Feminism, Cows, and Commodity Markets

cow sketch with text no 3

I drew this cow on the weekend while on a camping trip. I also finished reading ‘Frog Music’, by Emma Donoghue, based on real characters and events in San Francisco in 1876, and I made good progress with another book I am loving, called ‘The Gift’, which explores the history of gift-giving verses commodity markets, as well as the spiritual and creative aspects of ‘gifts’.

I just finished reading a chapter in The Gift called ‘A Female Property’, about the concept of women as commodities, which was a theme very much explored in Frog Music, with the main character being an exotic dancer and prostitute…although she never quite puts it in those words, preferring to think of herself as terribly modern and chic, a free woman living a bohemian lifestyle with her adored lover. She sells her body, he encourages her, and the money she makes funds his love of luxury. He doesn’t have to work- his ‘work’ is gambling.

While neither book explores the commodification of animals, both touch on the matter indirectly. In Frog Music, a lady sets herself free from the sex trade industry by hunting frogs and selling them to french restaurants. In ‘The Gift’, the following quote sums up the parallels between women and animals as commodities: “Your own mother, your own sister, your own pigs, your own yams that you have piled up, you may not eat. Other people’s mothers, other people’s sisters, other people’s pigs, other people’s yams that they have piled up, you may eat.” ‘Eat’ probably meaning to use, rather than in the literal sense, but I could be wrong! The point is, like the yams and the pigs, the women are considered property. I also thought it was interesting when the writer pointed out that in modern marriage, the father ‘gives away’ the daughter to the new husband, as though she is a possession…. but the mother does not give away the son.

Lewis Hyde, the author of this book, argues that we must “distinguish the necessary feminist demand for ‘equal pay for equal work’ from the equally important need to keep some parts of our social, cultural and spiritual life out of the marketplace…..There is a place for volunteer labour for mutual aid, for in-house work, for healings that require sympathetic contact or a cohesive support group, for strengthening the bonds of kinship, for intellectual community, for creative idleness, for the slow maturation of talent, for the creation and preservation and dissemination of culture and so on.”

Lewis is concerned, like I am, about our tendency to commodify everything and our devaluing of the sacred feminine.

With all of this in mind, I was kept awake one night under the stars, with a poem writing itself inside my heart. A poem in honour of my sister the cow and the parallels I am seeing between her plight and the plight of women throughout the ages, with both being viewed as objects to be owned, sold and consumed.

She’s a fat cow

With tender juicy loins

Just ripe for the plucking

De-horn her and she’ll cause you no trouble

Brand her with iron and she’s yours for the taking

Possess ‘er, Consume ‘er, Own ‘er

Inseminate her with your hard metal rod

Keep her bare foot and pregnant

Chain her to the kitchen

Make her earn her keep

Take those bastard babies away

So you can milk her dry

And when she’s a dried up old hag

Cut her throat and sell her meat

To those who have no beef

With who she was

Or where she’s been

There is quite a bit of play on words in this poem, such as the ‘branding with iron’, which not only refers to branding as a form of ownership, but also to the beef industries use of iron as a selling point i.e. ‘You need iron or you will get sick and die (or you’ll be weak and effeminate), and the only viable source is red meat’. It’s funny, sometimes, living in Darwin. There are a fair percentage of women, not just men… who pride themselves on being tough, insensitive and ‘real’. They use meat to shore this identify up, as though the lack of it might feminise and weaken them somehow.

De-horning can also have a double-meaning…. much like de-flowering. Of course, it also refers to the removal of a cow’s capacity to protect herself…. a metaphor perhaps for removing a woman’s power, or breaking her spirit with the use of violence?

I like the way words like possessor, consumer etc, lend themselves so well to the variant ‘possess her’, consume her’… We aren’t talking literally about men as the consumers in this poem, but the idea of masculine domination over feminine with the use of aggression and violence. There are many beautiful men in my life who are no more predator than I, just as there are women who are very disconnected from the gentleness and empathy of the feminine principle. In Frog Music, the main character is very much like this, objectifying herself by allowing men to treat her as an object, but at the same time using the only power she has (her body as a commodified sexual object) to empower herself. The secondary female character courts constant danger with her masculine toughness but she doesn’t ever seem to actually oppress anyone, nor does she allow herself to be oppressed. In reality, I think both women were doing what they had to, to survive in an aggressive world within which they were considered the prey. It makes me happy to see softness and gentleness gradually becoming something that is honoured by the world around us, rather than abused, ridiculed and oppressed.

The inseminate line is about the artificial insemination of cows, which must be done to keep them pregnant so they keep producing milk for the babies that are taken away from them. The forced nature of this does seem like rape… I can’t think of a better word to describe a violent sexual act forced by one person onto another. I know that some may be baffled and offended by my use of the word ‘person’ when referring to a cow…. but I stand by this, stubbornly! Animals are not objects or things, they are persons, and until we get clear on that, we are going to continue having social problems related to sexism and racism… because all of these ‘objectification’ attitudes are intertwined. A chair is a thing. A cow is not a thing.

Anyway… I think that’s enough- time to check on my mushroom burgers! Even though I eat mushroom burgers, instead of ‘real meat’, I am still a real person. Would you believe that one of the advertising slogans for beef was ‘Real meat, for real people’. Apparently, I’m just a figment of your imagination.

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