21 Questions

Meat Is (Still) a Symbol of Patriarchy

Carol J. Adams first published ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’ 30 years ago. Its message still resonates — and she has more to say.

rachel krantz
Published in
9 min readMar 4, 2020

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Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project

You know how they say you should never meet your idols? Yeah, that’s not great advice. Especially when one of those idols is author and feminist icon Carol J. Adams. When I reached out to Adams a few years ago, I was thrilled when she invited me to hang out with her at the La Brea Tarpits in LA. I’ve taken almost every chance I can to talk to her since, and this 21 Questions series was certainly not going to be an exception.

For those who aren’t lucky enough to have read any of Adams’ books, it’s time to catch up. Adams was the first thinker to really draw the connection between patriarchy and the use of animals for food, and the vegan movement, in particular, owes her a great debt. Her most famous work is probably The Sexual Politics of Meat, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The Pornography of Meat is also a classic (and will have an updated edition coming out in October). But her books are also often incredibly practical: Living Among Meat Eaters and Even Vegans Die are also great places to start working your way through her sizable canon.

I asked Carol these 21 questions on everything from #MeToo to writing advice. I knew she’d have no trouble being blunt — and she did not disappoint.

1. How and when did you go vegan?

Carol J. Adams: I’d been a vegetarian since 1974, but in working on The Sexual Politics of Meat [I realized] we needed a name for eggs and milk taken from female animals. So, I coined the term “feminized protein” to identify how reproductive exploitation is implicated in the eating of eggs and milk from female animals. After coining it, veganism was clearly the next step.

2. How do you explain the insights of ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’ in just a few sentences?

The Sexual Politics of Meat explores a relationship between patriarchal values and meat eating by interweaving the insights of feminism, vegetarianism, animal defense, and literary theory. Feminist theory logically contains a vegan critique… just as veganism covertly challenges patriarchal society.

3. Can you briefly explain how?

Patriarchy is a gender system that is implicit in human/animal relationships. The continual re-articulation of meat-eating as an aspect of heterosexual masculinity actually suggests how unsettled an identity it is. If a patriarchal culture wants to recall itself at each meal, I think we should recognize that one aspect of climate denial may reflect the need to keep meat from dead animals as the center of the meal because of its role as symbol of patriarchal control.

4. What’s the strangest thing about writing a classic?

My editor, Evander Lomke, said to me, “You know what the problem with being ‘a classic’ is? Everyone thinks it’s enough to know about the book rather than actually reading it.”

5. I’ve talked with you before about how women and animals are similarly objectified in advertising. Can you explain some of the main parallels?

That interview was so comprehensive: They are reduced to body parts; they are made to look like “they want it;” we see them only when they are young (and supposedly sexy); they are used as symbols for a “simpler time;” their bodies are used to reinforce “real manhood;” their victimhood is used to market products.

But let me add: Meat advertisements that use sexually objectified women anchor the heterosexual voyeuristic gaze (and the fantasies of virility) within a normative meat-eating. We don’t realize that the act of viewing another as an object and the act of believing that another is an object are actually different acts because our culture has collapsed them into one.

6. You’re so prolific. What’s your writing process like?

I keep a journal — which I have done since 1996 — and this has greatly aided my writing process. Sometimes when I’m writing down the experiences and reflections of the day before, new ideas spring forward. At least three books were born in my journal. Keeping a journal also helps to develop the discipline of writing quickly, removing that critic who resides on my left shoulder.

I also — no matter where I am — always stop and write down an idea whenever I find that I have thought it. It’s not that I won’t remember it, it’s that trying to remember it keeps other ideas from coming forward. I set myself deadlines. I don’t wait for inspiration; I do the work and have faith that inspiration will come.

7. I’m currently writing my first book. What advice do you have for me, aside from keeping a journal?

You have to believe in something that doesn’t exist (or doesn’t exist tangibly) and work with it until it — the book — begins to help you bring it into existence. So, trust your instincts. Also, read good books so you have examples of well-formed sentences and ideas. Don’t judge your first draft; let it grow like the first rise of dough.

Revise with vengeance. The role of some sentences was merely to get you to a better sentence. Put some time between you and your draft so you can read it with some distance and the pain of writing those sentences has receded from memory. Print your manuscript out and read it away from the computer. That’s the best way to catch passive sentences and discover that you are repeating yourself. (We all do!)

8. You’ve written extensively about this and how to address it — but briefly, what are the main issues with the AR movement’s response to #MeToo?

The AR movement as a movement has not responded to #MeToo. Many survivors never came forward because of threats of being sued for libel. Some “leaders” continue to support known sexual exploiters. The experience of women of color who were and are sexually exploited is barely addressed.

9. What is your biggest pet peeve about the vegan movement as it is now?

Two things: First, the vegan movement must commit itself to decentering whiteness. White vegans need to read vegans of color, respect what they say, and stop centering the limited nature of veganism that white vegans have advanced.

Second, when veganism is presented as a lifestyle, or a health solution, or the new way to be buff, or athletic, or even “masculine” (!) it’s commitment to compassion is undercut by a more self-centered motivation.

