About Lara

I am a 20 year old sophomore at PSU studying Environmental Science. I like being outside, going to shows, reading, and eating.

Looking in the Mirror of Vegetarians in the Media

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Introduction

For more than a year I have been a strict vegetarian. Though I have turned back and forth from eating and not eating meat and dairy my whole life, I now feel I am committed to this lifestyle of advocacy for animal rights. It has been a slow and challenging process for me, but worth the benefits the Earth and animals receive from my actions. This past year of being fully committed to a vegetarian lifestyle has exposed me to many aspects about vegetarians and vegans that I had never considered in the past. For one, I have gained a whole new love for fruits and vegetables, but I have also noticed just how few of us there are. Even though awareness and accessibility of a vegan diet has gained popularity the majority of people still eat meat, advocate for an omnivorous diet, and actively criticize those who do not. My curiosity about why people are so supportive of meat and dairy industries has grown a lot over the past year, and has become exponential these past few months.

After beginning lessons in my University Studies Popular Culture Class at Portland State University, I decided to further explore how vegetarians are represented in different kinds of media. Throughout this term we gained knowledge and skills to help us interpret messages in the media, as well as the way these messages are being sent, whether directly intentional or not. Through lessons on the news, Hollywood, advertising, and finding credible resources on the internet I have found many concerning and interesting things about the media, and I have concluded that across various forms of popular media, vegetarians and vegans are consistently stereotyped to be used as a device to strike powerful emotions in viewers. I decided to extend my research to analyze representation of vegetarianism in the Hollywood movie “The Last Song”, the popular comedy show “Parks and Recreation”, and in a popular advertising campaign for PETA.

Vegetarians in the Movies

To begin my research, I searched to find original media sources that portrayed a person as vegetarian. I started in Hollywood. A movie that came to mind was one I had recently seen and have enjoyed watching for a long time, “The Last Song”. This movie directed by Julie Anne Robinson was made from the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks. Sparks is known for his timeless love stories including the notably famous movie and book “The Notebook”. The movie was released in 2010 which likely most popular with young teen girls like I was at the time because it was one of Miley Cyrus’s first roles breaking free from her popular Disney show “Hannah Montana”. [1]

Miley’s character Ronnie in the movie is a 17 or 18-year-old girl with lots of attitude towards her family, but a lot of love towards animals. The plot consists of Ronnie moving to North Carolina with her brother to live with their father for the summer. There she transitions from a moody teen to a sensitive, sweet girl who falls in love with an equally sweet guy. The reason I chose this movie, is because Ronnie is the only person in the whole movie who is a vegetarian. Since she is the main character of the movie, her dietary choices are referenced a number of times throughout the film. This, I believe, is used as a plot device to create uneasiness between her and other characters. For example, the first meal shown in the movie is breakfast made by Ronnie’s father and brother. When she walks by her family in the morning and she sees breakfast, she refuses the food and leaves the room with no explanation, leaving it to her brother to explain to their father (who they have not seen in years) that she has been a vegetarian for the past year and a half. This awkward scene sets the stage for Ronnie’s relationship with her family, making her the black sheep. It appears the Ronnie’s vegetarianism is used symbolically to separate Ronnie from her family in some way other than just her emotions.

Though it is very interesting to see how much Ronnie’s emotions are linked to her refusal to eat meat. This was done in “The Last Song” by introducing other issues of animal rights. Immediately after following her awkward breakfast encounter, Ronnie goes to the beach to discover a raccoon eating turtle eggs. She immediately is distressed by the turtles being eaten and makes it her mission to save them. This mini-plot in the movie is how she meets the boy she begins to fall in love with, Will, played by Liam Hemsworth. The producers choose to use the threatened environments of sea turtle habitats in real life as a plot device to bring the couple together, which would likely not have happened if Ronnie was not a vegetarian. Though what is very interesting about this scene is the disregard for the raccoon. No attention was payed to the raccoon besides pointing out that the nocturnal animal was sick, and it should not be out in the daytime. Unfortunately, raccoons are not as cute as baby sea turtles, so viewers would much less like to hear about their misfortunes. This kind of depiction of animals and animal lovers tends to be quite unrepresentative of what the typical vegan or vegetarian person may believe though it may seem that way initially.

