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The Pornography of Meat by Carol Adams

Lisa Kemmerer agrees with Carol Adams about some of the subliminal assumptions advertisers use to sell their wares.

Carol Adams offers a philosophical critique of advertisements that is innovative, even startling, yet which readers cannot help but acknowledge as her book unfolds. She writes at the beginning of The Pornography of Meat: “In the following pages we will see how pornographic photographs, like advertisements, are carefully constructed: nothing that appears in the photograph or the advertisement is there by accident.” She goes on to state that some readers “may feel aroused” while others “will feel distaste.”

Adams argues that “viewing other beings as consumable is a central aspect of our culture” (p.12). In fact, viewing some individuals as consumable is so central to Western culture that most of us fail to notice it. “Advertisements,” Adams writes, “are never only about the product they are promoting. They are about how our culture is structured, what we believe about ourselves and others” (p.14). But how is our society structured? Who do we believe to be ‘consumable’?

The Pornography of Meat includes over one hundred photographs, many of which contain advertisements from products commonly sold in grocery stores. Most of these photos seem normal to the untrained eye, but under the tutelage of Adams, the reader discovers misogyny and racism in a familiar ad for veal, halibut, or flank steak. She demonstrates that advertisements are largely structured by and for white males, and are steeped in the negative aspects of the resulting dualism.

Adam’s chart (p.50) looks like this:

A Not A
Man/male Woman/female
Culture Nature
Human Nonhuman animal
‘White’ People of color
Mind Body
Civilized Primitive
Production Reproduction
Capital Labor
Clothed Naked

Advertisements contain all that we imagine to be good and powerful on the side of white males, juxtaposed against all that we hold in low esteem. To demonstrate her point, Adams provides a photograph of an ad for Toshiba computers, in which a series of progressively more ‘evolved’ primates (evolving to look more human) are carrying progressively more modern computers. The final image is of a tall straight white Caucasian in a suit carrying a laptop. Adams notes that it is no accident that the climactic figure is a white male, in a suit, carrying an image closely associated with ‘advanced’ civilization. Would not the ad be distracting, incomplete, if it ended with a woman, or a person of color, or someone in clothing from an Asian country? When we want perfection, we know where to look: white male civilization, category A.

It is clear who the primary consumers are, the intended audience of these advertisements, but who are the consumables? Adams provides an insightful quote: “Meat is like pornography: before it was someone’s fun, it was someone’s life.” Those in category ‘Not A’ are the consumables: women, people of color, and animals. Adams analyzes advertisements with African American women, revealing African Americans as more likely to be linked with animals and nature, available to white men, and insatiable. She offers examples of African American men being linked with beasts, portrayed as savage (p.53), and as of less worth than their Caucasian counterparts (p.134).

Adams coins the term ‘anthropornography’: “the depiction of nonhuman animals as whores” (p.109). We have all seen anthropornographic ads, but for most of us, we didn’t register what we were looking at. A cartoon with a cow standing like a sexy lady; a pig drawn with lipstick and a voluptuous rump; a chicken lifting her miniskirt to reveal her tasty feminine legs. Such ads, Adams notes, suggest that not only do women promiscuously want sex, but the same desire is applicable to others in the ‘Not A’ category – nonhuman animals (p.111). Adams holds no punches in her analysis of how these ads sugar-coat the flesh industries. “Anthropornography gives you a hooker on your plate. Nonhuman animals are whoring for you. Nonhumans want you, too. Suffering? Slaughtering? Inhumane acts? No. They want it” (p.111).

Such images may seem harmless enough to Homo sapiens, until we become aware that these images feed off women. Animals are assumed to want it like women. One can consume either a pig or a woman. One can exploit and destroy a calf or a woman. “Because women are not being depicted, no one is seen as being harmed and so no one has to be accountable. Everyone can enjoy the degradation of women without being honest about it” (p.115). These images are part of the structure of our culture, so we fail to notice that women are also being exploited: we fail to notice that ‘consumable’ animals are invariably portrayed as feminine, as sexual – available to men, just like female human beings. “Anthropornography provides a way for men to bond publicly around misogyny. Men can publicly consume what is usually private” and these images have become so much a part of our culture that we fail to notice (p.115). Adams includes an ad for grocery store chicken that boasts “Great Legs, Nice Breasts,” “Fresh Young Chicken, extra lean – 7% body fat” (p.15). She also reveals a Hustler magazine cover with a pair of shiny, shaven, graceful women’s legs disappearing into a meat grinder (p.24). Anthropornography: a new word for an ugly truth.

Further, Adams analyses the presentation of women in common advertisements, noting such interesting factors as violability cues, body chopping, and the missing referent – always a white man. She includes an image of a woman marked off like the many cuts of meat we use on a cow’s body: rib, chuck, loin, and of course the rump (p.25). Whose gaze was this ad designed for? She also portrays anti-vegetarian comics and anti-gay T-shirts. Only mainstream white males matter. She includes photos of paintings, including Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ (p.104) and Leslie Dellio’s ‘Alivia Always Knew!’ demonstrating links between these misogynist depictions and contemporary advertisements. She discusses the origins of Betty Boop (as a dog) (p.107) and the emergence of ‘nymphet’ in the works of Nabokov (p.111). She even has a photo of an ad for a ‘Turkey Hooker’, which includes a diagram of how this fine piece of kitchenware is to be used on a dead hen, looking very much like a lewd rape scene. The ad is complete with this message: “an easy pick-up from pan to platter” (p.108). Each X-rated ad is unabashedly acceptable to the common public.

It is difficult to describe the work of Carol Adams. Her work is analytical, critical, and shows remarkably original and independent thinking. If I were to fault her, she seems too far ahead of her readers, too advanced in her work to understand just how new this material is for the rest of us.

Adams has witnessed and described what the rest of us fail to notice, and backs up her observations with scores of photographs. She unfolds her grizzly discoveries with a wry sense of humor, and sends readers out into the world with a fresh vision – a vision that pierces through the images on the magazine rack, in the frozen meat section of the grocery store, on billboards, or in television advertisements. Adams’ work heightens awareness, shifts thinking, and has the power to alter behavior – what sort of companies do I want to support with my hard-earned wages?

Adam’s analysis of advertisements is a chilling vision into a world we all see without seeing. She is right: readers are likely to be sickened by the realities she unveils, and very likely to feel aroused – aroused to new ways of seeing, understanding, and shopping.

© Lisa Kemmerer 2006

Lisa Kemmerer is a philosophical activist.

• Carol Adams, The Pornography of Meat, NY: Continuum, 2003. $14.95.

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