Talking Through Feminist Critiques of PETA: A Call for Animal Rights to be a Project of Media and Culture Studies Scholars

Curator's Note

Animal rights activism faces an interesting predicament when trying to rear its head (no pun intended) into the realm of mainstream media and, subsequently, mainstream politics. Various PETA campaigns are one of the most prominent and highly visible outlets for animal rights activism in the mainstream media. Using the tired tactics of sex and shock, PETA’s “I Rather Go Naked Than Fur” campaign uses nude or semi-nude models, often celebrities, in an attempt to draw attention to animal rights issues, particularly issues concerning the violent and inhumane practices of the fur and food industry.  Subsequently, this campaign has invoked numerous feminist responses to its objectifying and degrading ads. (For examples, see Jezebel and Feministing.)

This rupture between feminists and animal rights activists caused by this highly visible campaign brings to the fore its contradictory nature, ultimately displacing and sidetracking the project. By using the proverbial master's tools of patriarchy, sexism, and consumerism to dismantle the capitalistic project of keeping the distance, both mentally and physically, between consumers and their food (which relies on similar dominant ideologies to keep its hegemonic status), PETA’s campaigns sever ties to a political group that essentially works for similar social change. By stripping women down to their skins, there is a visual connection being drawn between women and animals as both objects meant to be ogled and consumed.

When discussing the PETA campaign in various media and culture studies circles, I see the message of animal rights becoming lost in the controversy; thus, its validity is often dismissed. A basic premise of media studies and cultural studies scholarship is to unveil, critique, and question hegemonic cultural power relations.  If the underlying project of cultural studies is to do such things, I believe, animal rights and, subsequently, food politics are projects that are incredibly underdeveloped and often disregarded.  Therefore, I believe there needs to be a refusal to see animal rights as a movement that naturally rests on the hinges of sexism and patriarchy, and an effort in our inquires of power and culture to integrate animal rights into our scholarship and politics.


Thanks for this call, Candice. The footage of PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk in close proximity to feminist protesters is a vivid staging of the tensions you’re discussing.

I agree that animal rights especially is an underdeveloped project in cultural studies. But perhaps this is not a bad thing. Perhaps animal rights doesn’t work within cultural studies as its currently practiced, if only because it exposes the dilemma of pursuing intellectual and social justice that takes a rights-bearing/worthy subject as a primary unit of analysis and change. That kind of approach doesn’t seem well-suited to the troubles faced by nonhuman animals, for a bunch of reasons. It may not even be well-suited for humans.

I think the feminist critique of PETA’s work is fair game, but it also seems tangential to the other productive alliances that could be forged here – alliances based not on the shared circumstance of being rendered objects (in the mainstream media and elsewhere), but on the possibility of dismantling the subject/object dyad altogether. How that would play out in terms of activism is a big and pressing question.


PETA is indeed a puzzle. Their use of a 'sexy' aesthetic in their public outreach could be taken as self-defeating or strategic. I suspect that the target audience for the campaigns employing nude women are people who wear fur and eat meat--these are people for whom the idea of giving up fur or meat is pretty radical. For those people to also be asked to give up sexism or the objectification of women's bodies in the fashion industry as well may be just too much. I have always seen the Pam Anderson PETA moments in particular as an attempt to gently persuade fashion-conscious women and the men who like to look at them: "Don't worry, we understand you, and it's not radical to be fur-free or vegetarian/vegan, it's sexy and fun." Also, I wonder how the women who pose for the PETA celebrity-nude images would take the assertion that they are not feminists? (This is an old question I know, but one we must always ask to stay publicly relevant, I think.)

Although... sometimes I suspect that the most important effect of PETA is the creation of fear of PETA. That is, there are many people who make use of animals who dread the day when PETA will turn their attention to them. And in places this potential has allowed people within those communities to urge their reticent colleagues: "Stop stalling, we'd better clean up our act or quit this business or we may become the target of a PETA media campaign, which would ruin us." This effect of PETA is hard to quantify, but it is real.

