The "Cattle Queen" graces the front cover of the SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT, an image which Carol Adams says was printed on beach towels a few years ago along with the imperative to "Break the Dull Beef Habit." She is depicted from the back, kneeling, looking fetchingly over her
shoulder, and except for a red cowboy hat, she is nude. Although, so far, the picture is offensive enough, there is more. Her body is marked off into butcher cuts: her thigh is labeled "soup bone," her hips "round," her buttocks "rump." Working up her torso, she is marked "loin," "ribs,"
and "chuck." Her upper arms reads "shank." Printed to the right of her upper arm is a question, or more likely an invitation: "What's your cut?"
Is the Cattle Queen a woman? A corpse? "Meat"? Moreover, who is being invited to eat? Adams explores the confluence of these ideas in patriarchal culture, and she does so in a way that is far more thorough and convincing than any of the animal rights or ecofeminist literature to date on this subject. Unlike the other literature, THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT is an account of flesh eating as a patriarchal institution, and of women, including feminists, as both victimized by and complicit in the ideologies of "meat."
The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Adams defines what she calls the "patriarchal text of meat," the social, political, economic, and linguistic contexts in which animal flesh is associated with woman and flesh eating is associated with maleness. For the most part, Adams
focuses on the British and American "texts" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She makes it clear that and how we associate flesh eating with power -- that is, with maleness, with white skin, and with the rich and powerful nations. Clearly, these associations are not value neutral or benign. Meat eating is linked with virility, intelligence, courage, and material affluence. The "superior" sex requires and consumes more flesh in his diet than does the "inferior" sex which can live on inferior foods -- that is, on grains, vegetables, and fruits. The same holds for inferior races, classes, and nations, although, Adams explains, even among the British and American lower-economic classes, disproportionately large shares of flesh have been reserved for males, while women and children do without. Our language reflects the idea that "meat" is man's food when we serve "manhandlers," such "he-man" food as steak and "hero" sandwiches to our "meat and potatoes" men.
Adams cites a number of eclectic nineteenth and twentieth-century sources including cookbooks, pub menus, meat advertisements, dietary studies, philosophy texts, and histories. These report, among other things, for example, that, according to Hegel, "the difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants," as "men correspond to animals, while women correspond to plants because their development is more placid"; that, according to various cookbooks, on Father's Day we should serve London broil, but on Mother's Day light soups and salads; that, according to the nineteenth-century physician, George Beard, savages and semi-savages (non-Westerners) are "little
removed from the common animal stock from which they are derived," as "they are much nearer the forms of life from which they feed than are the highly civilized brain-workers, and can therefore subsist on forms of life which would be most poisonous to us'; and that, finally, Napoleon was
defeated at Waterloo because, in part, he was battling a nation of beef eaters (pp. 30-37).
Adams' social-historical account of the multiple politics of meat, although brief, is provocative, and suggests that a great deal more research should be done in this area. Her analyses are strongest, though, when she focuses on the sexual politics of meat, and when she does so analytically rather than historically. In chapter two of section one, Adams introduces a tool that is exceedingly helpful in understanding the dynamics of the sexual politics of meat. Animals become "absent referents" when they become "meat." They are absent in three ways: literally, because they are dead; linguistically, because they no longer cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, OR animals, instead become "beef," "pork," "poultry," "mutton," "food-producing units," or "meat"; and metaphorically, because animals and their experiences are appropriated in metaphors which we used to describe our experiences rather than theirs. Adams claims, I think correctly, that "sexual violence and meat eating, which appear to be discrete forms of violence, find a point of intersection in the absent referent" (p. 43). For example, Kathy Barry, in FEMALE SEXUAL SLAVERY, writes of `maisons d'abattage' (houses of slaughter) in which six or seven girls sexually service 80 to 120 customers a night (p. 43). Adams lists the bondage equipment of pornography -- chains, whips, cattle prods, nooses, dog collars, and ropes. Some animals, such as pigs, are forcibly impregnated in devices that suppliers jocularly call "rape racks." "THE HUSTLER, prior to its incarnation as a pornographic magazine, was a
Cleveland restaurant whose menus presented a woman's buttocks on the cover and proclaimed, `We serve the best meat in town!'" Chicken magnate Frank Perdue asked in a recent advertisement: "Are you a breast man or a leg man?" And, of course, we have the Cattle Queen (p. 43).
Objectification, dismemberment, and consumption are the infrastructure of violence. They are the ways in which animals and women are made absent:
Objectification permits the oppressor to view another being as an object. The oppressor then violates this being by object-like treatment, e.g., the rape of woman that denies women freedom by saying no or the butchering of animals that converts animals from living breathing beings into dead objects. This process allows fragmentation, or brutal dismemberment, and finally consumption. . . Consumption is the fulfillment of oppression, the annihilation of will, of separate identity. (p. 47)
Metaphor is particularly powerful way of consuming, annihilating, another's reality. For example, woman's actual experiences of rape are made absent, appropriated and exploited in the metaphors, "the rape of nature" or the "the rape of the wild," which some environmentalists and
ecofeminists are fond of using. Feminists annihilate the reality of concrete animals' lives and deaths when they complain that patriarchy treats woman like "meat." Such metaphors negate the reality of a specific form of violence -- being raped, becoming "meat" -- and make it difficult, if
not impossible, to recognized the connections between such multiple forms of violence as racism and sexism, racism and speciesism, sexism and speciesism. Adams has devised a critical tool for identifying the interconnected and mutually reinforcing intra- and interspecies relations.
