This one’s for the mothers: #IWD2018

Pigs are still in the headlines – male chauvinist pigs, sexist pigs, disgusting pigs and so on. Wherefore art thou chivalrous pig, trustworthy pig, decent pig, female pig? ‘Pig’ is the animal we choose to anthropometaphorise violent men, specifically in their acts of sexual aggression and most often those acts against women. Never mind that most of the real pigs in the real world are sows forced into perpetual pregnancy and confinement in ‘gestation crates’. This deflection from female animal subjugation does not further the cause of (human) women’s rights.

When I first learned that female pigs were kept confined in tiny stalls with concrete floors and metal bars the reason was ‘so they don’t smother their babies’. I was a child, maybe a young teenager. It was another person my age who told me this. I accepted it though it didn’t quite add up: how could mother pigs not know how to look after their children? How had they managed to survive without human intervention? Where did my friend learn that this was the reason pigs had to be kept in cages? It was only as an adult that I realised that if you give a sow enough space, there is no risk to her young. The same goes for tail docking: we’re told it’s to stop pigs from eating each other’s tails. It’s implied that pigs are cannibals; not that they are trying to relieve the chronic physical and mental pain of being kept in confinement.

We are fed similar half-truths with other animals that are intensively farmed. Cows need to be milked so much because it is painful for them to carry so much milk in their enormous udders. True, but how did their udders get to such a size that they produce more milk than they need? Every half-truth hides a more horrific truth. Have you ever been told that the oestrogen in soy products causes cancer, so you should stick to cow’s milk? Most soy in the world is fed to intensively farmed cows, and they in turn are fed to humans. And what is more likely to contain more oestrogen: a female, oestrogen-producing cow pumped full of growth hormones and kept in a state of perpetual pregnancy or a plant?

Getting back to the so-called pigs in the headlines, a news article about the W——– fallout quotes screenwriter Peter Mehlman, ‘I may be anthropomorphising here, but I really think the animals have no choice but to be civilized.’

Anthropomorphising is when you assign human traits to non-human animals, all the while forgetting that humans are actually animals, too. The word’s usage these days is a product of the human exceptionalism construct, that humans are better than all the other animals because of their unique species characteristics. Mehlman attributes predatory human male behaviour to the non-human in an inversion of how the charge of anthropomorphising is often thrown about. (Usually we’re told not to anthropomorphise when we describe the emotions of animals, often by some pseudoscientist who tells you that animals don’t have feelings. ‘We have to be careful not to anthropomorphise because, then … shit!’) In fact, calling men sexist pigs and women nasty dogs and stupid cows is also anthropomorphising in a way. We attribute the human characteristic that we are insulting to the animal and in the process that animal becomes the ‘personification’ of the negative trait, to the point where you only have to say the name of the animal to insult without preceding it with an adjective. Hence, if I call you a pig I mean you are sexist, if I call you a dog you’re nasty and if you’re a cow then you’re stupid (cows can also be nasty it turns out). But I wouldn’t go around calling people things like that or demeaning our animal friends (though there is much less uproar about this kind of anthropomorphising).

But bringing in the notion of ‘civilised’ behaviour only reaffirms the trope that humans are civilised and non-humans are not. Mehlman calls this anthropomorphising because, heh, animals cannot be civilised. Being civilised is apparently something only humans can do (and once upon a time only humans that were male and European). Animals are the natural other to the human who has culture and having ‘culture’ is somehow a safeguard from being violent. By having no choice but to be civilised, predatory males have to assume the trappings of being human. And one of those traps is to believe that violence happens because of instinctual, primal, animal urges – not that violence is actually a choice.

Calling violent men by animal names might feel good at the time, but it’s a shortcut right back to where we started. If we want men to own up and be accountable for their actions, we cannot disown their behaviour as not being in the realm of human. We also do an injustice to the female animals in our intensive farming systems by making unseen and unheard the gendered violence that is inflicted on them. This is not anthropomorphising. It is a choice.

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The milkmaid’s tale

If Offred is a handmaid, is Serena Joy a milkmaid?

In a world where ‘resistance is fertile’, the horror of The Handmaid’s Tale is that the bodies of women – fertile women – are treated as no more than vessels for semen, bodies without minds, flesh without souls. The televisual adaptation is visceral because it feels like the coup of this society happened in a day and a place much like ours.

