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.


  1. You had me fooled, too. I thought that when you weren't reading or writing intellectual stuff, you were thinking about it. But your paragraph about People magazine has me smiling and feeling so much better about myself. I've been weaning myself off my antidepressant for a couple months, but I think now I can speed up the process.

    I suppose that labels of nearly any sort are dangerous things, and those of us who think about labels have an oscillating relationship with them. Case in point: I decided several months ago to change my diet to a vegetarian one. However, I spent a week in Puerto Rico in March, and there was more than one occasion in which I could either have a tasty and nutritionally balanced meal that contained, say, shrimp, or I could have some incarnation of fried bread, maybe with a lettuce salad. So I picked the former option. And I agonized over my decisions afterwards, feeling like a philosophical sellout.

    The last few days of the trip were spent in San Juan, and (as is so often the case) it was much easier to find vegetarian fare in a large urban area than a more traditional rural one. Anyway, I spent a lot of time thinking and asking myself questions (it's a long flight back). Does this mean I'm not a vegetarian anymore? Rather, does this mean I can't call myself a vegetarian anymore? (Back to the labels thing.)

    God. I'm glad I'm not a celebrity. This would be so much harder.

    In the end, I decided to "forgive myself," since one does sometimes find oneself in situations that make it difficult to live up to the label, whether one consciously adopts it, or that label is placed there by others. It's probably the reasons behind my original choice that allowed me to forgive myself in the first place: part ethical, part environmental, part health-related. I justified it by assuring myself that the months of a meat-free diet mattered more than the three meals with shrimp that week. There are flaws in that argument, and even I can see them, but that's the break I'm giving myself.

  2. P.S. More posts, please. It's been a month and a half now!