In the few days since the Super Bowl, I can only imagine how much meat was eaten in a five-hour period. And how much of it was eaten by men—who consciously or not – identify their masculinity as “macho.” But is eating meat really more a sign of masculinity than a vegan diet?
Granted, it does take some guts to kill a helpless farm animal before ripping it to shreds and dousing it in barbecue sauce. But how exactly is that a sign of masculinity?
In her book “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, Carol Adams makes this connection: “Meat becomes a symbol for what is not seen but is always there–patriarchal control of animals and of language.” Because, she writes, “language distances us from the reality of meat eating, thus reinforcing the symbolic meaning of meat eating, a symbolic meaning that is intrinsically patriarchal and male-oriented.”
Through marketing prowess, we’ve co-opted cleverly named fast food and processed meat products as a sign of a man’s ability to conquer and control, when it’s anything but. In fact, the way corporate branding and marketing prey on our culture, it’s more like the opposite is true. Men are being victimized by Carl’s Jr. ads questioning their sexual urges if they don’t rush to eat a burger after watching a supermodel savor bites of beef and bacon. And the same goes for Dollar Menu items that entice men to not only eat more meat, but the gimmick appeals to a belief that the men are behaving with fiscal responsibility in doing so, like a good provider. Like a man should. He eats cheap meat because it’s the right thing to do.
Compassion has long been viewed as woman’s work. It’s a vital component to motherhood, after all. But our traditional relationship with animals raised for food was once way more compassionate, back when most men did hard labor out in the fields and barns. Before the advent of factory farming, many male farmers raised cows, pigs and chickens he knew by name before he slaughtered them. He raised them with care so they were as healthy as they could be (you are what you eat, you know). It’s a far cry from today’s “manly” meat that comes from tortured animals who spend their short lives in dark, cramped conditions packed alongside thousands of other helpless animals. Their only interactions with humans are encounters few and far between the automation of factory living, and most often only where pain—like debeaking and tail docking—or death comes all too soon.
Even as the vegan diet (and other diet restrictions like Paleo or gluten-free) become more common, a man “coming out” to his football buddies about choosing not to eat meat falls in the awkward category, almost like coming out about one’s homosexuality to “the guys.” It’s even safe to say that a gay man today will probably have an easier time disclosing his sexual preference than a man announcing a disdain for meat.
Culturally, we do not have a framework for discussing veganism or vegetarianism with meat-eaters that feels safe for most vegetarian women, let alone for men. For men who feel there’s nothing macho or masculine about eating meat and that it actually takes more strength, more guts to stand up for a helpless chicken or pig than it does to bite into one, he better be ready for the blowback. Because there are few discussions as contentious as whether or not meat-eating is ethical. Like conversations about religion, politics, or vaccines, standing your ground without losing your cool can be challenging when confronted with vitriol. Contempt for the vegan diet is rampant. In my twenty-plus years as a vegan woman (and now a vegan mom), I’ve had to defend myself tirelessly. I’ve had to gracefully tell concerned relatives that yes I eat enough protein and no, I’ve never been anemic. I’ve had to answer the “but what do you eat–don’t you get bored of vegetables?” question more times than I can count. I can only imagine the questions men get about their muscles, strength and virility.
Men are also up against the “animals don’t feel pain” argument. And blatant ignorance from their peers. I once had a (male) medical doctor tell me that KFC wasn’t real chicken. He wasn’t joking. He did not believe there were actual animal parts in his bucket of wings.
“Just as feminists proclaimed that ‘rape is violence, not sex,’ vegetarians wish to name the violence of meat eating,” writes Adams. “Both groups challenge commonly used terms. Mary Daly calls the phrase ‘forcible rape’ a reversal by redundancy because it implies that all rapes are not forcible. This example highlights the role of language in masking violence, in this case an adjective deflects attention from the violence inherent in the meaning of the noun.” The same can be said for people who identify as eating “ethical meat” or “humanely” slaughtered animals. “The phrase ‘humane slaughter’ confers a certain benignity on the term ‘slaughter’,” notes Adams.
But if macho is meat-eating, what do we say about the scores of men these days who are adopting cruelty-free vegan diets? Would you ever suggest that vegan Mike Tyson has lost his masculinity for giving up meat? Or what about political powerhouses Al Gore and Bill Clinton? How about Olympian Carl Lewis? The tide is indeed turning. Just like most of the Super Bowl commercials failed to ignite any enthusiasm from the target audience–machismo feels played out. That’s not to be confused with masculinity—the world needs strong men confident in their maleness. But as a culture, aren’t we ready to embrace men who are also comfortable in their compassion? Men who don’t view eating healthily and gracefully as bereft of masculinity, but as a noble and ethical (and delicious) way to relate to food? Really, what’s more masculine than that?
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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image: dinner series