Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Moral Monday Politics of Meat

Every Monday since April 29, groups of protesters, led by the Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, have descended upon the North Carolina legislature in Raleigh to protest any number of Republican legislative initiatives.  Led by Barber's charge of "forward together, not one step back," thousands of people have taken up residence on Halifax Mall outside the Legislative Building to challenge a raft of legislation that will (among other things) decimate public education, limit women's access to reproductive healthcare, restrict voting rights, and devastate the environment.  Hundreds of people have been arrested in a carefully staged performance of civil disobedience -- the rules for which you can read about here.

Barber and two protesters

North Carolina's decline from what the editorial board of the New York Times refers to as "a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness" to something unrecognizable to those of us who live here -- particularly those of us, like myself, whose families have been here for generations -- has been swift and putative.  I attended last week's protest, spurred, finally, by the House's swift and sneaky passage of HB 695, a bill that contains provisions that will (again, among other things) effectively shut down all but one abortion clinic in the entire state.  The presentation of this bill, which is ostensibly about protecting North Carolina citizens from Sharia law, was so underhanded that even our Republican governor Pat McCrory decried the covert nature of its passage.

From Asheville, where I live, Raleigh is about a four hour drive.  Along with about 100 other people, including three other faculty members at Western Carolina University, I rode to the rally on one of two buses chartered by Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell.  Some of my fellow travelers had done this before; some, like the 79-year-old man who shared his story, had been arrested and were wearing their "I was arrested with Rev. Barber" pins in solidarity.  Many told their stories of entering the Legislative Building, of their meetings with various members of NC's general assembly, including Tim Moffitt, who represents Buncombe County, and of their expectations for this particular rally.  


We brought our own lunches and ate at a rest area about two hours out, and we arrived in Raleigh at about 3.30 with enough time to wander the halls of the legislature prior to gathering on the mall.  One of my colleagues tracked down Moffitt and spent about an hour in his office.  Later, when we outside, my colleague told me several things about this meeting.  Two seem important to me.  First, Moffitt said that he was "troubled" that state employees would be in attendance at these events.  The implication, as far as I can tell, is that as a state employee, one is not in a position to challenge the state.  And I think that there is some real fear on the part of state employees that they could get in trouble for attending such a protest.  Indeed, Art Pope's Civitas Institute maintains a database of information about Moral Monday protesters, including, when the institute can get it -- which it can in the case of state employees -- information about protesters' jobs and their salaries (so when you click the link for "protester salaries," you see lots of college professors.  I'm not up there, by the way; the database only seems to contain folks who got arrested, which I didn't).  

The second thing that Moffitt said to my colleague was this: "you are not those people," meaning the people protesting on the mall.  OK, so let me back up for a second.  To address the issue of what it means to be protesting as a state employee, none of my colleagues were there to protest as representatives of the state institution for which we work; we were there as individual citizens with individual interests.  In terms of not being "those people," my guess is that the reason Moffitt said this to my colleague is that my colleague, like Moffitt, is a young, affluent, white man (Moffitt also asked my colleague how much money he made, and my colleague told him, even as he said that he wasn't attending this rally to protest his pay).  "Those people" are, effectively, the NAACP (therefore, black people), women, the poor, and the elderly.  At least this is Moffitt's estimation of who "those people" are.

A little protester photographed by another of my colleagues

What's scary -- and very telling -- to me about Moffitt's claim is the very clear indication that Moffitt is dividing his constituents into two categories: people who are "like him," and "those people" who aren't.    Such a reality points to a lack of any sort of empathetic imagination that might allow for someone like Moffitt, or for that matter any number of his colleagues in the general assembly, I would venture, to imagine their existences as linked to the existences of the people that they supposedly represent.  It's terrifying to know that the North Carolina legislature is a space wherein my district's elected representative can proclaim such blatant racism, sexism, and classism even as the state's citizenry stand outside his window and try to shine a light on that very reality.

When my colleague told me about his exchange with Moffitt, I bristled, and I offered (as I always do as an ecofeminist) that oppressions are linked, intersectional, and co-dependently reinforcing.   To see oppressions as discrete entities and to view oppression of one group as somehow independent of the oppression of others is to misunderstand the mechanism of oppression; to claim that those who are being oppressed are not the same people as those who are elected to represent them is to misunderstand the concept of democracy.


I imagine (and even know after conversations with many folks on the mall) that the people protesting get it, know that what affects one of us affects us all.  That's why they were out there holding posters, pumping fists, chanting, and clapping.  