*spoiler alert*

One episode has the Mexican ambassador come to learn how Gilead achieves its birth rate. She is sceptical about how the handmaids feel about their position but is won over in a scene where the children of Gilead pour into an official dinner, at which the handmaids are seated to have their fertility celebrated. It is the cruellest thing to let a mother see the child she is not allowed to mother. The handmaids search the faces of the children to find who is theirs. In a later scene the wife takes Offred on a drive where she gets a glimpse of her child through the car window. She is not allowed to get out; her daughter does not know she is there or even that she is alive. When the wife gets back into the car, Offred unleashes a torrent of hate-filled expletives at her and it absolutely captures our horror, her pain and her anger.

How can they do this? How can they treat our bodies like machines and thwart our emotional attachments? Janine nurses the baby who is born out of ritual rape before the baby is snatched back by the wife, who cannot lactate. The wife is the milkmaid with the handkerchief bonnet sitting on a wooden stool, pulling on the cow’s tits to take the milk that was meant for her stolen baby. Her calm-inducing turquoise garments conceal her threatening interior and cruel intent.

The dairy industry has perfected this systematic violent exploitation of the female reproductive capacity. Cows are artificially imseminated. Their calves are taken away days, if not moments, after birth. For days and weeks after the mother will keen and search for her abducted calf. Some weeks later she is impregnated again. All this time her udders grow heavy with immense production of milk, abetted by hormones and genetic manipulation to increase her ‘yield’ and antibiotics to treat the festering nipples that inevitably result from perpetual lactation. The dairy industry develops new devices to sever the maternal bond, such as spiked nose rings to put on calves who have the urge to suckle, and tells us it is for the calves’ own good because cows are bad mothers. lynn mowson detailed this brutality in a paper at the 2017 Australasian Animal Studies Association conference in Adelaide and her artwork boobscape conveys its terror. The body that nurtures has been reproduced into an inhospitable landscape – the monstrous mother – via intensive, industrialised violence.

lynn mowson, boobscape, 2017, latex, tissue and string

The cycle repeats four or five times until the cow no longer produces enough milk to be profitable for the farmer. She is slaughtered, her body aged well beyond the six years or so of her incarcerated and enslaved life. The farmer who impregnates her has intimate knowledge of her body, her biological cycles, a knowledge obtained without her permission and without her cooperation. In Gilead every member of the household knows when the handmaid is most ‘fertile’ and if she has missed her period. Nothing in this world is yours, not even knowledge of your own body.

Melissa Boyde’s paper at the AASA conference powerfully illustrated that where some might interpret cows to be cooperating in their subjugation, they have actually been violently coerced. Before the dinner scene for the ambassador in Gilead, the commander’s wife inspects the line of handmaids and instructs the aunties to remove the ones that have visible disfigurements. Janine has had an eye taken out, others are missing hands and limbs. Any part of their bodies may be mutilated except the vagina, for this is their reproductivity and the key to Gilead’s perpetuation as a society. It is, too, with cows in the dairy industry, where udder singeing and other maimings are all permissible, routinised even, in order to keep the milk flowing. Reproductivity reproduces the society from whence it came.

There is another tale that describes this story from the viewpoint of the subjugated: ‘A Mother’s Tale’ by James Agee. A mother cow tells a group of male calves about The One Who Came Back, who escaped the slaughterhouse and returns to warn his herd of what he has learned about the ‘purpose of Man’ – to slaughter cows. To ensure a continual supply of cows to be killed, Man controls the reproduction of the species. The instructions of The One Who Came Back are to not cooperate. While the fate of those who are taken out on the range is to meet The Man With The Hammer,

All who stay home are kept there to breed others to go onto the range, and so betray themselves and their kind and their children forever. We are brought into this life only to be victims; and there is no other way for us unless we save ourselves.

The final instruction of The One Who Came Back is to, Kill the yearlings, kill the calves. So long as Man holds dominion over us, Bear no young.

The One Who Came Back views the ‘breeders’ – the mothers – as ones who betray their species, though he does not speak (or perhaps has no knowledge) of the perpetual milk cycle that mothers endure nor their forced impregnation, or rape (while retelling the story, the mother cow is ‘overcome by a most curious shyness, for it occurred to her that in the course of time, this young thing might be bred to her’), nor the pain of being separated from children.

