Recently, there was a debate on the excellent and always lively Vegan Freak Forums between what may generally characterized as “postmodern feminists” and “radical feminists.” Postmodern feminists acknowledge that a woman’s choice to commodify herself sexually may represent an act of empowerment and cannot be assessed in any definitively negative way. These feminists are often pro-pornography, or are at least not anti-pornography. Radical feminists are more inclined to reject the commodification of women as inherently problematic. They are generally anti-pornography and are particularly opposed to pornography in which women are depicted as recipients of violent or abusive treatment. They regard most gender stereotypes as harmful to both women and men and seek to undermine these stereotypes. Postmodern feminists often argue that “feminine” stereotypes can help to empower women.
This debate has some interesting and important parallels with the debate on abolition vs. welfare. Indeed, postmodern feminism and animal welfare are the same theory applied in different contexts.
I. “Happy” Commodification: The postmodern feminist position has the effect of making people more comfortable about the exploitation of women. If a woman decides to become a sex worker, that is regarded as an empowering choice that feminists should support. Postmodern feminism rejects making any negative normative judgments about these exploitative institutions or how they affect women in lower socio-economic classes who do not have the privileges of the postmodern feminists, who are, by and large, white, middle-class, and well-educated.
Given the stamp of approval that is placed on self-commodification by the postmodern feminists, it is easy to understand the reaction of men when the issue of pornography or other forms of exploitation comes up: “What’s wrong with it? The feminists say it’s okay.” Last week, I was told by a postmodern feminist on the Vegan Freak Forum that I was an anti-feminist because of my “vocal disdain” for strip bars. Anyone reading that thread who was thinking about whether to go to such a place received the approval of someone who calls herself a “feminist”—one who claims to be a graduate student in a women’s studies program no less. Indeed, the message was clear: patronizing a strip bar is a way of showing that you respect the decision a woman makes to engage in that sort of activity. It’s not only okay to go to strip bars; it’s a feminist thing to do. Remarkable.
I want to emphasize that no one is talking about criticizing or judging individual women who make such self-commodifying decisions. The issue is only whether those opposed to sexism should oppose these exploitative institutions. The postmodern feminists say that we should not do so; the radical feminists maintain that we should.
It is not surprising that PETA embraces the postmodern approach to feminism and encourages women to engage in exploitative actions “for the animals.” We have had decades of PETA sexist stunts ranging from “I’d rather go naked than [fill in the blank with just about anything]” to a “State of the Union Undress” with full frontal nudity. The postmodern feminists can always be counted on to serve as PETA’s cheering squad in the event that radical feminists point out that a movement that opposes the commodification of nonhumans should also object to the commodification of humans.
And we can see that the same thinking that is behind the postmodern approach is reflected directly in the animal context with devastating results. We have Peter Singer, PETA, HSUS, and virtually all of the major animal welfare groups, many of whom/which claim to represent the “animal rights” position, arguing that animal exploitation may be morally defensible if our treatment of exploited animals is “humane.” We can be “conscientious omnivores” and indulge in the “luxury” of consuming animal products as long as we are eating nonhumans slaughtered in abattoirs approved by PETA award-winner Temple Grandin or sold at Whole Foods, declared by PETA to have strict standards of animal welfare, or eggs produced in “cage-free” barns, etc.
Given the stamp of approval of Singer, PETA, etc., it is easy to understand why, when we are trying to promote veganism, we are often met with the response: “What’s wrong with eating meat (eggs, cheese, etc.)? The animal rights people say it’s okay.” PETA says that McDonald’s is “leading the way” in reforming fast-food animal welfare and the iconic Jane Goodall is a Celebrity Supporter of Stonyfield Dairy. The animal welfare movement makes people feel more comfortable about animal exploitation just as the postmodern feminists make people feel better about participating in the exploitation of women. You can be a “feminist” as you enjoy a lap dance at a strip bar; you can be an “animal rights” person as you eat your “cage-free” eggs or meat that is approved by animal protection organizations.
In sum, postmodern feminists have created a brand of “happy” commodification for women just as the welfarists have created the phenomenon of “happy” meat and animal products. The postmodern feminists often conveniently ignore the fact that women involved in the sex industry are raped, beaten, and addicted to drugs just as the welfarists conveniently ignore that animal products–including those produced under the most “humane” circumstances–involve horrible animal suffering. And both groups ignore that the commodification of women and animals, irrespective of treatment, is inherently objectionable.
Both the postmodern feminist position and the new welfarist position are steeped in the ideology of the status quo. They both reinforce the default position of animals as property and women as things whose personhood is reduced to whatever body part(s) and body images we fetishize. They both just put little smiley faces on what is in essence a very reactionary message.
I should note another direct relationship between at least some feminists and the welfarists. The former have at times claimed to reject rights for animals because they have declared that rights are “patriarchal” and we should instead use an “ethic of care” to assess our obligations to nonhumans. That is, these feminists deny the existence of universal rules that would prohibit our using animals in all circumstances; rather, the morality of animal use would be determined by looking at the particulars of a situation to see if certain values of caring had been satisfied. It is interesting to note that no feminist of whom I am aware maintains that the morality of rape is dependent on an ethic of care; all feminists rightly claim that rape is never justified. But this is no different from saying that women have a right not to be raped. So feminists allow for rights-type protection where humans are concerned but not where nonhumans are concerned. Not all feminists take this position, but some who identify themselves as animal advocates and some welfarists have claimed to embrace the ethic of care as an alternative to animal rights. (I have a chapter on animal rights and the ethic of care in my forthcoming book, Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation.)
II. The Rules About Permitted Discourse: There are also parallels between the rules of discourse often imposed by the postmodern feminists and the welfarists. Both groups have a tendency to regard any criticism of their position as unacceptable. The postmodern feminists accuse the radical feminists of being “patriarchal,” “oppressive,” “abusive,” “disempowering,” etc. if the latter disagree with the “self-commodification as feminism” approach. The welfarists regard any criticism of welfare reform as “bashing,” “divisive,” and as “hurting the animals.” Both postmodern feminists and welfarists make frequent calls for “movement unity,” which is code for the position that those who disagree should stop disagreeing and support the postmodern feminist or welfarist position. Attempts by radical feminists or abolitionists to have reasoned discourse on these issues are rejected as futile or elitist “intellectual” or “academic” efforts that merely frustrate efforts to liberate women or nonhumans.
This style of discourse reflects the tactics of the reactionary right. Any dissent is automatically demonized and attempts at reasoned discussion are rejected in favor of slogans and other empty rhetoric that do nothing except maintain the dominant ideology of exploitation.
It is a shame, but not surprising, that such tactics have found their way into supposedly progressive social movements.
Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione