Just call me an ugly militant feminist

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Two scary faces, both of them mine — for no one to mess with.

How (not) to be cool – pt. 2

Nowadays, it seems that narcissism and an obsession with looks and perfection have become perfectly acceptable, even cool, for women. Social media is overflowing with flattering (often to the point of the person being unrecognizable) selfies as well as posts providing largely unrealistically positive information about the individual’s life (yes, the latter applies to men as well as women).

More than once in the past year, I’ve had to stop and think before I could remember how I knew some of my so-called ‘friends’ on Facebook (possibly an indication for me to remove them from said list). Once or twice, I have been so fascinated by how different a girl looked in photos from the way I remembered her in real life that I had to check other pictures to reassure myself it was actually the same person. And I felt saddened, not as much by how fake and unoriginal she looked, but how proud this seemed to make her. How important it was to her to make an impression on the world. To make herself seen. Apparently, this is what Instagram and Facebook have done to us: it has become perfectly normal to see special occasions as an opportunity to show off our lives to the world rather than as a chance to enjoy the present and celebrate precious times with our family and/or friends (the ones we are with right now). Sometimes this happens subconsciously – of course, we all like to present the ideal versions of ourselves and our lives, both to ourselves and to others. For one of those girls, this means she wears a tight new dress in every photo, with gorgeous hair that must have taken her hours to style, and a ton of make-up that makes her look like just another Kim Kardashian imitation. Perhaps she looks like someone many girls strive to be (though I hope not). But she sure as hell doesn’t look like someone we’d have a great conversation with or who could help inspire us to become better people.

I wonder why we try so hard to present our lives as perfect. Is it because many of us still admire those who (seem to) love themselves the most, and whose lives appear to be easier than our own? However, I’m sure we all agree that it’s harder to connect with people who seem perfect than it is to connect with those who are vulnerable, imperfect, sincere. Maybe we merely wish we could be as oblivious as they seem to be? Maybe we feel our lives would be easier if we lied to ourselves and ignored our inherent, eternal imperfection? Might it not perhaps be more enriching to be able to admit our weaknesses and be willing to change? By weaknesses, I do not mean visual ‘flaws’ as they are defined by society. I mean cognitive and behavioural flaws – including our reluctance to question our obsession with looks and the way others perceive us.

Perhaps we have to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to a kind of world we don’t want, not merely by focusing too much on ourselves and our image instead of helping others, but also by way of what our posts evoke or ‘confirm’ in others’ heads. For instance, do women who post semi-nude pictures of themselves on Instagram in order to get more likes not feel that they might further encourage the frighteningly fast-growing trend towards general objectification and lack of sexual respect we get from men? Don’t get me wrong: both men and women have a tendency to objectify each other in a sexual or aesthetic context, and in a mutually cohesive environment this would not present an issue. But we shouldn’t allow it to become a trend that harms us physically or spiritually, a trend that has already begun to affect our entire lives, including the way we strive to be perceived by every single stranger on the internet.

I’m not just blaming the Kim Kardashians, though. I do feel disappointed by all those who are making it even harder for other women to be taken seriously as human beings, but more than them, I’m blaming our culture. I’m blaming movies and music videos and ads for still failing to present women who are interesting to watch for more than their clone-looks, and I’m blaming them for failing to reflect the richness and complexity of womanhood. Sure, there is a growing number of pleasant exceptions, especially in TV series (HBO and Netflix offering a great variety of less stereotypical female characters) and independent cinema, and now we even have a blockbuster that many regard as a feminist film (Wonder Woman), and I will look at some of those examples in my next post. But the highest-grossing films are still those which portray women in a more simplistic way, without any depth or individuality (either as the tough and sexy action hero, the cruel but sexy antagonist, the neurotic and superficial career woman, the naive beauty, the manipulative co-worker / boss, the jovial and slightly obnoxious chubby woman, or the selfless and otherwise personality-free mother).

An example: a few weeks ago, I rewatched a 2011 comedy with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston called Just Go With It because some friends love the movie and wanted to see it again. I thought maybe I’d think of it differently now than when it first came out, and I did, though not in the way I expected. The first time I saw it, I thought it was mediocre and not particularly funny. When I saw it again, I thought it was not just average but actually pretty terrible. The number of scenes reducing women to the appeal of their bodies and their ability to please a man sexually by far outnumber any (potentially) redeeming scenes. In order for Adam Sandler’s character Danny to fall in love with Jennifer Aniston’s character Katherine and lose interest in his much younger girlfriend Palmer (whose only appeal seems to lie in her looks), Katherine first has to show off her curves in a bikini, proving that her body is just as fit, youthful, flawless, and thus sexually desirable as Palmer’s. In yet another scene designed to satisfy the ‘male gaze’, Katherine joins in on a hula-dancer competition with her frenemy, played by Nicole Kidman. That night, Danny finally realizes he has feelings for Katherine.

A movie like Just Go With It is not instantly recognizable as misogynistic unless you are already taking everything you see and hear with a grain of salt instead of mindlessly consuming and accepting whatever you are fed like most of us do. Because the movie merely repeats an old pattern which is subconsciously influencing male and female minds.

The worst thing about misogyny in popular culture is the fact that as soon as you point out examples of it, you are very often dismissed as a fun-spoiling bitch. While my friends would never call me that, I’m sure it’s exactly what they thought of me after I tried to make my point. No one likes to see one of their favourite comedies torn to pieces.

As a more complex and interesting example, I would like to mention the first episode of the Netflix show Easy, which still haunts me. Right after I saw this episode, I googled articles about it and was alarmed by the fact that the Internet was not actually filled with articles about how this episode reflects, and appears to comment on, the deeply misogynistic elements of our society. It also alarmed me that one of the people I spoke to about it did not consider the domestic rape scene disturbing in the slightest, and I think many viewers nowadays wouldn’t, because, thanks to internet porn, they are so used to sex being portrayed as something that has to be pleasant for the man, but doesn’t need to be so for the woman. In the final ten minutes of the episode, the otherwise so loving and caring husband completely disregards his wife’s desires and visibly does not care in the slightest that she is in pain while he is fucking her. Doesn’t anyone see this as deeply upsetting in its contradiction? Has it become so normal that no one feels the need to comment on it?

Is it really cool for a man to use and exploit a woman without paying any attention to whether she is into it or not? And is it cool for a woman to sacrifice her own desire in attempts to please a man who doesn’t respect her? Are women still conditioned to feel they don’t own the right to confidently voice their own desires?

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, “we teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. […] Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. […] This is the catastrophic consequence of likeability. We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.”

Isn’t it cooler to accept and respect yourself at the risk of not being liked, than to bend over backwards for other people’s approval only to (possibly) be liked more, but respected less – both by others and yourself? Being too nice to people (especially to those who don’t deserve your attention) is draining and – I can tell you from experience – not worth the trouble. I still cringe at how much I wanted to be liked at high school. How important it was to me back then: pleasing people I didn’t even like, didn’t find interesting or kind or funny in the slightest. As a consequence of my behaviour, I lost all awareness of my own needs and identity, my trust and my self-worth, all of which took me a long time to rebuild.

Most women are still reluctant to call themselves feminists, and I doubt this is solely because they have yet to realize that being a feminist doesn’t involve hating and destroying all men (though I admit that an awareness of injustice does carry the risk of inspiring anger and frustration – it certainly does in me from time to time). I think our reluctance stems from the fact that feminists have long been considered uncool. Men – as well as women – still tend to think of feminists as dull, butch, unattractive, and very angry people who make a fuss out of nothing. Sure, there is the occasional self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ celebrity who won’t alienate fans when using the term because they still largely adhere to men’s general expectations of what a woman should be (vain, beautiful, pleasant, unrebellious, and thus not a threat to the status quo).

Those suspicious of ‘feminism’ like to ignore the fact that what this concept actually means is the knowledge that women deserve to be respected and taken seriously as human beings, the awareness that this fact is not actually reflected in our culture (no, not even in our ‘progressive’ western world), and the resulting attempt to achieve social justice and equality. And many women are too deeply entrenched in their roles to recognize how convenient the upholding of double standards and extreme paradoxes is for men: women must not show signs of aging, but men may, which means men do not need to worry about their own looks, but they have the power to make women feel deeply insecure about their own; women have to be thin and beautiful, otherwise they are ridiculed or ignored; however, if they are beautiful, they are solely appreciated for their beauty and not actually taken seriously as human beings – it’s a vicious cycle that keeps women weak and ‘in their place’.

