Monday, August 31, 2009

PETA, Lady Godiva, And Feminism

As many of the bloggers I read are supporters of feminism and animal welfare, I've seen lots of criticism of PETA for its ads involving nude or barely-clad women (most recently, Jeff Fecke). I'm more a fan of straightforward animal-welfare organizations like the Humane Society than PETA, mostly because I'm not willing to bet that PETA's tactics are an effective use of money. But criticism of PETA's nude ads on feminist grounds strikes me as deeply misguided.

What's wonderful about these ads is that they present the nude woman as being more virtuous than her clothed audience, and make her naked body symbolic of her virtue. She's on the right side of the issue, acting as a moral examplar through her nudity, and guiding us to become more virtuous people. (Typical example, and another.) I think the reason PETA does this is to make vegetarianism and animal welfare in general look less like hair-shirted ascetic doctrines, and more glamorous and fun. Now, you could criticize this by saying that the whole spectacle is so ridiculous the moral point is totally lost. I don't think this is right, but at least it's the right question to ask -- a question of whether PETA's tactics are effective, or cost-effective. Criticizing this as some kind of objectification of women is totally wrong. That she's posing nude for animal welfare doesn't make her an object, it makes her a better human being than you.

That's why I like these ads so much. It's really rare in our culture that I see female nudity presented as a positive expression of moral virtue. It's much more often presented in ways that encourage sexualized shaming of the naked woman. I think Amanda Marcotte is right about the misogyny of lots of pornography -- female nudity and sexual desire in porn are regularly presented as justifying name-calling and generally punishment-oriented male sexual behavior.

PETA's nude women remind us that it doesn't have to be that way. It's not something entirely foreign to our culture. The legend of Lady Godiva is the classic example. Much like PETA's actresses, Lady Godiva disrobed for a political publicity stunt where her goal had no connection to the tactic of being nude in public. (According to legend, she wanted her husband, Leofric of Mercia, to reduce taxes on the townsfolk.) The natural reaction to Lady Godiva isn't to mock her nudity, or to regard her as a helpless passive object of male desire. It's to regard the beauty of her naked body as a metaphor for the justice of her cause, and the unconventional nature of her act as essential to its heroism.

My sister, who spent the past summer interning as a reporter in DC, covered a PETA event near the Capitol and posted about it on her blog. (This is one of those occasions where blogging is a whole lot better than traditional reporting. I feel that I have a much better sense of the general feel of the event from reading her post than I would from reading a newspaper article.) It seems to have gone the way you'd hope it would -- "beaming guys in suits" were all excited about getting their pictures taken with women who were wearing clothes apparently made from lettuce. The way my sister writes it, the ability of the women to smoothly manage the unusual social situation generated by their nudity strikes me as really impressive. I guess that's a major professional skill of theirs.

I'm not saying that I'd give money to PETA to run more events like this -- after all, I'm pretty tight with money, and there's plenty of good folks out there to give it too. (Plus, I think the 'sea kittens' bit was silly.) But do I think they're spending money on something that sets back feminist goals? Not at all.
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