My curiosity about the depiction of animals and vegetarians continued to grow, so I looked to further resources to shed light on some of my observations. The representation of vegans in vegetarians seems to be off-center from reality more often than not, so what message is trying to be sent? Steven G Kellman, a linguist, author, and critic wrote a paper exploring traditional practices of vegetarianism, and how vegetarianism and veganism has evolved over time. In ‘The Only Fit Food for a Man is Half a Lemon’: Kafka’s Plea and Other Abberations Kellman claims the action of not eating meat in traditional practices was seen as an almost rebellious act against the company at the dinner table. This early historical context has now been translated into a stereotype of the modern vegetarian which can be seen in Miley’s character in “The Last Song”. Ronnie is the rebellious teen that keeps her distance with people by choosing to eat differently than they do. In some cases, this makes for extremely uncomfortable situations. This can be seen in a later scene in the movie where Ronnie has dinner with Will’s family where they serve meat and there is an awkward silence at the dinner following Will’s confession to Ronnie’s vegetarian diet. It seems that there is a pattern of vegetarians making people uncomfortable in the media. [2]

Vegetarians in Television

A second example I found that represents vegetarianism a little differently is an episode from the sixth season of “Parks and Recreation”, a comedy show aired on NBC. The episode entitled “Doppelgänger” makes jokes on each of the main character’s personalities by creating a character who plays the same office role as the original character, has many similar personality traits, but is opposite in every other way. One of my favorite characters on the show is Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman. Ron is a burly man that has strong opinions on many things including government, woman, and especially meat. Swanson is the farthest thing from a vegetarian, but of course his doppelganger in the Parks and “Recreation episode” is Ronn Dunn, a committed environmentalist and extreme vegan. Immediately Swanson is turned off by the sandal wearing, try-hard vegan that embodies everything that he hates. Ron Dunn played by Sam Elliot is an overly enthusiastic vegan whose lifestyle is depicted as extremely obnoxious to the viewers. At first this depiction of Ronn Dunn made me laugh because I loved seeing Ron Swanson’s face of disgust, but I realized that this depiction of vegans says quite a bit about how our culture views vegans as a whole, especially the meat-eating part. This continues to depict the average vegetarian as a someone who tries much too hard and rubs their lifestyle in the faces of other people. While Ron Swanson’s reaction give support to many people who are quick to criticize vegetarian and vegan diets. [3]

A blogpost in New Vegan Age by Jon Zukowski called Vegans and Vegetarians in pop culture: “You don’t win friends with salad” outlines a few common harmful stereotypes of vegans and vegetarians in the media with examples to explain them. I found that the stereotypes he listed could fit into at least one of the characters I was looking at throughout my research. Zukowski lists three of the most common stereotypes he identifies across many examples of vegetarians and vegans in the media: “The Oversensitive Girly Vegan”, “The Killjoy of Communal Fun”, and “The Flaky Poser Hippie”. Ron Dunn’s character in “Parks and Recreation” fits in perfectly to both “The Flaky Poser Hippie” and “The Killjoy of Communal Fun”. He is depicted as someone with extreme environmentalist views who definitely kills Ron Swanson’s fun just by being there. This type of stereotyping may be funny, but it also continues to excuse people making fun of or being overly critical of a vegetarian diet. [4]

Advertisements Using Vegetarians

For my last analysis of media, I wanted to look into advertisements. In Portland, Oregon I have noticed a large billboard of Alicia Silverstone for PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals). This picture is from a campaign photo and video shoot launched in 2016 for “Alicia Silverstone On the Wool Industry’s Money Over Mercy”. The video for the campaign switches between an interview of Alicia in a beautiful countryside and a gruesome video showing how fir can be made. The difference between the video of Alicia and the video of the animals is quite shocking, which is likely the intention of PETA. This sort of scare tactic is likely to be used to sway the viewer to take the advice of Alicia to go vegan and not use animal products. [5]

