Friday, October 30, 2009

A vegan-feminist lament

Natalie Portman is being gleefully skewered by bloggers and columnists for comparing attending a dinner with meat eaters with being asked to accept rape. What if Natalie Portman had suggested the opposite, not that meat eating is like rape, but that rape is like meat eating? “He treated me like a piece of meat!” that’s one thing that a rape survivor may say. A battered woman reported: "He really made me feel like a piece of meat, like a receptacle. My husband had told me that all a girl was was a servant who could not think, a receptacle, a piece of meat." In these examples, meat's meaning does not refer to itself but to how a woman victim of violence felt.

Reversing the direction of the metaphor is acceptable in our culture; it happens all the time. Animals are the raw material, not just for meat eating, but for metaphors that convey the immensity of feeling oppressed

In The Sexual Politics of Meat, I propose that the term meatis functioning as an absent referent: one cannot truly like a piece of meat because meat by definition is something violently deprived of all feeling. In regard to rape victims and battered women, the death experience of animals acts to illustrate the lived experience of women.

Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food. The absent referent is that which separates the flesh eater from the animal and the animal from the end product One does not eat meat without the death of an animal. Live animals are thus the absent referents in the concept of meat. The absent referent permits us to forget about the animal as an independent entity; it also enables us to resist efforts to make animals present. The absent referent functions to cloak the violence inherent to meat eating, to protect the conscience of the meat eater and render the idea of individual animals as immaterial to anyone’s selfish desires.. The function of the absent referent is to allow for the moral abandonment of a being.

The animals become absent referents, whose fate is transmuted into a metaphor for someone else's existence or fate. It is there through inference, but its meaningfulness reflects only upon what it refers to because the originating, literal, experience that contributes the meaning is not there. We fail to accord this absent referent its own existence. This is the frustration of any alert vegan when eating with meat eaters. We encounter the absent referent before us, and the question is: what is our responsibility?

When vegans eat with meat eaters, many of us don’t see “meat.” We see the remains of a morally abandoned being, at the center of the table, being buried into the stomachs of those around us. We are not just supposed to be quiet, we are supposed to be polite.

What if Natalie Portman had used feminist-vegan theory? What if she had said something directly from The Sexual Politics of Meat: Through the structure of the absent referent, patriarchal values become institutionalized, and the result is interconnected, overlapping oppressions: Sexual violence and meat eating, which appear to be discrete forms of violence, find a point of intersection in the absent referent. A structure of overlapping but absent referents links violence against women and the fragmentation and dismemberment of nature and the body in Western culture.

Is there a sound bite for that? The Pornography of Meat proposes that women are animalized and animals are sexualized and feminized. Perhaps this is why advertisements for meat eating obsessively present and represent these interconnected oppressions. According to meat eating ads, someone wants to be eaten, the question is who. In the sexist responses to Portman’s statement, some men have been providing their own salacious answer. It has to do with meat eating, it has to do with the sexual politics of meat.

There is nothing surprising in any of this. That’s this vegan-feminist’s lament.


  1. Thank you for reading. I know the idea of the absent referent is complicated, and it isn't as easy as having soundbites about what Natalie Portman did or did not say; but I wanted to try to bring a little light to all the heat!

  2. Nice blog post. What's interesting (and fully ignored by almost everyone) is that Portman wasn't the one to conflate meat with rape. She was paraphrasing a section of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which posited the comparison as a basic test of tolerance to the behavior of others. Essentially, what attracted no comment when Pollan made the comparison has sparked a firestorm when repeated by Portman. Textbook sexism? Completely.

  3. Very valid point, in perfect alignment with the Sexual Politics of Meat (which I greatly enjoyed and further learned from). It is truly amazing the amount of sexual references that appear in everyday life (at least in the USA etc.) that relate women to meat. This does not appear to upset anyone until the tables are turned. I agree with Portman, I feel violated every holiday with my family during the meals....not to mention the consistent badgering that occurs elsewhere simply for making ethical vegan choices!

  4. This is great- compelling and spot on! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for reading and commenting. Re: Portman and Pollan; Portman makes meat eaters feel uneasy, she is establishing accountability, Pollan is letting them off the hook in many ways, so yes, I think, both sexism and anti-veganism (which, so often, go together!). Veganvere, good luck at Thanksgiving. it is hard.

  6. Dear Carol,

    I´d like you to know that two girls and I are going to make a vegafeminist workshop in two weeks. It´s the first time we do it. And I´m going to use fragment of The Sexual Politics of Meat and some images taken from our context (non american) inspired on your discoveries. Thank you for your work! I wish you the best!