Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, looks at Carol J. Adams’ book “The Sexual Politics of Meat” to see how it applies to “fake meats”
I feel shame when I think about it.
When in the 1990s I was working and living at the Monkey Sanctuary in Looe, Cornwall, where the communal meals were vegetarian or vegan and no meat could be cooked in the house, I was still a meat eater. On my day off, if I went to Plymouth, the nearest city, I would go to eat my favourite fast-food meal, fried chicken cooked in the style of a southwestern US state.
I completely felt for the perverted witchcraft of the company’s PR wizards. Cunningly burying parts of sentient beings’ bodies — bones and all — in a greasy blanket of deep-fried wheat flour and spices, customers would no longer think they are eating animal flesh but they would think they are eating an exotic savoury pasty of some sort instead. Add some half-digested salty fried potatoes and some carbonated foamy liquid sugar, and you get such an addictive combo that people would buy it in buckets —literally!
I felt for it, like many others, but when I became vegan a couple of years after leaving the sanctuary, I put an end to such shameful unhealthy addiction. Well, it took me about ten years of veganism to adopt a wholemeal plant-based diet, so although I changed food sources I continued to eat unhealthy food for a while, but I stopped my direct willing contribution to animal agriculture right then when I became an ethical vegan in January 2002. So, my shameful behaviour stopped then — although the feeling of shame returns when I think how long it took me to make the change.
However, has it really stopped? Did my shameful behaviour stop completely when I became vegan? It depends on what other unethical activities I may still be participating in which becoming vegan did not entirely eliminate. Perhaps I did not pay enough attention and I might have engaged in racist behaviour, even when I consider myself anti-racist. Perhaps I was too relaxed and I might have contributed to the destruction of the environment more than I should have, considering I see myself as an environmentalist too. Perhaps I was not careful enough and I might have played along with sexist situations when I should have challenged them as I think I am feminism-friendly.
On the latter, it would be good if I checked what renowned vegan feminists say because they are likely to see things that I may have missed. And who better to do that than with the American writer, feminist, animal rights advocate, independent scholar, and intersectional vegan Carol J. Adams. In 1990, she published a very influential book titled “The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory”, so when I started exploring the social justice dimension of veganism (after I had already explored the animals, environment, and health dimensions but before I explored the spiritual dimension, the last one of the five dimensions I think veganism has) I decided I had to read it.
I could see why Adams’ book was so influential, as she focused on the links between the oppression of women and that of non-human animals, and on the “real men eat meat” carnist paradigm. Considering that, according to any poll anywhere, most vegans are women, I am not surprised her revelations struck a chord with the entire vegan movement. In the preface, we can read, “This book details these interrelationships and examines the connections between male dominance and meat eating. It argues that to talk about eliminating meat is to talk about displacing one aspect of male control and demonstrates the ways in which animals’ oppression and women’s oppression are linked together.”
I do not doubt that her work led many women to become vegan (even if at the time they would call themselves vegetarian as that was more socially accepted in the previous century), and it remains very relevant today as the problems she identified still are widespread. Her book made much sense to me, and it confirmed that the intersectional approach (which I now prefer to call it the overlapping approach), was the progressive modern evolved way to look at veganism.
The book also reassured me that my perception of myself being feminism-friendly (I am not sure if I could ever qualify as a full feminist as I am a cisgender male boomer and some may argue this characterisation may constitute an insurmountable barrier) was still valid.
A few months ago, though, I did something that made me revisit this. I did something that made me feel shame again. I ate some food that reminded me of that fried chicken I loved so much, and I stopped eating about 20 years ago. And it reminded me of it because it was designed to remind me of it. It was a plant-based version of that fried chicken, which to me, tasted exactly like the one that makes me feel shameful. The meat in it was “fake meat”, but the feeling of shame, the memory of it, was not fake.
I thought I had to revisit Carol J. Adams’ book, and with it as a guide, see if I could discover The Sexual Politics of Fake Meat. That is a subject I think needs to be addressed, as there has never been a time in history with more fake meats — much more accomplished in their imitation — hanging around.
