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Vegaphobia: media eats veganism

VegophobiaVegans. Are they faddists? Sentimentalists? Or vitriolic extremists? According to a recent study, the UK media would have us believe all three, writes Tiffany Lowana.

11 June 2011

‘Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newsapapers’ is at once an arresting and insistent read. In a first of its kind report, researchers Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan canvass the discourses of veganism in UK national newspapers in 2007.

What they find is unhinging.

Not only do they realise that these newspapers reflect an insidious societal norm of speciesism, but that the media is the very machine feeding this norm.

What’s most disquieting about this? The media is maligning the experience of veganism. Vegans are variously moulded into kooky, tree-hugging ‘health freaks’ or hysterical, misinformed cult members.

The media’s relentless derogatory narrative of veganism whites out the impassioned reason most vegans become vegan: for nonhuman animals’ rights; to absolutely throttle speciesism.

The method

LexisNexis – an online archive of text from printed sources – was used to search all UK national newspapers for the words ‘vegan’, ‘vegans’ and ‘veganism’ for the full 2007 year. A deft way to eliminate manual glitches, the only drawbacks were that visual images of vegans and veganism fell through the sieve, as did implicit references.

The results

Cole and Morgan found 397 articles in which one or more of the keywords were used. Once articles were collated and thoroughly read, they were divided into three headings: ‘positive’, ‘neutral’ and ‘negative’. Of these articles, 22, or 5.5% were categorized as ‘positive’; 80, or 20.2% were categorized as ‘neutral’; 295, or 74.3%, were categorized as ‘negative’.

74.3%. These negative dialogues – in order of frequency of occurrence – were: ridiculing veganism; characterising veganism as asceticism; asserting that veganism is difficult or impossible to sustain; describing veganism as a fad; portraying vegans as oversensitive; characterising vegans as hostile.

Ridiculing veganism

These articles were many and varied. There were several examples when veganism sat side by side with other cultural oddities that were presented as completely absurd. One conspicuous example from a Guardian story about the web:

Among the bizarre personal lists of UFO sightings and vegan-friendly cafes…(The Guardian: The Guide 13 January 2007:31)

Others have veganism rubbing shoulders with the language of human oppression.

Take this homophobic excerpt on ‘council tax snoopers’:

…they will leave my home thinking I am a Devil-worshipping vegan naturist, hopelessly gay, with a much-kissed photo of John Prescott by my bed. (Mail on Sunday 18 March 2007:80)

In the face of such cavernous ridicule, animal rights – what makes veganism pulse – is lost. It is much harder to ridicule the uncomfortable black truth of slaughterhouses and factory farms, than it is to ridicule the ‘quirky’ health ramblings of vegans.

Characterising veganism as asceticism

‘Strict vegan’. ‘Staunch vegan’. ‘Fervent vegan’. Cole and Morgan found analogous prefixing in many articles, reminding readers of what extraordinary will and sacrifice is needed to become a vegan.

Such delineation ignores research that vegans aesthetically prefer their plant-based diets and find it no hassle at all. (P. Rozin, M.Markwith and C. Stoess, Psychological Science 8, 1997:67-73)

Forget about vegans flashing hedonism. Or rather, when they do, it’s followed by exclamation or disbelief:

No matter how rock’n’roll you become, how f***ed up you get, people still think you are Buddhist vegans. (The Times: The Knowledge 3 February 2007:28)

This asceticism fortifies the normality of the meat-eating reader’s diet. These robust, ‘healthy’ readers are reassured they are nothing like vegans: ‘scrawny hippies…vegan bones’. (The Daily Telegraph: Art 2007:16)

Describing veganism as difficult or impossible to sustain

Typically, vegan food is presented as a tamed – sometimes unpalatable – alternative. Even when admitting to the richness and colour to be found in vegan food, journalists still persisted to the contrary:

Suitable for vegans – though you’d never guess it from the taste. (The Guardian: G2 6 April 2007:23)

As such, there is a pervading tone of pity for vegans:

The Labour MSP admits to supporting Kilmarnock FC, but she can’t have a pie at Rugby Park because she is a vegan. (Daily Mail 26 February 2007:13)

Nonhuman animal flesh and their bodily secretions, on the other hand, are presented as unquestionably enticing:

She loves cheese too much to become a vegan. (Daily Mail: Weekend 24 March 2007:49)

And a more grandiose spectacle of speciesism:

If the choice is between swapping a balanced diet of food stuffs I can get at my local supermarket, for a faddish, fanatical diet cult (veganism, as promoted in the book Skinny Bitch), I’d rather be a fat pig. (Daily Mail 24 May 2007:57)

Finally, there’s the inference that if celebrity vegans cannot stick to veganism, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Liv Tyler went vegan for love when she met Joaquin Phoenix, but returned to beef when the relationship went sour. (The Observer Food Monthly 2007b:27)

There is a message simmering close to the surface in these articles. It goes something like this: don’t even bother trying to go vegan and certainly don’t feel guilty for doing so. Any attempt you make is bound to fail.