Image result for id rather go naked than wear wool[8]

The question that stirs around in my mind after viewing this video and looking at a gigantic naked picture of Alicia: how effective is this kind of campaigning? According to on an article written by L. Grauerholz, it seems that it is not very effective. Unfortunately, only four percent of animal commercial imagery is arguing against meat products. A lot of this imagery uses disturbing images like PETA does in the Alicia Silverstone video showing the mistreatment of animals in commercial farms. It seems this scares people more than convinces them to steer clear of meat because this message is so abrasive. Most animal imagery is catered towards meat eaters and pet owners and either see an animal as a tool or as meet, rarely as an equal. [6]

Conclusion

The problem with the general negative representation of vegetarians and vegans in the media stems from the long time stereotypical depiction of this lifestyle, and the little air time positive aspects of veganism has in the media. It is astounding how a diet that could stop the painful murdering of millions of animals, reduce a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and advocate for healthier eating is so hugely criticized in the media. I have concluded this is largely rooted the history of our society. We have been eating meat for so long, and the industrialization of meat production is actually relatively young, but it has been incredibly damaging. Many people do not realize this, that is why advocating against meat-eating must be made fun of or seen as extreme too often. There have been an increasing number of documentaries, research, and popular media that aims to raise awareness of the terrible conditions animals are under and the issues it is causing for the planet. Though awareness is continuing to grow as concerns for the planet and our health grow, but there is a long way to go before a meat-less diet is status quo. During the course of this class I realized this is the case for many groups of people in popular media. A report I was introduced to written by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and many others outlined the portrayals of gender, race, and LGBT status in 700 of the most popular films from 2007 to 2014. In their analysis, the researchers found that over all that many minorities, females, and members of the LGBT community face immense underrepresentation in these films. Very few star, hire, or create members of these underrepresented community. This seems to have a negative impact on society as a whole by creating a divide between cultures that is not necessarily always there in reality. Popular Culture has given me a much deeper insight into the underrepresentation of many groups including ethnic minorities, LGBTQ community, and vegetarians. I hope to continue working on my critical thinking skills online, and advocating for representation of all race, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and even diets. [7]

 

References

[5] Advertisement campaign shot by Brian Bowen Smith. “Alicia Silverstone On the Wool Industry’s Money Over Mercy” (November 21, 2016). Published by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).  URL: https://youtu.be/3yk4hA_p1kQ

[6] Grauerholz, L. (2007). Cute Enough to Eat: The Transformation of Animals into Meat for Human Consumption in Commercialized Images. Humanity & Society, 31(4), 334-354. file:///Users/laraandenoro/Documents/cute%20enough%20to%20eat.pdf

[2] Kellman, Steven G. (2010). ‘The Only Fit Food for a Man Is Half a Lemon’: Kafka’s Plea and Other Culinary Aberrations. Southwest Review, 95(4), 532-545.

[1] Miley Cyrus’ character of Ronnie Miller in the movie “The Last Song”. The director of the movie is Julie Anne Robinson, and the screenplay written by Nicholas Sparks with the help of Jeff Van Wie. The movie originally aired on March 31, 2010. Based off of Nicholas Sparks’ 2009 novel. The movie was produced by Touchstone Pictures Offspring Entertainment and Distributed by Walt Disney Studios.

[3] Parks and Recreation: “Doppelgangers”. Season 6, Episode 4. Aired on NBC, Directed by Jay Karas, written by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur. Released October 10, 2013. Produced by Deedle-Dee Productions. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPwkMJnXDMs

[7] Smith, Dr. S.L., Choueitie, M., Pierper, Dr. K., Gillig, T., Lee, Dr. C., & Deluca, D. Inequality in 700 popular films: Examining portrayals of gender, race, & LGBT status from 2007 to 2014. Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. 1-30.

[8] Instagram.com | @Peta

[4] Zukowski, John A. (2012). Vegans and vegetarians in pop culture: “You don’t win friends with salad”. New Vegan Age. https://newveganage.blogspot.com/2012/06/you-dont-win-friends-with-salad.html