Naked and Chained: Report Back
Objectified and exploited lions, tigers and elephants have been dying for the entertainment of circus fans. The corporate media has turned a deaf ear to their pain. Meanwhile "Christine" shivers in the cold rain while passers by keep going.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) staged a bizarre protest down on Front and Ankeny today. In an effort to bring attention to the cruelty inflicted upon animals by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus, they stripped a woman naked, shackled her arms and legs, affixed faux scars to her back, and laid her on the sidewalk in the rain in the hopes that, as one woman told me, "men might look at her, and then maybe learn about the issue."
I had heard they were planning to do this, and went down to see it for myself. I wanted to ask why they would do such a thing. How could otherwise well-meaning individuals with the noble goal of ending the oppression of animals not understand the connection between the objectification and exploitation of women and that of animals? How did they imagine that this act of sexualization of violence would alleviate the brutality meted out against animals at the circus?
This is not meant to be a condemnation of PETA. Indeed, I had very mixed feelings about this event, which is why I made it a point to attend. I wanted to understand this conflict better. I believe very strongly in the rights of animals. This is an issue that rarely gets any attention, yet violence against animals claims more lives every day in this country than one can even imagine. Like me, these very committed people want to end that violence.
But I also believe very strongly in the human rights of women. I saw this gesture as an offensive pandering to the male gaze, a willingness to sacrifice the dignity and respect of women for a cause that could only be hindered by the attempt. By definition, exploitation is about using others as objects, as means to an end. It is just this kind of attitude that leads to the violence of the circus. Could the ends justify the means in this case? Could the offensive nature of the protest they had planned be justified? I wanted to reconcile the whole thing in my mind somehow.
I found it all to be even more complicated than I had anticipated. I arrived to find almost no one there. I watched as they assembled a small banner, and then "Christine" disrobed and laid herself down on the wet pavement. Another woman clamped shackles on her ankles and wrists. Christine faced the banner and almost never looked up. A small group of protestors assembled near by, holding posters depicting a shackled elephant foot. Cars drove by without slowing down.
Matt Rossell, with In Defense of Animals (IDA) was there. I asked him what he thought of it all. He said he was there to support PETA in their attempt to end violence against circus animals. While he expressed some discomfort at the use of the woman in chains, he said he could not condemn the tactic because almost no one is listening to this issue. Something needs to be done to get people's attention. However, he did express some concern that there needs to be sensitivity about using a tactic like this.
Matt pointed out that many elephants have died for the circus recently, and that the lion "Clyde" died en route to a performance due to extreme neglect and cruelty. He said that PETA had brought the trainer of that lion, now a whistleblower against Ringling Bros, to a press conference in Portland last week to discuss how the lion had died. No one came. No one cared. Perhaps a naked, shackled woman would bring people in to hear this message.
The irony, of course, is that no one came anyway. Sex only sells, it seems, if the price is cheap. The power to tell this story was too high a price for the corporate media to pay, even for a gratuitous trade like this one.
I spoke to a representative of PETA as well, who pointed out that "We live in a tabloid culture" and "we need to do quirky things like this to get attention." (I heard the "tabloid culture" line again and again while I was there.) She said that she has had a great deal of difficulty in getting corporate media coverage of this issue, and that she's been told on more than one occasion by "journalists" that they could not cover the issue because their station was sponsored by Ringling Bros. Interesting. Usually, they are not quite so blatant about the fact that their news is determined by their sponsors. As Matt observed, Usually, they try to hide the connection between their news department and their sales department a little better.
Given the relentless and unceasing violence against animals, and the deaf and dumb corporate media, one almost can't blame them for using any means necessary to be heard. As I looked back at Christine, still shivering on the cement, I thought about that: Naked woman as silent scream to the gallery.
I spoke to her briefly, but found it unsettling to watch her shiver, wet hair pasted to her face. I asked her if she felt at all uncomfortable about the use of sexualized violence, the use of her body to make this point. She said she did not. She repeated the same answer about "tabloid culture" that the other woman had given me. She seemed somewhat defensive, as if she expected me to judge her harshly and couldn't understand why I didn't get what she was trying to do. She told me she had done this by choice, and so she was not being exploited.
Maybe. But then again, everything else they had told me was about how they had no choice. How the corporate media had ignored them, how the violence would continue unless they could make people hear what they had to say. How they were forced into this desperate act because they couldn't figure out what else to do. That didn't seem like a free choice to me.
I slowly began to realize that we have all learned at an early age that in order to get attention, one must pose and smile for the male gaze. All of the magazines and movies and soap operas we've ever been sold have taught us this. We must sell ourselves. We must degrade ourselves for the entertainment and amusement of others and then maybe, just maybe, they will listen to us. Just as the animals have had to learn that if they amuse their masters, they might be fed and they might not be beaten as severely.
So I do get what Christine was trying to do. But I still don't like it. I don't like the idea of trying to free one hand by shackling another. And I do not believe that it's right, or necessary, or even effective to play by those rules. That's no way to change the world. Yes, it IS a tabloid culture. It's also a culture of violence against women, violence against people of color, violence against poor people, and yes, violence against animals. It's up to us to change all that. And the way we will do that is not by selling out one oppressed group to elevate another. Rather, we will make real changes only when we connect all the dots and see the big picture. When we recognize the links between all forms of oppression, and when we stop playing by The Man's rules. That's a rigged game. When we step away from it, we win.
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