Before we begin looking for the sexual politics of fake meat, we need to understand some of the meanings used in Adams’ book. Firstly, it’s important to realise that when she often uses the term “vegetarian” she actually means “vegan”. The book was written in the late 1980s’, when many vegans would not have any problem being defined as vegetarians — a special type of vegetarian, anyway — and even the organisations we associate more with campaigning for veganism (such as PETA or Viva!) were only daring to ask people to become vegetarian because the term “vegan” was not recognised by the majority of the population yet. Throughout the book, Adams call herself a vegetarian while she was (and is) vegan, but on page 63 she writes, “The Sexual Politics of Meat is truly a feminist-vegan critical theory.” By choosing the word “truly” she reveals the true meaning of the term “vegetarian” when used throughout her book.
Also, in the not-that-distant past, many vegetarians who objected to meat-eating on ethical grounds consumed milk and eggs because they thought they needed them for survival, assuming they went as far as they could go in abstaining from animal products as today’s vegans claim they go. Ethical vegetarian feminists of the 19th century such as Dr Anna Kingsford, Annie Besant, or Frances Power Cobbe, could be good examples of that. But once decades passed after the creation of the Vegan Society in 1944, the evidence that people could live healthy lives following a vegan diet became widely available, so many radical feminists of the time became vegan. Kathleen Jannaway, one of the pioneers of the Vegan Society, said the following about the early vegans in a speech in 1992: “They didn’t know what they were doing, they didn’t know how far their experiment was going to reach, how far its results were going to be, how important it was going to be 45 years later, when the world is in the state it is today. But because they tried it, because they started to bring up their children vegan, now, 45 years later, we’ve got vegans of advanced age who can still stand on a public platform — and generally speaking, are proud of their health. We’ve got people that are life vegans producing children of their own, who are growing to teenage and beyond. We’ve proven it. We’ve proved that in any generation animal products are not necessary for human health.” This speech was given just two years after the publication of Adams’ book.
In some respects, this wider use of the term “vegetarian” is similar to how the American psychologist Dr Melanie Joy uses meat-eating concerning the term “carnism” she coined in 2001, popularised in her 2009 book “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.” She defined carnism as “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals.” In other words, the prevailing ideology in society which, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly, legitimizes animal consumption, specifying which animals can be consumed and how. Although the term derives from the word “meat”, I believe it does not refer exclusively to meat-eating, but to the consumption of animal products, because, currently, the term carnism is popularly used as meaning the opposite of veganism. The term originally focused on the ideology of eating meat but is now used to mean using any animal products, not only eating, and not only meat, as eating meat is the archetype of a supremacist ideology of dominance that extends beyond food.
Similarly, in Adams’ book, a vegetarian, someone who does not eat meat for ethical reasons, is the contra-archetype of the meat-eater archetype, who not only is someone who eats meat but also someone who eats eggs and dairy, wears leather and wool, goes fishing or hunting, etc. In other words, Adams’ vegetarian is a vegan who represents the opposite of the typical carnist, and the meat concept is just a symbol of the battle between the two.
What Meat Means
Understanding the concept of “meat” is crucial to understand Adams’ work. She not only uses it to mean the literal flesh of any animal (including fishes and invertebrates) that people consume, but she postulates it has also a symbolic meaning, as it carries a text we can read when we see meat being served and consumed. It’s a meaning closely associated with the values of dominance in patriarchal societies. She writes…
“By speaking of the ‘texts of meat’ we situate the production of meat’s meaning within a political-cultural context. None of us chooses the meanings that constitute the texts of meat, we adhere to them. Because of the personal meaning meat has for those who consume it, we generally fail to see the social meanings that have actually predetermined the personal meaning. Recognizing the texts of meat is the first step in identifying the sexual politics of meat.”