To me,
an empowered woman is the coolest thing ever. Women who aren’t afraid to ask for what they want, women who accept themselves with their supposed physical flaws and do not try to change them, women who take it for granted that they deserve just as much respect as men, even when their experiences might have taught them otherwise. Women who have the wisdom and self-respect not to worry about aging, and who have the courage to say no whenever a man tries to convince them to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. Because there are way too many women out there who allow the increasingly misogynistic aspects of our culture to define the way we should act and respond to the behaviour of men. We let shitty movies and magazines and Internet porn establish the ground rules. Because we are continuously given the impression that we are going to be considered uncool, fun-spoiling bitches if we don’t.

So it’s time to ask ourselves what’s more important: awareness, courage, self-acceptance, freedom, and originality – or standardized good looks and likeability?

 

On being the only single person in town

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Valentine’s Day is coming up and I’m single, as usual. Smug couples will be feeling sorry for me whilst unhappy couples will be jealous of me, and everyone else is just going to yawn, because, let’s face it: most singles and happy couples aren’t going to make a fuss about Valentine’s Day. The only ones who do appear to be the ones who feel their love needs to be validated in some excessive way, preferably on public display.

So let’s talk about being single. I’ve been single for over seven years, which I’m pretty sure makes me an expert on the subject. Or, since I’m inevitably going to be talking about relationships as well, let’s say semi-expert, because I’m certainly not an expert on being in a relationship, as I’ve only been in one and it wasn’t the best example: we never lived together, and over half of the duration of our relationship was spent apart, living in different countries.

During this time, I was so insecure, so anxious, so preoccupied with the idea of him not loving me enough that I never even considered the possibility that he might not actually be the most suitable partner for me. My lack of trust and self-confidence ensured I never felt completely safe in the relationship, which, of course, also meant it rarely ever got dull or boring. I was so worried and stressed out with my panicky thoughts that I didn’t find the peace of mind to ever rationally weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of being in this relationship. Instead, it took two and a half years of driving him insane until he finally did both me and himself the favour of breaking up with me via Skype a few days after my birthday (which, by this stage of the relationship, he had – of course – forgotten) and my sister’s wedding in Australia.

Sometimes I still wonder whether it was the best or worst timing for him to leave me. You see, without him breaking up with me at this time, I never would have decided to go spend a year in Australia (because I was never really interested in living in Australia). And that year turned out to be one of the best years of my life, though I did fall in love with someone who has proven difficult to fall out of love with, despite – or rather, due to – the fact that he has never decided to love me back. This guy is still one of my best friends and I feel equal amounts lucky and unlucky to have met him. Unlucky, because any guy I have met, and might meet in the future, since I’ve known him is inevitably going to be compared to him (and mostly unfavourably). Lucky, because knowing him has enriched my life in many ways. And because other guys haven’t really been able to hurt me anymore, since none of them were even half as cool as him. So thanks to this unrequited love, I’ve gained a sense of inner freedom and control that has enabled me to enjoy flings much more than I enjoyed being in a relationship, and I’m no longer striving to find something that will last forever. Not simply because I don’t really believe in ‘forever’ anymore, but more so because I have come to realize it’s not actually been stability and continuity that have made me feel sane during my life thus far. It’s always been a sense of adventure as provided by travel, meeting many different people, and the challenges I’ve set for myself which have most filled me with energy, hope, and contentment.

Of course, loneliness does strike from time to time. Since I’ve been living in Heidelberg (where I moved last summer), I can count the other singles I have met down on one hand. And I have met A LOT of people. Being single among a herd of people in stable relationships can make you feel really… well, weird. It makes me feel like a bloody alien sometimes. And this, I’m certain, is not purely due to my personal issues and insecurities, but even more so to the fact that – thanks to movies, ads, as well as nosy relatives who should get a life – women have internalized the belief that there must be something wrong with them if they aren’t in a steady relationship in their thirties.

From the youngest age, women are persuaded into thinking that our happiness depends on finding a romantic partner. We aren’t expected to grow into independent, self-sufficient women. We are expected to become wives and mothers, perhaps wives and mothers with careers, but the career is secondary. When/whether a guy finds a suitable romantic partner, is not important; relationships don’t define him in the public eye. But a woman’s ‘value’ is intrinsically linked to her relationship status. (Check out this great article, which a good friend recommended to me when it was published last year, and which, among many other insights, explains why women tend to benefit much more from singlehood than from relationships: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2016/02/maybe-you-should-just-be-single)

Regardless of your gender, there’s the disturbing fact that being with someone for a long period of time changes you. The people you spend most of your time with will inevitably have an enormous impact on your behaviour and personality. So when you’re in a relationship, your partner tends to be the one who influences you the most. They can have a positive effect on you, be inspiring and character-building, but – and this is very often the case – they can also be a negative influence. For instance, the wrong relationship can turn you into a constantly angry and/or anxious mess, make you forget who you were, turn you into an insensitive bitch, distract you from your goals, etc etc… as it did in my relationship. So a relationship can – and often enough will – actually bring out the worst in you.

But before I go on to draw your attention to the benefits of singlehood, let’s sum up the great benefits of being in a relationship:

1. It’s nice to have someone to cuddle with, particularly in winter when you long for someone to warm up your bed before you get in there yourself.

2. It’s also extremely nice to wake up and be able to have sex. (That is, if the other person is in the same mood.)

3. It’s also nice to be loved in a romantic way. It makes you feel really awesome and special, without the need to really make an effort to be an awesome person, aside from treating your partner (and perhaps, their family) kindly enough.

4. As a woman, you can feel smug and safe: no (more) pitiful glances, patronizing comments, or ‘well-meaning’ advice from all your married friends and relatives. Because for some reason, it still appears sad for a woman to remain single beyond a certain age (the terms ‘spinster’ and ‘crazy cat lady’ come to mind), because we never see the possibility of singlehood ever being an active choice when we are speaking about a woman, whereas we are able to see this potential as soon as we are talking about a guy (a ‘bachelor’). It’s as if being in a relationship elevates a woman to an acceptable level, both in terms of her social standing and in her own perception of her inner worth.

5. Most importantly, I think a good relationship will provide you with a sense of safety and stability, which does a lot in the way of consoling us in our existential misery. Yes, there will always be misery, no matter how easy and comfortable our lives, because life is fundamentally tragic and we know we are going to die, and our loved ones are going to die. A steady partner (especially a younger one!) can alleviate our pain and offer – at least temporarily – the comforting illusion of immortality.

Well, those are the main benefits of conventional relationships that I can think of right now. Happy couples, let me know which ones I’ve forgotten! Now let’s get to the advantages of being single:

1. Freedom and space. You become more self-reliant and independent.

2. You tend to value friendships more, and spend more actual time with your closest friends. I think it’s also safe to assume that when we are single, we make more of an effort to meet and spend time with new people than we do when we are in a relationship. And shouldn’t our idea of a rich, well-lived life involve connecting with lots of different people, exchanging thoughts and ideas in order to broaden our horizons, discover new approaches and perspectives, learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty, and gain a deeper and more balanced understanding of the world we live in? Let’s face it: no matter how clever your (potential) partner is, in some way you are always going to be limiting your potential to grow and accumulate wisdom if you decide to spend all or most of your time with them and rarely meet other people, just as you would if you decided to stay in one place all your life and never travelled anywhere.

3. As a single person, you learn to cope with phases of extreme (sexual as well as romantic) deprivation and frustration, and come to recognize the difference between feeling lonely and being alone. You learn to appreciate solitude.

4. Thanks to those phases of solitude and melancholy, you’re more likely to create poignant artwork.

5. You might grow more empathetic towards others, since you experience what it feels like to be the only single around and (at least if you’re a woman) being pitied and/or patronized repeatedly as a result. You also learn to question social norms and develop a better bullshit radar.

6. Finally, you get to know yourself and find out what you actually want and need, not what others expect you to crave or covet.

I, for one, have come to really appreciate the freedom and sanity that comes with singlehood. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s best to stay single all your life, neither am I saying that singlehood is always easy or fantastic; but I also doubt it’s preferable to spend all of your adult life in a relationship. We need to stop seeing relationships (in the limiting sense in which we tend to define and live them) as the one and only ideal. And we need to stop seeing singlehood merely as a lesser alternative or compromise, and instead identify it as a valid lifestyle choice. It really need not be experienced as something alienating that we are forced into or that reflects our perceived worthlessness, as society encourages women to think. On the contrary, we can identify a life – or phases – of singlehood as a chance to experience life in a different way, namely one that will teach us just as many lessons as any relationship can, and that can additionally fill us with joy, comfort, and confidence, just as a great relationship would.

