Part of an interview with Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and Jen Phillips of Mother Jones:
MJ: One question I did have. I really do appreciate the work PETA has done but it has gotten a lot of criticism for using women in some of its ads. A lot of times in bikinis, or scantily clad, I think there was a striptease campaign that came online recently. What do you say to people who criticize PETA and say that it’s not women-friendly, that it denigrates women?
IN: Well, it’s rubbish because the organization is run by a woman, who is me. I marched in the earliest of rallies, I am an adamant feminist, but I’m not a prude and I think you can go to the beach and see people who are in less than you can in a PETA ad. Our people are all volunteers, no one has asked a woman to take off her clothes. I’ve done it myself, we’ve all marched naked if we want to, and I think that it’s very restrictive and in fact wrong. I would expect someone in, say, Iran to tell us that we should cover up, but I don’t expect women or men in this country to criticize women who wish to use their bodies in a form of political statement, to tell them, you need to cover yourself up. There’s this idea of ‘naughty bits’ and I just think it’s funny more than anything else. It’s not sexist, it may be sexual, but no. No woman has ever been paid to strip. She has decided to use her body as a political instrument. That’s her prerogative and I think it is anti-feminist to dare to tell her that she needs to put her clothes back on.
MJ: I guess I just feel that there are so many more women who are vegetarians than male and I don’t know if these campaigns are to raise general awareness or appeal to heterosexual males. What do these campaigns bring for PETA?
IN: It’s a biological fact, isn’t it, that people are drawn to breasts and whathaveyou, it’s just a biological fact. Maybe if everyone walked around naked it wouldn’t be so appealing. But it does, for example, when Alicia Silverstone did a very beautiful, tasteful, ‘naked’ TV spot for us it went everywhere because everyone wanted to take a look. But when people came to the web site, after they saw her commercial, they then were confronted with the facts about why she’s a vegetarian. So when people come to the web site to gawk, they actually get an education. And that’s extremely effective. Because if you just say to people, ‘Hello, would you like to see a slaughterhouse video?’ people are going to say ‘No’ and run in the other direction. But if you say would you like to see Alicia Silverstone without her clothes, most people go, ‘Good Lord, yes. Let’s have a look at that.’
No Ms Newkirk. No. You can’t make sexist behaviour “ok” just by being a woman, as feminists have been pointing out for decades. Women are as subject to systemic sexism as men; women are socialized to be the objects of male sexual desire just as men are socialized to objectfy women and everything in our benighted dominant culture operates to shape, reflect and reiterate that objectification.
It’s no argument to say that the use of female body parts to advertise a cause works. Of course it works. Ms Newkirk would do well to ask herself why it works as well as it does. Is it merely because men are biologically set up to be attracted to female breasts? What of the ‘fact’ that humans are biologically set up to be carnivores? What of the ‘hunter’ part of the ‘hunter/gatherer’ equation? Ms Newkirk and her organization are trying to persuade people to think and behave differently when it comes to our treatment of animals. Feminists are trying to persuade people to think and behave differently when it comes to our treatment of women. One would think that Ms Newkirk would be sympathetic.
Ms Newkirk’s organization uses women as pieces of meat in an attempt to persuade people to treat animals in a humane fashion. It is simply disingenuous for a clearly intelligent woman to pretend that she doesn’t see the connection between our objectification and use of animals for our own selfish ends and the objectification and use of women’s bodies as a prop for patriarchy. I don’t care what species of female she is.
To confuse feminist arguments with ‘prudery’ is either unforgiveably careless or deliberately obtuse.
PETA’s striptease quiz