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Cuddly vegan vs tantric porn star

Eamon Allan

Critics say the new People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advert normalises domestic violence against women.

‘Jessica suffers from BWVAKTBOOM,” the voiceover in the new People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) ad, released online on Valentine’s Day, tells us. We see her walking down the street in a neck brace, looking dishevelled and insecure and carrying a clear plastic bag of vegetables.

“It stands for ‘Boyfriend Went Vegan and Knocked the Bottom Out of Me’,” we are told as the camera is directed up and between her legs as she hobbles up the stairs. “A painful condition that occurs when boyfriends go vegan and can suddenly bring it like a tantric porn star.”

If there is still any doubt as to what this means, there is a flashback shot of Jessica, hands flattened on the bedroom wall, looking back in awe, presumably at Boyfriend, who is out of shot.

Now inside the apartment, Jessica takes off her coat; she’s wearing only mismatched bra and panties. “Oh, you’re back,” says Boyfriend. “Are you feeling better?” He’s wearing checked boxers and glasses and is plastering a hole above the bed that shows what he’s capable of.

“Please go to BWVAKTBOOM.com and learn how to go vegan safely,” the voice¬≠over says, as Jessica capitulates, smiles and throws vegetables at Boyfriend.

The website has a link showing men how veganism will result in “a dramatic increase in their wang power and sexual stamina”.

This week I listened to a radio show on which the DJ was discussing Rihanna being back in the recording studio with Chris Brown, who had pleaded guilty to assaulting the star, then his girlfriend, in a highly publicised 2009 trial. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and six months’ community service. Fellow DJs and callers became very heated in the discussion of the implications of this development in terms of Rihanna being a role model for women.

But the implications of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advert, in my opinion, are more serious.

You could argue that the advert isn’t talking about abuse—it’s about Boyfriend getting frisky after becoming a vegan. Sure. Jessica may not actually be abused, but she is displaying the behaviour of abuse—with her hobbling and lack of self-confidence.

The voiceover and public-announcement style of the advert link it with abuse because we see these scenarios in adverts and movies showing abuse. The use of an acronym in itself suggests some kind of medical abbreviation for an affliction.

Even their underwear reflects unequal power roles. She has pink panties with yellow hearts (riding up on one side like a child’s) and flowers on her bra. He has checked boxer shorts—the kind you see sticking out of a gangster’s sagging jeans.

Boyfriend in the advert is not Chris Brown the spousal abuser—he is a cuddly vegan who wears glasses. But he is acting like a remorseful “I’m sorry honey, I’ll never do it again” wife-beater.

Jessica is acting like an abused woman too. She looks downtrodden and anxious in the first part of the ad, then resentful when she enters the apartment and sees Boyfriend, and finally forbearing and even a little admiring as she playfully throws the bag of vegetables at him.

Please don’t accuse me of not getting the joke. Obviously, attributing voraciousness to vegans—traditionally seen as bland health freaks or whimpering hippies—is funny. But not when teamed with physical and/or sexual abuse. The ad is damaging precisely because it is going as lighthearted. It is normalising abuse.

The company advertising Huggies nappies was criticised in 2009 for showing a baby coquettishly pulling down a nappy on one side and looking at the camera.

One possible defence was that well-adjusted “normal” people would not feel compelled by the ad to become paedophiles. Unfortunately, our society does include people who are not “normal”.

Anyway, showing a toddler behaving in this sexualised way on a public billboard and in magazine ads would show that our society deems this behaviour acceptable.

Likewise, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advert would not compel “normal” people to become domestic abusers, but it does imply that it is okay to behave in this way.

Who is the organisation targeting with this advert? Men who want to become vegans but are afraid that they will be emasculated? People who would like to improve the intensity of their sex lives through diet and not pharmaceuticals?

I don’t really see how this campaign could help their general aim to convert people to veganism. I wonder what audience reaction in general would be: amusement, confusion? From the organisation that brought us the practice of throwing red paint on fur coats at fashion shows, it might be easy to assume it is courting controversy. The plight of animals deserves to be highlighted, but parodying domestic violence is not a good way to achieve this.

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