Uncool for School


What does “coolness” (as a concept to describe a person) mean to you? As a single word, “cool” makes me think of someone composed, comfortable with themselves, easygoing, and also, more generally, great or awesome. It could, of course, sometimes be used in a derogatory way, denoting indifference or arrogance, but for the most part, the trait has positive connotations. So what type of behaviour makes someone truly cool?

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How (not) to be cool – pt. 1

Up until about the age of 16, when I switched schools and made some actual friends, I was among the unfortunate few unpopular kids at school. I was the one who got voted last for a team in gym class (meaning I was the only one not being chosen at all, basically unwittingly forcing someone to pick me so we’d have even numbers), and this wasn’t for any physical reasons. It was simply that no one liked me, perhaps because I was shy and quiet and had not yet become my own person. Well, OK, I admit I’ve also never been the sportiest.

I was a lonely kid who often found herself standing in the schoolyard by herself, eating my avocado and getting asked what the fuck I was eating (I was ahead of my time – or rather, my mum was; she was buying the avocados). One time this smug couple laughed at me, asking what those pinkish-white blotches in my face were – turns out the concealer I had used on my spots was several shades too light. Had I been able to see myself in the daylight and given less of a shit about my spots, I would have been pretty amused myself. The mean couple would probably be quite surprised (and delighted) to hear that the same thing still happens to me from time to time (well, it can vary in that sometimes the concealer/make-up I choose is too dark, not too light), which makes one wonder: 1. why the hell I still get spots in my thirties, and 2. how after so many years of covering up spots, I still don’t manage to do a fantastic job of it.

Anyway, back to my teenage years: the most uncool thing about me was the fact that I tried desperately to make friends with people I didn’t even like – well, there were a couple of people I liked, and they were nice to me, but aside from them, there weren’t really any decent human beings in my classroom (though I accept that at that age most of us are either jerks or morons, or both). Unfortunately, being a sweet, accommodating person wasn’t something that won you a popularity contest. Confidence and boldness, that’s what ‘coolness’ was all about. I’m still not 100% sure why I tried so hard to get everyone to like me. A part of it was definitely the fact that I was too afraid to hang out by myself during lunch breaks and risk getting stares of pity, another was that I always admired the popular kids, no matter how brainless or cruel they actually were. I admired them for their popularity, and for the fact that everything seemed to go smoothly for them at school. I also admired them for their extreme confidence and (seeming) oblivion regarding their own flaws. I guess to me this seemed like something amazing because I have always been acutely aware of my own flaws (of which, don’t get me wrong, I still have many to count, despite all my dwelling and self-criticism).

So here is the worst part: I was well aware that the right thing for me to do would be to be sincere, do my own thing, and stop being a pushover. After all, I was continuously reminded of the dangers and inherent immorality of cowardly behaviour in German history classes and discussions at home, where the German guilt complex was still strong, and a ‘Mitläufer’ (blind follower) was the most revolting and shameful thing you could be. So I knew that those who followed the mass and neglected to defend themselves and others when treated with disrespect, those too anxious to please the popular kids, could be described as ‘Mitläufer’ – and that I was one of them. But I simply wasn’t strong or autonomous enough to withstand the immense pressure I felt to be accepted and included. It wasn’t until I switched schools at the age of 16 that I swore myself never to chase people again just because they were popular, and not to hang out with anyone whose company wasn’t actually enjoyable, and I stayed (largely) true to my promise, and in turn learned to respect myself a little more.

I guess most of us know the urge to be accepted, to be appreciated, to be seen. Our Facebook and Instagram accounts offer enough proof of that. But why is that? Just why do we continue to strive so hard to be liked, admired, and respected by others well into adulthood? Why do we keep feeling the need for others’ approval before we allow ourselves to be OK with ourselves? After all, how could we possibly find external evidence for something that no one but ourselves can ever truly know and understand?

So should we really feel cooler and prouder of ourselves when we post a new picture or status update and manage to get a certain number of likes, or do we not instead become way too dependent on acknowledgement and approval from the outside world? I still remember all too well what it felt like to be ignored and disliked at school, and sometimes Facebook overuse stirs those feelings back up in me. Even though I’m aware that most of my closest friends don’t make much use of it (one of my best friends doesn’t even have a Facebook account, and another only set one up recently), the lack of responses I used to get for posts on a page I have since deleted used to leave me a little heartbroken. Again, I was being ignored and excluded; again, I felt stupid and insignificant; again, I felt like there must be something inherently, acutely wrong with me, though I wasn’t sure what. So now whenever I’m in a vulnerable place, in order not to drown in those kinds of feelings, I just know to stay away from social media.

There are advantages to knowing what it’s like to grow up lonely and uncool. No, I’ll never know what it’s like to be Miss Popular when I’m in a class/group/social media situation, but I’m also not trying to be loved by everyone anymore. I have made several very close friends in each of the five countries I’ve lived in, friends I can count on and who love me the way I am (even though they know me very well), and that means more to me than most things in this world. I’ve learned to appreciate friendships a lot, arguably more than anyone who grew up popular ever could. I also seem to form deeper connections faster because I hate anonymous small talk and am not afraid of opening up about vulnerabilities and weaknesses way before the other person would normally begin to feel comfortable to do so. Real, honest friendships: you can’t get them on Facebook. In real life you definitely can, if you manage to drop those ridiculous, flawless facades, and you’re willing to open up, not only about the stuff that makes you look awesome and cool, but also the stuff that makes you look incredibly sad and stupid and ugly and vulnerable. Because we all have more than enough of that stuff.

Nowadays, when I watch movies and TV shows with geeky, unpopular characters, it’s often those characters I see as the coolest (I’m thinking of two of my favourite TV series, Stranger Things and Freaks & Geeks). I no longer believe it’s popularity that makes you cool – it’s sincerity and the courage to accept and stay true to yourself even when you feel that everyone is against you. Which is not a quality a lot of people have, and I’m certainly not saying I have perfected that skill. The people I admire the most are the ones who don’t follow the path laid out by the people around them, but who question everything society tells them to be, who don’t stop trying to change into a better person, and who don’t chase others in an effort to avoid solitude or receive validation. Because they have stopped caring about what others may or may not think of them.

Whether it means being relaxed, at ease with yourself, generally awesome, or detached – in no sense of the word was I ever cool at school. But I guess I’ve grown a little cooler over the past decades, at least in some ways; because I have begun to treat myself with the respect that I, like everyone else, deserve.

 

New Year’s Resolution

Society keeps telling women that wrinkles make us ugly – and apparently, beauty is still the only criterion used to assess our worth. Our looks count more than men’s. And men’s knowledge and freedom count more than ours. I wonder when this is finally going to change – at least, I guess, not as long as brainless misogynists are elected presidents.

I’ve decided that this year and every year from now on, I’m going to be proud of the lines that have been forming in my face, and stop being ashamed of them. My wrinkles show that I have suffered and grown, that I am passionate and like to laugh.

Next month I’m turning 34. I’ve decided that I’m going to stop worrying whether I have begun to ‘look my age’ (note how emotionally charged this expression of a harmless fact of life has become, and how insulting it sounds to us), because it’s a fine age to be. I’m going to quit wondering when men will stop finding me attractive since they are so used to seeing only smooth, flawless skin on women well into their forties (even fifties, if they are so lucky to be selected for a starring role) every time they watch a movie or an ad. I’m going to stop worrying because I don’t need a man to tell me I’m beautiful before I can see it and believe it myself.

I’m not going to give in to the pressure to be thin, because the joy of eating good food and the love I have for my imperfect, but fully-functioning body are larger than my craving for attention and approval.

I’m going to stop spending any more time on things that cause me to lose sight of what actually matters. Our culture makes it way too easy for women to focus on our looks and supposed flaws, but I’m sick of us becoming as superficial as society wants us to be.

I have many dreams and goals, but winning a beauty contest isn’t one of them. I want to be wise and funny and kind. I want to write lots more stories and take lots more photographs and perfect my French and improve my Spanish and live in more places and travel the world and meet lots more people and volunteer at animal sanctuaries and read lots more books and make some silly horror shorts with my friends and be there for my family and friends and become a better listener and have many meaningful conversations and be a role model for my nieces and draw and handletter wise quotes and try out new recipes and open a vegan food van and teach all my favourite students online, from abroad. Yes, there’s a chance I won’t be able to tick every single one of these pursuits off my list, but I do hope I get old enough to experience most of them, and I definitely won’t let sexist, ageist society dictate how I’m going to feel about myself or what types of worries I’m going to waste my time on.

