life and a vegan for two years now, I have yet—in all my years of animal rights (AR) activism and theory debates—to meet anyone who likes PETA. I've never met a single person who thinks they get it right. Therefore, I never lose sleep over their misogynist "be naked/don't wear fur!" campaigns that exploit women and seem to exist only for shock value. I know they have way too much money and all sorts of persuasive power, but having never met a rational, socially conscious person persuaded by their bizarre ads, why would I worry about their influence?

[Aside: May I suggest, for the record, that as a resident of a country still wholly obsessed with fur (I live in Denmark), PETA could perhaps outsource some of their anti-fur passion to regions where this remains a serious, everyday offense that I have to endure in public? I am confronted on a daily basis by women in floor-length seal coats, carrying around their dead fox stoles—complete with a tail and face—to the point that I've started to become physically ill when I see carcasses treated as accessory. When was the last time you saw an ordinary woman waltzing around in a giant mink overcoat, complete with matching furry hat in the U.S.? Fur-hating PETA folks in the U.S. have no idea how good they have it when their biggest problems are hosting elaborate Fashion Week parties.]

So while I abhor a bunch of naked women proclaiming that fur is bad—all the while continuing to eat meat, as if one animal life or species is inherently more valuable than another—I generally ignore PETA. They annoy and bore me, and I have other issues that concern me far more than their outdated, celebrity-infused antics.

Similarly, I tend to ignore the efforts of groups like The Humane Society, and more recently, Farm Sanctuary. Having worked at a farmed animal sanctuary in the past, you might wonder why I'd write off the efforts of the largest farmed animal advocacy group in the United States. To be clear, I don't wholesale dismiss their good work, and I end up emailing a lot of legislators and being better informed, legally, because of their action alerts. They also do incredible alliance work with other farmed animal sanctuaries and help organize transport for animals between locations when space is limited at a particular refuge space or shelter. I have nothing but love for any of that.

But here's the thing that a lot of activists—regardless of your chosen cause(s)—know: the larger your organization becomes, the more sacrifices you have to make. Your original ideals are compromised, your concerns turn to fundraising instead of doing advocacy work and outreach, and inevitably, you become a watered-down, mainstream version of the force for justice you set out to be. Is compromise the price of growth? Maybe.

Last week, I got a message in my inbox: Starbucks is now selling vegan cookies!!!! Vegan revolution OMG!! And my cynical first thought was, "What revolution? And why the hell should I patronize an organization I lovingly refer to as Starfucks?" Vegan cookies on demand is a lovely idea, but what about labor rights or local businesses that are run out of business by a corporation's ability to saturate a market, even if they lose money in the process? Do folks really not know the gross corporate history of the nipple-less, navel-free mermaid; their attacks on freedom of speech, the Christian outrage over her seductively spread fins? (That second part, though obviously very real to some folks, was meant to be a joke—and meant to point out that very little the company does is seen as innocuous, depending who you ask, of course.) Don't get me started on Starbucks's serious issues with coffee growers' rights and trade. Maybe I'm an anomaly as a vegan, or maybe I'm just an idealist, but I care about liberation for all, not just the animals. We shouldn't have to sacrifice one set of rights for another.

Let's go one step further. Is a homogeneous culture—one marketed and triumphed by Starbucks—one we want to support, even with anti-establishment vegan ideals? Will said vegan cookies be available beyond select hip urban locations? I'm from a small town that got its first Starbucks circa 2006. Could I really hope for a vegan cookie in central Indiana next time I go home? Because in my adopted home city, Boston, I don't need vegan cookies from a chain café. I go to the locals for my goods, and nothing's gonna change that.

Farm Sanctuary in particular has a history of championing vegetarian and vegan "successes" without analyzing the larger picture. One of the organization's early victories was getting Burger King to sell veggie burgers. That could, in theory, raise some awareness, but am I really supposed to get excited enough to patronize a chain known for low wages and factory farm-produced food? Some people would call that pandering, and similarly, getting energized about dairy-free cookies at Starbucks is just not the way to my heart.

Do you think these kinds of efforts are satisfying, or is this just another marketing ploy by an influential animal rights group that builds up their own cause more than it actually works to save animals?

Further reading:

Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres

UPDATE: Since writing this, my pal Kelly wrote a post at Animal Rights and Anti-Oppression about another Farm Sanctuary alert, this time about Denny's restaurant's compassion for chickens. Say whaa?

Comments

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Vegan Concur

I definitely feel this emotion -- there's an event later this week in town encouraging Dunkin' Doughnuts to offer vegan options ... this from a great veg group too. While I am rerouting my morning commute to mooch doughnuts happily, I'm disappointed that it's to encourage a megacorporation to offer vegan doughnuts when we should encourage our amazing AMAZING local vegan bakery to open more locations and keep money in the city. But you know, whatevs.