The text she says meat carries includes the following:
“It carries a recognizable message—meat is seen as an item of food, for most meat is an essential and nutritious item of food; its meaning recurs continuously at mealtimes, in advertisement, in conversations; and it is comprised of a system of relations having to do with food production, attitudes toward animals, and, by extension, acceptable violence toward them.”
Historically and through the reading of literary texts, the book discusses the connections between feminism and vegetarianism, and between patriarchy and meat eating. It shows how the hidden meaning of meat means “dominance”, so the dominant demographics (men) eat more meat, and those who challenge such dominance (feminists) eat less meat. This meaning explains why meat has been seen as the “best” food (in times of shortage, women often gave men the meat), and why people ask vegans the tiresome “where do you get your protein?” question (because they think good food = protein = meat, while none of these equivalences is true). Adams writes…
“Meat’s recognizable message includes association with the male role; its meaning recurs within a fixed gender system; the coherence it achieves as a meaningful item of food arises from patriarchal attitudes including the idea that the end justifies the means, that the objectification of other beings is a necessary part of life, and that violence can and should be masked. These are all a part of the sexual politics of meat.”
Meat means power. Meat is the trophy of hunting. Meat is the food of the rich. Meat is the reward of victory. Meat is the ration of the privileged. Meat is the feast of kings. Meat is the supremacists’ food. It symbolises the same as “whiteness” and “manhood”. In the same way that for a patriarchal white supremacist racist system an “animal” means anyone inferior, non-meat is seen as the food of the inferior (women and vegetarians). For speciesist supremacist carnists, the more you distance yourself from meat (as we vegans do) the more inferior they think you are, and if you happen to be a vegan male, they will insult you by “feminising” you (the classic slur “soy boy” alluding to supposedly feminising effects of eating soya), because they will consider women inferior.
And in patriarchal societies, men are not only seen as the superior beings who eat the superior food, but also those who obtain it and processed it (literally or figuratively). In foxhunting, there is no such thing as huntswomen, only huntsmen, because although the Master of the hunt may be a woman, invariably the actual person directing the hounds to hunt is always a man. Most people who fish are also men, as are also most trophy hunters, pheasant shooters, and even most butchers and fish manglers.
This not only applies to killing animals and processing them, but also to keeping them captive and exploiting them, as more dairy and egg farmers are also men. Meat is a symbol of carnism, not just meat eating. Meat symbolises dominance and supremacy.
The Absent Referent
One of the most important concepts in Adams’ book is the “absent referent”. This means something missing that people dealing with meat don’t see, because it is “absent” in the form meat is presented. And what is missing is to whom the meat refers (the referent). Meat is always part of someone. It was the flesh of an animal, someone who existed, who was alive and could suffer. But when we transform such parts into meat, we have eliminated the connection. Meat is also the consequence of killing someone, but that connection with the killing is also absent — as, on most occasions, it is done out of sight of the meat consumer. When people consume meat, they do not see the animal anymore, and they do not see the killing. The animal and death the meat refers to have been erased, and this is why people consume meat without guilt.
On her website, Adams writes about this concept the following: “Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. This is the ‘absent referent.’ 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. It is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone, to allow for the moral abandonment of another being.”
Adams shows in her book how this absent referent is achieved by a process of objectification (viewing another being as an object), fragmentation (dividing the object into pieces treated separately), and consumption (the parts of that object are now seeing as “nutritious” food items to be devoured), which enables the oppression of animals so they are erased and rendered inferior being through technology, language, and cultural representation. For many vegans, this would make a lot of sense. But the brilliant part of the book is to point out how, in patriarchal societies, women are also objectified (as pornographic objects), fragmented (women seen as pieces of meat) and consumed (sexually), which also forms an absent referent that creates the guilt-free misogyny and sexual exploitation we see around. She writes…
“The Sexual Politics of Meat argues that male dominance and animals’ oppression are linked by the way that both women and animals function as absent referents in meat eating and dairy production, and that feminist theory logically contains a vegan critique…An overlap of cultural images of sexual violence against women and fragmentation and dismemberment of nature and the body in Western culture exists. This cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption links butchering with both the representation and reality of sexual violence in Western cultures, that normalizes sexual consumption. This structure creates entitlement to abuse; with the structure of the absent referent the states of objectification and fragmentation disappear and the consumed object is experienced without a past, without a history, without a biography, without individuality.”
