In the latest instalment of “celebrities engaging in harmful stunts ‘for the animals,’” Alicia Silverstone has stripped naked for PeTA to protest wool.
In this particular video, a “traditionally attractive” woman poses, without clothing, in a manner that’s supposed to be sexually enticing. The naked image of her is shown after about a minute of undercover footage of sheep being stripped of their wool, bleeding from the blades, and being thrown about, beaten, and stamped on by the workers. While posing nude, Silverstone holds a mask depicting a sheep’s face.
Let me break this down for you: this video blurs the lines between the tortured animals onscreen and the eroticised woman. If the juxtaposition of images of shorn sheep and stripped Silverstone is not enough to convince you of this, the mask in the latter’s hand certainly should. The sheep mask plays on the blurring of identities, eroticising and animalising a woman who has previously uttered, of the shearers, “They see [the sheep] as objects.” And just as we see violence enacted on the vulnerable bodies of the sheep in the video, that elision of the distinction between woman and sheep implies an eroticisation of that same violence.
“Women are animals,” I hear you object. “All humans are animals.” Yes, this is clear. But the patriarchal system under which we all live constructs women as objects or instruments: of sexual pleasure, of reproduction, etc. And what function does Silverstone’s nudity serve only to garner more attention for this particular campaign and thereby for the group behind it?
That the signature image of the campaign hangs on a billboard in Times Square is not surprising. I’ve written before about how “fleeting advocacy” like bus ads and billboards serve no real transformative purpose; at best, they supplement advocacy that is already being done on the ground, and at worst they are little more than advertising for a group rather than real activism for a cause. How many people do you think will be persuaded to boycott wool by gazing upon a naked Alicia Silverstone with a sheep’s mask in her hand? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest not many (and of those who do choose to boycott wool, how many will continue to use animals in other ways?).
In the billboard, and in the video’s closing frames, the naked Silverstone poses in a forest by a lake. Her back is to the camera as she covers her breasts with an arm that clutches her other forearm, and she looks warily over her shoulder. Her facial expression conveys a mixture of surprise and uncertainty. This is a scene that places the viewer in the role of voyeur, and the model is acting as though she were an unwilling object of the viewer’s gaze.
The media so often normalises violence against women, particularly sexual violence. PeTA participates in these tropes of eroticised violence or lack of consent (for more on this, see my essay here). Putting aside the obvious objections to the use of a naked woman to highlight issues of “social justice” (however divorced from the root problem, in this case animal use, they may be), Silverstone is made to look as though she is not comfortable with the viewer’s attention in this shot. And while the tone of the image may be linked to the violence against the sheep that has previously been depicted, the eroticisation of that scene of discomfort and non-consent is deeply troubling indeed.
“But if I were a sheep…” I hear you say, implying that any tactic is welcome once it’s “for the animals.” But what purpose does Silverstone’s nudity serve other than to draw attention to a campaign that highlights that the problem is treatment rather than use (in the video, Silverston mimics “gentle” shearing as though it were acceptable), and that asks the viewer not to go vegan but to consider no longer buying wool? Surely, if one wants to promote an anodyne and morally flaccid message, there are ways to do so that do not involve objectifying women, eroticising bizarre parallels (sheep as victim and woman as sheep), sexualising an image of the anxious victim of voyeurism, and valorising a young, white, slim, cisgendered body.
Celebrities, keep your clothes on for the animals. Folks, talk to people about veganism: not wool, not leather, not foie gras, not fur, not cage size. We need a real social justice movement that actively opposes the oppression of anyone. We’ll no more create justice by being unjust than we will bring about a vegan world by asking people to buy acrylic sweaters.
For more on the confusion created by Single-Issue Campaigns, please see here.