I am not sure. Obviously

I am not sure. Obviously both Burger King and Starbucks are problematic, but I do sincerely believe that getting veg*n options out there -everywhere- is important - I know many people (my in-laws, a lot of my male coworkers) who are appalled by the notion of a non-meat meal (and we're not just talking meat replacers here; the mere lack of dead animals in food scares them). The more common veg*n options get, the less weird they'll seem. Besides, sometimes I'm in company or at work or in some other situation where I don't have a choice of where to go, and I am happy about every time I don't have to drink water for lunch because even the salad has chicken in it.

Movements need time

As a vegetarian of 15+ years, I can say it is a huge relief to have options at large chains when traveling cross country or visiting parts of Middle America where items made with animal stocks and fats are still labeled vegetarian. Although living in NYC affords me so many options that I rarely struggle with dietary choices, prior to living here, that was certainly not my experience. I agree that I would not want Burger King to be my typical fare, but I am well aware that others are not so privileged with choice.

Relatedly, living in NYC also exposes me to that portion of American society who still believes that fur is not only unobjectionable but fashionable. I see women riding the *subway* in full-length mink coats, for crying out loud! Not only is the carcass-as-style audacity sickening, it also goes a long way to reinforce class stratification in a city where the disparity of wealth on any given *block* is staggering. While I agree wholeheartedly that PETA almost never gets it right, fur is still an issue in the US, and it should be addressed by rational and compassionate activism.

yes, exactly!

I completely agree with this! I have a lot of family in the midwest, and do a lot of traveling, and bringing my own food isn't always practical. We make an effort to find non-chain restaurants when traveling (we're proud that we only went to three chain restaurants in an entire cross-country road trip), but it's nice to know I can get something veg*n at, say, Burger King or Panera.

I would take PETA more seriously if they addressed leather clothing, and not just fur. But maybe they're only trying to reach the upper class, with their glamor (a.k.a. nude) campaigns and their focus on fur.

...more on movements

You are so right about movements needing time. Movements, by definition, are progressive. They are not epiphanies or catastrophic events. They require constant effort to chip away the status quo on all levels -- from individuals to institutions. The more entrenched these individuals and institutions are, the more time it takes to see change. The progress that you see at a well-entrenched institutional level will almost always be slow and uneven.

The measure of the effectiveness of that progress can be seen in the small victories, be it a new vegan option at a national fast food chain, or the passage of a law that allows an animal to spread her wings, or turn around. It may seem miniscule to the person who already gets it, and has already made real change in her life to meet her ethical standards, but for entrenched institutions, it's monumental, and these progressions should not be discounted in any movement. When they are, cynicism sets in, and that's the antithesis to movement.

can i get an Amen

thanks and i too call it Starfuck's. it's hard working in the Financial District and having everything be crappy fast food places, but even so i usually bring food in (all of a sudden i have been cooking, so a small miracle occurred!) or buy something from an upscale market if nothing else is available.

plus, they made all that fuss about the veggie burgers which then didn't end up being vegan so why are you telling vegan followers to go eat there? in addition to not wanting my money to support crap human/animal treatment places like McDs, BK, etc.

Everyone wants the easy victory.

p.s.

you know what's funny is, when i went in with a friend to a starfuck's after that email (an extremely rare occurrence, i assure you) they still didn't have anything vegan and this is new yawk fucking city. if not here, where??

also, trying to preserve vegan-friendly businesses is a top priority in this economy - as with progressive businesses in general. now i don't bother eating out unless it's a vegan or at least mostly vegan place, same with with my online food orders. i know the first places to close are the veg places and they're the ones i care about saving. i refuse to take them for granted.

Some positive change is better than no positive change

PETA, Starbucks, and Burger King likely aren't going away in our lifetimes. Would you rather they make absolutely zero change, or would you rather they make incremental change to become better organizations? I'll take incremental change any day.

I'm often very discouraged at feminist responses to PETA in particular. Yes, I hate their misogynist and counterproductive ad campaigns, like every reasonable person I've met. But many feminists just dismiss the entire organization as evil. If PETA changed their marketing and tactics, wouldn't they be at least a somewhat positive organization, instead of continuing to be a damaging one? We should focus on getting them to change their marketing, then -- if not us, then who?

Starbucks selling vegan cookies may seem like an inconsequential step (although I consider it at least a small validation). Here in Seattle, there are Starbucks concept stores that sell locally-made vegan donuts, local art, fair trade tea and coffee, and independent local beer and wine. They're not perfect, and I still go to actual independent cafes instead, but they're a vast improvement over their chain stores.

