Veganism is a fringe ethical movement. This means that the mainstream media is going to treat it as wrong headed. It’s interesting though to see if different sections of the media treat Veganism differently. Let’s compare news media with fiction.
A study called “Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers” looked at all the references to vegans in the UK news media in 2007. Unsurprisingly, 74.3% of the coverage was negative, 20.2% was neutral, and only 5.5 % was positive. In order of frequency, the negative coverage included: ridicule, associating Veganism with Asceticism, portraying the diet as impossibly difficult or a fad, describing vegans as overly sentimental, or describing vegans as hostile.
Of these negative categories, I do feel the need to point out that associating Veganism with Asceticism is not wholly unfair. Firstly, while it is true that vegan cakes, pastries, muffins, pies, cupcakes, cheesecakes etc are easy to bake (and easy to buy if you know where), it does seem to me to be true that there are less culinary options available to a vegan. Furthermore, there are subcultures (such as the Straight Edge movement, and various spiritual movements) that embrace Veganism as part of an ascetic philosophy, e.g. no drugs, no booze, no smoking and no animal products. So whilst the mainstream media does massively exagerate the ascetic aspect of Veganism, it’s not without some truth.
Generally speaking though, this study shows a massive bias against vegans in news media — three quarters of the coverage is negative! Lets see how this compares with the representation of vegans in fiction.
For obvious reasons, there are not a huge amount of Vegan characters in Western fiction. Here is my fairly exhaustive list, with my own subjective interpretation of whether they are presented in a positive, neutral, or negative light.
- Amy Burley from True Blood. Rebelling against her parents. Into rock and roll lifestyle and drug abuse. Negative.
- Peggy and Newt from movie The Year of the Dog. Newt is a very ethical, celibate man. Positive (only just, though, as I feel male celibacy is viewed negatively in the West). Peggy is an ordinary woman who becomes vegan after the death of her dog. Positive (again, only just, as she is sympathetic but also a little mentally unstable).
- The Feegan family in South Park. They are obsessed with health to the point that it hinders their ability to enjoy themselves. They make their son wear a life-jacket at all times. Negative.
- The eponymous protagonist of the book Elizabeth Costello. A successful novelist who is intellectual, artsy, and a humanist. Always has controversial opinions. Positive. Others might say neutral…
- Farmery Buyer from the animated movie and TV series Barnyard. A jolly middle-aged farmer who is loved by his animals. Positive.
- Laurel from the New York Times Best Seller Wings. Laurel is a positive role model, but she is vegan for magical reasons rather than ethics or the environment. Neutral.
- Rachel from Glee. The episodes Funk and Duets confirm that she is vegan. She is the female lead. A strong and determined underdog who is a little neurotic. Positive.
- Erza Turner from the film Seven Pounds. He is portrayed as a good and patient blind man who deserves an organ transplant. Positive.
- Mary Powell from the book and film The Extra Man. Well meaning, wide-eyed and innocent. Works for charity. A little over the top. Positive.
- Sheldon Mopes from the film Death to Smoochy. Sincere and utterly ethical. Incorruptible and a perfect role model. Positive.
- Bronson in Veronia Mars. Attractive and likeable. The episode that introduces him can be interpreted as being somewhat against experimenting on monkeys. Positive.
- Layla from the film Sky High. A feminist, environmentalist and ethical girl. The love interest, and classic Hollywood ‘good girl’. Positive.
- Apu from The Simpsons. Vegan for religous reasons. Hardly ever mentioned. Is briefly portrayed as being judgmental of Lisa’s cheese eating. Neutral. Others might say positive…
- The waiter in the movie Grandma’s House. The protagonists make fun of him, but not in a spiteful way. Neutral.
- Kat from the book Out of Breath. This book has a strong environmental, and hence vegan, message. However it is not a well known book and I would class it as fringe media. Positive.
- Todd Ingram in Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Cleverly written so that he can be seen in a positive way by vegans (veganism gives him superpowers and makes him better than others) and negatively by non-vegans (better than others = smug). Neutral.
Of these portrayals, 58% are positive, 21% neutral and 21% negative. Obviously, the sample is too small to draw conclusions from with absolute certainty, but the contrast to news media is striking! It’s quite pleasing to see an area of the media that doesn’t bash us too much.
This difference may be because fiction is produced by creatives and artists, who are likely to have a greater propensity for empathy and divergent thinking, and are hence more likely to look on Veganism in a sympathetic light.
This makes sense looking at history. The arts have always leant towards progressive values – from Dickens’ arguments for Liberalism in A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, the sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality in early 20th Century plays such as The Children’s Hour, and the anti-war sentiment of 1960s pop music. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s just a reflection of the fact that successful artists are more likely to be empathetic divergent thinkers and, as studies have shown, empathy and divergent thinking are two of the key predictors of progressive values.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the animal rights movement is following the same pattern as earlier ethical movements, and over the last 15 years we’ve seen more and more animal rights themed characters in fiction. Just as contemporary works now contain plenty of gay characters, ethnic minority characters, disabled people and strong women, so I believe future artists will incorporate more and more animal rights themed characters. It will start with the arts, and eventually seep into news media. For vegans, the future is something to look forward to!