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Invisible Vegetarians

by Max Friedman (November 1997)

Vegetarians are not a typical "minority," and whether they even belong in a discussion of media treatment of oppressed groups is open to debate. Unlike racial, ethnic or sexual identity, vegetarianism is a voluntarily chosen lifestyle that is invisible except at mealtimes: vegetarians can "pass." Years of news media monitoring have revealed no incidents of job or housing discrimination against herbivores, no hate crimes targeted at patrons of vegetarian restaurants, no bank-loan redlining of vegetarian customers. It's not even a question of "don't ask, don't tell": thanks to meatless Meals Ready to Eat, vegetarians can and do serve in the military.

Still, the portrayal of vegetarians on film and in television is worth examining, if only because their media image is so out of line with reality. In the United States, according to an independent poll conducted for Vegetarian Times magazine, some five percent of the population considers itself vegetarian; on screen, vegetarians are usually absent--and when they do appear, it is as exaggerated, outdated stereotypes. Vegetarians' invisibility is not merely a question of neglect or oversight, but the result of producers' decisions. The hero of the best-selling book, The Bridges of Madison County, is a muscular, sexy cowboy photographer who shocks chubby small-town farmers because he won't eat the animals they raise. In the movie version, Clint Eastwood cooks a meal with Meryl Streep, but any reference to his vegetarianism is missing from the screenplay.

Hollywood and the networks are usually obsessed with trends, but vegetarianism is one case where the media have been slow to catch up with a social phenomenon. MTV aside, television viewers are unlikely to be aware of the nexus between youth culture and the environmental movement that is producing a boom in the number of young people who heed the message of their favorite vegetarian musicians (Paul McCartney, k.d. lang, Michael Bolton, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Merchant, Lenny Kravitz, Peter Gabriel, Michael Stipe) and opt out of meat eating. Newsweek magazine and many newspapers spotted the trend, reporting a survey by Teenage Research Unlimited showing 85 percent of girls thought vegetarianism was "in." But is that reflected in the world of TV teens? With rare exceptions, no.

Sara Gilbert, who plays the rebellious daughter on the popular sit-com Roseanne, insists on letting her character reflect her real-life commitments. Gilbert sometimes strides across the set wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words MEAT STINKS while complaining about the "meat-industrial complex." Rarely does the script allow her to explain the reasons behind her outrage, however, and she falls into the first of the two most common media stereotypes of vegetarians: the militant making a dinner-time harangue.

The other stereotype is exemplified by Andie MacDowell’s mousy boyfriend, who loses her to Gerard Depardieu in Green Card. Depardieu's appeal, in contrast to the pale, skinny aesthete with whom MacDowell had been wasting her time, apparently comes from his insistence on preparing her a beefy dinner over her objections. Depardieu disparages his rival as "that vegetarian" and teaches MacDowell a lesson of carpe diem expressed through the holy trinity of sex, wine, and meat, as if the three were somehow connected. Never mind that the medical establishment has long accepted the link between high meat consumption and arterial blockage--which contributes not only to heart disease but also to impotence. The 98-pound weakling has been a favored image of vegetarians for decades, one that even the growing number of vegetarian Olympic medalists has not been able to retire.

In real life, most people decide to stop eating meat out of compassion for animals, concern for their own health, and disgust at the environmental damage and wastefulness of factory farming. They do not necessarily acquire fringe cultural habits or discourteous speech along with their lower cholesterol counts. But as pictures on a screen, vegetarians are mockeries, or else they do not exist at all. There is no need to see a conspiracy behind their exclusion, to imagine Live Stock and Meat Board agents or McDonalds vice-presidents calling up the producer of Beverly Hills 90210 to threaten an advertising boycott if Jennie Garth reveals her vegetarianism on camera. Network and Hollywood producers know that the corporate sponsors who keep their operations running would not be pleased to discover they are funding sympathetic portrayals of any group that encourages Americans not to buy profitable products or to make fundamental changes in society. Vegetarians are invisible on screen the way that millions of other "normal" people--leftists, feminists, civil rights activists, environmentalists--are made to disappear, and for much the same reasons.

Max Friedman is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California at Berkeley.

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