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.