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?