On the way back to Asheville, we stopped to get something to eat.  It was 9 p.m., and everyone was starved.  We pulled into Burlington and stopped in a shopping center where the options were Wendy's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Subway.  We were told to get off the bus, grab some food to bring with us, so that we could get back to Asheville.  When everyone piled back on, they brought with them burgers and pepperoni pizza, turkey subs and chicken filet sandwiches.

The recognition of the interconnectedness of oppressions often breaks down when it comes to animals, even among people who see and recognize such intersectionality as profoundly significant and even as immoral (hence the notion of "Moral" Mondays) when to comes to legislation that affects their fellow human beings.  The question that I'm always left with in such instances, when empathy and moral consideration don't extend beyond our non-human framework, is whether or not any liberation movement will ever amount to much when the most liberated and liberal among us fail to recognize as foundational the linkages between animal and human oppressions.  

Human beings have justified the oppression of other human beings by rhetorically constructing them as animals.  Racism and sexism are predicated on a foundational lack of recognition of "others" as human; consider, as I've noted before, that the Nazis killed the Jews with rat poison, that women are treated "like pieces of meat," that African slaves were sold at auction as chattle.   

Oh, and here's an Obama sock monkey.

Don't get me wrong, here: I am behind the Moral Monday movement.  I am glad to see the swell of this tide of discontent, the coming together of disparate groups, and the disenfranchasing of the notion that, in issues that pertain to our moral health, there are no "those people" and "these people."  But if this movement is about unity and the uniting of what might otherwise be disparate elements of society, then I want for the protesters to consider one more moral issue, and let's have a Meatless Moral Monday.  I know you're laughing, but it couldn't hurt, after all.  And it might make even more manifest the false dualisms that underscore someone like Moffitt's ability to turn away from all of those voices on the mall.  "Forward together."  All of us this time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Brad Pitt's World War Z sucks, and why no one is saying so

After watching Brad Pitt's World War Z, one of my former students posted this comment on Facebook: "So, you guys know how World War Z the book [by Max Brooks] is a thoroughly researched, well thought-out, nuanced exploration of how the various institutions of the globe might respond to a pandemic such as that of the actual zombie apocalypse? The movie is literally none of those things."  So far, this is the truest and smartest statement I've seen made about the lackluster, not scary, not politically savvy or interesting, not smart, nonsensical and extremely boring film version of Brook's very cool, polyphonic, fake oral history of the zombie war.  

First let me just say that I'm an unashamedly huge fan of the zombie apocalypse genre.  I love both the horrific concept of someone you knew in life potentially eating your face off after death; I love the metaphorical content afforded by the concept of the zombie, the way that the walking dead show us so much about the mindlessness consumption of the living in late capitalism, the soulless nature of the modern condition, the fear of various "others," and the certainty that we may encounter in the not-too-distant future a virus, man-made war, or natural disaster that releases our inherently -- or Kantian -- evil nature.  

When the genre works, it works, which is why I love Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, an utterly terrifying vision of England post-zombie apocalypse, a world where the evil done by human beings in the aftermath is more horrific than anything done by those fast as hell zombies.  It's a premise that AMC's The Walking Dead tried to plagiarize in this last season, possibly because it's such a terribly misogynistic train wreck of a show that it was willing to try this route.  It's why I love the sequence in Edgar Wright's zombie apocalypse parody Sean of the Dead in which Sean wanders out into the post-apocalyptic world and doesn't notice that anything's different, because in many ways, nothing is.

 Sean (Simon Pegg) the day after the end of the world

It's why Ramero's classic socially aware zombie trilogy is so terrifying, provocative, and, yes, funny, particularly, in my opinion, 1978's Dawn of the Dead, which is set in a suburban shopping mall.  And even though the concept and representation of the zombie as mindless consumer and as animated, soulless corpse has evolved over the years -- from seemingly aimless, slow moving masses that, despite their lack of speed, kill you anyway, to fast and even super-fast swarms, social creatures who warrant occasional sympathy (as is the case in the first season of The Walking Dead, for example, or, even more outrageously in Jonathan Levine's Warm Bodies) -- I have to call foul when the rules established by the historical lineage of the genre are completely disregarded.

This is the problem I'm having with what's happened to vampires of late.  Vampires that don't drink human blood?  Not vampires.  Vampires that go out during the day?  Still not vampires.  

 Ah, Edward.