Describing veganism as a fad

The vegan faddist pin-up girl for 2007 was Gwyneth Paltrow. Not only is her veganism reduced to a ‘lifestyle’ choice, she also provided fuel for yet another stereotype: the hypocritical vegan:

One wonders whether strict vegan Gwynnie has thought this madcap foodie adventure through. Although she insists: ‘I won’t be eating meat on this trip – I’ll get by on fish and rice’. (Sunday Express 2007:13)

The newspapers crowned Heather Mills the other quintessential vegan faddist. She is accused of becoming a vegan purely out of jealousy:

Why can’t Heather Mills see that she will not endear herself to the public by copying Paul McCartney’s former wife Linda by going vegan and producing beauty products to rival former step-daughter Stella? (Sunday Mirror 14 January 2007:43)

It is not surprising that the vegans attacked for faddism in these articles are women. Cole and Morgan neatly explain, ‘Faddism is frequently associated with women’s subculture as a trivialization strategy’.

Characterising vegans as oversensitive

The thin-skinned vegan: too sentimental and too emotional to deal with biting cold reality. These vegan ‘animal lovers’ are portrayed as too delicate to confront animal predation and the ‘naturalness’ of eating nonhuman animal flesh:

looks about as comfortable as a vegan in an abattoir. (The Guardian: Sport 2007:20)


They will spit him out like veal at a vegan dinner party. (The Sunday Times: Culture 10 June 2007:14)

Once again, anti-speciesism does not even make it onto the page. Veganism is belittled as blind-folded frailty, while meat-eating is lauded as brawny realism. The readers are told that only humans who eat nonhuman animals are shining examples of those who aren’t ‘too sensitive’.

Sexism is also at play here. The media’s prey is usually female – extensive research shows that vegans are approximately twice as likely to be female as male. (Cole and Stewart 2010).

The gendered stereotype of the irrational woman precedes the tacit ‘oversensitivity’ argument. Cole and Morgan maintain, “Objecting to violence against other animals gives ‘evidence’ of women’s irrationality. They are therefore unsuited to rational debate on human relationships with other animals…and should be excluded from such debates”.

Characterising vegans as hostile

Vacillating from the ‘outspoken vegan’ (The Sun ‘A ‘Joint’ Project, 14 May 2007) to the spectacular ‘vegan terrorists’, (The Times 21 July 2007:12) snapshots of the hostile vegan were still rare.

The stellar example of vegan hostility in 2007 was quite atypical. An unsettling number of newspapers gave lacerating reports on the trial of ‘vegan parents’ for the murder of their baby in the US. ‘Vegan Killers’; (The Sun 2007d) ‘Vegan diet kills baby’; (The Mirror 2007c:23) ‘Strict vegans guilty of murder’. (The Times 2007c:43) All this, regardless of the prosecutor’s enunciation that “the child died because he was not fed. The vegan diet is fine”. (The Guardian 2007b:17)

Why is the hostile vegan rhetoric so quiet? The derogatory discourses of veganism as a whole serve one overarching purpose: to smother anti-speciesism, to breathe some words of relief into the hearts of meat-eaters: “It’s okay. You are guilt-free”.

Neutral and positive discourses

The ‘neutral’ articles were almost entirely examples of (mostly travel) products and services indulging the needs of vegans. For instance:

Like most places in Cuba, it is not ideal for vegans, considering most dishes contain meat (usually pork), but Liz is a vegetarian and she coped okay. (The People 2007a:44).

These apparently well-intentioned pieces to help the vegan traveller navigate unknown territories are somewhat deceptive. By singling out vegans, stressing they must usually be catered for, the idea that veganism is difficult is only reinforced.

