The meaning of meat

When I was a kid, I’d watch my Dad eat salami. He’d skin it like a banana and eat the whole thing for afternoon tea. I’d watch him eat steak. He’d always get the biggest, with hot mustard and all the fat left on. I’d watch him drink gravy straight out of the plate. And then, when I was a teenager I, like so many other melancholy left-wing girls with Daddy issues and bisexual tendencies, became a vegetarian. I was a complete hard arse about it. I researched all the types of supermarket crackers to find out which had animal lard in them. I made my friends go to Hungry Jack’s not McDonalds, because their fries were made with vegetable oil, not animal fat. I refused to eat any cheese with animal rennet in it: it’s made with a piece of little sheep’s stomach, you know. I went off marshmallows (gelatine!). I cooked dhal while listening to The Smiths. This beautiful creature must die / a death with no reason / and death with no reason is murder. Then, after about four years, I ate some pastrami. And once my purity had been breached, I went nuts. Steak, bacon, sausages, hamburgers, lamb chops, and so many different sorts of deli meats. And then in my twenties, I became a chef in a proper restaurant with fire and knives and shouting. I pulled apart chickens, and gutted squid and ate bacon sandwiches with hollandaise sauce for breakfast every day. I ate crocodile, wallaby, and as much confit duck as I could sneak home in my handbag.  And whenever I could afford it, I bought myself a man-sized steak, bigger than my father’s head, cooked it rare and ate the whole fucking thing. It tasted like liberation.

If you heart animals, don’t eat them, it says on every second Volvo driving past my front door in the inner north. This sticker strikes me as odd, because lots of meat eaters quite clearly heart animals, especially human animals. Because, y’know, we are animals. Animals that heart eating other animals, like so many animals do. The separation of humans from other animals, the insistence that we ourselves are not animals, is a key project of the patriarchy and humanism, something I’ve always assumed that Volvo driving vegetarians are against.

Why is it so bad to be an animal? Historically speaking, woman and other ‘inferiors’ are often cast as being merely animals, which is code for not being quite human. The rational white man was above all of that, and a part of the separation was the eating of meat in order to reinforce one’s masculinity and one’s concomitant mastery of nature. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes famously talked about eating steak which, he says, ‘is the heart of meat, it is meat in its pure state; and whoever partakes of it assimilates a bull-like strength. …  One can well imagine the ambrosia of the Ancients as this kind of heavy substance which dwindles under one’s teeth in such a way as to make one keenly aware at the same time of its original strength and of its aptitude to flow into the very blood of man’.

To eat meat is to engage in ‘primitive’ ‘natural’ behaviours, ones that we imagine being at the very heart of our evolution story. When man learnt to hunt, our evolution began, or so the story goes, making us smarter, faster and stronger, propelling us out of the animal kingdom and into the exclusive realm of humanity. It was men who did that, we are told, our proud hunters, and to eat meat is to reinforce and remind ourselves this particular history.

You can also see this relationship of meat to masculinity in newer food cultures. The lifestyling of food over the last twenty years or so has produced a distinctly gendered sense of cooking and eating. Women like Nigella Lawson, Karen Martini and Stephanie Alexander give us home cooking advice with mumsy charm or cleavage or both. On the other hand, the hyper-masculine British chef scene, that most famously vomited out Gordon Ramsey, is all offal and pigs’ heads and boning big wads of meat. American hard man Anthony Bourdain trekked around the world, eating weird foods, a thousand different animals turned into meat that he put in his mouth. Meat, this kind of cheffery proclaims, is hardcore. The meat such chefs consume is a world away from the polite shrink-wrapped white meat of the  supermarket, but it is also often a world far away from empathy too. It radiates some sort of douchebag machismo, where to feel another’s suffering is to be weak.

Meat is also associated with many conservative, heirarchical patriarchal structurings of society. Nationalism, certainly, where the British are roast beef, and we Australians put a variety of dead things on our barbecue and the Greeks spit roast nice little lambs and the Americans inhale cheeseburgers. You can see a full-blown example of this nexus between nationalism, masculinity and meat in contemporary culture in Ron Swanson from the NBC comedy series Parks and Recreation. This character is a veritable semiotic cluster fuck of libertarianism and manliness and good old fashioned American-ness.