The perpetuation of Gileadean society depends on women’s commandeered reproduction. Children are born into a world where they must also reproduce or be cast off (to ‘the colonies’). In dairy and in Gilead, death may seem like the only way to resist. Janine is ordered to be stoned for attempting to kill herself. Yet the other handmaids tasked with carrying out the punishment put down their stones. Did the cows who heard the warning of The One Who Came Back do as he instructed – Kill the yearlings, kill the calves? No, they could not. In a world that insists on severing emotional bonds, resistance is love.

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Strump it!

in the neighbourhoodWhen I go out walking with our dog we go past a sign out the front of a block of units saying ‘Pick up your dog shit you selfish pigs’. Someone has gone to some effort to make this sign permanent: it is stuck in the ground with two metal poles and the words are composed of those block letter stickers, which are stuck onto a plastic board that is held to the poles with black plastic bracelets. It’s an affront to read the sign every time we walk past but quite amusing when our dog does a poo right in front of it. The ‘shit’ is not so offensive as the ‘pigs’ and I wonder at why they’ve chosen the word ‘selfish’ to preface it, aside from the fact that ‘selfish pigs’ are two words that are often put together. This persistent linking of a negative human trait to a particular non-human animal makes me wonder: 1) are pigs really selfish? 2) why do we invoke pigs when we are really describing humans? 3) has anyone even seen a pig in the suburbs? 4) why is it so offensive to be called a pig?

At some point during the US election campaign Hillary Clinton described Trump as a pig. This was after the recording came out of him talking about how he can’t stop himself around beautiful women. We all had to reach deep into the recesses of our vocabularies to come up with an insult that could capture just how repugnant it was. ‘Pig’ was the word we all reached for, even Hillary, who otherwise was able to refrain from direct insults most of the time, though no doubt the temptation was ever present. ‘Pig’ seemed to capture the full misogyny of the man (remember when men used to be called ‘chauvinist pigs’?). It also seemed to convey how deeply unattractive Trump is – which is not to say that pigs are not attractive – and how dare such an ugly man think he can ‘just start kissing’ women he finds beautiful? (He also said something about when you’re famous and rich women find you irresistible – bleurgh.)

A few posters on the Women’s March took up the theme: Humans vs. Trump; Trump is an offense to human dignity; Dog whistle politics don’t speak to me; and the reminder that Women are people, as if Trump has relegated us to the status of non-people or, perhaps, non-humans. The intention behind the posters I think was to say it is not only women that oppose Trump’s sexism and racism, but the effect is to say that Trump is not human, that there is some kind of animality that envelops him which is repellent to the rest of humanity and which we dissociate ourselves from. But we are all animals (the human and the non-human). Here we are using the metaphor of the animal to say that humans are a special kind of animal, a superior type of animal, and if you don’t live up to the rest of humanity’s expectation you are dropped down into the cesspit that is animality.

But Trump is human, all too human. He is one of us and, as much as we try with our imaginative slurs to disown him from the human species, we cannot get away from the fact that everything he does and says are things that humans do and say. Do we really think male pigs go around saying, ‘I’m going to move on that sow like a bitch’? Trump himself uses animal metaphors to describe his disgusting behaviour, as if the part of himself that does and says those racist and sexist things isn’t actually him but an alter-animal self that he cannot keep at bay.

Last year during the days of activism highlighting violence against women, an Australian anti-DV campaigner was quoted as saying something to the effect of ‘men are not always animals’. The focus of her campaigning is that violent men need help to change their behaviour, that it is not something inherent in their characters, or that it is ‘natural’, to be violent. This is an incredibly important point. Yet, when we use animal terms to describe the worst of men’s behaviour, we are buying into the same misogynist ideology we are trying to call out. By calling men ‘animals’, we disown violence as something that humans are capable of and we say that only animals are capable of violence. This is because animals are supposedly driven by instinct and have no ‘culture’ or respect for their fellow animal beings. Whatever they do is ‘natural’. When we say a man is animal, we are saying that he has lost his ‘human’ culture and etiquette; he has devolved into his natural state. But this gives a rationale for the behaviour: I cannot help my nature. Tackling violence against women is all about changing violent behaviour. How can we hope to change behaviour when we call men animals and perpetuate the idea that violence is somehow natural?

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