What it means to be an "ass man"
by Angelica Florio
When my visiting relatives said they wanted to go to a new British-style restaurant in my town, which describes itself as “meat centric,” I was apprehensive. The feeling of masticating an animal between my canines always felt a bit off to me. However, my family had flown 3,000 miles to visit, so the least I could do was attend a dinner with them. I found myself sitting at a large table reading a menu filled with various unrecognizable British meat terms. We had some questions for the waitress, who, accent and all, explained that a “chuck” was “just below the beast’s neck, between its upper thigh and back.” Beast? Upper thigh? Back? The vernacular took me by surprise, and thinking of my food as a “beast” with similar body parts to my own was too much for me to handle. The inanimate object I was about to consume became a real living creature. This epiphany is similar to that of someone who realizes that the woman he is cat-calling on the street is actually human.
In a patriarchal society, both animals and women are perceived as weaker than and inferior to men, and are objectified as a result. While humans (both men and women) objectify animals by killing them and turning them into fragmented pieces of “meat,” women are figuratively objectified and fragmented in patriarchal societies as well.
This article is not intended to criticize anyone who chooses to eat meat—an array of personal, cultural and socioeconomic factors that do not warrant judgment play into dietary decisions. This article is intended to interrogate the parallels between the objectification of animals and of women. In her book “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” Carol J. Adams suggests that meat has been bound to gender roles since hunter-gatherer times. The danger involved in hunting created a hierarchy wherein meat became a more highly valued food-item, associated with the more highly-valued sex who hunted it. Manly men need manly food, and meat is just that, valued over plant food, which is traditionally associated with women.
The gender roles and stereotypes associated with food became embedded in patriarchal societies and continued throughout history. Philosopher G.W.F. Hegel connects gender and food in his 1820 book “Elements of the Philosophy of Right,” in which he states: “The difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants. Men correspond to animals, while women correspond to plants because their development is more placid.” The correlation between plant foods and femininity exists today—effeminate or queer men are labeled “fruity” or “fruitcake,” to highlight their passive, “unmanly” nature. Meanwhile, more masculine women are often labeled “butch,” evoking images of butchery and the killing of animals and drawing attention to what is seen as more aggressive, manly attributes. These slang terms associate the slaughtering of animals with masculine power, and the gentle stillness of fruit with feminine compliance, just as Hegel described.
The construction of women as the weaker members in a patriarchal society has led to an association between women and animals. The focus on women’s bodies and the fragmenting of individual body parts causes women to become sexual objects, just as animals become objects when eaten as “meat.” When a man identifies himself as a “breast man,” “leg man” or “ass man” he reduces women to their body parts, consumed like meat.
While violence against women and violence against animals is different—one is a horrific crime while the other can be an important and beneficial source of nutrients—Adams argues that both require facelessness. Abuse dehumanizes women, resembling the disregard of an animal’s life in the transformation from “animal” to “meat.” Women are made to feel like pieces of meat, when they are physically or sexually abused, or over-sexualized by the media and on the street. The media’s representation of meat often caters to male audiences (because eating meat is manly, of course), and therefore requires the ingestion of over-sexualized images ofwomen.
While doing reserach for this article, I subjected myself to a horrifying, nine-minute compilation video of all the “Sexy Carl’s Jr. Commercials,” which have somehow aired on TV for the past seven years. I found one of them particularly disturbing, not only because it resembled a southwest bar and grill rather than a fast food establishment, but because of its treatment of the woman in the commercial. The camera scans a woman’s body, as does the man barbarically chewing on a buffalo wing. The images flip back-and-forth between the fully clothed man gnawing on the meat and close-up shots of the sexy waitress wiping down the adjacent table, focusing on her chest and butt as she swivels her hips. Meanwhile, the male voiceover says, “Guys love going out for buffalo wings.” Then the waitress walks away, revealing a scowling woman sitting next to the man while a male voice intones: “That is … when they’re with the guys: Buffalo chicken sandwich. New at Carl’s Jr.”
Another ad featuring an emaciated model in a bikini devouring a hamburger on the beach ends with this “punny” caption: “More than just a piece of meat.” Here, viewers gaze at the woman’s over-sexualized body and the over-sexualized meat. It’s no secret that advertisers find ways to sexualize almost anything by just throwing in an attractive female body in a bikini, but the blatant comparisons between meat in this ad make me wonder if I am supposed to want to eat the meat or desire it sexually. Alternatively, am I supposed to desire the woman sexually or want to eat her? My appetite was destroyed after sitting through nine minutes of close-up breasts, legs, butts, chicken, beef and bacon, and my mouth only watered because it was filling up with salty, pre-vomit saliva.
The advertisement’s invocation of sexual and food-related appetites relates to a classic entangling of hunger and sexual desire. This is exemplified by the archaic term “venery,” which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary first as “the practice or sport of hunting beasts of game; the chase,” and second as “the practice or pursuit of sexual pleasure; indulgence of sexual desire.” Meat is not the only food equated with women and desire. Another Carl’s Jr. ad features Kim Kardashian dripping dressing on her breasts and ends with the tagline, “Who says salads can’t be hot?” However, the sexualized images of meat and women together in these Carl’s Jr. ads (and many other meat commercials) liken women to the animals that share their body parts, suggesting that both serve as consumable things for men to desire, eat and use as sexual objects. I started to wonder whether the real issue is the way women are compared to meat and therefore dehumanized, or if the issue lies in animal rights.
PETA believes the issue is in animal rights, and they compare women’s bodies to animals in order to deter people from eating meat. PETA’s ads often feature images of nearly naked women put in positions, settings and costumes to resemble animals. One ad with a bikini-clad Pamela Anderson shows her body marked with dotted-lines as if indicating where cuts should be made, with each section of her body labeled: feet, leg, round, rump, ribs, breast and shoulder. While the ad successfully draws attention to the similarities between humans and animals, it only reinforces the fragmentation, objectification and consumption of women. PETA sacrifices women’s rights for animal rights, when they should not have to pick one over the other: Meat-eating can be a positive and healthy practice for humans (let’s not forget that other animals are omnivores, too), but the fact that women are equated to the animals being butchered suggests that women can and should serve as more passive and subservient members of society at the disposal of powerful men and their desires.
When I started reading Adams’ book, I expected to have my vegetarian tendencies confirmed, and in many ways they were. I personally believe that violence against animals and the transformation of living creatures into inanimate objects is inhumane. However, I found that a more compelling message from the book actually was in favor of eating meat. In various countries, women are still restricted from eating meat. Adams explains that, “In Asia, some cultures forbid women from consuming fish, seafood, chicken, ducks, and eggs. In equatorial Africa, the prohibition of chicken to women is common [...] The Kufa of Ethipoia punished women who ate chicken by making them slaves.” Therefore, eating meat can represent a subversion of the patriarchy’s high regard of men as hunters and leaders of soceity who require more highly-valued food.
While meat represents the food eaten by powerful members of society, it also symbolizes hierarchy and the dominance of men over all creatures, including women. Next time you watch TV or flip through a magazine, take note of the poses and language used to relate women to animals. If you hear someone call a woman a “hot piece of ass” or say that she has a “nice rack,” think about how that reduces a woman to her physical body parts, so closely resembling the ones on your dinner plate.