And this is part of the problem with World War Z: its zombies are having an identity crisis.  First of all, are they zombies or aren't they?  The film never really takes a clear stance on that one, and, as a result, the audience has no clear sense of what is happening or why it has happened.  There are swarms of really fast dead looking people ready to ruin your day -- and succeeding with great skill.  These things are seriously lethal: once bitten, victims change in a matter of seconds (no time for introspection or reflection), and once they change, they're pretty much going to change everyone else around them.  This zombie apocalypse could be a fabulous metaphor for what a global pandemic might look like.  But unfortunately, it isn't, because this movie just isn't that smart. 

There's no real development of the pandemic narrative; hell, there's no development of any character or any narrative whatsoever, nor any explanation of what the fuck makes Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane the go-to guy for saving humanity.  But -- and here's the other reason why this movie sucks -- there doesn't need to be: World War Z assumes that we'll just buy Pitt as the sole source of salvation because the beautiful white man always saves humanity in mainstream American films.  And just look at Pitt in all of his Robert Redfordesque Christ-like glory (see the picture below), traipsing off to -- you guessed it -- Jerusalem just in the nick of time to save a few people as the zombie mass comes spilling over the protective wall (drawn, as this mass seems to be, by the singing of silly young women who don't know that these zombie things are "activated" by sound).  How could he not save the world?

The scarf about drove me crazy.  Why bother to accessorize at the end of the world?

So spoiler alert: Pitt's character saves the day, arriving always at just the right moment, in just the right place, with just the right sense of ineffable insight, and just the right sense of fashion.  He figures out that dosing himself with a deadly but curable disease will allow him to walk past zombies without being eaten, and he passes on this knowledge so that a vaccine can be created to immunize non-zombies from the virus (or whatever it is).  That he has no real credentials to do any of these things (he's a former UN investigator) is not important, because Hollywood has a serious hard-on for its white Messiah myth, and it recycles that myth ad nauseam.  As David Brooks notes, "It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen."

But barring my displeasure with its white Messiah complex -- and, really, haven't we seen enough of this story at this point? -- the film is just plain bad.  It's badly written, and for a film that contains such fast zombies, it drags and shuffles along, moaning and making scary noises without ever doing much of anything.  At one point, I was so bored that I took a restroom break, visited the concession stand, and chatted with the kid behind the counter.  When I returned about 10 minutes later, absolutely nothing had happened.

So why, then, is this movie getting pretty good reviews?  And why am I, a person to whom my film studies colleague attributes "no taste whatsoever" (she's right, really; I love anything with Danny McBride in it), one of the only people saying that it sucks?  Because -- and solely because --  Brad Pitt, particularly at this moment in time, is above critical reproach.  On an airplane last month, I read a Vanity Fair article about World War Z's ridiculous production history debacle.  My sense after reading this article was that the movie was going to be an epic disaster but that Brad Pitt is, to borrow an oft used phrase, simply too big to fail.  And in the realm of Hollywood celebrity, he's also too good: he does all sorts of charitable things and has adopted a zillion children from all over the planet.

Then, just weeks prior to the opening of Pitt's must-be-successful film, his partner Angelina Jolie announced via a New York Times editorial that, due to genetic testing that indicated that she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer -- the disease that killed her mother -- she had had a double mastectomy.  How does one say something bad about the work of the partner of such a courageous woman, particularly when he stood by her side throughout her surgery and recovery?  In making this connection, I in no way mean to undermine Jolie's decision to extract her boobies; if I were in her shoes and had her money, I'd do exactly the same thing.  But her surgery also gives meaning and weight to Pitt's vacuous movie in ways that may very well have protected it from harsh criticism.

Jolie's narrative of her preemptive strike against cells that could rapidly mutate and quickly overtake and kill her gives Pitt's zombie narrative the metaphor it needs: even if there's nothing consciously explicit in our thinking about this film post-Jolie's mastectomy, there's enough unconscious provocation to consider that in that space, this film is about another preemptive strike against another rapidly spreading disease.  It's about the sacrifice of the part in the service of the whole; at one point, in order to keep her from dying (or becoming undead), Gerry lobs of the hand of a female Israeli soldier named Segen (Daniella Kertesz) after she's been bitten, and this strategy saves her.  And it's about a man working to get home to his wife and children.

