Monday, June 18, 2012

Vegans and Vegetarians in Pop Culture: "You don't win friends with salad"

By John A. Zukowski
Vegetarian/vegan characters and plotlines are showing up in more
movies and TV shows, including the post-modernist bratty animated
"South Park." Here Stan faces a moral dilemma when he sees baby cows
being bred to be veal when he goes on a school field trip to a farm.
(Photo courtesy Comedy Central) 

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. Although I haven’t gone out of my way to watch anywhere close to all of the movies or TV shows that feature vegetarians and vegans, I’ve seen enough of them to detect some stereotypes. Here are three major ones.

#1: The Oversensitive Girly Vegetarian

In this stereotype a tween, teen, or single adult woman is overly fond of cuddly animals. They transfer this affection for cute animals into refusing to eat meat.

Molly Shannon plays a loner single woman whose
best friend is her dog Pencil in the movie "Year of 
the Dog." She is also a vegan who's just, well, so
sensitive about cuddly animals. (Photo courtesy
Paramount Vantage)
Not a bad idea to make that decision. But these characters are women and girls who are outcasts because they’re just sooooo sappy and sensitive about fuzzy little creatures. It makes them so peculiar that it’s considered to be a character flaw. In the movie “Year of the Dog,” Molly Shannon plays a mopey, sad sack 40-year-old single woman whose dog dies. The fallout from this and other events leads her to become a vegan, an adopter of an army of stray dogs, and an animal rights activist. But this is viewed as such anti-social and strange behavior that other characters question her sanity. By the end of the film she can no longer assimilate with her co-workers and neighbors who view her sensitivity as a kind of mental instability. She may have found a new calling and a like-minded romantic interest, but most of the people she knows define her sensitivity as unbalanced.

Lisa Simpson has an epiphany at the dinner table one night and
becomes a vegetarian. Her new diet disrupts the family's fragile
equilibrium and requires an intervention from Paul and Linda McCartney
to restore order. (Photo courtesy FOX Broadcasting Company)
In “The Simpsons” episode “Lisa The Vegetarian” Lisa Simpson goes on a trip with her family to a petting zoo. After spending some time petting a cuddly lamb, she goes home to a dinner of—you guessed it—lamb chops. Lisa makes a connection between the lamb at the petting zoo and the dinner in front of her. So she says she won’t eat meat anymore.

The other family members view it as a hyper girly sensitivity that is incompatible with family and school life. Although Lisa reaches a compromise with her father Homer at the end of the episode (more about that in our next stereotype), she spends the majority of the show being ridiculed and ostracized by her family and friends because of her sensitivity. After all, “you don’t win friends with salad!” as Homer chants while planning a backyard barbeque.

Male characters, too, can fall into this “girly” stereotype for being vegetarian or vegan. They are ridiculed for abandoning what seems to be an essential masculine trait of eating meat. This is illustrated well in the “Fun With Veal” episode of “South Park”—where, as  in “The Simpsons,” there is a school field trip that leads to a moral dilemma. The students see small cows at a farm that are chained up: In fact, they're the baby cows that will become veal. (Seeing cows slaughtered doesn’t bother the students, which reinforces the cute factor: There’s moral outrage about killing an animal only when it’s cute and young.)

Stan comes up with a plan to save the baby cows from being slaughtered. He and his friends smuggle them out of the ranch to Stan’s house. They vow to keep them until it’s promised the cow’s lives will be spared if released. However, after some food is sent to the boys during the standoff, Stan is inspired by the cownapping and refuses to eat the delivered meat. But Cartman warns him that “If you don’t eat meat, you become a pussy.”

Stan starts to get sick after he goes vegetarian. And although the boys end up saving the baby cows from being killed, at the end of the episode, Stan has to be revived back to health by being fed beef-filled blood intravenously. That’s to save him from being “a pussy” (the doctor says).

The emasculated male who doesn’t eat meat is also shown in “Seven Pounds,” where Will Smith’s character tells a blind vegan switchboard operator “I can’t imagine a blind vegan having sex.” In the animated movie “A Shark’s Tale,” the shark voiced by Jack Black is a vegetarian who is viewed as emasculated by other characters because of his non-killing lifestyle.

#2: The Killjoy of Communal Fun

Here, the vegetarian or vegan is a comic foil or an antagonistic force that disrupts a fun social event. It’s usually a communal meal that is threatened or ruined because of the vegetarian or vegan’s dietary requirements. Often the killjoy vegetarian is mocked by meat-eating characters that represent the social norm.

These vegans and vegetarians range from annoying inconveniences to high maintenance divas. They seem selfish or abnormal because they won’t conform to eating meat. And the meat eaters don’t seem to want to accommodate their diet. In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the Greek bride tells her family members that her fiance is a vegetarian. The response? “He don’t eat no meat? That’s ok, I’ll make some lamb,” one in-law says.

In “Everything is Illuminated,” an earnest but nerdy character played by Elijah Wood takes a trip to Ukraine. After repeated requests at a dinner outing for something without meat, he is served a plain peeled potato on a plate. The awkward silence indicates that he can’t bond with the other dudes at the table because he won’t eat meat with them. But after the potato falls on the floor and some comedy ensues, the guys manage to laugh together which creates a little male bonding. But the vegetarian is clearly the outcast.

In this stereotype, being a vegetarian also indicates elitism. A good example is in “Did You Hear What Happened To The Morgans?” when Sarah Jessica Parker’s character says she is a PETA member and vegetarian. It’s a character trait that shows she’s from the snooty Manhattan world which is more pretentious and misguided than the "down-home," "honest" rural setting where she is forced to live under a witness protection program.