I’m going to stop thinking about how others might perceive me, and stop telling myself I’m not good enough. Instead, I’m going to appreciate the fact that I’m a healthy, living creature, able to enjoy so many things that are enriching and fulfilling and don’t require a specific kind of appearance.

Aging isn’t evil. It’s complex, it’s bittersweet. And it can provide you with the best of human qualities, those not yet known to the young: wisdom, kindness, patience, and serenity.

Soulmates

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Lately I’ve been thinking about the concept of soulmates. Perhaps because I’m slowly beginning to see the possibility of finding contentment without the person I have long considered my ‘truest’ soulmate. Someone I’ve been pining after for the past six years, partly because he has never allowed me to see anything about him I wouldn’t like or couldn’t connect with. It’s also been easy for me to idealize him because I don’t see him very often (he lives on the other side of the world).

What do you consider a ‘soulmate’? Maybe the most crucial mistake I’ve made when it comes to my love life and defining a soulmate – the mistake that has kept me from finding closure in relation to my unrequited feelings for the above-mentioned friend in Australia – is the fact that I’ve always seen a soulmate as someone who shares not only my basic values and sense of humour, but also my interests and goals and thought patterns. And most other things.

I recently met someone I connected with very quickly. We connected quickly because we seem to think and feel a very similar way about our lives and other things. He is not someone I would consider a romantic or sexual prospect, and neither would he consider me as such. Meeting this person reminded me how much I miss having ‘deep’, thoughtful conversations with someone who shares my values and interests. It’s one of the things I miss most about my friend in Australia who does not requite my feelings, and it’s something I appreciate about this new acquaintance. Connection is what we always long for, it’s a sure cure for loneliness. The sense of a lack of connection often triggers feelings of loneliness which, in my case, has often made me long to be in a relationship with that Aussie guy, though I’m all too aware that being in a relationship is neither a prerequisite to, nor a guarantee of, healing a lonely heart. (I’ve never actually felt lonelier than I did during a large chunk of my one and only long-term relationship – though I admit this had something to do with the warped expectations I had – and partly still have – of how a relationship should be.)

We probably all agree that soulmates need not be limited to a romantic context. My best female friend is like a sister to me. I’m so glad to have her in my life. Be able to chat with her, laugh with her, count on her, and agree with her on a lot of things. Those are the elements I consider the ‘soulmate’ elements. But I also value our differences. The fact that she is a more positive person than me; that she is more pragmatic and way less egocentric than me.

We tend to see soulmates as people who can relate to us, who we bond with because of our similarities, because of parallel histories or thought patterns, do you agree? After all, how could someone possibly understand us if they have led completely different lives to our own, if they have grown up popular while we were struggling to find friends, if they have only known success while we had a hard time going for and getting what we wanted, if they have always felt at home where they come from whereas we never quite managed to find ‘our place(s)’ in the world?

So one could say that the concept of soulmates is really just the result of our narcissistic urge to find someone who has a lot in common with us so we can feel comfortable and understood, and stop worrying about our flaws (at least in my experience – I told you, I’m egocentric!). However, maybe soulmates are not the ideal people to have around you all the time, i.e. as romantic partners. You need people who share some of your traits and values and likes and dislikes in your life, otherwise you’ll feel alienated and worthless, but will people who are very much like yourself actually help you grow? Will they keep challenging you and inspire you to change?

Maybe I’ve had it all wrong: perhaps my ‘ideal life’ would not entail being with my soulmate in Australia, no matter how much I enjoy his company or how he manages to make me feel saner and cooler than I actually am. As he has been the only guy I’ve met who has consistently made me feel this way, it has been difficult for me to accept the possibility that we might not actually be the perfect couple if we were ever together. I was forced to realize that 1. someone you consider your soulmate is not actually bound to reciprocate your feelings at some stage of your life, as idealistic romantic notions would have you think, and 2. the comfort and joy we feel around that person in a friendship does not guarantee their suitability as a romantic partner. Not only because people act differently towards their partners than they do towards friends, but also because soulmates (in my limiting definition of the word) might not help us grow and thrive as much as we should be. Because they do not get us to see things from a new perspective. They will encourage us and help us deal with things, but they won’t inspire us to change. They won’t motivate us to take an interest in something we hadn’t thought about before, since they share the same views and interests.

Perfect soulmates will help you feel comfortable in your own (old, leathery) skin, but they can’t help you shed that old skin to show brighter, smoother parts of yourself you never knew you had to offer. Instead, they will keep your head circling around the same things over and over again.

So maybe it’s finally time for me to stop yearning for that one person who will always be one of my dearest friends, but whose perfection can only ever be an illusion. Time to focus on all the people who have already made a difference in my life, and all those I haven’t yet met who are going to do so in the future – those who will keep me sane and at ease, as well as those who will challenge my views and help me learn and grow – and vice versa.

Food Fanatics – The representation of veganism in popular movies and TV series

In recent years, a growing number of vegan and vegetarian characters are showing up in movies and TV shows. Many of these have similar character traits, which creates stereotypes. When stereotypes are repeatedly presented, people can start to think of vegetarians and vegans as they’re shown in pop culture. All stereotypes are revealing because they indicate the dominant ideology of a culture. So it’s fascinating to see how vegans and vegetarians are portrayed in pop culture.” (John A. Zukowski, 2012; http://newveganage.blogspot.ca/2012/06/you-dont-win-friends-with-salad.html )
Either we’re ape-shit psychos, or dirty and straight-edged. And I’m not liking it.” (http://columbusvegan.blogspot.ie/2008/11/maybe-im-paranoid.html)

We have all witnessed veganism becoming a growing trend in most Western countries and, perhaps most effectively, in Israel (“a study prepared for the Globes newspaper and Channel Two found five percent of Israelis identify as vegan and 8 percent as vegetarian while 13 percent are weighing going vegan or vegetarian. In 2010 just 2.6 percent were vegetarian or vegan.”). In part, this trend may be explained by the increased visibility of images and videos exposing the realities of factory farming, thanks to the popularity and immediacy of social media. Studies show, for instance, that “there is growing awareness that raising farm animals is the leading cause of climate change there is growing awareness that raising farm animals is the leading cause of climate change.” Perhaps even more crucial to the success of new vegan enterprises and cookbooks is the increased knowledge about the potential health benefits of a vegan diet. Lots of celebrities are following the trend in order to lose weight and get fit, and of course we all want to be fit, so we decide to follow them. As a result, according to the Humane Research Council, meat consumption is “declining for all major types of meat. The number of farm animals killed for food is also going down. In the U.S., it’s widely believed that we reached “peak meat” years ago. People are drinking less cow’s milk and eating fewer eggs than they used to.” (Their study of current and former vegetarians and vegans can now be accessed here: https://faunalytics.org/feature-article/study-of-current-and-former-vegetarians-and-vegans/  Also check out: http://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/5/1/8518367/how-cows-milk-went-from-a-basic-beverage-to-a-dismissed-drink).

So I began to wonder: has pop culture begun to reflect this shift at all? Has American mainstream culture picked up on the growing popularity of veganism? How is vegan food presented nowadays? How are vegan characters portrayed in popular TV shows and movies?

Is the topic of veganism represented in such a way that it might make people think about relevant environmental and/or animal rights issues, or are vegans merely the butt of meat-eaters’ jokes, just as vegetarians used to be? I did a lot of research. Found three great blog entries ( http://newveganage.blogspot.ca/2012/06/you-dont-win-friends-with-salad.html; http://www.dorfonlaw.org/2011/08/veganism-year-three-french-amish-and.html ; and http://www.theveganwoman.com/veganism-as-perceived-in-the-media/) on the subject. Watched a lot of popular TV shows and movies from the last ten years. The results were disheartening: I came to the conclusion that, while there seems to be an increasing number of vegan characters featuring in American movies and TV shows, and more references are being made to vegan food, the characters are mostly portrayed as aggressive killjoys, unattractive hippies, or as weak, feminized, sentimental morons (or a combination of the three), and vegan food is, throughout, presented as entirely unappealing. And all this in a way that invites mainstream viewers to laugh at ‘those crazy vegans’.