But if reading the film through the narrative of Jolie's choice can give it a kind of meaning that might allow it to make sense, doing so still doesn't make World War Z a good movie.  There's much better zombie fare out there, and there are reasons not to forget the lineage that led to this moment, even if World War Z has forgotten.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Sexual Politics of Scholarship

On May 3, I gave a reading from my contribution to Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat, a book, edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee and published by Lantern Books, that pays homage to Carol J. Adams’s foundational ecofeminist animal studies work The Sexual Politics of Meat, first published in 1990 and in print ever since.  I read my entry at a local bookstore packed to the rafters with friends and strangers alike, all of whom hung on my every word.  At the end of the reading, people hugged me.  They bought the book and asked me to sign it.  In my professional life, I have never given such a reading and, as a result, I have never experienced anything that felt quite as rewarding as what I experienced that evening.

On May 18, Adams posted on Facebook that “in reader reviews for a literary criticism article, the scholar who wrote the article is told that her paper ‘relies too heavily on Carol Adams (a non-academic animal rights writer) for its theorization of animals, women, and oppression.’”  Further, the writer is instructed to incorporate more scholarly animal studies sources, like the work of Derrida, for example.

I want to talk about what’s going on with the dismissal of Adams’s work in terms of what such dismissal says about women’s invention of new ways of knowing in the realm of the academy, and I want to do so because as an academic woman, the omission of Adams’s work from scholarly consideration raises very real and problematic gender-based issues with regard to how we within the academy police and are policed in terms of our scholarly production.  I’m using Adams as my example, because she’s the one I know best, and I think that her case offers real historical parallels to the disappearance of women’s writing more broadly.

Consider, for example, Eliza Haywood, who, during her life (1693?-1756) published over 70 works.  Have you heard of her?  No, you haven't, so don't try to act like you have.

Adams holds a divinity degree from Yale University and has published dozens of books with both academic and popular presses; she publishes in scholarly journals and in mainstream media, and she speaks regularly on college campuses across the country.  She is prolific, productive, philosophical and, yes, accessible.  She is a public intellectual of the first order, an “independent scholar” of the finest magnitude, and she’s been doing work on animal studies, ecocriticism, women’s studies, and literary analysis (to name a few of her areas of intellectual interest) since the 1970s. 

In the realm of animal studies and ecocriticism, there has some attempt to address the way that the recognized “legitimate” scholarly discourse has essentially written certain foundational female theoreticians right out of existence, as male scholars, one after another, appear to tell us, as if for the first time, what these modes of inquiry mean.  For example, in the first edition Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom, Greg Garrard failed to include Adams’s concept of the absent referent in his chapter on animals – an error he corrected in the book’s second edition in 2011, but only after Adams herself made him aware of his oversight.  In his emailed response, he apologized, noting he was, in his own words, “pretty new to the field” when he wrote the book in 2004. 

Garrard.  Still cute, though.

Greta Gaard takes up the omission of female writers like Adams in a 2010 article in Isle in which she advocates for a more feminist ecocriticism, one that addresses the ecocritical revisionism – by such writers as Garrard and Lawrence Buell – that has rendered a feminist perspective largely absent.  She notes that omissions of foundational ecofeminist texts in
ecocritical scholarship are not merely a bibliographic matter of failing to cite feminist scholarship, but signify a more profound conceptual failure to grapple with the issues being raised by that scholarship as feminist, a failure made more egregious when the same ideas are later celebrated when presented via nonfeminist sources. (3)
And in a 2012 essay in Critical Inquiry, Susan Fraiman tracks gender in animal studies, and notes that
In 1975, Peter Singer galvanized the modern animal rights movement with AnimalLiberation, a work that would be heralded as one of its founding texts. That same year, The Lesbian Reader included an article by Carol Adams entitled “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” inspiration for a book eventually published in 1990. Her scholarship contributed to a growing body of ecofeminist work, emergent in the early 1980s, on women, animals, and the environment. (89)

Unlike Adams, who has written consistently over a period of nearly five decades on the subject of animals, Derrida, on the other hand, had only the slightest interest in animal studies, with a singular sustained commentary “L’Animal que donc je suis (a` suivre),” a lecture given in 1997 and published in 2002 as “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” in Critical Inquiry.  Fraiman’s work is concerned with the revisionist history that places Derrida at the fore as the father of legitimate animal studies and erases from that discourse the voices of pioneering women – like Adams.  What Derrida did was to remove the gendered component from the analysis, to take animal studies away from its linkages with women’s studies.

