Bringing Sexy Back?

I want to wrap up this series by reflecting on the conversation PETA has started with these ads, and what we might learn from them.

PETA’s work is important, and worth our attention.

While I don’t agree with all of PETA’s values or methods, I believe their message and voice are important.  Our culture has made the exploitation of creation for our own convenience and pleasure the rule of the day.  We seldom give second thought to what we eat, wear or drive and how it affects the world around us.

Christians do have a responsibility to Creation, and we would get a lot further by partnering with organizations like PETA.  We don’t have to agree with everything they do, but instead of condemning them, we can offer a helpful voice of critique.  And if we listened a little bit more closely to what they’re saying we can learn something as well.

PETA’s ads raise several important questions we must take seriously.

1. When did you last give thought to where the products you use originated?

If you’re like me, the answer is: a long time ago.  I use animal products – I eat meat, I wear leather, etc.  And I’m not against killing animals as a rule.

But take a look at this horrifying video of a fur farm (if you have the stomach for it).  I don’t wear fur, but this video gave me pause because in watching it, I realized that I need to be more conscious of what I consume.  The way we treat creation says a lot about our picture of the creator, and I believe we can treat animals more humanely than they’re usually treated in our mass-production mills.  (Another great resource to get you thinking is the film Food, Inc.  You can get it on Netflix OnDemand if you’re a subscriber!)

2. What are we doing to live out our convictions?

A lot of the power of PETAs ads comes from the status of the persons they feature.  Each of these persons (allegedly) has some sort of influence over a number of other persons and they choose to leverage that influence to support a cause in which they believe.

PETA works very hard to change your mind.  They work so hard because they’re passionate about their message.  They’ll stop at nothing to save animals from unethical treatment.

I have an important message to communicate.  I’m passionate about it as well.  I bet you are too.  I want to go to the next-next level.  I want you to walk away from an encounter with my message unable to get it out of your head.  I want you to find it compelling.  I want you to mull it over for the next week (or more!).  PETA has encouraged me to step up my game.

3. Why are PETA’s ads so effective?

These ads are brilliant.  They’re smart and sexy (and for the record, I don’t think sexy has to be bad).  They communicate the same message on multiple levels and they have generated an enormous amount of attention.  I haven’t seen anyone in the Church do this effectively in a long time.

Which brings me to…

We would do well to learn from PETA’s communication techniques.

PETA is not the devil; they’re doing some good, and they’re working harder and more creatively than most faith-based organizations I’ve encountered.  They’re using the resources they have at their disposal and they’re using them well.  For me, they call to mind Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-12).

Listen to what PETA had to say in defense of their ad campaigns: “As for the sexy women in our ads, the silly costumes, the street tableaux and the tofu sandwich give-aways, in a world where people want to smile, can’t resist looking at an attractive image and are up for a free meal, if such harmless antics will allow one individual to reconsider their own role in exploiting animals, how can it be faulted? Yes, Peta could restrict its activities to scientific work, but how often do you read of that in the papers? It could just hand out lengthy tracts about ethics, but how many people would stop and take one, let alone read it? Any peaceful action that opens eyes, hearts and minds should be commended, not condemned.

I would debate whether the ads truly are peaceful – there’s a violence in pornography and in misappropriation – but that (important) debate aside, notice what PETA is doing: they recognize that just talking at people doesn’t effect change, that facts and figures (and, I would add, casually quoted Bible verses) don’t move us to alter our lifestyles.  So they appeal beyond our reason, to our emotions and to our identities.

HERO-JESUS-T-Shirt-Front-Design-M I wish that within the Church our communication was more creative and intention in the ways we communicate.  I don’t think that everything PETA did in these campaigns was right, but they are effective, original and creative – three words we can seldom apply to anything coming out of the Church.

PETA’s ads make me ask, “Am I using all my creativity to generate compelling and original incarnations of the Gospel?  Am I working at what I’m communicating, or am I stuck in a rut, talking at instead of talking with?”

What we need is a better picture of healthy sexuality.

The short takeaway from this for me is: Until we as Christians develop a healthy picture of sexuality that is indebted more to thoughtful exegesis of Scripture than it is to traditional (read: Western, post-industrial revolution) gender roles and unreasonable, culturally-formed sexual expectations, we’ll never be able to do anything more than stomp our feet and throw a temper-tantrum when we discover cultural texts such as the PETA ads.  To borrow a line from Andy Crouch, our posture will always be one of condemnation, never one of critique and certainly not one of creativity.