Before I go on, make no mistake: it’s not that I can’t laugh at any of the jokes made at vegans’ expense. Some of them make me laugh out loud, such as when the protagonist’s sister Debbie in The Millers (who, along with her husband Adam, runs a vegan restaurant and raises their daughter on a meat-free diet), says: “We got a lot of blood to wash off the front of the car”, and Adam explains: “Ironically, we hit a cow on the highway coming home.” I don’t mind morbid or macabre jokes, even when it is at the expense of vegans (and cows, in this case). I just can’t seem to appreciate old jokes that are used to reinforce stereotypes and thus further marginalize a minority group, preventing meat-eating viewers from making up their own minds about animal rights or vegan food. By casting vegans as the other and presenting vegan food as inedible, popular TV shows such as How I Met Your Mother ensure that mainstream viewers will shrug vegans and their beliefs off as crazy, and never give the issues and concerns raised by the vegan philosophy any serious thought before they decide it’s ‘not for them’.

So let’s take a closer look at the main assumptions popular TV shows and American films of the last decade have been feeding us about vegans (and vegan food):
1. Vegans are difficult, often aggressive, people with no sense of humour – hence the popularity of the term “militant vegans.”

Yes, we are all familiar with it: the most common stereotype associated with vegans, the image of the “militant” or ”radical” vegan who is typically shown self-righteously moralising and patronizing meat-eaters, breaking into animal testing labs, or joining a PETA campaign. Let’s take a look at how popular American TV shows and films address this notion.

– “The girl who was a militant hippie vegan” – Lilly, describing one of Ted’s ex-girlfriends in How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother is one of the most prominent examples when it comes to TV shows that continuously make fun of vegans and vegan food:

Ted: “The lamb here is supposed to be great.
” Nora: “I am a vegan. I wish I could tune out that moral voice inside me that says eating animals is murder. But, I guess I’m just not as strong as you are.
” Ted: “That’s ’cause you need protein.”

In another episode, one of Ted’s short-term girlfriends – strangely, in this case, a vegetarian, not a vegan – throws red paint all over a meat-cooking chef, yelling “Meat is murder! Aaaaah!” and storming out.

– There is a crazy vegan lady next door…” – About A Boy

This new show, which first aired in February 2014, interestingly changed the role of Marcus’ mum from the harmless, single and depressed vegetarian of the book and film (played in the film by Toni Collette) to aggressive, single and depressed vegan (played by Minnie Driver). While her character becomes a little more likable in later episodes, the pilot episode presents her as a stuck-up, angry person with (at least from a meat-eater’s perspective) unreasonable expectations of her neighbour, Will: she says “maybe you could cook inside” when he is having a BBQ, then, when he is refusing to meet her demands, asks him to “refrain from grilling unless there is a southwesterly wind.”

– In the sitcom The Millers, the protagonist’s sister Debbie and her husband Adam run a vegan restaurant and raise their daughter Mikayla meat-free. After spending a weekend with her meat-eating grandmother, Mikayla decides to become a meat-eater. The grandmother, Carol explains to her son Nathan: “Mikayla is expanding her culinary horizon.” Nathan: “Oh my God, mother!” – “It was an accident!” Nathan replies drily: “Well, it’s not a big deal. If there’s one thing we know about vegans, they got a pretty good sense of humour about things like this.”

– The absurdly over-the-top vegan: Lisa Kimmel Fisher from Six Feet Under

Described on the HBO website as “a strict vegan whose wardrobe consisted of baggy dresses, overalls and clogs; she didn’t go to movies because film, which is processed with gelatin from animal hooves, contributes to the ‘global slavery of animals’; and when she wanted to get rid of ants in her kitchen she sat on the floor and politely asked them to leave.

– Larry Feegan’s family in South Park: Killjoys obsessed with health, overprotective to the point of forcing Larry to wear a life jacket at all times. South Park Wiki describes Larry’s father as “a bully who is overly preachy in his beliefs in veganism.

“I know a lot of radical vegans. She must be an unhappy person.”- Bored to Death

Surprisingly, the episode ‘The Case of the Stolen Skateboard’ from HBO show Bored to Death seems to actually parodize the prejudice itself. Parker Posey’s vegan character is first introduced to us – and then continuously referred to – as “the radical vegan” and later described by one of the characters as “half-nuts”, but when she actually appears on the scene, she is shown as a very open, friendly person with liberal views on parenting, explaining she is “a very permissive parent. He decides what he wants to eat.” Yes, she seems like a health fanatic – the first time we see her she is juicing a carrot, and later she tells Jonathan that she advocates “at the public schools for slow food and raw food and life food”. But she only mentions veganism once Jonathan (played by Jason Schwartzman, who himself is a vegan/vegetarian) tells her “In my heart I’m a vegan, but in my mouth, I lack discipline.” To which she replies with “Sounds like your heart is in the right place, you just have to work on your mouth.” At the end of the episode, she tells Jonathan that she can’t date him because her son is “not yet comfortable with me dating anyone just yet and we’re a team. We’re a beautiful unit and I don’t want to upset him.” Her spirituality and health food obsession may be over-the-top, but, all in all, I see her as a very likable character.

-“No vegan diet, no vegan powers!” – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

This film, based on a comic book, also pokes fun at the ‘militant vegan’ stereotype by featuring a “vegan police” and showing one character (one of Ramona’s “seven deadly exes”) getting arrested for “veganity violation.” Some might argue that the idea that people who consistently follow a vegan diet are imbued with higher (in this case, psychic) powers delivers a positive message to viewers. As Scott’s ex says, “being vegan just makes you better than most people.” As a statement made by the film, however, this could be either taken literally or interpreted as a derogatory commentary on the sense of moral superiority displayed by some vegans. Sadly, the only vegan character presented to us (i.e. Todd, the deadly ex) turns out to be so ill-informed that he doesn’t know that chicken and gelato are not vegan.

– In the new HBO show Togetherness, the main character’s vegan lifestyle choice is introduced as follows: Brett, the protagonist played by Mark Duplass, tries to take away the donuts his overweight best friend is eating: “I think we’ve had enough of those.” His friend replies: “Please… Don’t give me a vegan lecture, I don’t wanna hear about a food documentary, OK? Let me just enjoy this right now.” To be fair, Brett is not an unlikable or unrelatable character. And the above scene is not a type of exchange most vegans will be unfamiliar with. However, the main comic relief of the show is Brett’s uptightness and awkwardness, his fussiness causing most of the laughs the viewer will have at his expense. And it seems that veganism was picked as the most convenient trope to use to convey the protagonist’s fussiness and self-righteousness right from the beginning of the show. This becomes all the more apparent when we consider the fact that his choice to go vegan is never explained, and his food habits, when referred to (e.g. in his workplace) are only being ridiculed. Things like Brett’s annoyance at people throwing food away at the recording studio and complaints such as “so much gluten in this taco”, which arguably fit in with the stereotype of the “fussy” or “difficult” vegan, will have less environmentally or health-conscious viewers laughing or rolling their eyes at him.

2. Vegan food is disgusting, and a vegan lifestyle incredibly limiting.

– In the How I Met Your Mother episode ‘Shelter Island’, Ted and his girlfriend Stella take over her vegan sister’s wedding because her fiancé ran off with a “vitamin consultant”. The venue is a yoga resort, the bar a wheatgrass bar with a no-alcohol policy, and all meals are vegan. The main characters all react with disappointment. In another episode, the characters try different burgers all over town, the vegan one – of course! – turning out to be the least appetizing.

– In the pilot episode of About A Boy, Will is invited over for dinner at Marcus’ mum’s house and makes fun of the seitan spare ribs (“Seitan, futon, whatever”), making a face that suggests he feels like throwing up, which causes Marcus to laugh. When Fiona gets angry at Will for insulting the meal, he says: “I’m sorry, that was rude. Listen, this is absolutely…. edible”, then adds, sarcastically: “… and I’m sure it’s healing everything inside of me as I eat it.”

– In The Millers, Carol once comments on her daughter Debbie’s meat-free food selection: “You have nuts and seeds and beans. That’s not dinner, that’s the bottom of a hamster cage.”

– In the sitcom Friends with Better Lives, one of the characters also runs a vegan restaurant. Bobby, one of the male protagonists, looks at the menu and asks: “What’s cashew cheese?” Another character replies: “It’s cheese made from cashews.” – Bobby: “Cheese comes from milk. How do you milk nuts?” – “It’s not cheese cheese, it’s nut cheese. (…) You can make anything out of nuts.” – Bobby: “You can make anything out of playdough, that doesn’t mean I wanna eat it.”