What I find most fascinating about PETA is their assertive use of a combination of old media and new media to present the public with a series of institutional personae. One the one hand, they still use press releases or provocative images to get journalists and others to cover animal issues as "NEWS" rather than relegating animals to sappy human-interest stories slotted after the weather report. On the other hand--and far more important for the long term I believe--is their various demographically-targeted websites: for young kids; for teens (currently featuring a campaign to end high school animal dissections and where one can click to "Meet High School Musical hottie Matt Prokop and his favorite mutt, Barkley!" for instance); and  for those over age 50. In each of these cases PETA's information is carefully crafted for that particular group of people and employs none of their celebrity-nude campaign material as far as I can see. Consequently they come off as far less sensational and appear very hip and persuasive. 

So, I guess what I'm asking is: Which of the PETA personae should scholars be engaging with?

 Lisa -- Thanks for your comments.  You bring up some really interesting and note-worthy points. Particularly, your point about another potential alliance over the dismantling of the object/ subject dyad.  I'd like to hear more about what you think about this.  


Susan -- I really appreciate your comments.  PETA and all of their tactics, potential effects, etc. have always been incredibly interesting to me as well -- hence, the reason I wrote this piece.  I haven't given too much thought about the various outlets of PETA that are geared toward different demographic groups based on age.  But I'd think that all of these personae should be fair game.  I'd also be interested in looking at this different personae for whom PETA implicitly, presumably, constructs as their target audience.  I have a feeling we'd be encountering another example of an exnominated white, middle-class project.  

The dismantling of the subject/object dyad might be understood as a political project or something that happens anyways, leaving us with the job of making sense and change out of it.

As a project, an alliance built on dismantling is one that would take difference (sexual and species) very seriously. Once we do that,  efforts to become recognized and treated as a fully or nearly human subject might seem misplaced...especially if that subjectivity still draws on a liberal democratic humanism as its point of reference (the kind that, in the U.S. for example, required the labor of slaves in order to produce the free-thinking and acting citizen).

As something that happens anyways, the everyday muddying up of what is a subject and what is an object strikes me as a cornerstone of representation more broadly. For almost every image of an objectified naked woman, there seems to be an argument for subversive readings, the agency of the so-called object, or the degradation of viewers themselves. I'm not apologizing for PETA's tactics -- you're right, Candice, they are tired!, and Susan, they are threatening! -- but I suspect the critique of objectification is one part of these complicated pictures. Maybe there's an alliance to be made out of this complexity.

PETA is such an interesting case, especially in terms of its publics and appeals, so I enjoyed reading this post.  It's certainly a polarizing organization.  My main experience with PETA debate has been among my fellow dog fanciers.  Many people I know who compete in dog obedience, agility, conformation, herding, hunt tests and so on are vehemently opposed to PETA – largely because of the way that it targets the various publics that Susan mentions, and the degree to which fanciers think that PETA is misleading pet lovers into giving it money when its actual agenda is to do away with pet ownership (citing quotations from founder Ingrid Newkirk like those listed here).

I don't study social movements, but the ways in which PETA aligns itself with or eschews alliances with other liberation movements (including the animal welfare movement) seems like an area that merits study. 



Interesting post. There does indeed seem to be some kind of disjuncture between cultural studies and the discussions of animals. I've been repeatedly amazed how, when talking about animal issues to the most liberal, right-on, power-critiquing colleagues of mine, the topic of animals not only results in derision but also, quite often, anger. I've been shouted at for making links between racism, sexism and speciesism, when I've always thought they're the end-products of the same system. Is this because cultural studies, by its nature, places faith in the human? Or is it because worrying about animals appears to trivialise the cultural studies project?

Brett:  Amen to that! I think some scholars may have strong emotions about critiques of animal exploitation because they believe it is a zero sum game. Some have told me that to compare systems of exploitation grounded in speciesism to systems grounded in race, gender, class or age is to implicitly "bestialize" the exploited people in question (because at heart those speakers see animals as dirty or stupid?--I'm not sure?). Of course, I don't know any scholars who would want to bestialize anyone, although it is a frequent and nefarious practice in human history. In any event, we should embrace those disagreements as opportunities to urge others to question definitions of non-humans as "bestial." 

 Brett and Susan -- I can't agree with you two more.  

Brett, I, too, have had similar reactions when discussing animals rights.  Your questions are very thought-provoking.  And call me an idealist, but I hope your latter question is far from the case!  

And, Susan, there does indeed seem to contradictory arguments circulating around the reasoning behind the exclusion of animals rights as part of a cultural studies project.  I think embracing these disagreements and potentially turning them into moments of questioning can be very powerful. 

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