But it’s up to the rebellious young girls to really display this stereotype.

Darlene on the TV show "Roseanne"
was a disruptive vegetarian who
challenged her family's business, which
served meat. The plotline of the disruptive
vegetarian stereotype is usually about how
to neutralize the troublesome anti-social
vegetarian. (Photo courtesy ABC)
In the “Lanford Daze” episode of the TV show “Roseanne,” Darlene sabotages her family’s restaurant that serves meat by drawing chalklines of dead cows in front of it. As punishment she is forced to work at a booth her family’s business has set up at an outdoor market. Darlene goes but refuses to serve meat. After an intervention by country singer Loretta Lynn, there’s a truce with Roseanne and Darlene agreeing to respect each other. But Darlene’s beliefs are shown as a threat to both the economic and social order of the Conner household.

Similarly, in the “Lisa The Vegetarian” episode of “The Simpsons,” Lisa disrupts a neighborhood community event by trying to stop a pig roast at Homer’s barbeque. It takes an intervention by vegetarians Paul McCartney (what’s the deal with celebrity sages?) and grocery store clerk Apu to make Lisa reconsider her militaristic approach to being a vegetarian. In a kind of hippie-esque garden, McCartney and Apu mellow Lisa out by telling her she must learn to be tolerant of meat eaters. Lisa doesn’t abandon her beliefs; she just has to eliminate her frustration about others eating meat.

Much like Roseanne and Darlene’s resolution, Lisa and Homer later make a truce to respect each other’s diets. No one is converted or reflects on Lisa’s vegetarian beliefs. Being a vegetarian is ultimately tolerated, but talking about it isn’t tolerated. In other words, for the price of no longer being a vegetarian outcast and being accommodated, the cost is being silent about one’s beliefs.

It’s an ambivalent ending. While the show instills some healthy tolerance and patience for meat eaters, it also requires an unhealthy muzzling of Lisa’s moral outrage. It’s an effective episode about a vegetarian conversion, but the “Roseanne” episode has a more satisfying outcome. Darlene is still able to maintain her rebellious and subversive identity even while making a truce with her family about their conflicting diets.

#3. The Flaky Poser Hippie

In this stereotype being a vegetarian or vegan is just another characteristic of the hippie subculture.

In the “Fun With Veal” episode of “South Park” a group of hippies picket together to support the boys’ baby cow abduction. But being cheered on by “dirty hippies” (as Cartman puts it) is so horrifying that it nearly causes the boys to abandon their plan to stop the wide-eyed baby cows from being killed.

The character Shaggy in "Scooby
Doo" may or may not be a
vegetarian, depending on which
TV or movie version you see.
But most of the time the cartoon
world's most stoner character is a
vegetarian. (Photo courtesy
Warner Brothers)
The hippie/vegetarian stereotype makes it no surprise that the character Shaggy (long viewed as the cartoon world’s first version of a stoner) is a vegetarian in the 2002 big screen version of “Scooby Doo.” But this stereotype also shows the hippie vegetarians as flaky hypocrites who often don’t really have deep convictions about their veggie diet or their hippie way of life. Some of them abandon their diet when they grow out of their hippie phase. Or, being a vegetarian or vegan is a superficial trait that hippies adopt as a kind of outfit along with Birkenstock sandals and ragtag clothes.

For example, there’s the unsympathetic, ponytailed vegetarian rival to John Cusack in “High Fidelity” (played by Tim Robbins, who is dating Cusack’s ex-girlfriend). He masquerades as a soft spoken do-gooder, but the movie reveals him to be a manipulative hippie poser. In “Notting Hill,” Hugh Grant’s character goes on a disasterous date with a hippie “fruitarian” who only eats fruit that falls off of trees because she doesn’t want to kill anything. She tells him that vegetables have feelings and that she won’t eat carrots because they have been murdered. In “About A Boy,” Toni Colette is a hippie single mother who forces her high school-aged son Marcus to be a vegetarian. This is just one of several things that causes Marcus to be bullied and ostracized in school. Colette eventually de-hippifies her parenting. By the end of the movie she believes she’s being too extreme with her diet and tells Marcus they can eat at McDonald’s.

Which character on the TV show "Friends"
was the vegetarian? The flaky ditzy pseudo-hippie
one, of course: Phoebe (far left).
(Photo courtesy NBC)
The flakiest character in the TV show “Friends” is Phoebe, who is a vegetarian. However, in the episode “The One With The Fake Party,” Phoebe ravenously eats meat when she is pregnant. She devours it so intensely that it looks like she’s fulfilling a repressed desire to be a carnivore. This seems to indicate she too is a poser vegetarian.

In general, during the show, Phoebe’s friends view her vegetarianism as a pseudo-hippie trait they must tolerate. I say pseudo-hippie because Phoebe never is self-conscious enough to adopt an alternative lifestyle. She is portrayed as a childish ditz who dabbles in some superficial hippie traits, but never really develops them into anything distinctive or meaningful.

So in movies and on TV, vegetarianism and veganism are largely portrayed as lifestyle choices resulting from oversensitivity, selfish pretention, or just one of the flaky characteristics of the hippie lifestyle. Interestingly, the animated format of “The Simpsons” and “South Park” provides the deepest examination of meat ethics because the shows graphically illustrate how meat is produced. But most pop culture steers away from such territory and portrays meat eating as the accepted social norm and the vegetarian or vegan as a problematic agitator, dopey hippie, or oversensitive outcast. 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 overtly challenging the meat industry is for the most part impossible.

John A. Zukowski worked for more than a decade as a feature writer reporting about pop culture, music and religion for daily newspapers. He's now a freelance writer who lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with his wife Kim.