Category Archives: Feminism

The milkmaid’s tale (this one’s for the mothers)

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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The milkshake that brings all the boys

Traditionally picked up by tradies needing a convenient beverage to go with their meat pie, flavoured milk is now being marketed to all ‘blokes’ of decidedly blokeish affectation. Of all the flavoured milks, iced coffee is the most mannish, with the energy kick from the caffeine apparently enough to overcome the more likely sluggishness from downing 600ml of lactose.

Two companies, with various brands, are involved in this milk war. Parmalat’s Oak brand is sold with the tagline, ‘kill hungrythirsty dead’. Male thirst is presented as some uncontainable urge which must be killed dead, not merely quenched. The thirst is so powerful as to be emasculating: ‘Oak knows the answer even if you’re too weak to know the question’.

Lion’s Dare is marketed by an aggressive ‘voice in the head’ of its consumers, so perturbed as to be almost psychotic, again presenting itself as the answer for men when they are not feeling their usual, hypermasculine selves. ‘When your place is all over the head, a Dare fix’ll fix it’. Lion also owns the Farmers Union Ice Coffee brand in South Australia, which has been promoted with the tagline ‘Harden the FUIC up’. Big M in Victoria is known as ‘Fuel for blokes’. And the connection is not confined to Australia: in an ironic nod to the simplified masculinisation of the sector, Wing-Co in the UK is marketed as ‘The manly chocolate milk for men with added man’. The tagline on the mustachioed plastic bottle echoes the Oak brand with ‘Shoots down hunger, fast’.

Men have always been encouraged to eat the flesh of animals, ideally while flicking through a soft porn mag. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, published in the 1970s, Carol Adams in the USA documented advertising which showed ‘meat’ as sexualised, merging the consumption of animal flesh with the naked flesh of a human woman. Adams theorised the ‘absent referent’: the naked body of a woman standing in for the dead body of the animal so as to hide the death. In both the advertising itself and our horror at women being labelled as meat, the violent subjugation of the animal and its death are absent.

In today’s advertising of flavoured milk there are no subjugated bodies depicted. As one commenter on The Gruen Transfer’s message board says, it is ‘victimless’. Though it may not feature naked women, the marketing extends the concept of the absent referent, only instead of animal death it is the exploitation of the reproductive capacity of the female dairy cow that is being concealed. Is it surprising then, that such advertising is aimed solely at men?

Now Lion’s WA brand Masters is getting in on the action, though focusing on a more amiable ‘laddishness’ rather than the aggressiveness of its other brands. The new campaign featuring people cavorting on the beaches down south dressed in cow costumes is all about ‘fun’ and a ‘good-natured irreverence’. Advertising company Gatecrasher explicitly named the values of ‘laddish humour and mateship’ at the launch of the campaign. The female reproductive capacity which produces all this milk for laddish consumption has been swiftly obfuscated in a techni-coloured friesian onesie. The Masters cows are ‘just a bunch of guys doing what guys do together’. Consuming the output of the female reproductive system – is that what guys do together? It doesn’t quite fall in the self-cannibalising category of Suicide Food because this cast is male. Has anybody asked themselves where the milk actually comes from?

Cows are, as we should have learnt in primary school, necessarily female. In order to keep a cow lactating, she must give birth to a calf every year, which is then removed from her within 12 hours while the milk produced for her calf is instead diverted for human consumption. A recent report from Voiceless into Australia’s dairy industry reveals more. The endless cycle of impregnation, birth and lactation has more than halved the dairy cow’s lifespan to seven or eight years, during which she will repeat this process about five times. Overworked and stressed, she has been selectively bred to produce twice the amount of milk she did 50 years ago. This massive volume of milk production does not come without a personal cost: as most nutrients go into her milk, the cow herself is left undernourished and susceptible to disease. Lameness and mastitis are rife.

The dairy industry, unlike most animal exploitative industries, is perceived to be somehow benign, involving no harm but simply taking advantage of the ‘natural’ functions of the cow’s body. But her body is manipulated to violent extremes in order to create a product that was never intended for human consumption. This violence is masked by dairy advertising. Even trade terms are deceiving. Soy milk is accurately described as a plant milk, while cow’s milk is commonly known as ‘white milk’ in the industry, a convenient forgetting of its origins.

Processors and distributors such as Lion and Parmalat, alongside supermarket giants Wesfarmers and Woolworths, have collectively driven down the price of milk, putting further pressure on farmers who in turn place more pressure on their cows. According to Lion, ‘Flavoured milk is one of the most attractive segments in the dairy market’, and bound to be even more so with multi-million dollar exports to China earmarked with the recent free trade agreement.

Marketing of flavoured milks creates an absurd confusion of thirst with a crisis of masculinity. The solution to this emasculation is to inflict violence on female bodies. We’ve been brought up to believe that cow’s milk is the most innocuous of beverages. As adults, we can do better to remember where this milk actually comes from.

Take a look at a previous post, Big Mac strikes again, for more about the (dis)appearance of the absent referent.

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