Critical: Women learn to use mousetraps: species/gender intersectionality in the US

Thirty-five years ago, Sherry Ortner argued that women’s universal oppression could be explained by their seeming closeness to nature and humanity’s tendency to devalue nature in favor of culture. Today, most feminist anthropologists have recognized the flaws in that nature/culture binary and in searching for a single, universal explanation of women’s subordination. Yet, much of Ortner’s work still resonates with the hegemonic construction of femininity in the United States. For sure, there are some significant changes in Americans’ relationship to nature: it is more popular than ever to value the natural world and we are saturated with environmental campaigns and discourse about the need for clean energy legislation. Yet, concern for the actual animals that we share that natural world with is still highly gendered as feminine, while masculinity is often constructed as dominance over (and violence towards) nonhuman animals. Interrogating cultural references to nonhuman species in the United States may reveal something about the ways we construct hierarchies within our own species.

Take, for instance, this Fox 5 News broadcast (which was covered by Jon Stewart this fall): an athletic-looking, confident sounding newscaster Ernie Anastos says to a less confident sounding weatherman Nick Gregory: “It takes a tough man to make a tender forecast Nick”. The weatherman replies awkwardly “I guess that’s me”, to which Anastos says, “Keep f**king that chicken”. As John Stewart points out, Dari Alexander, the female newscaster sitting next to Anastos, looked horrified after that comment, while Anastos was glowing with satisfaction. This has engendered a great deal of internet gossip and, from what I can tell, no one really knows for sure what that phrase meant. I am guessing Anastos meant something along the lines of “keep up the good work”. What no one else seems to be talking about though is how this line came up in the context of Anastos’ previous comment about the weatherman’s “tender forecast”. Anastos first de-masculinized his coworker by referencing Gregory’s feminine behavior, and then constructed himself as hyper-masculine with his second remark. Assuming it meant “keep up the good work”, then the good work here is the violent sexual domination of another creature. In the video clip, it seems as though this is precisely what Anastos has accomplished (albeit discursively) through how he positions himself in relation to Gregory and Alexander.

While men’s domination over the natural world is used to establish their masculinity, women’s concern for other species is often portrayed in popular culture as an example of feminine weakness, irrationality, and emotionality. In one current commercial for an Ortho mousetrap, a high-income, Caucasian, heterosexual (presumably married) couple is discussing the benefits of this convenient device (“nothing to see, nothing to touch, you just throw it away!”). The wife shocks her husband by saying she took care of it herself, a scene best described by one blogger on as being “said stupidly as if she just learned how to tie her shoe”. At the end of the commercial, the wife says “no mess, no drama” and her husband looks at her as he replies, “we could do without drama”. She says “excuse me?” and the scene closes with the audience sympathizing with the husband as he realizes he has inadvertently upset his temperamental wife. In true capitalist form, the commercial ends with a narrator declaring “Defend What’s Yours!”, with this written in bold red caps across the screen. One of the messages here is that women’s concern with murdering innocent creatures is reflective of their melodramatic nature in general.

Such gendered messages are commonplace in marketing campaigns. Dawn is currently advertising their dish soap by showing images of baby animals covered in oil and saying that they will donate a dollar to wildlife organizations with every purchase. Jim Bean advertises its bourbon by showing men renting puppies to attract women. The commercial ends with a narrator saying, “Guys never change. Neither do we”. Femininity (at least of the white, upper-middle class, heterosexual variety) is depicted as closeness to other species and compassion for their young, while hegemonic masculinity involves skillfully using another species to manipulate women for sex. This is certainly the image of manhood that Anastos invoked when he told his coworker to “keep f**king that chicken”. In an interesting play on this species/gender system, the National Geographic Channel has a new show this season—Rescue Ink—that follows big tattooed biker men as they go around saving abused companion animals (dogs and cats). The main appeal of this show obviously lies in the play on gendered assumptions of human-nonhuman relations.

Not surprisingly, these representations of femininity as concern for animals (and masculinity as domination over animals) have a tangible impact on the behaviors and values of real women and men. For instance, at the Humane Animal Treatment Society (HATS) meetings here at George Washington University, over 90 percent of the participants are female, as is the entire executive board. And women certainly do have self-motivated reasons to be concerned with the treatment of animals in their homes, given the strong correlation between cruelty to animals and domestic violence.

Although I have focused on gender hierarchies, an analysis of cultural references to nonhuman animals also reveals evidence about how we construct racial, regional, ableist, ethnic, and other social hierarchies by associating disadvantaged groups with other species. In my next piece, I will look at how Western stereotypes of gender/species intersectionality shape transnational representations of poor women of color who live in developing countries. If we are to challenge this intersecting system of domination successfully, we should expand our intellectual and activist projects to include human-nonhuman interactions/representations. While I believe that fighting against the oppression of nonhuman animals is a worthy goal in its own right, I am equally confident that so long as dominant notions of masculinity are constructed through symbolically (and literally) controlling, exploiting, and violating other species, it is unlikely that equal and caring relationships between people will become the norm.