So men can change nappies and women can park cars. These are two of the examples given by the Advertising Standards Authority where adverts playing on gender stereotypes (showing a man unable to change a nappy (because he’s a man) and a woman unable to park a car (because she’s a woman)) are now no longer acceptable, under new regulations that came into force Friday.
“Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us,” said Guy Parker, Chief Executive of the ASA, introducing the new enforceable regulation. “Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential.”
Changing media landscape
While it seems a small and common-sense shift to most of us, this is an incredible change in the media landscape. The body that regulates advertising says that evidence shows the way that we are portrayed across the media can contribute to inequality. Not only are they admitting that, but even more incredible: they are doing something about it.
While this won’t make a difference to the way animals or animal products are advertised, it has the potential to make a huge difference to how humans are portrayed in ads in terms of gender when relating to animals, especially those exploited for food. And the changes all turn on what is most at stake in this new ruling: the idea of harm.
In my research as an academic and as an advocate for animals, I have focused on the ways in which men are stereotyped. Men are pressured to accept as ‘natural’ a powerful bond between masculinity and meat: whether that is eating, cooking, or hunting, or any other ways in which a man’s ‘manhood’ is supported by or challenged in whether he eats meat or not.
From Esquire magazine’s Eat Like a Man cookbook (with a huge burnt steak on the front) to the Carl’s Jr.’s ad depicting X-Men‘s Mystique morphing into a man after consuming a bacon cheeseburger (tagline: ‘Man Up’); or from Burger King’s ‘I Am Man’ commercial, where a man won’t settle for ‘chick food’ to Taco Bell’s ‘Guys Love Bacon’ campaign: these adverts really can cause harm.
The biggest killer of men in the UK is heart disease, closely linked to high animal fat and animal protein diets. Even Cancer Research UK admits that around 9,000 lives could be saved each year from cutting out processed red meats such as bacon.
Globally, animal agriculture is responsible for more climate change than transport: somewhere in the region of 20 percent of all our greenhouse gas emissions.
So when you realize that, as the U.S. Health and Nutrition survey found, men eat 57 percent more meat than women, you realize that men are much more responsible for climate change (and climate change affects poor women more than it does rich, white, steak-eating men).
What could be more harmful than perpetuating the idea that to be a man you need to eat meat?
But where this new ruling could really come into play for changing how humans are stereotyped in relation to food animals is in challenging the sexualization of women, and the demeaning of the ‘vegan stereotype’ as ‘feminine’.
Under the new rule, could McDonalds’ really compare women to French fries? Or Burger King compare eating its food to oral sex? (Performed by a woman, of course, on a phallic seven-inch burger) Is it really okay that our media imagery is pervasive and supportive of the fact that seeing ‘sexy images’ of women makes men hungry for meat’? Or when the Carnivore Club emasculates men for choosing not to eat meat?
Meat-eating and power
Of course, the animal ethicist Carol J. Adams has long made this relationship clear. In her The Sexual Politics of Meat, meat-eating is connected to power. There are, she says, dietary hierarchies in societies that differentiate in terms of gender. As a ‘symbol of male dominance’, meat consumption can be an essential act of defining masculinity and the place of women in patriarchal cultures.
So if we accept that patriarchy is harmful (to women and men), and that, as Guy Parker says, gender stereotyping in advertising ‘can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential’, then it is not a huge step to see that advertising that links men to the consumption of meat not only hurts men, but also hurts women.
A powerful tool?
The ASA has been careful to suggest that the use of gender stereotypes is not always problematic, in its view (and its evidence). So its new regulations do ‘not seek to ban gender stereotypes outright, but to identify specific harms that should be prevented’.
Even so, for those in the vegan community, perhaps especially those working in vegan advocacy around health and environmental issues, the new regulations could be a powerful tool to challenge the ways in which food is gendered, and the harmful impacts this can have.
As Emma Black has shown us, food itself is gendered. Researching the subject at Southampton University as part of the #ManFood project, this gender identity is ascribed to certain foods, such as beef, beer, pork, and steak.
But if gender is just an identity, a performance that needs to be constantly reinforced or it falls apart, then changing one’s behaviours changes the identity.
And changing advertising stereotypes might just play a role in that.
Gender stereotyping and animal agriculture
So, this is what I suggest. Armed with this new ruling, all of those who care about the ways in which animals are exploited and the ongoing, destructive impacts of animal agriculture on the environment and our health, should be vigilant where we see gender stereotypes contributing to the long term harm of men, women or people of any gender, especially where those portrayals suggest you can’t be a man without eating meat, or that women are seen as meat.
We won’t win every case. But we just might get the advertising industry thinking much more carefully, and creatively, about how harmful gender roles are linked to the harmful practices of animal exploitation, and where that harm limits people’s potential.