And we desperately need creative and clever pictures of healthy sexuality in our culture right now.  If this study has taught me nothing else, it’s how broken we all are, how fully our culture screws up our picture of what it means to be sexually healthy.  I don’t have much of an idea of what this looks like yet, but it’s something I’m exploring pretty heavily for an upcoming series of posts.

For now, though, I’d really like to hear your thoughts about what constitutes a healthy sexuality.  Pretty please?

Coda: Better Late than Never?

One last note – one of PETA’s more recent campaigns is “Ink not Mink”, which features various tattoo-bearing celeb in an anti-fur message.  And best of all, most of them are male – from R&B artist Mario and rocker Tommy Lee to “Miami Ink”’s Ami James and “Jackass” star Steve-O.  And, of course, Dennis Rodman.  The ads are no less pornographic (with the possible exception of Steve-O, who is just absurd), but at least including men in the ads is more… balanced?

And in case any of you are unsure, these pictures are great examples are what NOT to do.

In A Godda Da Vida

In this series, I’m exploring a recent series of ad campaigns by PETA.  The ads are striking for their use of nude (or nearly so) minor-celebrities to creatively and cleverly promote various aspects of animal rights.  The first post explored PETA’s use of sexually suggestive imagery and text such that the models are dehumanized and thereby relegated to the moral level of animal.  The second post dealt more specifically with the “Angels to Animals” campaign in which (I argue) PETA misappropriates Christian religious imagery and language (the cross, rosary, concept of ‘savior’ and others).

In one regard, I believe I have not clearly communicated my intentions in this series of posts.  I do not believe that PETA is engaging in this advertising campaign maliciously.  I want to argue that these ads are indicative of larger cultural trends: we are dehumanizing ourselves through our (mis)use of sexuality and we are losing the unique and significant meanings of our Christian symbols.  PETA is not a Christian organization and so has no reason NOT to undertake this campaign. From a non-Christian perspective, the ads are, frankly, brilliant.  But more on THAT in the last post (coming next week).

The Eve of a New Day

Today, I want to focus on one last ad-campaign with which I’d like to dialogue: the “Turn Over a New Leaf” campaign.  The text of the ads is fairly innocuous by itself – ‘turning over a new leaf’ is a common idiom in our culture for trying something new, and the ads suggest that we try Vegetarianism.  So far, so good.  But I find fascinating how they’ve chosen to use their models.  Here are model/actress Pamela Anderson and actress actress Maggie Q.  Both women’s essential parts are covered in lettuce leaves, and they bear an uncanny resemblance to Eve, our first mother who gets a bad rap for – well, most of the rest of Western History.

Why use Eve?  She’s a complicated figure even within the Biblical text, and 6,000+ years of human history has only made her more complex.  Today she is both an object of scorn and a paragon of feminist virtue, an uber-woman who long ago escaped the texts in which we meet her to roam across our culture leaving a powerful impression.  For some Feminists, she’s become the ultimate example of choosing to embrace advancement against the threat of patriarchy.  As Lilian Barger argues in Eve’s Revenge:

Rubens_-_Adam_et_Eve[1]This act of eating forbidden fruit has in recent years been seen as a ritual of empowerment within feminist theology.  In this reinterpretation, the first woman is said to have been exercising power over her own life and challenging the existing order.  Through ritual eating of an apple we follow the first woman in an act of subversion, encouraged to overthrow the oppressive patriarchal power that has dominated us (136).

Is it a stretch to see in these ads this Eve, this empowering symbol?  I don’t think so; in fact, to use Eve in this way is clever and subversive in its own right.  Cruelty of any kind is often viewed as a male trait, albeit a lesser, undesirable one (see, for instance, the writings of Grace Janzten).  Vegetarianism, on the other hand, is often touted for its many health, ethical and social justice benefits.  It’s a short step from there to imagine that vegetarianism is, well, a little bit more evolved than omnivorism (quick shout out to my Veggi-minded friends who have never once made me feel this way for enjoying my steak!).

lisa_vegetarian[1] So Ladies, are you unhappy with your life?  Or perhaps more pointedly, given the ad’s choice of models, are you unhappy with your Self?  Then it’s time to go, girl!  Time to recreate yourself, to unleash the kind, clever, strong and beautiful woman trapped inside!  Turn over a new leaf and stop eating meat!  You’ll look and feel better than ever before.

