Sex, Beauty And Beasts
issue 215 - January 1991
R Open / CAMERA PRESS
Sex, beauty and beasts
Celia Kitzinger links the oppression of women with that of animals -
and finds sexism recycled in the Animals Rights movement.
'A woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order.' Those are the words of Edmund Burke, a British elder statesman in the late eighteenth century. In the 1960s the North American writer Norman Mailer reiterated the same sentiment: 'women', he said, 'are low sloppy beasts'.1
In colloquial male language we are 'chicks', 'pets', 'sex-kittens', 'bitches', 'cats' and 'cows'. Our genitals are 'pussies' or 'beavers'. Just as animals are denied 'human rights', so too, for centuries, were women. Aristotle linked women and animals by excluding both from participation in political life, and the centuries-long debate over whether women have souls parallels similar discussions about the moral status of animals.
When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her Vindication of the Rights of Women, one male writer tried to reduce her arguments to sheer absurdity with the anonymous publication in 1792 of a satirical volume entitled, A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes.2 In characterizing women as lower animals, and themselves as the apex of creation, men justify the oppression, exploitation, domination and torture of women and other animals alike.
Recognizing that animals, like women, were excluded from the 'rights of man', many first-wave feminists advocated animal welfare reform. Amongst the feminist vegetarians and anti-vivisectionists who drew parallels between the oppression of women and animals were such leading figures as Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Lucy Stone. Women were the primary activists of the nineteenth century anti-vivisection movement.3
This lends a horrible irony to the fact that some recent Animal Rights campaigns, while recognising and seeking to eradicate speciesism - the exploitation by humans of other species - continue to recycle sexism. One poster, showing a woman wearing a fur coat dripping with blood, proclaims, 'It takes 10 dumb animals to make it; one dumb animal to wear it'. Another read simply, 'Rich bitch! Poor bitch'.
When they wear fur coats, women are certainly complicit in cruelty to animals. Millions of wild animals - coyotes, beavers, arctic foxes, minks, leopards - are caught in barbarous steel-toothed traps which fasten on the leg of their victim until it dies of exposure or starvation.
To comply with the dictates of fashion for women, crocodiles are slaughtered to make handbags, African elephants threatened with extinction to make ivory jewellery, and the foetus or newborn of astrakhan sheep killed for fur. Special care is taken to kill tigers without marring their valuable skins: one system used is to insert a white hot iron into the animal's anus.2
Women's toiletry and cosmetic items further implicate us in cruelty to animals. Many contain animal substances - the boiled down offal from the slaughterhouse in some soaps, and ambergris, a grey waxy substance coughed up by the sperm whale or extracted from its intestines after death, in some perfumes. Many are tested on animals in experimental laboratories where soaps and shampoos are injected into rabbits' eyes to test their irritant properties, and lipsticks rubbed into wounds on guinea pigs' skin to check for allergies.
Because many women wear clothing and use products which involve cruelty to animals we are responsible for supporting oppressive practices. But women have undoubtedly been less guilty of active abuse and destruction of animals: it is overwhelmingly men who are the hunters, bull-fighters, laboratory scientists, and abattoir workers. As Virginia Woolf observes in Three Guineas: 'the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you; not by us'. Organized predatory violence has always been a male monopoly, whether practised against animals or women.
In (male-authored) theories of evolution, hunting is given enormous importance and related to the division of labour between the sexes. According to anthropological theory, man's hunting activities account for all the achievements of civilization. Without hunting he would have advanced no further than the ape. Women, left to gather berries and root for vegetables, are supposed not to have required much intelligence - instead they developed wider pelvises in order to accommodate larger-brained offspring.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence showing that human survival relied more heavily on the skills necessary in gathering vegetable food than on meat, and women cooperated and fashioned agricultural tools well before men started hunting. With this hunter theory of evolution, men glamorize the torturing and killing of animals, elevating it to proof of their own masculine intelligence, their own superiority over women and the natural world.4
This link between masculinity and the killing of animals exists not just in evolutionary theory, but in poetry and pornography too. Woman becomes the hunted, man's rightful prey; man is a 'lady-killer', in pursuit of a piece of meat. According to Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'Man is the hunter; woman is his game'.1
The association of woman with 'fair game' is explicit in a photograph in Hustler magazine, captioned 'Beaver Hunters'. Two men, dressed as hunters, guns erect, sit in a black jeep. Tied, spread-eagle, onto the hood of the jeep, is a naked woman, pubic hair and crotch dead centre of the photograph. The caption reads: 'Western sportsmen report beaver hunting was particularly good throughout the Rocky Mountain region during the past season. These two hunters easily bagged their limit in the high country. They told Hustler that they stuffed and mounted their trophy as soon as they got home.' The hunters are figures of masculine virility: the double entendre of 'stuffing' and 'mounting', referring both to sexual activity and to embalming, is supposed to be witty.5
Another series of pornographic presentations show scenes of vivisection in which women are the victims. A magazine centrefold shows a naked woman, chained on an operating table in a butcher's shop, surrounded by hanging animal carcasses, knives and cleavers, while a man in a butcher's apron prepares to divide her into joints with an electric saw.2
Men's power over animals is virtually absolute. Over women, men have less control. In pornographic depictions of women as animals, the fantasy of total male dominance is made explicit. Woman becomes the inferior animal, captured, cut up into pieces, displayed as a trophy to masculine power. As the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin points out, 'The characterisation of the female as a wild animal suggests that the sexuality of the untamed female is dangerous to men. But the triumph of the hunters is the nearly universal triumph of men over women ... Any bitch can be tamed by a man who is manly enough'.5 Plagued by his own desire for woman, by her power to arouse desire in him (reminding him uneasily of his own animal nature), man degrades woman by depicting her as part of a group that is even more clearly dominated by him.
