Tag Archives: sexism

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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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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