It seems lately there is a lot of excitement around presenting vegan ideas in ways labeled as fun, hip, light, or humorous. We can reach out to new demographics! We can bust stereotypes of vegans being dowdy humorless bores! Etc. etc. ad nauseum. After reading the umpteenth blog post extolling the virtues of this new kind of outreach, I started to wonder just what it means that vegans are so obsessed with making our issues “fun”& “sexy.” And let me clarify that I’m not referring to the emphasis on good & tasty food here, which is obviously important, but on the packaging of our ideas.
Do other movements share this obsession? At first I thought no — racial justice activists don’t try to make stuff like the Jena Six fun (I mean, how could they?). I haven’t seen anyone presenting light-hearted takes on the occupation of Tibet.
Queer movements do arguably peddle fun through annual Pride celebrations — & I get that having them provides powerful public images of certain kinds of queerness (I myself have very emotional memories tied to seeing queer Asians marching in NYC, & then in later joining them myself in a group I helped start).
I also understand that social change organizations will often have fun events for its members & constituents, such as picnics or parties. When I was involved in my campus chapter of Amnesty International, we did things like have end-of-semester spaghetti dinner letter-writing parties… but that was in part to socialize with other members & to celebrate the work we did & any successes we might have had, & in part to keep writing letters — & also to bring friends along to learn about Amnesty in a more informal setting.
What about feminism, perhaps the movement most derided as humorless? There have been a couple of books lately that attempted to make feminism “sexy” & “accessible.” One was Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism. Here’s some of the publisher’s description at Amazon:
Feminism isn’t dead. It just isn’t very cool anymore. [Y]oung women need a smart-ass book that deals with real-life issues in a style they can relate to…. Full Frontal Feminism is sending out the message to readers — yeah, you’re feminists, and that’s actually pretty frigging cool.
Well, sounds promising, right? Making feminism accessible & hip to a new generation, yadda yadda. And hey, I’m a smart-ass too. Except the book, as it turned out, offended a lot of people who saw it as exclusionary (in tone & in content) to women of color. (Cue vicious shitstorm in response by white feminists, natch) Debate also ensued about the book’s tone, its cover (both from anti-racist & feminist viewpoints), & its use of sex & sexiness to sell feminism as a movement young, hip (white) women ought to be part of.
Then there’s Amanda Marcotte’s It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments, featuring a blonde white woman fighting savage brown people. This is especially offensive given that the original cover, which featured a racist King Kong image, was changed after complaints — so they were already on notice about images in the book! Seal Press agreed to remove the images from future printings. Why did they end up there in the first place? They were trying to be funny:
We were hoping for a campy, retro package to complement the author’s humor. That is all. We were not thinking.
They weren’t thinking. When they don’t think, they put forth something racist in the name of “fun” & “accessibility.” In the name of fun & appealing to people — appealing to who, exactly? (& yeah, cue another shitstorm directed towards the people who dared to be offended.)
Well. Those aren’t sterling examples of how to do humor/sexy well. Does veganism/AR manage to do better?
Skinny Bitch is one book that has received much praise for the way it reaches out to constituencies previously not conscious of animal issues. Personally, I find the whole phenomenon a bad move, & I’m not alone either). Yay, let’s make veganism fun (for some values of “fun” — not mine, obviously) while encouraging women to buy into body-hate & fatphobia! Let’s promote veganism first as the latest way to lost weight, & only secondarily as about, y’know, the animals! Great!
There’s also the recent Thanking the Monkey. It’s actually an animal welfare book, not an animal rights book, but I’m including it here in part because it does advocate veganism, & because I’ve seen it referred to numerous times as an animal rights book. Numerous pages are devoted to photo spreads of celebrities who are vegan or who have made some kind of statement about animals. Okay, fine — not my bag, but I guess some people find that important. The tone of the book is humorous, which again, not a problem in itself… except when the humor reinforces other systems of oppression. There are several instances of fatphobia, a derogatory comment about people on antidepressants, & a flippant comment about gay marriage bans.*
The book also touts PETA repeatedly as a reliable & worthwhile source of information, which obviously I have an issue with for many reasons. The author specifically lauds, in the resource section, the PETA2 website as “particularly fun. It lets you know what all the hot musicians and actors are doing for animal rights and even gives you a chance to win tickets to their shows or other prizes.” Never mind PETA’s racism or sexism or other problematic aspects — it’s all about the celebs!
Let me state again that I’m not against making a movement more accessible or appealing in principle; any movement needs to become broad-based in order to succeed, & in a culture (in the US, certainly) where news & important issues are increasingly watered-down into flashy, sound-bite-ridden edutainment, I can see that different outreach methods might be needed.
But why does it seem like it always has to come in the form of participating in other systems of oppression? Can’t we have humor that doesn’t rely on snarking about fat people? Can’t we be hip without giving implicit support to racism or sexism? What kinds of assumptions are being made about the likely readers for these books, when they feature these kinds of comments?
(& for that matter, can’t we promote veganism in a way that isn’t all about consumerism? That’s another post, though…)
* I’m not a fan of legal marriage for anyone, but the state insists on controlling so many rights through marriage; withholding those rights based on sexuality is obviously wrong.