This model of Eve is not the most healthy or helpful model available to us.

This rebel-against-patriarchy is not the most helpful picture of Eve.  In fact, I think the Genesis 2 narrative offers both men and women a more helpful answer to patriarchy.  I don’t have space for a full exegesis here, but briefly:

Genesis 1:27 reveals that the image of God is both male and female – that neither is complete without the other, and that both are necessary to embody the fullness of God’s image.  Genesis 2 affirms this by stating that “It’s not good that the man is alone.”  Woman is introduced as the man’s ezer, a Hebrew word that means ‘ally’, ‘partner’ or even ‘savior’ in other biblical texts.  It’s not until Genesis 3 we see hierarchy (read: patriarchy) introduced into the text.  As a result of the Fall, God tells the woman that her “desire will be for the man and he will rule over you.”  In this reading, patriarchy is the consequence of our choice – both Adam and Eve’s.  And more importantly, it’s a choice that is reversed at the Cross.  The church is meant to be a place in which gender is no longer linked to power (as Paul points out in Galatians 3:28).

So what’s wrong with the PETA ads?

Is PETA buying into the image of Eve-as-rebel?  I think so.  The message I see in these ads is a call to reinvent yourself in your Mother’s image, as a Vegetarian (is this a subtle appeal to Ken Hamm’s pals?).  Our path to overcoming patriarchy and (re)creating ourselves as stronger, moral persons runs through the Cross.  We don’t recreate ourselves, reverse the curse we brought down on ourselves.  We are renewed, regenerated, recreated through Jesus, who is even now making all things new.

image Of course, I don’t fault PETA for not creating advertisements consistent with a Christian worldview.  They’re not a Christian organization.

I wonder what might happen if we try to recover Eve as a model not of rebellious or anti-religious womanhood, but as a model of good and pure humanity, an example for both men and women to follow?  A model of a person who chose unwisely, but who through self-sacrifice and faith can be rescued from death.

Truthfully, I’m not sure a PETA ad inspired by that Eve would look a whole lot different.  So maybe I’m reading too much into these ads.  But they’ve at least given me pause to reflect on my own idea of gender roles.

To what sort of Eve are you drawn?  Does she figure prominently (or at all) in your theology or spirituality?

Next time: I want to take a step back and reflect on the issues this series has raised.  I’ll talk about what I really like in PETA’s ads and a bit more generally about what I think a healthy Christian response should be.

Like a Virgin

Naked celebrities are one thing, but what happens when PETA mis-appropriates religious symbols?

In my last post, I began to discuss PETA’s controversial ad campaign featuring nude celebrities.  I argued that PETA’s ads intentionally dehumanize the models in order to relegate humanity to the same moral plane as animals… in short, that one of PETA’s strong messages is that humans are just another animal (and therefore morally equivalent).

What is the “Angels to Animals” Campaign?

Even more disturbing to me, however, is another arm of their campaign that calls us to be angels to animals.  Again, consider these two (relatively) innocuous ads featuring actress Famke Janssen and The Hills star Audrina Patridge.  In comparison to most of the other ads, these two are tame: the models are wearing more clothes than most, and the only thing that makes them look especially cherubic is the large pair of wings on their backs (I’m pretty sure Ms. Janssen’s are photo-shopped, and bonus they’re black – maybe a shout-out to Dark Phoenix?)

But the Angels campaign didn’t stop there.  PETA tapped Supermodel Joanna Krupa, a self-professed Catholic who had already done a series of PETA ads (for their “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign).  Her first ad is interesting enough – a heavily air-brushed Krupa – topless, clutching a small dog to her chest and looking at the camera – sports angel wings, a halo and a rosary dangling from her hand.  You would’ve expected this ad to generate a fair amount of controversy, but PETA also released this steamy Krupa ad, which features the model hovering inside a church building, over a gathering of dogs, and completely naked (save for the wings and halo).  She’s holding an iron cross to her body, and it just barely covers the legal minimum.