Another snowball effect of neutral discourse is that the reader is implicitly told – once again – that veganism is a ‘lifestyle’ or consumer choice. This is particularly the case when ‘vegan foods’ are advertised alongside meat:

Bestsellers include the Beet Burger (Cornish beefburger with beetroot, watercress and horseradish and roast garlic mayo) or the vegan Sunflower Burger (ginger, coriander and chilli tofu burger with tahini sauce, sweet roast peppers and salad sprouts). (The Sunday Times 2007a:33)

As for positive discourses? Even in this smattering of articles, anti-speciesism hardly gets a mention. There was a single lengthy report vindicating veganism. However, this report on Edward Batha’s ‘challenge’ to ‘live vegan for a month’ was markedly weakened by his cavalier assertion, ‘I’m a devoted carnivore’. His pledge to veto meat and dairy was followed by statements revealing his own and others’ vegaphobic bias:

My decision to go vegan elicited a variety of responses, but not one was enthusiastic. Meat-eaters thought it was ludicrous, even vegetarians weren’t convinced it was possible, and one person told me he’d rather eat his arm. With ill-disguised glee they ran through lists of things I wouldn’t be able to eat. The doctor was deeply sceptical…and said he wouldn’t recommend veganism as the body needed meat to function. (Daily Mail 2007b:38)

Batha ends his vegan stint with an anti-climactic, ‘It’s not so bad, this vegan thing’.

An uneasy conclusion

Media: potential mirror, monster, martyr. Truth-teller.

Cole and Morgan remind us of its power:

In terms of broader societal dispositions against veganism, the mass media are arguably of far greater significance than academia in that they represent a key site of contestation for the meaning of veganism. There is probably no other discursive practice, besides everyday conversation, that is engaged in so frequently and by so many people as news in the press and on the television.

Vegaphobic discourse normalises the concept that animals are ours to silence, imprison, torture, wear and eat. The zealous effort to tear down veganism lends credibility to Brian Lukes’ view that human violence towards nonhuman animals actually disturbs most humans. (B. Lukes, ‘Justice, Caring and Animal Liberation’ in J. Donovan and C.J. Adams (eds) The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics 2007)

Since the majority of journalists (and the general population) are not vegan, animal rights activists always need to be looking for new ways to up the ante for animal liberation.

Cole and Morgan suggest vegan academics and NGOs approach newspaper editors and journalists as ‘experts’ on veganism.

To simply stand by and watch mainstream media run rampant with vegan stereotypes, is nothing short of dangerous.

Tiffany Lowana is associate editor at The Scavenger.


+1 #10 Pablo 2011-06-30 12:21
Let's put it simple: The media reflect corporate interest in not allowing alternatives for animal use. People are induced to believe there's no alternative to using animals.
+1 #9 Susannah Waters 2011-06-20 20:09
@Chantal - I totally agree with this: "I think the bigger issue is that veganism makes people feel uncomfortable about their own choices and they immediately become defensive, or on the attack, in an effort to avoid self-confrontat ion. To be honest, I'm a bit sick of meat-eaters trying to preach to me, rather than the other way around, which is how they see it".
Being a vegan, in itself, often causes people to go straight on the offensive with me. That pretty much then forces me straight onto the defensive. It is frustrating. I think this is a common situation for vegans. And when this happens, we are often deemed "self-righteous ". The amount of times I have heard the term "self-righteous vegan"! I know several vegans, and I wouldn't characterise them like that at all.
However, I have had many interactions with people who eat meat who tell me that what I am doing (& have been doing for 15 years) is irresponsible, ill-conceived, and plain stupid. I find that a very self-righteous attitude. Many of these people have never even bothered to do any research into nutrition and are too scared to watch footage from factory farms because they are content living in denial.
Just keep doing what you are doing, be confident in the choices you've made - with time, all the arguments and interactions with people just make you stronger! And it really builds up your ability to deal with these situations more effectively when they arise. :-)