Sacre bleu!  How can he not be foundational?  He's holding a cat forchrissakes.

So my defense of Adams is not really new, but what’s troubling is that despite such attention to the importance of Adams’s work, she continues to be dismissed over and over again as “non-academic,” and I don’t think that this omission is simply about the fact that she doesn’t work in the academy per se.  It’s more about what she’s saying and the way that she says it; it’s more about her unruly feminism and her position that there are linkages with regard to various oppressions – between animals, women, and colonized peoples.  It’s about our tendency to cast feminism as a series of “waves” (first, second, and maybe third), and then decide that if feminist thought occurred during a previous wave, it’s now obsolete.  And it’s about her impatience with patriarchy and with patriarchal dictates that determine not only what constitutes oppression but also how it is appropriate to discuss oppression and patriarchy. 

If this piece feels that it’s about praising Carol Adams, that’s because it is, but it’s also about the stakes more broadly.  Earlier this year, Pat McCrory, Governor of North Carolina, the state in which I live and the state in whose university system I work, commented in a radio interview with Bill Bennett that our system offered courses that offer "no chances of getting people jobs."  He said, “If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job" (Frank). 

This is Pat McCrory (R), Governor of NC.  You've probably forgotten our last governor.  She was a woman and kinda liked education.

At my own university, as the result of an extensive program prioritization process, Women’s Studies has been recommended for discontinuation, marginalized, as it has been, out of relevant existence.  I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I’d like to see women’s studies more elided with the fields that such a moniker indicates: philosophy, anthropology, and English, but I’m also troubled by the fact that women’s voices, as always when they assert themselves in the service of women, fail to be heard, maintained, and championed.

I’m an academic, an English professor who has published a fair number of academic texts, articles in scholarly journals, books with scholarly presses.  I’ve played the game as is appropriate, writing about things that I love only to have them read by very few people because I have chosen, again, as is appropriate, to place my writing in venues that would ensure tenure and promotion even as by and large I’ve relegated my words to inconsequence.  I have presented papers at academic conferences numerous times over the years, but I have never had an audience as large or as interested as the one that I had on May 3, and I don’t know that I ever felt truly heard before then. 

My work has shifted over the course of my career from a focus on postcolonial literature – particularly South African literature and, even more particularly, the novels of J. M. Coetzee – to postcolonial environmentalism, to animal studies, to cultural studies explorations of veganism in mainstream media.  But in all of my scholarly endeavors as well as in my lived experience as an ethical vegan, Carol Adams’s work has proven foundational.  Without Adams, there would likely be no ecofeminism, no real focus on animal studies with regard to literature; her work has found its way into pretty much everything I’ve ever written, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to Defiant Daughters, in order to speak about my lived academic and activist experience as someone who writes about and practices an animal advocacy informed by both philosophy and lived experience. 

Adams sent me an email after learning for the umpteenth time that she’s not scholarly enough and that Derrida invented the field of animal studies.  She said “since the point of [The Sexual Politics of Meat] is its interstitial nature (I guess, not sure that is quite the adjective I want), I know it will always receive criticism. On the other hand, about once a day I get an email or twitter post or Facebook message etc. that says ‘your book changed my life.’ So I prefer the interstitial!” 

In terms of my own scholarship, I want to be influential, to hear that perhaps I’ve changed someone’s life or scholarly focus.  But if I publish in the wrong place or if I publish about the wrong subject (or if I publish about the right subject but in the wrong way), then I will be locked out, or forgotten, or called not scholarly or serious enough to warrant consideration.  And the more I consider the equation of what is scholarly and what is not, maybe the less such a designation matters and the more I’m inclined to want to publish with a press like Lantern, whose activist nature drives its mission.  But regardless of what I do or don’t do, if those of us in the academy continue to perpetuate an elitism that limits or forgets women’s voices, we are doomed to be duped into believing that men’s narratives are the originary myths of our profession, our passion, and our scholarship.  And it’s high time we stopped doing that.

Works Cited

Adams, Carol.  The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.  New York: Continuum, 1990.  Print.

Fraiman, Susan.  “Pussy Panic and Liking Animals: Tracking Gender in Animal Studies.”  Critical Inquiry 39.1 (2012): 89-115.  Print.

Frank, John.  “McCrory wants to revamp higher ed funding -- takes aim at UNC-Chapel Hill.”  News and Observer 29 Jan. 2013.  Web. 18 May 2013.
Gaard, Greta.  New Directions for Ecofeminism: Toward a More Feminist Ecocriticism.”  Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 17.4 (2010): 1-23.  Print.