The Texts of Fake Meats
How would the concept of absent referent relate to fake meats? If the patriarchal carnist societies are exploiting animals and women by creating absent referents that make “consumers” forget “who” is behind the “fragmented” products they consume, the role of a vegan and a feminist would be to do the opposite, to break that system. It would be to constantly remind such consumers about those who are forgotten. Constantly remind them that behind that burger there was a loving cow, behind that sausage the was a clever pig, behind that pornographic photo there is a caring mother, behind that abused wife there is a brilliant scientist. And that is what we vegans have been doing all along — remember the slogans of “Meat is murder”, or the posters of animals in abattoirs paraded in front of meat restaurants.
We were going somewhere. We were challenging the system reminding people “who” is behind the food they ate…until fake meats came along. Now, by looking at a piece of meat, we can no longer say “that was a pig”, or “that was a chicken,” because we no longer know. The efforts to make fake meat as close as possible to animalistic meat means that the attempts of vegans to make people connect their food with those who suffered behind it are now being weakened.
When we were chanting “eat plants, not meat” everybody knew what we meant, but when we now chant “eat this meat, not that meat” people don’t understand it anymore, because both meats now look the same, and we may be entering a new phase where those who sell them can deceive any customer telling what they want to hear — telling a meat-eater that the burger is made of beef and a vegan that is made of soya.
Carnism created the absent referent to allow consumers to eat animals without guilt, then vegans — and ethical vegetarians — fought that “collective amnesia” by reminding consumers “who” are behind meats and what happened to them, but now fake meats are coming to the rescue of carnism by defending the concept of meat (with all its patriarchal symbolic text of dominance and masculinity) and handicapping vegans attempts to prove the connection between meat production and animal suffering.
Is that right? Are fake meats playing in the “carnist” side of the sexual politics of meat? If that was the case, we would see the major meat producers investing in fake meats and selling them in big meat restaurant chains, would be not? Wait, isn’t that precisely what we have seen in the last few years?
The Carnist Fake Meats
In recent years, the carnist industries have been worried about the threat of veganism being increasingly persuasive in arguing for abandoning animal-based diets and replacing them with plant-based diets. Opportunistically — as opposed to in a conspiratorial way — they realised that a good strategy to neutralise this threat would be switching the idea of an animal-based diet to a burger-sausage-cheese diet. If they could make it impossible to tell the difference between animal-based burgers, sausages, fish fillets or cheese, and those plant-based versions, vegans would be disarmed, and more animal-agriculture-tolerant flexitarians and reducetarians could take their place. If the meats cannot be told apart, and if people still believe that food means “meats and dairy”, rather than “fruits and vegetables”, the carnist industries may be safe, and the patriarchal dominant exploitative sub-text of their products can remain unchallenged. The good thing for these industries was that they did not need to do much to accomplish this. They only need to let the plant-based entrepreneurs do the hard work and grow, and then step in and buy their businesses. They did not need to even publicise their new meats…they would let vegans do that for them.
The hidden message carried by meat production and consumption, the message of dominance that says it is the food of the powerful, because it is the “best” food (remember the good-food = protein = meat false mantra), and it is made by those who can dominate and kill big beasts (from bulls to mammoths), it is still delivered via fake meats.
For some vegans (especially those still in the rooky-vegan phase), to be satisfied with their meals, they still feel the need to add something that looks like meat to a dish of perfectly lovely and fresh vegetables, nuts and grains. They use some of the same plant-based ingredients and smash them, process them, and put them together in the form of a burger or a sausage. One with the same colour, texture, smell and flavour as those who used to be addicted to (and in doing so keep the addiction alive, so it would be easier to drop veganism in the future when the “fad” fades away). Those forms of processed and cooked flesh created to make people forget about animals remain intact in fake meats so that collective “amnesia” that makes people ignore the animal victims is reinforced.