@Tiffany - fantastic article!
0 #8 Andre Correia 2011-06-20 13:02
The fact they ridicule veganism is a very good sign.
1 - Ridicule
2 - Violent opposition
3 - Acceptance
+2 #7 Chantal Teague 2011-06-18 04:06
Thank you for an intelligent and well researched article. As a new vegan, I've been really affronted by people's reactions towards what is essentially my own personal choice for my own personal reasons. When I became vegetarian, many people didn't give it much thought or justified my actions by putting words in my mouth, 'oh, so you still eat chicken then?' However, going vegan has really shown such a rigid hostility against my decision. Many people will look at me aghast, so you don't eat 'honey?' How can anyone not eat honey? That's ridiculous! They also make the claim that I'm trying to influence their own choices by simply stating that I'm vegan. I'm not sure where the hidden message is in the statement 'oh I'm vegan', but they seem to hear the words 'you are evil and I despise you, now change and join my revolution', but apparently they all think its there. It's actually like I've got a disease or have joined a cult or something. When in fact, I decided not to eat dairy because I didn't like being a hypocrite with can I cry when I see a cow get slaughtered, and then drink milk? It was a choice I made because of the way I respond towards animal cruelty. I'm not saying that everyone should or must do what I'm doing, but somehow people take offence at a decision I made to cause no harm to others. This really is such a negative situation. I was at the Ban Live Exports rally today and there were a few vegan posters. Fair enough...they are animal lovers, after all. And this woman turned to me and said "I think its appalling that they are here. Do they have some kind of hidden agenda?" I was so shocked at this statement, I myself being a newly turned vegan found myself in quite an important position and simply said "Well, I'm a vegan and I'm not here to tell you to not eat meat. I'm here because as a vegan, I really care about animals and I'm pretty sure that is why you are here too. I have no hidden agenda, I just want animal cruelty to stop and so do these people. Just focus on your reasons for supporting a ban on live cruelty and let other people join you." At other times people will say 'we can't go there, you can't eat anything'. It's really not like that either. I find veganism pretty simple. I don't need to go into a paddock and start eating grass because I can't eat anything else. Yes, I put a bit more thought into my meals than I used to but I usually have tried to avoid fast food, factory produced food any way, so veganism isn't that much of a big deal. I completely agree that this stigma is heavily ingrained in our society and does not at all reflect the reality of veganism. I also get offended when friends say things like 'she hates me because my family are farmers'. Hardly. Remember, this is my choice. I don't expect everyone to be a vegan. I just couldn't eat meat or dairy myself anymore. I'm certainly not about to go and hate all my friends because they eat meat. I think the bigger issue is that veganism makes people feel uncomfortable about their own choices and they immediately become defensive, or on the attack, in an effort to avoid self-confrontat ion. To be honest, I'm a bit sick of meat-eaters trying to preach to me, rather than the other way around, which is how they see it.
0 #6 cpvegan 2011-06-17 13:26
Great article, thank you for the research. As a vegetarian for 35 years and now vegan for 3 1/2, I'm impressed, almost on a daily basis, with sightings of numerous vegan references. Can be on television, radio, papers, and movies. Even the founder of Facebook has got himself and others thinking about the taking of innocent lives to fulfill a lust for taste. The message though should be, that to avoid the abuse and suffering inherent in the production of body parts, don't let someone else do your dirty work. Since we humans don't need the rotting flesh offered to us in ads and behind counters and in fast food chains, we shouldn't even have the slaughtering done at all! We don't need these "meats" for good health. We have no valid rationalization to justify even doing it ourselves.Peopl e who eat meat do it ,not because they need to, but because they choose to.
0 #5 Lil 2011-06-16 05:02
Tiffany - you rock ;-)
0 #4 Adey 2011-06-14 12:40
The day I start caring about what the Daily Fail, Torygraph or the retards at the Guardian think...
-3 #3 Bob 2011-06-14 07:49
"...reflect an insidious societal norm of speciesism..."? Maybe if you didn't sound like a failing anthropology student at a crummy uni, people might be inclined to take you more seriously
0 #2 Jen Gaiavegan 2011-06-13 08:35
This article would be amusing if it wasn't so least the points raised concerning the stance Media takes 'against' veganism. I find comfort in the 3 stages of Truth: Ridicule-Violen t Opposition- Acceptance and so wait patiently for mainstream journalism and the general public to catch on and catch up. In the meantime as Vegans we need to perhaps bear in mind The Four Agreements: Be impeccable with your Word-Don't Take Things Personally-Don' t Make Assumptions-Do your Best...:-)
+1 #1 VivKay 2011-06-11 17:22
People feel confronted and quietly at unease around vegans especially because they like to feel that their meat/dairy diets are essential. Having healthy people around who don't consume these main menu items is confronting. Some people have deep seated discomfort about the use of animals for exploitation and slaughter because they are deep down animal lovers. Their consciousnesses are sealed by long years of obliteration and justificiation. Commercial diets are forced onto us by supermarkets, traditions, peer pressure and restaurants. Being alternative, and actually enjoying the tasty, healthy and creative food of vegans is counter-culture , but really not that hard to follow. People today are loath to actually cook. This is part of the problem.

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