Thursday night the Brooklyn Museum in New York awarded this year’s Sackler Center First prize to veteran Muppet Miss Piggy “for more than forty years of blazing feminist trails with determination and humor.” Interviewed on stage by Gloria Steinem, the “persevering porcine pioneer of the arts” followed in the footsteps of human recipients including Sandra Day O’Connor and Toni Morrison. She was accompanied by longtime companion Kermit the Frog.
While some no doubt enjoyed the event as a trip down memory lane—Remember Miss Piggy with Andy Kaufman? Or the Wonder Woman spoof?—I celebrate the award as an acknowledgement by the feminist community that we must think beyond humans. While Miss Piggy has spent forty years redefining what it means to be a “feminist pig,” I’ve spent those same forty years arguing that theorizing about animals is inevitable for feminism—that the association of women with pigs, cows, chickens, and other animals needs inquiry and response.
As I write in The Sexual Politics of Meat, feminist history has always bumped up against the human-animal comparison. For centuries, philosophers famously argued that women were less rational then men—giving society license to position women as closer to animals. The 19th century philosopher the Marquis de Sade once said, “Our grounds for refusing to include women in our species would be quite as valid as for refusing to consider the chimpanzee our brother.” Women’s suffragists reported being met with mocking questions along the lines of, What’s next, votes for cows?
Today, women are often depicted in media as animal-like, shown on all fours, posed like animals—ways of saying, “women are less than men, women are closer to animals, and we can consume them visually just as we literally consume animals.” And think of how names associated with female animals become insults to women: cow, pig, sow, hen, old biddy, bitch.
This past February, while dining at the Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse in Columbia, South Carolina for a meeting about a domestic violence bill, South Carolina Senator Katrina Shealy—the only woman in the state’s senate—challenged Senator Tom Corbin for attacking women. Corbin’s reply? “Well, you know God created man first.” Corbin continued, “Then He took the rib out of man to make woman. And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat.” We live in a society that still views women as cuts of meat.
Perhaps the most profound example of how the treatment of animals and women is inextricably linked is in the control of their reproduction. At the same time that women’s reproductive choices are curtailed, millions of non-human females are also living in reproductive slavery, imprisoned in gestation crates limiting their movement before giving birth and farrowing crates restricting their movement afterward. (Miss Piggy, like all of us who have worked for feminist goals only to watch them being chipped away, is no doubt aware that her liberation is conditional. Such is the fragility of freedom: She’s just one cleaver away from bacon or ham.)
With the award of a Sackler First, I hope that Miss Piggy’s individual achievement will remind the world that when people eat meat, what is on the table in front of them is not devoid of specificity; it is the dead flesh of what was once a living, feeling being. Feminist thought, concern, and activism should not stop at the species line, because anti-feminist actions are happening on both sides of the human-animal boundary.