The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
By now you’ve probably heard about PETA’s latest attempt to convince people to go vegan. The animal-rights organization known for its racy ad campaigns recently launched a website called “Living with BWVAKTBOOM,” an acronym that stands for the phrase “Boyfriend Went Vegan and Knocked the Bottom Out of Me.” The website features a video that has gone viral, in which a young woman sporting a neck brace and a pained expression walks slowly to her apartment carrying a bag of vegetables.
Narrator Kevin Nealon explains, “This is Jessica. She suffers from BWVAKTBOOM, ‘Boyfrind Went Vegan and Knocked the Bottom Out of Me,’ a painful condition that occurs when boyfriends go vegan and can suddenly bring it like a tantric porn star.” The girl arrives home to find her boyfriend spackling over a hole in the wall, leaving the viewer to surmise the source of the girl’s neck injury (the video also provides a brief explanatory flashback). Her willing participation in the exchange is confirmed when she drops her coat to reveal that she’s wearing only a bra and underwear, and tosses a grocery bag full of veggies at her boyfriend.
According to the New York Daily News, PETA developed the ad as a “tongue-in-cheek,” humorous video. The Daily News quotes PETA’s associate director of campaigns and outreach, Lindsay Rajit, who explains, “We’re kind of issuing a fun warning to people that if their partner goes vegan, they will have so much stamina that it will knock them over.”
Because the ad relies on satirical form for its humorous effect, it has to resemble that which it satirizes—in this case, the recognizable genre of the public service ad. The somber narrator’s warning is underscored by melancholy music and a pitiable victim. Presented with a victim who is young, female, injured, and dazed, the viewer is led to assume that the woman is a victim of domestic abuse. The ad’s “humor” comes from the big reveal that the girl’s injuries are instead attributable to violent sex and that she “likes” it.
Even when viewed as satire, the PETA ad perpetuates troubling gendered stereotypes. The young woman is stripped of her dignity—and her clothes—as she performs domestic chores for her boyfriend. Sex and violence are conflated and women are depicted as desperate nymphomaniacs who desire sex even when it results in personal injury. The young woman in the ad doesn’t even experience the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle, since the ad and the website make clear that this campaign is designed to encourage “regular guys” to choose a vegan lifestyle. Rajit, herself, touts the campaign’s “great health message for men.”
PETA defends the risqué ad strategy in its official response, sent to individuals to write to PETA to protest the ad, saying, “We have found—and your message confirms—that people do pay more attention to our racier actions. Judging by the spike in visits to our websites generated by BWVAKTBOOM, this tactic is working, and more people than ever before are learning and thinking about going vegan.”
Of course, just because the ad is popular does not mean that “more people than ever before are learning and thinking about going vegan.” To the contrary, this example illustrates a trend becoming increasingly popular in U.S. political culture: the pornification of the woman citizen. Since the 2008 presidential campaign, we’ve seen a growing number of examples that feature images of women candidates, voters, and citizens hijacked, sexually objectified, and pictorially abused, often under the guise of humor or satire. It is not unusual for these pornified depictions to marry sex and violence, and they also frequently perpetuate a “blame the victim” mentality. For a discussion of the myriad examples of this trend that emerged in 2008, see my earlier TNA post.
The PETA ads, then, should be viewed as one example of a broader cultural trend. The question that remains is, so what? So what if PETA and other political organizations choose to use provocative methods in order to raise awareness about political issues? In her analysis of PETA’s animal rights rhetoric, Communication scholar Wendy Atkins-Sayre contends that PETA’s advertisements attempt to break down the “animal/human divide,” explaining that “PETA’s advertising campaigns allow the group to effectively blur the distinction between human and nonhuman animals, inviting viewers to rethink their own identities and, thus, their beliefs about animal rights.” (Intrigued? check out a podcast about the article here). Atkins-Sayre’s thoughtful article predates the most recent PETA campaign, and she perceptively argues that PETA’s visual rhetoric “trouble[s] the distinctions often made between human and animal.”
PETA initially attempted to break down the “animal/human divide” by depicting humans in situations that animals find themselves in, encouraging viewers to put themselves in the animals’ places. These images argue against circuses and the consumption of meat:
Ads like these are popular, however, not only (or perhaps not even) because they trigger an empathetic response. Depictions of sexy women in violent and abusive situations is, unfortunately, a familiar strategy used in advertising and popular culture. Soon, PETA moved from photos that conflated human and animal identities to those that promoted the objectification of women as preferable to the objectification of animals:
PETA’s “Living with BWVAKTBOOM” is simply the next logical step in this misogynistic progression. PETA’s savvy media appeals remind us that animals are living beings deserving of empathy and respect. Too bad they don’t feel the same way about women.