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Vegetarian and vegan living has, for a long time, been associated with feminism.
Many suffragettes were vegetarian. The women-led Panacea Society was strictly against eating meat. Sheri Lucas wrote A Defense of the Feminist-Vegetarian Connection.
It’s nothing new per se to think about meat and eating it as a male sport or culinary patriarchy.
But have you ever considered just how far our dietary choices – and gender inequality – impact on everyday things like language?
Ph.D. academic Shareena Z Hamza from the University of Swansea has been exploring how much our language has been influenced by meat eating and whether with the increasing popularity of veganism, our metaphors are about to turn plant-based.
She says that for hundreds of years, meat was considered to be the most critical part of a meal – and because of that, it was a source of societal power.
Writing for The Conversation, she says that while the upper echelons of society feasted on flesh, the ‘peasantry subsisted on a mostly vegetarian diet’.
Eating animals and power
“As a result, the consumption of meat was associated with dominant power structures in society, its absence from the plate indicating disadvantaged groups, such as women and the poor,” she wrote. “To control the supply of meat was to control the people.”
But, Hamza argues, that power goes even further than practical class structure. It’s seeped into our literary hierarchy too.
Common food metaphors are often meat-based, she argues.
“Having money troubles? Then your goose is cooked if you don’t bring home the bacon.”
Meat as symbolism
Female writers like Jeanette Winterson and Virginia Woolf have used meat as a powerful symbol or patriarchy at play.
Hamza writes: “The main female character (in Winterson’s The Passion), Villanelle, sells herself to Russian soldiers in order to have some of their scarce and valuable supply of meat.
“The female body is just another type of meat for these men and carnivorous desire leads to carnal pleasure. In contrast, Napoleon’s obsession with devouring meat symbolises his desire to conquer the world.”
While in To The Lighthouse, ‘despite all the female labor poured into (a meat stew), the patriarchal mindset of the early 20th century is so powerfully ingrained that a man’s right to eat the best meat is unquestioned’.
Overthrowing the food hierarchy
And today, we’re part of the movement which is seeking to overthrow the food hierarchy and dethrone meat from the top shelf.
So will we start to see our language change as a result? Well, Hamza says possibly – but it’ll take time.
“Metaphors involving meat could gain an increased intensity if the killing of animals for food becomes less socially acceptable. The image of ‘killing two birds with one stone’ is, if anything, made more powerful by the animal-friendly alternative of ‘feeding two birds with one scone‘.
“If veganism forces us to confront the realities of food’s origins, then this increased awareness will undoubtedly be reflected in our language and our literature.”
It’s certainly an interesting thought.
Veganism and feminism
Feminism and veganism are interlinked (although many refuse to acknowledge the connection). Both women and animals are still fighting for equality, and we’re in the process of re-educating the powers that be in the way that they view and talk about us.
We’ve managed to largely scrap casually homophobic slurs (‘wow, that is so gay’) from our day-to-day discourse and it’s increasingly frowned upon to make sexist jokes. But we’re a long way from enough people caring about veganism to see a significant impact on our language.
Hamza mentions the advent of ‘bleeding’ burgers as an example of us not wanting the language to change even if our dietary habits have.
She’s quite right in saying that some vegan products are marketed using meaty language, but that’s where I’d argue that things are bound to change in due course.
There are plenty of plant-based diners who object to substitutes being called ‘steaks’ and ‘mince’, or who don’t fancy eating something that replicates a bleeding patty of flesh.
Companies use that kind of language to attract people who may be vega-curious but haven’t entirely jumped ship yet.
Give it a couple of more years and I doubt there’ll be the need to persuade people to turn vegan – they’ll just do it.
At least, one can hope.