The uproar over this ad was immediate and loud, and Krupa was quick to defend herself, calling her ad “beautifully done and classy” (and quickly adding “I don’t think there’s anything sexier than a man who loves animals.”).  In another interview, according to the NY Daily News, she said:crucifixion-michelangelo-chalk-c1541-brit-museum-wga

It’s understandable that the Catholic League is wary of another sex scandal, but the sex we’re talking about pertains to dogs and cats…  As a practicing Catholic, I am shocked that the Catholic League is speaking out against my PETA ads, which I am very proud of…  I’m doing what the Catholic Church should be doing, working to stop senseless suffering of animals, the most defenseless of God’s creation. (emphasis added)

Representatives of the Church called the ad “irresponsible” and PETA a “fraud”.  Krupa says it’s “beautifully done and classy”.  So which is it?

So is it a big deal or not?

As a Christian, I take offense to this campaign because – just like other arms of this campaign – it reduces humans to the level of animals (or, perhaps more appropriately in this case, elevates animals to the level of humanity).  Assuming the same reductionist modernism the other ads are espousing, these ads first deny that humans have a spiritual aspect.  Because we do not have access to any sort of transcendent religious reality, these ads are free to reinterpret ‘spiritual’ to mean whatever they want, using whatever religious symbols they choose.  Whether intentionally or not (and I think PETA’s way too smart to do anything unintentionally), these ads appropriate cherished Christian symbols and subvert their meaning, thereby communicating a message that is consistent not with the Gospel, but with a modernist worldview.

rosary.jpgConsider the rosary in Krupa’s first ad.  Krupa is shown holding a dog to her chest while a rosary dangles in front of her.  According to Pope Benedict XVI, “The  traditional image of the Madonna of the Rosary depicts Mary holding the child Jesus in her arm and giving the rosary to St. Dominic. This significant iconography shows that the rosary is a means given by the Virgin for contemplating Jesus and, meditating on his life, for loving and following him always more faithfully.

It’s not hard to imagine that, in Krupa’s ad, we’ve become St. Dominic and are being invited by a sexy and sexual holy mother to act as the savior (remember back in the 1980s when the new Madonna made virginity sexy, rather than admirable?) for animals that are in pounds (the text of the ad reads “Save a life by adopting from an animal shelter…” emphasis added).  But what, exactly, in Krupa’s image are we being invited to contemplate?  Not Jesus’ death and resurrection, which rescued us from death.  And not his life, which modeled for us how to live in the light of that rescue.

The ad invites us to consider how we might become saviors ourselves by rescue animals from certain death – a divine act in PETA’s eyes, and certainly one any Christian seriously concerned with creation care should consider.

But should we consider this the heart of the Gospel?  Should we meditate on animal rescue as the whole of Jesus’ life?  Certainly not.

And in the other ad, Krupa holds forth a crucifix while hovering over her congregation of canines.  Her nudity, the halo and centrality of the crucifix can’t but call to mind 2,000 years worth of Jesus-paintings.  More explicitly than the last ad, this one encourages us to think of ourselves as saviors for Fido and Rover.  Are Christians called to imitate Christ?  Yes.  Are our meditations on the Cross meant to move us to act, to imitate Jesus?  Yes.  But the Cross is not fundamentally about imitation.  It’s about participation in Jesus’ divine death.  We are not meant to look on the Cross and ponder how we might become saviors ourselves; rather we are reminded of our need for a savior, and how his rescue of us has made us participants in his kingdom.  But that’s not what’s happening in this ad.  PETA has taken the central Christian symbol and undercut its meaning.  The Cross is no longer God’s rescue of humanity from the consequences of our own sinful choices.

In PETA’s ads, it’s a (sexy, airbrushed) invitation to become a savior in your own right, not through pain and sacrifice, but through the beauty of caring adoption.  We’re being invited into the divine life not because of what God did for us, but because of what we can do for animals.

For Next Time…

Again, I want to give kudos to PETA for their clever advertising campaign, and for the fact that they take the stewardship of creation way more seriously than most Christians do.  But this is not the way to get my support.  I think that – as a Christian – we can use religious symbols more effective and respectfully.

I was going to talk about Maggie Q’s rendition of Eve in the creation-language-laden “Turn over a new leaf” ads, but this post is already long enough.  It’ll have to wait till next week.

For now, what do you think?  Am I reading too much into these ads?  Is PETA intentionally appropriating Christian religious symbolism?  Does it matter?  What should our response be?

