“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 hypocrital 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?”
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…).
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! 🙂