One of my favorite quotes, and probably the only one by a corporate leader, is from Bill Gates: "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction."

If we encourage the PETAs and Starbucks of the world to keep doing better, they could be vastly better organizations in 10 years. Ten years ago, PETA's ads consisted of Ronald McDonald cutting the heads off chickens and shocking slaughterhouse footage. Starbucks was just starting to roll out their ubiquitous stores across the country and world. Neither group is going away, and neither is going to change overnight. If we just dismiss them and their attempts at positive change, in 10 years they could turn into even more harmful organizations and even further away from doing good.

yes yes yes!

Well, PETA & the like get no love from folks at Vegans of Color either (& conversely I have seen so many POC bloggers post [rightfully] scathing screeds about PETA that say things like, "& in honor of PETA I'm going to go eat every piece of meat I can find!"... good job, PETA). I'm always shocked by how many AR people still will defend PETA--especially w/the "you're being sexist/a prude if you think their advertising is sexist! You're not giving women a choice! Those women weren't coerced to be in those ads!" crap.

PETA & the Humane Society are on my shit list too for their hypocrisy about companion animals--being pro-kill shelters (in the face of all the evidence that no kill is a real possibility), being pro-breed specific legislation (there's that PETA thing where someone, possibly Ingrid Newkirk?, said something like all pit bulls should be killed?), etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.

Re: vegan cookies at Starbucks--I might care more if I were stranded in an airport where Starbucks was one of the few options available. I am lucky enough not to have to care in general for my daily life--there are other options near me--though right now as I'm in a financial pinch I don't really have the money to go out & buy cookies anyway. :P

(But otherwise, yeah, I prefer to support the local independent alternative whenever possible.)

Thank you for posting this!

Thank you for posting this! I've been taking a deeper look at my own food politics since I reconnected with an old friend who has recently become vegan--to lose weight, a la the "Skinny Bitch" franchise. The Starbucks vegan cookie thing makes me think of the view that animal-free eating will make you skinny! like a celebrity!

It's so conflicting! I'm glad that animal products aren't getting her money... but her reasons suck, you know?

Naysayer!

I'm sorry, but you are so negative. You just criticized PETA, the Humane society, and Farm Sanctuary for what? Becoming a name recognized by the general public? This whole article sounds like a teenagers lament about how their hangout became trendy! I am a vegetarian and am slowly making the steps to removing more and more animal products from my life. I also am lucky enough to live in NYC and have easy access to things such as farmers markets and small businesses, but wouldn't it be good for a corporation like Starbucks to plant the seed of going veg in the heads of the general public?
I am realistic, and I know that Starbucks Vegan cookies are about making money, just like clorox's green line is not because Clorox cares about the environment. BUT COME ON! Can't you just see something positive about anything? Or are you scared that being Vegan will become trendy like going green, and you wont be different anymore?

LOL

Yes, it does sound a little like "my favourite band just started making money, yuck, sellouts", doesn' it?

I'm totally on board with liberation for all, and no amount of vegan fair trade home woven probiotic holistic all natural high fiber tokenism is going to make my darken the doorways of a Burger King; but I think that we're the ones missing the point when we decry making money as fundamental social ill.

Money in itself is morally neutral. Making moeny doing good things ethically is to be encouraged, not so much because it will incentivise people to do good things ethically (the capitalism profit motive argument) but because it will enable them to do so. Sady at Tiger Beatdown has a heartrending article up about feminist writers being starved out of a voice, and I don't think it's a great idea to encourage ethical movements to actively seek out the obscurity and secterianism that will ensure their causes too are starved out of the public eye. That's just fetishizing ideological purity, and won't save many battery chickens.

who's selling out?

I don’t interpret Brittany’s post as negative at all. What’s so bad about being curiously skeptical of mega-corporations courting the eco-minded consumer? If anyone is to be criticized of selling out, it’s the people who fall for the superficial changes like “green” cleaning products and “cage-free” eggs. By the same token, just because a company makes eco-friendly strides doesn’t mean that we as consumers are required to patronize them for it. Many people will, and that’s their decision, but I think those are more likely to be the consumers flirting with eco-friendly behavior, not seasoned activists. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve outgrown PETA and HSUS, preferring to throw my support behind small grassroots organizations and companies that walk the talk and work for quantifiable change without flashy stunts and celebrity-courting.

Skepticism is healthy, and we shouldn’t be so focused on one issue that we forget that all injustices are interconnected. I reject the theory that the bare minimum should be rewarded. Perhaps no solution is perfect, but as Brittany said, “We shouldn’t have to sacrifice one set of rights for another.”