I am not talking about cylindrical round-ended flexible tubes or roasted fat disks here, by the way. I am not talking about simple food shapes, but about perfectioned imitations that could fool even the most proficient meat-eater. In another of Adams’ books called “Burger” she redefines this food item as a “single portion protein patty”, pointing out that, looking at it this way, it existed for millennia beyond modern fast-food meat-eating (e.g. falafel). I am not talking about that, because these are not fake meats, but smashed-packed plants. I am not talking about the classical veggie burgers of the 20th century. I am talking about the deceptive Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers which aim to imitate processed animal flesh, not just imitate some popular food shapes and dishes. I am talking about the burgers, sausages, stakes, filets, wings, ribs, and nuggets made of “fake meat” that feels, looks, smells and tastes like animal meat. These are the ones that are reinforcing the meat message, as they have become just another type of “meat”.
The sexual politics of fake meat may be, after all, the same sexual politics of meat, but with the difference that now it may be reinforced by vegetarians and vegans who, before, would fight against it. Why? Because we have not managed to eliminate the concept of “meat” from society, and we are letting it spread and diversify, making it more resilient to attack. Even some vegan organisations engage in sexist meat-based campaigning (with sexualised activists and slogans of the “real men eat plants” type) that mirror the examples exposed in the Sexual Politics of Meat — which goes to show the power of carnist, speciesist, and sexist indoctrination still influencing those who claim to be immune to it.
The Shame that Keeps Giving
When a few months ago I ate that fake fried chicken that reminded me of the “original”, and I felt ashamed for it, my shame was not coming from a distant memory of what I used to eat before I was vegan, but for the realisation that I still like it, and despite twenty years of being vegan, I had not yet developed the same repulsion to this highly disguised meat (with a stronger erasing absent referent) than the repulsion I feel seeing someone eating a bloody rare stake or an almost intact octopus. By now, I should feel nausea at the site of any meat, no matter how processed or disguised, and yet, not only I did not feel it with the buttered nuggets, but I still liked their taste and flavour.
Even if I knew the vegan version I ate was produced by a new truly vegan company run by vegans that is genuinely trying to disrupt the animal agriculture industry — not produced by this industry to divert cash from vegans away from vegan companies, like in the case of Burger King or McDonald’s which I would never try — I still felt bad for liking it, because I knew that, by doing so, I was supporting the concept of “meat”, with all its symbolism and deception, as opposed to fighting it, as a feminism-friendly experienced ethical vegan like myself ought to be doing. I no longer have the excuse of still transitioning from carnism.
Why should I care so much about the form my food takes? Only the substance, where it comes from, matters, you could say. I disagree. We should care about the symbols too, and what they mean, because they infiltrate people’s minds and affect whole societies, spreading ideologies that last for generations. In the same way that we vegans change our language not to be speciesist, using “companion animal” instead of “pet” or using the pronouns “him/her” instead of “it” when talking about non-human animals, we should care about other symbols, including the symbol of meat, and its supremacist sexist sub-text. We should care about it because its the central concept of carnism, our nemesis.
Therefore, I don’t feel ashamed of my shame, as I used it to progress, to push me forward —as I initially did when I became an ethical vegan. This shame has made me give up now animalistic vegan burgers, accomplished vegan cheese replicas, and perfectioned vegan imitations of fried chicken wings or breasts. However, that is not enough. I still add vegan sausages to some of my lunches. This means that, someone inside my head, a carnist “demon” is still telling me I need some “meat”.
Perhaps one day I will be free from such a metaphorical demon, and I will no longer feel shame for eating the shapes and flavours of animal exploitation and supremacist domination.
Perhaps one day there will no longer be meat.
I hope so.