Garrard, Greg.  Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom.  New York: Routledge, 2004 and 2011.  Print.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Disordered Pronouns, Disordered Eating, and Absented Women: A Journey to The Sexual Politics of Meat

This is an excerpt from a longer piece appearing in Defiant Daughters, soon to be released by Lantern Books.

Back Story
I have to situate myself: I am a middle class white woman from North Carolina, a state that on May 8, 2012 became the 31st to pass an amendment making same sex marriage constitutionally illegal.  According to a New York Times article about North Carolina that appeared three days after the passage of Amendment One, the ambiguous and broad text of which reads that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State,”Social and religious conservatism and economic populism have historically gone hand-in-hand in a state that, for many decades, consisted largely of small farms and mill towns. Thus in a state that became known for first-rate universities, it was illegal to buy a cocktail for most of the 20th century.”

In other words, I exist – and have existed for the majority of my life – in a state (literal and in many ways figurative) of problematic socially ascribed contradictions, a place that, despite its many forward thinking actions, enacts codified and tacit rules that disenfranchise members of its populace.  I have lived elsewhere, in Massachusetts and New York, and I could argue, I suppose, that things were clearer and less muddled there.  But I’ve come back to North Carolina, and it is from within that literal state and its engagement with these various states of being that I continually seek to enact a vegan feminist social activism informed by Carol J. Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, a text I happened upon quite by accident in 2001.

But first things first.

1. I have an early memory of asking my mother why “he” was the universal pronoun.  I didn’t use the phrase “universal pronoun,” but I was conscious at about age five of the fact that “he” was used to mean male or female.  Things have changed since then; I am neither young nor exceptionally old, but old enough to remember being a child prior to “they” entering the mainstream lexicon as both singular and gender neutral;[1] at one point, we were all “he.” 

2. When I was 13, my class took a field trip to a fellow classmate’s father’s sausage processing plant.  I never ate sausage again. 

3.  At the age of 19, I stopped eating just about everything.

4.  A graduate school colleague of mine was beaten within an inch of her life by her ex-spouse, a man against whom she had a restraining order.  The day before he broke into her house and savaged her, he came to her house and killed her dog.  This was the second incident of which I was aware where the mistreatment of a companion animal preceded violence against a woman.  The first happened several years earlier, in 1991.  My parents’ friends’ daughter, Nan Schiffman, was brutally murdered by two men who had worked on a paint crew at her house.  One of the men had done something to her dog, and she had complained to the men’s employers. The men abducted, raped, and murdered Nan, burying her body at an abandoned farm. [2]

How do I link these experiences in this backwards-glancing exercise?  To my mind, they are all about arbitrary and contradictory rules that are gender specific, about consumption, and about violent control.  They are all, as well – and this is something I can only see now, in retrospect – about restoring the absent referent, Carol J. Adams’s term for the way that language is used to remove actual bodies from discussions of the brutalization and consumption of bodies.  In Adams’s formulation, tricks of language are used to characterize “meat” as distinct from “animals”: “through butchering, animals become absent referents.  Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist” (40).

But as I lived these early experiences, I hadn’t yet found and read The Sexual Politics of Meat.  So to reiterate and expound: I come from contradictory circumstances, a state both liberal and conservative, a family both permissive and dictatorial, the daughter to a father who treated me, in many ways, like the son he likely wished I was, but who always came up against his beliefs that girls and women should occupy certain confining spaces.  So here’s the rub: as a teenager, I could drive a tractor and I knew a lot about cars, but if I swore or stayed out late, I’d get in trouble.  I was expected to be smart and pretty, and that was for me an impossible balance, to be cognizant of all the reasons why being pretty was a trap, to be able to articulate those reasons, and to be held to those expectations nonetheless.  To hold myself to them and to punish myself for not adhering to either piece of the equation of beauty and brains.  Hegemony is, after all, rule by consent.  Oh, and I was expected to eat meat.

To be pretty and smart in the south in the 1970s and 1980s, for me at least, was to disappear, to make myself absent.  To absent myself – my body – already rhetorically absent in the universalizing pronouncement of “he,” via an eating disorder that overtook my life for over a decade.