– In the Psych episode ‘He Dead’, Shawn doesn’t want to have a BBQ with a neighboring family because they are vegan: “And why don’t you want to go to Jimmy’s? They were kind enough to invite us over.” – “They’re the weirdest family on the entire block.” – “Shawn, there is something weird about every family.” (…) – “They eat weird food.” – “All food is weird until you try it.” – “I mean, they don’t even eat meat.” – “You mean they’re vegetarians.” – “I think they call it ‘vegan’.” When Shawn’s dad finds out that they are going to have tofu burgers at the BBQ, he, too, makes up an excuse not to go to the BBQ.

– In a scene from Gossip Girl, the female protagonists Serena and Blair make fun of dreadlocked hippies, then Blair jokes: “Maybe we can get a jump start on your veganism – have some celebratory seitan at Angelica Kitchen? Serena replies: “I can’t imagine anything better . . . or grosser.”

– In The Big Bang Theory, Raj once says: “That doesn’t make up for the fact that I had to make chicken and rice for this vegan guy. You know what vegan chicken and rice is? Rice!” (OK, that one made me laugh.)

– In the film Your Sister’s Sister (2011), one of the two sisters, a vegan lesbian named Hannah, serves her sister Iris and Iris’ best friend Jack home-made vegan pancakes: “Are you ready for the best gluten-free vegan soy-free pancakes you’re ever going to eat?” she asks, then adds: “Tell me if you miss anything cos I would be very surprised if you do.” Iris and Jack try the pancakes and their expressions clearly show they are not enjoying them. Hannah asks, “Do you miss it? Do you even miss the butter and the milk?” Both of them shake their heads. Hannah tries the pancakes herself, throws her hands down and says: “They’re terrible!” (I was happy that at least it wasn’t decided that she would be presented as enjoying the pancakes while both her sister and friend thought they were disgusting – this would have further alienated the viewer from vegan cuisine). To make her feel better, Jack says: “I think terrible is an extreme word. I think that they’re a challenge but they are…” and Iris says: “I think it’s a very good effort.” Hannah goes on to explain: “I think it’s the flaxseeds didn’t do a good job… I put flaxseeds in to replace… Usually I use coconut oil, but we didn’t have any.” The mainstream viewer is left to wonder whether her pancakes would have actually tasted better with coconut oil, or if they would have been just as terrible.

– In a 2005 episode of House, MD called ‘Babies and Bathwater’, House attacks a vegan couple who have brought their baby in to the hospital because she has lost weight. The father explains: “There’s this diet we put her on – it’s healthy, it’s raw food – we’re vegans. Almond milk, tofu, vegetables.” House replies: “Raw food – if only our ancestors had mastered the secret of fire! Babies need fat, protein, calories. Less important: sprouts and hemps. Starving babies is bad. And illegal in many cultures.” After explaining the treatment the baby will be getting, he says: “From now on, let’s go with human food, ok?” The father replies: “Absolutely, I swear.” But House’s boss, Dr. Cuddy, later gets the couple arrested on the charge of child endangerment. At the end of the episode, however, it is revealed that the baby was suffering from a genetic condition and that it was because of this, not the raw vegan diet, that the baby had been losing weight. The parents are freed of charges, yet no further comments or apologies are made, neither by House nor Dr. Cuddy. A meat-eating audience unfamiliar with vegan and raw food diets may not have the same negative view of raw food or veganism that was instilled in him/her in the earlier scene, yet the idea that babies require a diet filled with meat and dairy is never revoked and will thus continue to linger in the viewer’s mind.

3. All vegans secretly crave meat and dairy.

The Millers: One evening, when Mikayla’s parents are at a “convention for vegan small business owners”, her grandmother accidentally gives her the wrong plate: the one with the meat lasagne that was meant for herself. The girl responds with surprise and delight: “This is yummy!” After realizing her mistake, the grandmother panics, urging the girl to stop eating and asking her to spit out the lasagne. When the girl says “I feel weird”, the grandmother replies: “That’s just your body converting the protein into energy.” Later that night, the grandmother catches the girl on the kitchen floor, stuffing the meat lasagne into her mouth with her bare hands. The next day, the girl declares she is going to be a meat-eater from now on. “It’s just…meat tastes SO GOOOOD!” It becomes their little secret. Once the girl calls out in delight: “Oh wow, meatballs. It’s like cookie dough, made out of a beast!”

– In the pilot episode of About A Boy, Marcus tries meat and cheese for the first time when he is at Will’s house, remarks “This tastes nothing like soy!” and goes on to devour several pork ribs. As in The Millers, it becomes their little secret: Marcus starts coming to Will’s house to stuff his face with meat and cheese. While meat-eaters will find this hilarious and are confirmed in their belief/view that raising your kids vegan is an unnecessarily restrictive choice, vegan viewers will be in disbelief (at least, I was) at the fact that Marcus, having been brought up vegan, does not mention feeling sorry for the animals, but chooses to completely disrespect the ethical values and virtues (such as compassion for animals) we assume his mother has raised him with.

– In Your Sister’s Sister, the belief that vegans secretly crave animal products is propagated by Iris, the non-vegan sister, though not necessarily by the film itself: there is a scene in which Iris and Jack serve Hannah, the vegan sister, mashed potatoes with butter without her knowledge. “How are you liking those mashed potatoes?” Iris asks. Hannah replies: “They’re outrageous.” – “Yeah, they taste good? How vegan do they taste to you?” Hannah’s face falls. She takes a kitchen towel and spits it out. Iris: “Come on, I put a dollop of butter in, that was it. Don’t rinse out, come on, you’ve been plowing through those things! You know why they tasted so good? Because they have dairy in them, that’s why!” Hannah says: “Why would you do that?” – “Because I felt like it.” Hannah: “That’s five pounds of fear right there that I just ate.” Iris stops smiling. She and Jack explain that it was “meant to be a joke”. Hannah comments: “I mean, that’s so not cool.” Iris says: “Ok, ok, you’re right, it’s not cool. Are you allergic to butter, though?” Hannah replies: “No, I’m emotionally allergic to butter.” Iris apologizes again. Hannah gets up to go to bed, saying “well, that was delicious and inhumane and I’ll see you tomorrow.” While the scene suggests that mashed potatoes taste best with dairy and a mainstream viewer might think what Iris and Jack did was harmless, and roll their eyes at Hannah for spitting out the mashed potatoes when they ‘only’ contain a ‘little dollop of butter’, I like Hannah’s moving and very fitting response to Iris’ rhetorical and slightly provocative question “Are you allergic to butter, though?” (implying that Hannah’s ethical problem with dairy isn’t enough to justify her strong response; that she is overreacting unless she has a physical issue with dairy on top of the ideological issue): that she is “emotionally allergic” to dairy. I’m not sure if the scene is trying to make a concrete point about veganism – it’s more about the rivalry of the two sisters and their attempts to impress Jack (immediately preceding this interaction, Hannah pokes fun at Iris and reveals an embarrassing story from when they were younger, which explains why Iris would, in turn, want to upset Hannah) – but I like Hannah’s honest comments and the fact that her sister seems to have gained some understanding of her perspective at the end – at the very least, she appears to feel genuinely sorry for having upset her sister.

4. Vegans are weird and unattractive (and often pretentiously esoteric or spiritual, unclean and dressed in ‘hippie’ clothes).

– In the earlier-mentioned episode of How I Met Your Mother, Stella’s vegan sister laments that she had given up make-up, showers, and shaving her armpits for her fiancé before he ran off with a “vitamin consultant from Whole Foods.”

– Tanya in the TV show Hung is a pale vegan single feminist who doesn’t wear make-up, doesn’t seem to wash her hair, and wears unstylish clothes in drab colours. One of the first comments the protagonist makes about her is that she is “a poet” and that “the Patchouli alone should have sent me running.” She becomes a likable character as the show progresses, is a kind-hearted, sincere and smart person, but the first impression we get of this vegan character certainly feeds into the popular notion of vegetarians and vegans as unattractive hippies.