Sometimes even this degraded representation of woman is too threatening and men resort to sexual abuse of animals. According to the Kinsey report, eight per cent of men use animals for sex, and there are porn films showing men having intercourse with chickens in which the birds are literally disembowelled by the penis.2
Laboratories in which animal experimentation is carried out must purchase their equipment and animals. The advertisements directed at them make disturbing reading. Cages are advertised with mini-skirted white-coated women draped over them, stroking the metal in apparent eagerness to enter the larger ones themselves. The so-called 'rape rack' is an established piece of laboratory equipment for impregnating primates.
Advertizers' animals are drawn or photographed in poses that conform to gender stereotypes. Subordinate female rabbits lure, allure and invite abuse. A long-lashed pregnant hamster is advertized with the caption, 'Real Anxious to Please You'. Such images clearly address a male clientele titillated by coy attractive female animals which can be purchased, dismembered and killed.4 The similarity between pornographic representations and the breeders' sales pitch is striking.
Power over animals reinforces man's sense of his own importance not just in relation to other species, but also in relation to other men. In the nineteenth century, British men captured animals and put them in zoos as a symbolic representation of their conquest of distant and exotic lands.6 In the same way, men seek to conquer, subdue and possess women as a means of flaunting their power not just over the 'inferior sex', but also over other men. With an expensively coiffured woman dressed in exotic furs on his arm, man proclaims his conquest of a wild and rare living commodity, a symbol of his own wealth and success. A woman wearing furs is seen as proof of man's hunting prowess: he no longer literally kills the animal whose coat she wears, but his ability to buy it - and her - is evidence of financial success, his manly achievement in the job market. Even when a man does not actually hunt animals, his success is still reflected in the kill.
Women who dress to fuel male fantasies like these declare their access to economic power: furs, like diamonds, are a status symbol. They are also making a statement about their own sexual desirability: men will kill for them. In a world in which women, like other animals, are raped, mutilated and murdered by men, the woman who is given the skins of dead animals by her male 'protector' is being warned of his power at the same time as she is reassured of his patronage. The implicit threat serves as reminder of her own tenuous safety in a man's world.
Fear and beauty
Women's complicity in cruelty to animals is often born of our own desperate attempt to survive or forestall men's cruelty to us. It is not only animals who have been forced to suffer to satisfy men's concepts of feminine beauty. So too have women. Think of the Burmese neck ring, the Chinese bound foot, the Western steel-ribbed corset and whalebone stays. Men see themselves as representing Culture, and as such demand 'improvements' upon Nature, to which women often submit - cosmetic surgery, the removal of ribs to make the waist look smaller, the extraction of teeth to make the cheek-bones more salient. The 'improvements' eroticized by men entail mutilation, violence and death, to both animals and women.
The animal rights movement needs to address explicitly these links between the oppression of women and the oppression of animals. Women are not the major perpetrators of cruelty against animals: rather we, like other animals, are the victims of male violence. Women's 'choices' about the products we wear are made in the context of a patriarchal culture.
Male campaigners might also reconsider their often contemptuous attitudes to 'womanish pity' and 'feminine sentiment'. Many men, like Peter Singer author of the ground-breaking treatise Animal Liberation and Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights, are at pains to dissociate their campaign from a sentimentalist approach to animal welfare: they state that they are not 'animal lovers': rather they base their campaign on reason, rationality and objective argument. In other words, they fear that to associate the animal rights cause with 'womanish sentiment' is to trivialize it.3
It is simply not good enough to challenge speciesism - if at the same time you are recycling sexism.
Celia Kitzinger teaches psychology at the University of Surrey, UK.
1 The Misogynist's Source Book, Fidetis Morgan (Jonathan Cape, 1989).
2 Norma Benny in Reclaim the Earth: Women Speak Out for Life on Earth (The Woman's Press, 1983).
3 Josephine Donovan in 'Animal Rights and Feminist Theory',' Signs Vol 15 no2 (1990).
4 Rape of the Wild: Man's Violence against Animals and the Earth, Andrée Collard with Joyce Contrucci (The Women's Press, 1988).
5 Andrea Dworkin Pornography: Men Possessing Women, (The Women's Press, 1981).
6 About Looking, John Berger (Penguin, 1980).