I.  Disordered Pronouns

I don’t remember my mother’s answer to the question about the universal pronoun, or maybe she didn’t have an answer, having always just accepted as truth the fact that femaleness, in the abstraction of generalization, simply ceased to exist, simply disappeared in the crush of overwhelming masculinity.[3]  But to this day I remember raising the question, knowing that there was some injustice in the negation, even as I grew more and more acquainted with what it meant to be negated. And that knowledge stuck.

When I went on that class trip to the sausage plant several years later, I’d already asked my poor parents a second question: where does meat came from?  Did the animals die naturally before we ate them, or were they killed?  Again, I don’t remember the answer, probably, this time, because whatever I was told proved woefully untrue in the blinding glare of the truths revealed to me that day in the processing plant.  Lessons learned and then discarded: “he” is the universal pronoun because it is.  Animals are violently killed and I eat them because I do.  And then I didn’t anymore, at least not those animals, at least not pigs, whose bodies I’d seen hung on hooks, gutted and waiting to be processed.  Never those animals.  Never again.  Sausage was pigs, real, once-living pigs, the bodies of which were bigger than I was, the eyes of which, on that day, stared at me out of dead sockets. 

I stared using “she” as my universal pronoun thereafter as well; I lost points on papers for doing so.  I was consistently corrected, all the way through my undergraduate studies.  I never stopped.[4]

II. Disordered Eating
When I went to college at Appalachian State University, I became a vegetarian, fully and completely, and I started running.  I lived in Boone, North Carolina a tiny town at the time, where nothing bad ever happened.  I ran on backcountry roads; I ran I night.  Running made me feel free.  I was able to eschew eating some meat – sausage, for example – while I lived with my parents, but I couldn’t make a case for not eating any meat without getting in trouble at home.  My life up until that point had been, at least from the time I was about 13 until I left at 18, a struggle to gain some semblance of control of my body and intellect from my parents who – with what I have no doubt were the best of intentions – continually wrested control away from me in their attempts to protect and care for me.  Such circumstances are not unusual; I was the elder of two daughters, the one upon whom they had experimented, as parents must, with how to parent.  They were by turns loving, demanding, and incredibly rigid; I, in turn, was perfectionistic, overachieving, and often profoundly angry. 

The power struggles between my parents and me were more often than not about my body: what I wore, how my hair looked, how far my stomach protruded and why I didn’t hold it in as was more appropriate for a girl of my upbringing.  Undoubtedly, then, food became for me, as it is for many girls like me, both an enemy and a weapon; food was by turns a catalyst for unseemly and inappropriate appetites that threatened to overwhelm me and alternately something that I could resist, the concrete substance through which I demonstrated my will and strength.  Not eating was a paradoxical act of control, one that enabled my first clear acts of defiance even as doing so undermined my health and sanity.  The problem, at least initially, is that I wasn’t sure what I was defying.    

But to be clear: becoming a vegetarian when I went to college and asserting that identity when I went home to visit my family was a manifestation of an awareness that fomented on that visit to the sausage plant years before, that animals that become meat suffer and die to feed us.  I became a vegetarian out of a desire not to participate in that suffering, but my vegetarianism also served as an assertion of my own identity and an affront to my parents who didn’t know what to do with or how to feed a vegetarian daughter and who took understandable offense at what they viewed as a rejection of their care, their nourishment, and their heritage.

I am well aware of the ways that women use vegetarianism as a so-called excuse to cut things out of their diets, and there is a significant body of research on this subject, as chronicled and detailed by my colleague and friend Hal Herzog on his blog at Psychology Today.  What some research would seem to indicate is that women cut meat out of their diets to lose weight; they claim to be vegetarian in order to make an excuse for not eating certain things.  In this light, being a “vegetarian” is divorced from its ethical implications and becomes a way to mask disordered eating. Hal notes an interview he conducted for his recent book Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat: Why it is so Hard to Think Straight about Animals, one woman claimed that “she became a vegetarian when she was a teenager. Then she dropped the bombshell: ‘My vegetarianism was tied up with my eating disorder.’” 

OK, so my vegetarianism was likewise tied up with the eating disorder that fully manifested itself around 1989, but I think that for women who find themselves in such circumstances, the connections between these two things – vegetarianism and eating disorders – are much more complicated than simply one serving as an excuse for the other.  I know that in my case this reality is a profound truth.  Not eating meat made sense to me, and I was not eating meat for ethical reasons; I have never doubted that reality.  But along with not eating meat, I was left with a void with regard to how to eat thereafter; essentially, I was left without resources to enable one great leap in terms of my consciousness with regard to a kind of care for non-human animals – my vegetarianism – to translate into self-care that could nourish and sustain a position that felt so unfamiliar and, in many ways, unsafe to me. 