Missing the point

You're missing the point. Yes, Starfucks is a huge evil corporation. Yes, we should support our righteous indie local coffee shops instead. But as others have pointed out, the more vegan food is out there in the mainstream where most people live (people who aren't as perfect as us), the less scary a vegan lifestyle becomes for the general mouth-breather public, and the more likely those ignorant morons are to move toward a plant-based diet. Every egg/whey tainted veggie burger sold at MurderKing is one less sandwich sold that is 100% meat filled. Every vegan cookie sold at starfucks is one less non-vegan cookie of suffering. Less suffering is good. Veganism in the mainstream is good. Sorry you're too cool to appreciate that.

But you're missing the point too...

...because you seem to be ignoring the social justice issues that Brittany brought up with regards to Starbucks, BurgerKing. And of course Gene Bauer is happy to praise pink veal "producers", which frankly makes me sick to my stomach.

There are great reasons, real and solid reasons, to not support companies who are unethical in ways that don't start and stop with their selling of animal products. Unless you don't care about suffering when it comes to human animals.

...here we go again

Farm Sanctuary in no way endorses the slaughter of animals, period. You need look no further than our Web site and our 24+ years of rescue, education and advocacy work on behalf of farm animals to know this. In one article, years ago, Gene Baur was misquoted by a journalist who wrote a fluff piece about a so-called "humane" veal producer. And, wouldn't you know, that damn article got picked up by multiple newspapers. I know this because I was the person who arranged the interview for him and I can tell you unequivocally that the journalist misrepresented her intent in the piece, and that what showed up in print was not at all the intent or language used by Gene. Anyone who has ever acted as a media representative or spokesperson for any organization would understand that this happens from time to time. Journalists and writers don't always get their facts straight.

One important lesson I have learned in my years at Farm Sanctuary as communications director is the necessity to meet people where they are at. If I only preach to the choir, I'm not doing the best that I can do for animals. I need to tread in waters that may seem too deep, or dangerous, at times so that I can make an impact. For the sake of the animals that we rescue and care for at our sanctuaries, and for the countless unknowns living in abject horror on factory farms, I have to reach the masses, and if they are shopping at Wal-Mart, reading People Magazine while sipping their Starbucks latte, then I'm going to meet them there, where they live.

I know you've got compassion covered here at Bitch Magazine, but sadly that isn't the case with most mainstream media and large corporations. And sometimes it takes the large nonprofits to make a dent in those large corporations. The results aren't always pristine, but it is progress. I do find it funny, though, and actually flattering that you group us with the two largest animal protection groups (Peta and HSUS). If you saw our annual budget compared to theirs, you would chuckle. I guess we're making some big punches for the size of organization that we are. AND, we rescue and shelter animals for their entire lives to boot!

Side note: That first veggie burger from Burger King was vegan. It was a bean burger, but years later they changed their supplier. Not happy about it, but it happens, and I'm glad they at least offer a vegetarian option. Hopefully, one day it will be vegan again.

If Farm Sanctuary doesn't

If Farm Sanctuary doesn't endorse the slaughter of animals, could you please explain to me why they have advocacy campaigns dealing with, for example, battery cages or the end of tail docking for dairy cows? After it is no longer profitable to keep layer hens or dairy cows alive they are slaughtered. Endorsing a "nicer" way to allow them to stay alive & useful until slaughter date actually relies on the assumption that slaughtering them is acceptable.

I live in an area with

I live in an area with absolutely no independent vegan coffee shops of stores we shop at a supermarket for groceries I have never been to a health store so I have always wondered whether organic food is as expensive there as it is here. Burger King having a veggie burger to me is a wonderful thing. The truth is veganism/vegetarianism can be fairly expensive compared to the mass produced food Americans normally buy. I'm not saying anyone should give up their beliefs solely based on their monetary situation but this is something to that needs to be taken into consideration. Burger King is a corporation that contributes the slaughter of millions of animals and I hate starbucks as much as the next commenter but introducing vegan/vegetarian options to a portion of a population that doesn't have access to urban chic organic health food stores seem to me a good way to spread our ideals. Considering the large influence these kinds of companies have I believe working with them to encourage a meat free diet is a great benefit. Sure it’s just for their own profit but if corporations can see the how a greatly catering to outside tastes can profit for them we might see a change in the way things are run.

I believe that it depends

I believe that it depends upon the person regarding the food the he eats and how it affects the totality of his being.We should be aware if we are eating the right kind of food.We have all been aware for years of the health risks posed by fast food chains. So exactly what are our health insurance industries doing to battle these health risks? They have begun investing in them! That’s right Health insurance companies are now investing millions in the fast food industry. I imagine their logic is that with the health insurance reform you will be spending your cash to pay for health insurance, and then spending more cash whenever you use their services due to difficulties from eating too much fast food.