You and Me, Baby, ain’t Nothing but Mammals

Call me slow on the uptake, but I recently came across a series of PETA ad campaigns that began back in 2007 featuring celebrities posing nude to promote various PETA causes – adopting animals, vegetarianism, not buying furs or testing products on animals, etc.  The ads are provocative, and I immediately saw why PETA is using them.  They’re guaranteed to stick in your mind, and they make their point cleverly.  And while I have a huge problem with sex being sold in advertisements in general, I found these ads particularly troublesome (in the interest of not offending potential blog readers, I am not posting any of the pictures; I will link to each image I discuss, and you are free to click at your own discretion).

My disclaimer:

I didn’t find the ads offensive because of the partial-nudity.  I recognize that the human body has long been a subject of artistic exploration, and I’d like to think that I have grown up enough that the sight of a mostly-naked woman doesn’t automatically send me running for the hand lotion.  I do, for the record, find pornography to be dangerous, offensive and inexcusable, but I don’t think that all nudity is pornography.  In this upcoming series of posts, I’ll be taking issue with the ads for several reasons.  First up, in these ads:

PETA purposefully dehumanizes the models

Some of the online discussion has suggested that the ads are not sexual in nature, that they only celebrate the beauty of the human body, and in some of the ads, like Alicia Silverstone’s, I would be willing to concede the point: taken by itself, her ad isn’t explicitly sexual.

The overall tone of the campaign, however, is most certainly sexual.  Consider these ads featuring adult film star Sasha Grey and Playboy Bunny Holly Madison.  Both ads not only feature women (in)famous for their sexuality, but are themselves sexually explicit – Grey looks invitingly from a bed while the text exclaims that too much sex can be a bad thing (so we should spay and neuter our pets), while Madison tells us that she “always fakes it!” while letting a (faux)fur wrap drop away from her body.

I’m not especially surprised that these women would pose in such ads – both are featured in more-explicitly pornographic material and have made their sexual adventures their occupations.  And I don’t believe that PETA is just exploiting their willingness to bear it all to bring sexy back to animal rights.

Rather, PETA is exploiting the the dehumanizing nature of pornography to place animals and humanity on the same ethical and moral plane in the minds of those who view the ads.

PETA wants us to think that humans are just another animal, and they’re using our sexuality to prove their point.

Don’t believe me?  Check out this ad featuring British TV personality Jodie Marsh.  Here, Marsh is shown with her back to us, covered in lines demarcating the choice cuts of meat – round, rump, loin, chuck, etc. – as though she were a cow or pig.  The ad reads “All Animals have the same parts”.

So why is this a problem?

Cannibal PETA’s ads are sending a clear message: our sexuality demonstrates that humans are just another animal, and that fact morally obligates us to extend to them the same moral and ethical boundaries we have for one another.  If humans are ‘just another animal’, then you should no more eat meat or wear fur than you would eat human meat or wear a coat of skin (shout out to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs).

This worldview is consistent with a reductionist modernism – a denial that humanity is anything more than material, a denial of our spiritual dimension (which will be important in the next post).  It’s consistent with the crass-but-catchy Bloodhound Gang tune, “The Bad Touch”: “You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.”

A worldview shaped by the Scriptures rejects this sort of reduction (no matter how sweet the packaging).  We affirm that humans and animals are both creatures – both created by God – but humanity bears the image of God.  We are indwelled by God’s Spirit.  And part of what it means to be human is to exercise dominion over the Earth – including the animals (Genesis 1:28).  The Scriptures bear witness to a sharp demarcation between humans and animals.  And that means that to reduce humans to the moral level of animals is wrong, and ultimately harmful to a wholesome picture of our humanity.


That doesn’t mean we are free to exploit animals, to use and abuse them as we see fit; in fact, Revelation 11:18 makes it clear that careful stewardship of the Earth is part of what it means to follow Jesus.  But that’s not the same as reducing us to animals.  There’re better options.

I’ll explore those options further in my final post in this series.  But coming up next, we’ll explore the more religious ads in PETA’s campaign.  For now, I want to hear what you think:

What do you think of the ads?  Do you think they’re pornographic (and what does that even mean)?  What connection do you see between our sexuality and our humanity?  And what is a Christian’s obligation (if any) to the Earth and to animals?