– In the film Grandma’s Boy (2006), the camp vegan waiter is also dressed in ‘hippie’ clothes and is the butt of the main characters’ jokes. First they make fun of his unusual name, Shiloh, then one of them says: “Do you have bathrooms here, or do I have to shit in a plant?” When Shiloh gets angry, saying” ‘Oh, let’s go make fun of the vegans, and their crazy lifestyle!’ We’re not hurting anyone! Go eat a hamburger and choke on a cow dick!”, the protagonist replies: “Aw, someone missed their yoga class this morning.”

– Dharma’s mother in the sitcom Dharma & Greg is not unattractive, but she is a stereotypical ‘hippie’ vegan: very liberal and believing in esoterism. First appearing walking around her flat naked, then reading Greg’s hand, then inappropriately asking them if they want to have privacy so they can have sex. Though warm and likable as a character, she and Dharma’s father are the butt of the joke whenever it comes to topics such as meat-eating practice, organic food, weed-growing, and Chakras.

“I would rather fall in love with a vegan!” Similarly to some of the comments made by Ted in How I Met Your Mother, this comment made by Lassiter (albeit one of the less likable characters in the show) in a Psych episode that was fittingly named ‘The Polarizing Express’ is, of course, intended to make meat-eating viewers laugh, and implies that the thought of vegans as objects of affection is, from a meat-eater’s vantage point, entirely absurd, suggesting that all vegans are unattractive and unlikable, possibly because they are still widely perceived as, in the words of John A. Zukowski, the “killjoy of communal fun”, but also because of the popular TV trope of vegetarians and vegans as unattractive hippies.

5. Vegan men are demasculated, weak, and in major need of some animal protein.

– The South Park episode ‘Fun with Veal’ hilariously parodizes this common stereotype of vegan and vegetarian men as being weak and demasculated (meat-eating still being perceived as something inherently (and positively) masculine, particularly when it comes to BBQs, sausages, and steaks): Stan, the only one among his friends who decides to stop eating meat after they learn the truth about the veal industry, becomes very ill and is eventually admitted to the hospital and injected with an “IV of pure beef blood”. The doctor explains: “He’s very lucky you got him here when you did. He was in a very advanced stage of vaginitis.” – “Vaginitis?” – “It occurs when a person stops eating meat. The sores on his skin were actually small vaginas. If we hadn’t stopped it in time, Stan would have eventually just become one great big giant pussy.”

– The sitcom Friends with Better Lives features Lowell, a very attractive, but extremely annoying Australian who owns a vegan restaurant. A romantic buddhist who crafts jewellery, practises transcendental meditation, and doesn’t own a TV, Lowell also sings (and plays on his guitar) emotional songs about saving the world and planting trees.

– In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s lab assistant Gale Boetticher is a single vegan man who lives by himself and is shown singing along to old Italian music in a high-pitched voice while he is cooking, then watering his plants, in a crucial scene.

– In Seven Pounds, Will Smith’s character attacks a blind vegan man (played by real-life vegan Woody Harrelson) over the phone to test his character: “A blind beef salesman who doesn’t eat meat? Well, that is rich. Have you ever had sex, Ezra? (…) Because somehow I can’t imagine the blind vegan beef salesman have sex.” Ezra remains calm throughout, but he is visibly hurt by his words.

– In My Best Friend’s Girl (2008), Jason Bigg’s vegan character Dustin is the protagonist’s sweet and awkward brother/best friend. He doesn’t know how to play the ‘dating game’ and becomes overly clingy with his love interest, showering her with gifts and attention even when she is not showing any interest in him.

-“Well, I can finally say it: I hated that guy. Everything out of his mouth is ‘I’m a vegan, fish feel pain, I’m never constipated’. The guy’s an idiot.” – Ted in How I Met Your Mother

In this little comment, the notion of respecting animals’ lives and avoiding animal suffering which constitutes the central motivation behind vegan philosophy, is ridiculed, depicted as a form of groundless sentimentalising that does not warrant any further consideration.

6. Vegans are hypocrites, and veganism is just a phase you grow out of, or a lifestyle choice that you are inclined to suspend or drop altogether whenever you are dating a meat-eater.

– In How I Met Your Mother, Stella’s vegan sister is shown eating a steak and cursing her fiancé after he has run off with someone else shortly before their wedding day. Scenes like this, I presume, are intended to make meat-eaters laugh and think to themselves that it is OK not to be able to resist meat. And they might even say, “Look, vegans are hypocrites, too, no better than the rest of us!”

– In My Best Friend’s Girl, Dustin’s veganism is only referred to once, in a restaurant scene with his love interest Alexis at the beginning of the film: “Dustie, this is absurd.” – “You love steak, we’re eating steak.” – “You’re a vegan.” – “Not tonight. Eat, eat, eat. Enjoy.” – “I feel a little guilty loving steak so much and you’re a vegan. But whatever.” – “I love the way you eat.”

In the teen movie John Tucker Must Die (2006), Sophia Bush’s vegan character once says: “I can’t believe I ate meat for him. Well, it was fish. Still, I don’t eat anything with a face.”

In the TV show Glee, the strong, yet neurotic, and supposedly vegan, character Rachel is shown eating or preparing different dishes containing meat/dairy over the course of the show. Perhaps the writers – and everyone on the show – simply forgot that they had, in an earlier episode, declared she was a vegan?

– In one episode of the sitcom Dharma & Greg, Dharma’s vegan ‘hippie’ mother – otherwise so emphatic about animal rights and welfare – decides to prepare a standing rib roast for her daughter’s in-laws, only in order to please or impress them. When Dharma comments, “Abby, I can’t believe you’re making meat,”, Abby says: “I know. Well, your in-laws are coming to dinner for the first time, and I want it to be special.” Then she apologizes to “sister cow” as she puts the roast in the oven.

In two prominent examples of veganism/vegetarianism being presented as merely a ‘phase you grow out of’, consider the aforementioned scenes from The Millers and About A Boy where kids who have been raised meat-free begin to stuff their faces with meatballs, steaks, and other animal products.

– Another hypocrite vegan character is Amy in True Blood who once claims to be “an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is minuscule,” while she is stealing blood from a helpless vampire.

As you can see, now that vegetarianism has taken its firm place in the mainstream and is viewed more positively than, perhaps, 15 years ago, many of the same types of jokes that used to be made at the expense of vegetarians are now regularly made at the expense of vegans. We have seen the image of veganism and vegan food change in the eye of the general public – vegan food and vegan lifestyle have become a trend and are increasingly perceived as hip, healthy, and yummy – but pop culture predominantly doesn’t reflect this change so far. For instance, I have yet to find an example in popular TV shows where the choice to go vegan is presented as a sensible idea, or where vegan food is depicted as yummy and not made fun of. As John A. Zukowski writes on his blog, “usually the most that vegetarian and vegan characters can hope for is a truce to be accepted for who they are. But transformation of other characters to a vegetarian/vegan diet or overly challenging the meat industry is for the most part impossible.” Which leaves one wondering: how much money do the meat, dairy and egg industries actually invest in pop culture to make sure that their image remains intact? Because at this point, it seems like they (still) have a very strong influence on the way both conventional eating habits and ethical food choices are presented.

One thing, though, has improved in several of the more recent examples: vegans – while still frequently portrayed as stuck-up and fun-spoiling weirdos – are, for the most part, not unattractive or unclean-looking anymore (woohoo!). Many of them are now attractive, clean and wear normal, non-‘hippie’ clothes (Your Sister’s Sister; Rachel from Glee – if you can call her a vegan; Parker Posey’s character in Bored to Death; Katie Holmes’ dull vegan character in The Extra Man). Some of them are even sexy and hip (John Tucker Must Die), or dressed like cool rock chicks (check out Mary Elizabeth, the vegan feminist-turned-needy girlfriend in The Perks of Being A Wallflower). And some are even hot guys (albeit stupid – Friends with Better Lives; if you find any more examples, please do let me know 😉 ). John Tucker Must Die subverts the common stereotype of vegans as unattractive weirdos, though it does not seem to provide the most ideal alternative: according to the film’s protagonist and narrator, “being a vegan teen activist is usually the code for ‘easy’”, and shows pretty and stylish Beth (played by Sophia Bush), who later refers to herself as a “slut”.

But let’s take a look at some of the (admittedly few) examples where the viewer is encouraged to think about veganism in a positive light.
In my heart, I’m a vegan. But in my mouth, I lack discipline.”
– “Sounds like your heart is in the right place, you just have to work on your mouth.”
( Bored to Death, ‘The Case of the Stolen Skateboard’)

I’m emotionally allergic to butter.”  (Your Sister’s Sister)

On his blog, John A. Zukowski points out that animated TV shows such as The Simpsons and South Park tend to address the topics of meat-eating and animal rights in a more satirical and potentially thought-provoking way than other TV shows, sitcoms and movies, and actually contain animal slaughter scenes (OK, Fast Food Nation (2006) did, as well) – perhaps because it is easier for viewers to handle depictions of animal cruelty when delivered in the form of animated rather than “real-life” action scenes, these shows can get away with it without alienating or disturbing a mainstream audience.