Think about it this way: if at 19 I was aware on some visceral level – and I was – of a kind of erasure of women and animals via tricks of language that render them absent, then I was not yet aware of the connections between such rhetorical violence and actual violence done to animals and women.  I had no roadmap for making those connections (The Sexual Politics of Meat was still a year from publication, and, as I’ve already noted, I didn’t discover it for another decade) or for knowing how to assert an alternate and independent female identity, no matter how much I wanted to do so.  In the space of being a vegetarian whose prior existence had been predicated on the eating of meat and of being a fledgling feminist whose prior attempts at self-assertion had been effectively quelled, deemed inappropriate, and that I had internalized as the source of doubt and guilt, I found myself shuttling between a positive sense of self-assertion (“eating animals is wrong”) and a negative internalization of learned helplessness (“so what do I do now?”).  I started, quite literally this time, to disappear.  And then women around me, women I knew, women who were independent and self-actualized, disappeared as well.

III.  A timeline
1989: I become a vegetarian.  And Jeni Gray is abducted from the same sidewalk where I run every day in Boone, North Carolina.  She is found raped and murdered two weeks later.  Daniel Brian Lee, the man who killed her, abducts another woman, Leigh Cooper Wallace[5] – a fellow college students and runner like me – again from my running loop and rapes her.  She escapes and identifies him.  He dies of a brain aneurysm in prison several years later.

1990: The Sexual Politics of Meat is published.

1991: Steven Bishop and Kenny Kaiser rape and murder Nan Schiffman after she complains to their employers about their treatment of her dog.

1992: I graduate from Appalachian State University with a BA in English and start graduate study at East Carolina University, where I write an MA thesis on Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, a novel about a young Shona woman named Tambu who goes to live with her English educated relatives.  At one point in the novel, Tambu’s mother lashes out at her “Englishness,” admonishing her “if you are so greedy you would betray your own mother for meat, then go to your [aunt] Maiguru.  She will give you meat.  I will survive on vegetables as we all used to do” (141).  

Tambu’s cousin, Maiguru’s daughter Nyasha, develops an eating disorder, caught as she is between her English upbringing and her Shona culture – one defined by a diet based on meat and the other on a diet based on vegetables – the weight of European and Shona patriarchal standards, and the conflicting expectations of her father that she be an “intelligent girl but . . . also develop into a good woman . . . not seeing any contradiction in this” (88).  When Nyasha’s parents take her to a psychiatrist, he negates her condition telling her family that “Africans did not suffer in the way that they had described.  She was making a scene” (201).

1993: My graduate school colleague’s ex-husband kills her dog and then returns the next day to brutally beat her.

The Impact
“Sexual violence and meat eating, which appear to be discrete forms of violence, find a point of intersection in the absent referent.  Cultural images of sexual violence, and actual sexual violence, often rely on our knowledge of how animals are butchered and eaten.”                                                                                  
                                                --- Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, p. 68

“When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her – isn’t it a bit like killing?  Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood – doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?”

                                                --- Lucy Lurie, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, p. 158

Yeah, I've just harshed your mellow, and I'm sorry bout that.  But to read the rest, buy the book.  I promise that the story gets better -- and so do I.  Proceeds to go Our Hen House.

[1] Actually, this statement is not remotely true: “for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine” (O’Connor and Kellerman).

[2] The court transcript of the Schiffman murder case can be found here.

[3] Here’s the answer, as it appears in an 2009 New York Times editorial by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, authors Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language: “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book…. Fisher’s popular guide, A New Grammar (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”
[4] There is really no right solution to this universal pronoun business, but there are lots of ways to play with the reclamation of language and, therefore, of identity.  Using “they” is one way; alternating between “he” and “she” another.  Creating one’s own gender neutral pronoun – “shhe”? – is an option.  But I decided that I liked using “she” because doing so was jarring, a kind of Brechtian alienation effect.  Brecht claims that “a representation that alienates . . . allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.  The classical and medieval theatre alienated its characters by making them wear human or animal masks” (192).  “She” masked the universalizing “he” in my lexicon; I used it in a way that was recognizable but unfamiliar.  Doing so called the “he” into account, and that was the idea.

[5] The transcript of Leigh Wallace Cooper’s 2010 Oxygen Channel interview about her abduction and rape can be found here.