Wednesday, March 9, 2011


A colleague of mine in the Psychology Department at WCU, Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, and Some We Eat: Why it's so Hard to Think Straight About Animals, sent me a link to the article below.  This is a study of British newspaper stories about depictions of vegans, and it's one that I'd like to replicate in the US press.  Here's the link to the full study. 

From: "Vegaphobia: Derogatory Discourses of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers" by Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan

The British Journal of Sociology 2011 Volume 62 Issue 1

The authors define veganism follows: “Veganism represents an opposition to violent and exploitative human-nonhuman animal relations. Veganism is defined by The Vegan Society (2008) as: . . . a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practical – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose [. . .] In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals" (135).

They state that “It is . . . plausible to assert that on the basis of existing evidence, veganism is understood by most vegans (though not necessarily in these terms) as an aspect of anti-speciesist practice. However, the focus on diet, and specifically on dietary ‘restriction’, in much of the extant literature, tends to perpetuate a veganism-as-deviance model that fosters academic misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the meaning of veganism for vegans (Cole 2008). In terms of broader societal dispositions against veganism, the mass media are arguably of far greater significance than academia in that they represent a key site of contestation for the meaning of veganism” (135-6).

And note that “In this paper, we approach the news media adopting a Foucauldian conceptualization of discourses, recognizing them as ‘structured ways of knowing’ which become ‘institutionalized as practices’ (Ransom 1993: 123)" (136).

"Our search yielded 397 articles in which one or more of the keywords were used at least once. The articles were collated and read, and organized under three broad headings: ‘positive’, ‘neutral’ and ‘negative’ (see Table I). Of the 397 articles 22, or 5.5 per cent, were categorized as ‘positive’; 80, or 20.2 per cent, were categorized as ‘neutral’; 295, or 74.3 per cent, were categorized as ‘negative’. ‘Positive’ articles were those deemed to be favourable towards vegans or veganism, for example giving glowing reviews of vegan food or providing an explanation of one or more argument for veganism. ‘Neutral’ articles mentioned vegans or veganism in passing without evaluative comment.  Nearly all neutral articles were travel or food service reviews. ‘Negative.’ ‘Positive’ articles were those deemed to be favourable towards vegans or veganism, for example giving glowing reviews of vegan food or providing an explanation of one or more argument for veganism. ‘Neutral’ articles mentioned vegans or veganism in passing without evaluative comment. Nearly all neutral articles were travel or food service reviews.

‘Negative’ articles were those which deployed one or more derogatory discourses, usually featuring one, or a combination, from a routinized set of anti-vegan stereotypes. In some cases, more than one derogatory discourse was present in the same article. These discourses, in order of frequency of occurrence, were:
• Ridiculing veganism
• Characterizing veganism as asceticism
• Describing veganism as difficult or impossible to sustain
• Describing veganism as a fad
• Characterizing vegans as oversensitive
• Characterizing vegans as hostile"

In other words, vegans come off badly in the media.  No big surprise there.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Oscars: James Franco is not a vegan...and (maybe) neither is Natalie Portman

I have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars.  I always watch, always bet on the winners, always get annoyed with the hosts -- and never so much as this year.  First, I can't stand Ann Hathaway, but I love James Franco.  Watching the two of them, however, made me mad at Franco for being such a wet rag and sorry for Hathaway who tried, in various and assorted dresses, to make up for Franco.  My friend Elizabeth told me that she bets that Hathaway will plot ways to ruin Franco's career as a result (and, really, who could blame her?).  

Digression #1: Despite his Oscar performance, the next day, I "liked" James Franco on Facebook and am now privy to his random cell phone films as well as to postings from hundreds (thousands?) of young women who write on his wall that they love him and want to marry him/have his babies.  And I can read random comments from other people who "like" him about how if they were rich celebrities, they'd also post random cell phone videos.  You can like him as well.

In an completely unrelated note, I'm actually FB friends with Danny McBride.  I friended him before he had thousands of friends, and he accepted my request.  How cool is that?  Kenny Fucking Powers.


But back to how any of this relates to this blog.  As with all things lately, it comes back to Natalie Portman, who may or may not be a vegan or vegetarian or carnivore, depending on the day of the week (or hour of the day) and which source one consults for information.  I've written about Portman before to discuss her 2009 Huffington Post editorial about how reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals turned her "from a twenty-year vegetarian to a vegan activist." Furthermore, she has a line of vegan footwear, the proceeds from which she donates to animal related charities.  In many respects, Portman is the poster child for veganism: she's smart -- she want to Haaaahvarhd, after all -- beautiful, successful, healthy, and talented.