In the following example, the South Park episode “Fun with Veal” holds a mirror up to society and, in its bluntness, displays the hypocrisy and inherent perversity that define our modern way of living:

Stan: “Wait a minute, veal is little baby cows?”
Rancher: “Yeppa!”
Stan: “Then why the hell do they call it ‘veal’?”
Rancher: “Well, if we called it ‘little baby cow’, people might not eat it.”

FBI Agent: “But if we don’t do something soon, there could be 50, even 60, people who have to go without veal for dinner. Are you prepared to let that happen??”

– In a scene in the film Pride (2014), an old lady character says goodbye to her new friends, a vegan lesbian couple, and tells them: “You girls have opened my eyes. I’m gonna extend my repertoire, you’ll see. The vegan Delia Smith.” While the film does not depict the conversation(s) the couple had with the old lady which would have inspired her to give vegan cuisine a try, the end of the film shows her affectionately calling for “my lesbians” and proudly offering them homemade vegan cucumber sandwiches.

– One film that deserves a much more in-depth analysis than what follows is Year of the Dog (2007) – the only film I know of (aside from documentaries) which not only features an explicitly vegan protagonist and addresses the topic of animal rights in a complex and thought-provoking way, but also makes the protagonist’s love for animals the driving force of her character arc. It only makes sense that Mike White, the writer and director of the film, would portray veganism in a less simplistic way than most: he himself is a vegan.

However, as John A. Zukowski argues on his blog, there is a problem with the portrayal of the protagonist (and also the other vegan character in the film, Newt): Peggy, a lonely single woman whose dog has just died, might well be viewed as an unhinged, “mopey, sad sack” woman by most mainstream viewers, or at least anyone who has never had a pet and doesn’t like animals. It’s not just that we are driven to feel pity for her when she admits that she has “always been disappointed by people so… I’ve really only been able to count on my pets. I know it’s pathetic… but it’s enough”, but also the fact that she takes some crazy, illegal actions toward the end of the film which will cause most viewers to deduce that she is mentally unstable. As a result, a mainstream audience will probably feel either alienated or amused, and thus not take any of the views expressed by Peggy or Newt seriously. The fact that Peggy takes some extreme actions – even though she regrets and apologizes for them at the end of the film – may be the only thing it takes to keep open-minded viewers, who would have otherwise been inspired to question the validity of their lifestyle choices, from giving so much as a second thought to the issues addressed throughout the film. Despite all that, I did feel that Peggy was, for the most part, a likable character, someone who anyone who has ever been lonely could relate to, and who anyone with a love for animals would consider an ultimately decent person with noble intentions.

Peggy is first introduced to the concept of veganism when she meets Newt, a slightly odd, vegan, self-proclaimed celibate who works for the city’s pet adoption programme: “I always had this connection with animals. And that’s why I’m a vegan. People say if you couldn’t kill it, you shouldn’t eat it. And I could never kill an animal.” Inspired by his words, Peggy begins to read up about veganism and factory farming, and decides to go vegan herself. She tells Newt: “you really opened my eyes.” The film features a scene that exposes the unfounded prejudice many omnivores have against vegan food – and even demonstrates that vegan cupcakes can be enjoyed by vegans as well as omnivores (as long as they are unaware that they are vegan!): before her colleagues discover that the cupcakes Peggy brought into work are vegan, they keep grabbing and eating them, and one woman comments: “These are diabolical!” However, once Peggy reveals that they are vegan, everyone stops and stares at her. One man says: “They’re what?” She explains: “There is no milk, butter, or any animal product in them. No animal was harmed in the making of those cupcakes.” One guy replies: “No butter? That’s weird.” Another puts a cupcake back on the tray. Without further comment, they all leave the room. In this as well as other scenes, the film exposes the hypocrisies inherent in the normativity of meat-/dairy-/egg-eating practice and the resulting tendency to deeply distrust and thus instantly dismiss alternatives that, ironically, would actually be worthy of a trust that the animal products we are used to buying and consuming do not deserve in the slightest.

The film also reminds us of the stark contrast between the life of an animal in a farm sanctuary and that of an animal in the meat, dairy and egg industries. Further, the film draws attention to the very common and largely unquestioned habit of deceiving one’s children by feeding them animal products and telling them lies about the way these animals are kept (and then getting upset when someone tells them the truth and the kids begin to refuse to eat their ham sandwiches…).

Conclusion:

It appears that most fictional representations of vegans and vegan food have – thus far – failed to reflect the image change which veganism has undergone in the last few years. Only in a few examples have we found positive, or at least, neutral representations which don’t give rise to stereotypes. Most of the common stereotypes – a notable exception being that of the “militant” vegan – used to be applied to representations of vegetarians before vegetarianism found its place in (or at least close to) the mainstream: the notion of the naive/romantic/“esoteric” dreamers, most often lonely women without any friends, wearing ‘hippie’ clothes and stirrring up familial discord. Very often, like vegetarianism, veganism is portrayed as just a phase or something that characters feel they need to put off when dating someone who eats meat, or needs to be given up because it is making you ill or weak, or because the craving for meat, fish, or dairy is just too strong.
Depictions of vegans as either radical and crazy or naive and sentimental, and the continuously reinforced notion of vegan food as unappetizing (despite growing evidence of the contrary) and meat and dairy as something (healthy, protein-filled) that we all (secretly) crave ensure that the viewer does not end up with the sense that he/she needs to consider the ethical and environmental issues and concerns which veganism addresses. Instead, it undermines the idea of veganism as a ‘valid’ or socially acceptable lifestyle, weakening its appeal by ridiculing it so that it does not become a threat to one’s cherished eating habits.

The abundance of references to vegans and veganism as radical or crazy ensures that long-held beliefs are reinforced and viewers get that cosy feeling that they belong to a community where meat-eating is still OK and nothing to feel guilty about, and that the growing vegan and vegetarian trend is not a serious threat to the meat-eater’s conscience or lifestyle.

It thus emerges that portrayals of veganism have, sadly, not moved on very far from what Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan have coined “vegaphobia” – the tendency to convey a derogatory view of vegans which they revealed in their study of articles in UK national newspapers in the year 2007:

“Vegans are variously stereotyped as ascetics, faddists, sentimentalists, or in some cases, hostile extremists. The overall effect is of a derogatory portrayal of vegans and veganism that we interpret as ‘vegaphobia’. We interpret derogatory discourses of veganism in UK national newspapers as evidence of the cultural reproduction of speciesism, through which veganism is dissociated from its connection with debates concerning nonhuman animals’ rights or liberation. This is problematic in three, interrelated, respects. First, it empirically misrepresents the experience of veganism, and thereby marginalizes vegans. Second, it perpetuates a moral injury to omnivorous readers who are not presented with the opportunity to understand veganism and the challenge to speciesism that it contains. Third, and most seriously, it obscures and thereby reproduces exploitative and violent relations between human and nonhuman animals.”
(Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers by Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan, 2011)

Thanks for reading! 🙂

Thoughts that keep swirling through my head…

trees

A question

Changing our daily habits is a challenge. It is inconvenient and uncomfortable, but most often we know it will ultimately make us feel better about ourselves in countless ways.

Uncomfortable or not, at least most of us are free and we have a choice. We can choose to act in a way that reflects the kind of person we want to be, or we can follow all of our urges, patterns, and traditions without thinking, without trying to grow. All of us make bad choices. But I’m convinced it is better to make a hundred different mistakes and not repeat them than to make the same mistake over and over again. Of course, it is easier to regret a single decision we have made, and try and do better when something similar happens again, than to admit to ourselves that we regret a choice we have made daily for as long as we can remember.

It requires a lot of introspection and willpower to change. It requires courage to admit to ourselves that we have chosen to ignore the suffering around us, only because we were too stubborn or lethargic to change our habits. But wouldn’t you rather feel empowered, knowing you’re choosing to do the right thing, than enjoy something with a guilty aftertaste, knowing that your brief enjoyment is intrinsically linked to another being’s suffering?

 

– Lisa R Timmermann