10. What are some of your favorite places to eat in Dallas?

Of course, Spiral Diner — I’ve known Amy, the founder, for decades and am amazed by the inventiveness at the now 3 (!) locations. But there is also V-Eats, D’Vegan. I want to get back to Bam’s Vegan at the Farmer’s Market, and El Palote Panaderia, and am excited about Vegan Food House. But one of my favorite places to eat is in my own dining room, with good friends, and a great vegan meal that I spent all day preparing.

11. What’s your biggest pet peeve about being vegan in a non-vegan world?

Um, non-vegans? Their defensiveness, which they often don’t even recognize as influencing their hostile behavior.

That’s why I wrote Living Among Meat Eaters. I wrote it to help vegans and vegetarians handle the negative behavior of nonvegans. Also, in the light of Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar speech, I’d also name nonvegans who attack the idea of that there might be connections among oppressions, and feminists who challenge the idea that feminists should consider veganism as a part of feminist practice.

12. What’s your idea of a perfect day?

I think of a perfect day as one that is filled with a vibrancy, as I lived them and as I recall them, as though there is a unique aura around them.

13. Any examples?

Protesting Trump’s “Muslim Ban” at DFW airport in 2017; being with my mother as she was dying and died; being among standing stones in the Highlands of Scotland after a wonderful vegan breakfast, just my partner and me, and feeling the energy of the stones — it sounds mystical, but on a blue sky day, when you are alone with at one of these sacred places — I guess it is! And then we had the most incredible vegan chocolate mint cupcakes afterwards! There is still a glow to that day.

14. You’ve been married for a long time. What’s your advice for a happy long-term marriage/partnership?

It’s not enough to believe in my dreams, I believe in my beloved’s dreams as well — and help to bring them to fruition, as he has mine. Plus, have fun together. Recognize that relationships aren’t static; if you find yourself changing be sure to let your partner know. (That might sound obvious, but a therapist friend of mine summarized it this way: People change and then forget to tell their partner they changed).

And when you argue, don’t go for the jugular. Don’t use as ammunition the insecurities or embarrassments you are privy to because at another time you were trusted with them. Finally, to know and act with the knowledge that in being in a committed relationship there is something that is more than the sum of the two of you.

15. What are you reading now?

Ralph Ellison’s letters. They are incredible. (And contain writing advice, to boot!) I just finished The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship. Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice. It’s brilliant. I continually return to Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. I’m re-reading Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life because I’m working on a book on “My Mother’s Calendars,” from a piece I did for the Times.

Alexandra Minna Stern’s Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination, Robert MacFarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes, and Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Dinesh Wadiwell’s The War Against Animals, and the finalists in an environmental fiction contest I am judging for Ashland Press.

16. What’s the strangest thing about aging?

Well, need I say — we are all aging. That’s the only way to be alive! But in the sense you mean, the strangest thing for me, probably, was after I talk somewhere about The Sexual Politics of Meat, young people no longer say, “You are so cool, I wish you were my mother.” They say, “You are so cool, I wish you were my grandmother.”Young people no longer say, “You are so cool, I wish you were my mother.” They say, “You are so cool, I wish you were my grandmother.”

17. What’s the best thing?

A lived historic perspective on social justice movements since the 1960s, enjoying my sons, Benjamin and Douglas, as adults, and being in touch with people who brought me to their campus 10, 20, 25 years ago and experiencing who they are now.

18. What are you cynical about, if anything?

White patriarchy. It is not going to give up control.

19. Do you have any vanities?

I don’t know if it’s a vanity, but I do notice that when ideas from The Sexual Politics of Meat are referred to, like the connection between meat and masculinity and virility, or that women are animalized and animals are sexualized and feminized, the people citing them often don’t name the book. You might say that this shows how much the ideas have entered the cultural consciousness. But I notice that when Peter Singer’s or Tom Regan’s or other while male philosopher’s ideas are referred to, their names accompany those ideas. I would like citation equality.

20. What’s a typical day for you?

In the summer, I walk the two rescued dogs who live with us by 6 or 6:30 each morning because in Texas it gets too hot to walk them later. Then I go to work. From October to May — those are my dream months — I get up, write in my journal first, then I read literary essays or poetry to envelop myself in “Best words, Best order,” as the poet Stephen Dobyns refers to poetry.

I try not to get sucked into social media and email too early in the day. (I try.) I love to listen to audiobooks and experiment with new vegan recipes — but not every day. Having freedom to work with my own words is the best gift I can give myself. But I also probably spend at least ninety minutes to two hours a day answering emails. When there is a book deadline, everything else drops away, and it’s the book, book, book, all day and all night.

21. What keeps you up at night?

Ideas. Even if my body is tired, if I find my mind taking my thoughts somewhere new, I get up so I don’t lose the thread of the thoughts. I know they are a gift and to sleep is to leave the gift forever unopened.

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rachel krantz
Tenderly

Award-winning journalist & author of reported memoir OPEN, Host of HELP EXISTING podcast, Twitter & IG @rachelkrantz. www.racheljkrantz.com