Part two of the book chronicles the silencing of the "vegetarian word," various forms of vegetarian protest, by dominant culture and even by some otherwise astute social critics, including feminists. Texts themselves can be objectified, dismembered, and consumed.
First the text is objectified, held open to scrutiny, reduced to some essential aspects of itself. Then the text is fragmented from itself and its context; this is dismemberment. Once dismembered, the text can be consumed as though it is saying nothing new, nothing that undercuts the patriarchal model of consumption that obliterated alternative meaning. (p. 97)
Dismemberment of a text can be achieved in a number of ways, including ignoring the text entirely, failing to acknowledge the vegetarian message in the text, or trivializing it, and by distorting the message so that it is consistent with and indistinguishable from the dominant discourse of meat.
Adams argues that feminist literary critics and historians are among those who have dismembered such texts, and in using some of the same tools that patriarchy uses to silence feminists texts, these feminists have silenced some of their won feminist vegetarian sisters.
Mary Shelly's FRANKENSTEIN is a case in point. FRANKENSTEIN has received an enormous amount of critical attention over the past two decades from feminists and other critics, all of whom have neglected to explore the vegetarian themes in the novel. Frankenstein's creature is a vegetarian. Adams says: "The Creature's vegetarianism not only confirms its inherent, original benevolence, but conveys Mary Shelley's precise rendering of themes articulated by a group of her contemporaries whom I call `Romantic vegetarians'" (p. 109). The story "bears the vegetarian word," as Adams puts it, in a variety of ways: by alluding to the literal words of famous, historical vegetarians; by allowing fictional characters to allude to famous vegetarians; by translating vegetarian texts; by using language which reveals the function of the absent referent. Shelley grew up in an intellectual environment in which vegetarianism was much discussed and often adopted by such writers and activists as John Frank Newton, Joseph Ritson, and her father, William Godwin. Shelley's husband, Percy, authored two vegetarian texts, A VINDICATION OF NATURAL DIET and QUEEN MAB, and the Romantics with whom they kept company viewed radical politics and other unorthodox notions such as Republicanism as going hand-in-glove with their vegetarianism (p. 111).
Adams claims that feminist literary critics and historians have failed to explore the associations that Shelley and a number of nineteenth and twentieth-century pacifists, such as Olive Shriener and Anna Kingsford, made between flesh eating, domestic violence, and war. These woman saw the elimination of violence on the dinner table as a first and necessary step toward eliminating violence on the domestic "front," and ultimately between nations. As Adams rightly puts it:
We cannot tell the truth about women's lives if we do not take seriously their dietary choices which were at odds with dominant culture. Vegetarianism spoke to woman; they would not have adopted it, maintained it, proselytized for it, if vegetarianism were not a positive influence in their lives. This is an historical fact that needs to be accepted and then responded to by scholars studying woman's lives and texts. (p. 184)
I would add that to omit vegetarianism from accounts of women's texts is not only to misrepresent their words and lives significantly, but to miss desperately needed insights into the interrelated and mutually reinforcing attitudes and patterns of violence that claim the lives of women and
domestic animals, wild populations, species, and entire ecosystems. Thus, feminists and environmentalists who continue to subscribe to the dominant culture's view of vegetarianism as faddish, sentimental, or neurotic might consider the very complicated role that flesh eating plays
in dominant culture and the very real possibility that their complicity in flesh eating is counterproductive to all efforts to achieve inter- and intraspecies justice. The third and final section of the book insists on this point.
I do have a few quibbles with the book. First, Adams' arguments are unnecessarily difficult because of the unnecessary jargon that she uses. Here insights are ground breaking and very often fall outside of or significantly extend radical feminist, animal rights, and environmental discourse. Nevertheless, for the most part, they can be stated in plain English. My students discovered this problem and complained about it mightily during our second session into the book.
A more serious reservation concerns Adams' analyses of class and especially race. Due to the brevity of the analyses in part one of the book, they are often superficial, tacked on rather than integrated into the general discussion of the sexual politics of meat. For example, her claim that the
ideology of flesh eating is racist because it refuses to take seriously the diets of "second stage" cultures is suggestive, but appears to be little more than an assertion in this text (p. 81). Race and class analyses are virtually absent from parts two and three of the book. While I'm sympathetic with the fact that a writer can only get so far with these enormously complex analyses of multiple oppressions in a single ext, if she is going to attempt them, then she must commit some substantial space and depth of thought to them or risk trivializing or otherwise misrepresenting their real import. Feminists and ecofeminists know this better than most, having had relevant analyses of women and gender similarly omitted or distorted by many male writers, including environmentalists. Adams might have substituted one of her lengthier and somewhat repetitious later chapters on feminist pacifists, for one on the racial, socio-economic, AND sexual politics of meat.
Adams wants to convince us that neither women nor animals are "meat" -- and that the Cattle Queen is a product of a DOUBLE lie, one that accounts for the epidemic of violence against women in this country and the U.S. slaughter of 700,000 animals each HOUR and 11,500 each MINUTE for human consumption. The SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT couldn't be more timely, nor more disturbing.