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Just how political is meat?

A Review & Synopsis of The Sexual Politics of Meat

June 21st, 2007, 5:25 pm

When you "beef up" something, you improve it. When you don't "beat around the bush" you go directly to "the meat of the matter." If you're a "couch potato" who "vegetates" in front of the boob tube all day then you're undoubtedly sloppy, out of shape, listless, and dull. If you end up brain dead you're a "vegetable." Phrases like these matter in The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990) by Carol Adams. Studying the language of English-speaking meat-eating cultures, Adams shows how meat-based metaphors usually stand for "the essence or principal part of something" while vegetable-based ones often represent "less desirable characteristics" (36-7).

Why is this? Because language in patriarchal cultures reflect male interests, and the most voracious carnivores on the planet are human males. Patriarchal cultures mythologize meat. Male vitality and physical strength, it is believed, increases by the consumption of animal muscles. Eating meat presumably masculinizes men. Many a boy has been told that steak “will put hair on your chest." Traditionally, a "man's meal" is London broil, cubed stead, or beef; ladies' luncheons, on the other hand, consist of cheese dishes and vegetables.

In her culinary study Deciphering A Meal (1975), Mary Douglas suggests that the order in which a meal is served reflects a taxonomy that reinforces culture at large. Drawing on this observation, Adams points out that "[a] meal does not begin with dessert or end with soup. All is seen as leading up to then coming down from the entree that is meat. . . . To remove meat," she asserts, "is to threaten the structure of the larger patriarchal culture" (37). Adams cites Peggy Sanday's correlation between plant-based economies with women's power and animal-based ones with men's power. When the hunters lord over the gatherers, their bounty--the flesh of the hunted--are reified (34-5). Hence, men and meat occupy a higher social and dietary status than women and vegetables.

Her critique of patriarchy notwithstanding, Adams is critical of how feminist discourse unthinkingly "appropriate[s] the metaphor of butchering without acknowledging the originating oppression of animals that generates the power of the metaphor" (41-2). For example, when a female rape victim recounts how "he made me feel like I was a piece of meat," feminists are quick to point out how sexual violence requires the objectification and dehumanization of the (female) victim; rarely do they recognize that implicit in the term meat is an "absent referent," an animal whose butchering and dismemberment has enabled the existence of meat as an analogy for rape. The overlap of cultural images of violence against women and the fragmentation of animals is significant: "Whereas women may feel like pieces of meat--emotionally butchered and physically battered--animals are actually made into pieces of meat" (46, italics mine).

Adams cites black feminist writer bell hooks' statement that, in the United States, black women are likened to hamburger and white women to prime rib. "These feminist theorists," Adams argues, "take us to the intersection of the oppression of women and the oppression of animals, then do an about-face, seizing the function of the absent referent to forward women's issues and so imitating and complementing the patriarchal structure" (60).

Adams’ provocative study stumbles at points, especially in the second half when the voice of an impassioned activist overwhelms that of the scholar (she refers to the butchered animal as “she” not “it” so that readers will associate oppression of animals with oppression of women). But this is a book well worth reading--and thinking about.

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Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat. UK: Polity Press (Billings & Sons Ltd), 1990.


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