Oh, and now she, like fellow vegan Alicia Silverstone, is prego.  Her status as unwed and pregnant has garnered the attention of Mike Huckabee who denounces her thusly: 

"One of the things that is troubling is that people see a Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts of, 'Hey look, we're having children, we're not married, but we're having these children, and they're doing just fine.' But there aren't really a lot of single moms out there who are making millions of dollars every year for being in a movie."  

This on the heels of Portman's denunciation of Dior designer John Galliano's anti-Semitic comments in a bar in France.  As the new face of the Miss Dior Cherie fragrance, Portman, who was born in Israel, has stated her refusal to be associated with Galliano "in any way."

Galliano.  I tried to find a more flattering picture, but they all look like this.

But Portman.  Is she or isn't she?  Here's why one might (and many do) question: an interview with Jake Gyllenhaal in which she states that her favorite food is Carvel ice cream cake, an earlier discussion of how Toby Maguire turned Portman vegan in 2008 -- an act that didn't stick, as she went back to "strict vegetarian" status prior to coming out as vegan in the Huff Po the following year, and a January 2011 interview in Vogue that claims she's "vegetarian at home and vegan out." 

What interests me more than these three instances, though, is a comment I read in People magazine on Thursday, March 4.  First of all, I love People magazine; it's a guilty pleasure about which I feel less and less guilty all the time.  Jason's mom has a perpetual subscription, and she saves all the issues for me so that when we go visit Jason's family, I can sit on the sofa for HOURS and read every lurid detail about every Hollywood star about whom I really shouldn't care.  I'm forgiven this antisocial behavior on the grounds that everyone assumes that, unless I'm on vacation, I'm reading lots of high brow literature and theory, writing lots of thoughtful and influential criticism, and generally living the life of the mind.  It's nice of them to believe so, and I'm not likely to disabuse them of this notion, no matter how many hours I may spend on Facebook or how many episodes of Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares I watch during a typical work week.

I don't have a subscription to People, but my friend Elizabeth, who came to visit me for a day at my cabin in Georgia, bought us each a copy so that we wouldn't have to share.  This week's People features the train wreck that is Charlie Sheen and coverage of the Oscar gowns.

 Charlie Sheen: definitely not a vegan

Natalie Portman was discussed therein, and featured in a photo with baby daddy Benjamin Millepied. The caption was about how he fed her roast chicken while she got ready for the show.  I left the magazine in Georgia, so I don't have the exact quote, but I swear that it indicated that she ate chicken.  When I try to find the quote online, all I get is a story about the seafood she may or may have not eaten at the after party. 

What all of this tells me is something that I already know, that labels are tricky business, that classification is a kind of murder that limits possibilities and requires adherence to what may in essence be one side of a very binary equation: one is either vegetarian or carnivore; one is either vegetarian or vegan.  The middle ground is difficult to navigate.  I'm not obsessed with Natalie Portman's body, but this blog is about vegan bodies, about their discursive nature and significance, both in terms of the ways that they signify in the public sphere and the ways that we expect them to manifest.  Portman's body is a contested site, a shapeshifting entity -- we've seen her as a child, a starving ballerina, and now a pregnant woman -- that, like all bodies, defies a static reading.  A daily affirmation of veganism from her wouldn't come close to satisfying the debate that swirls around her status; she's been as political as many other celebrities with regard to her dietary ethic, but there's still reason enough to doubt, reason located in the fact that she hasn't always been vegan (and who has?) and that the media will drop enticing morsels that lead us to question what we think we know.

I discussed this issue briefly with some friends on Friday night, and other aspects of Portman's bodily and intellectual persona were evoked in terms of her credibility as a vegan: she went to Harvard.  She is a brunette.  She has a small chest.  She is a "serious" actor.  Because of these qualities, it's easier to believe her than to give credence to, say, Pamela Anderson's vegan claims.  We want Portman on our side; she's someone who makes the cause look good.  All the more reason, therefore, to try to prove beyond all shadow of a doubt that she's the real deal.  But my sense is that celebrities waiver as often as the rest of us, that their names get attached to all sorts of causes and ideological positions simply because of their high profile status.  My sense is that Portman has been a vegetarian and a vegan at various points, and that perhaps, as is more often the case than not with most people, those identifications are more fluid than fixed.

I'll get back to you about Pamela Anderson.