Swanson pyramid

The writers of Parks and Recreation were so nice as to put together a diagram that neatly sums up his relationship to meat. This is Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness, which is, he says,  ‘a perfectly calibrated recipe for maximum personal achievement’. Level six is made of entirely of meat, except for ‘Romantic Love’. Of the meats mentions here, cow, fish and pig protein are all the protein of industrialised food production. Deer protein comes from a wild animal, presumably, because Ron Swanson is a keen hunter, because he doesn’t seem to be the sort of guy to eat at fancy arse restaurants. The last sort of protein on that line is fish protein, which he places there with the caveat that fish protein is only acceptable if you catch it yourself. Otherwise, he says, ‘it’s practically a vegetable’. Ron Swanson likes to fish. He says, ‘It’s like yoga. It relaxes me. And I get to kill something.’

Ron Swanson’s beliefs are those of a classic American libertarian, intrinsically linked to a type of masculinity that is independent, competitive, American and fundamentally focused around the eating of meat. This is because Ron Swanson is a ‘top of the food chain’ kind of guy, and his daily consumption of meats of all sorts (though mainly  meats he himself did not kill) is an iteration of his world view. Nature is cruel, humans are cruel, and we need to continuously show the animals who is boss by eating them. Not that this will actually show them anything, because they’ll be dead.

This relationship between masculinity and meat is also reflected in mainstream industrial pornography’s repeated depiction of women as meat. It is well documented in Carol Adams’ book The Pornography of Meat, where she shows a cascade of images and recounts multiple stories that reveal the link between the female body and meat in the modern sexual imagination. Her argument about this goes a little something like this: pornography both treats women like animals and like objects. To make something into meat is to ‘thingify’ it, to turn it from a subject into an object. Hence the continued depiction of women as meat, as ‘thingified’ animals. We know this on an everyday level. We say, ‘He treated me like meat’ when we feel sexually exploited by someone. This means he used us for sex, for our deliciousness, ignored our subjectivity, treated us disposably, and ‘thingified’ us.

So what happens when women get liberated? You may remember the meat council ads from the early 90s, which showed a pathetic lineup of whinging women with dingy spiral perms, who diagnosed themselves as overworked victims of a noxious mix of patriarchy and capitalism, as managers of complex webs of time, emotional responsibilities and financial burdens. The ad told them were wrong, that they were probably just iron deficient, and red meat would help them ‘man up’ and get on with the job. The transfer of patriarchal power was facilitated through the power to eat meat. If you didn’t want to be the meat, you needed to eat the meat.

This ad was also obviously played into the bifurcation of feminism, where on one side stands the sandal-wearing vegetarian feminists who are probably lesbians too and in a co-op of some sort, and on the other side, hard bodied flat haired power-dressers who cougared their way through the corporate scene and are happy to eat meat with the boys. This split speaks of two quite distinct ways of understanding how the post-feminist world should work: one with a continuation of the patriarchal hierarchies, except with less patriarchs in them; the other suggesting a radical deconstruction of such hierarchies. We could, however, also think of the vegetarianism aligned with the second type of feminism as reinforcing the idea that we humans are better than animals, because we can choose not to eat meat, unlike our omnivorous animal relations. We are ‘better than animals’, a phrase that I’ve always thought shows too little regard for non-human animal’s behaviours.

The symbolic power of meat that has led its democratisation, becoming omnipresent through industrial meat production. Now anyone can have their chunk of the dead and imbue themselves with its magic. It is the feeling of the hunt without the hunt. This way of making meat disappears the animal and foregrounds the sign.  After all, your average Australian citizen, unlike Ron Swanson, has probably never killed an animal for meat or for mercy. They almost certainly  did not kill the meat they are eating. It was not a wild animal with which they engaged in tactical combat. Most have probably never even handled a whole dead carcass.

Real men eat meat, we’re told. This saying is then countered with revisionist versions: real men eat quiche, real men eat plants and, of course, real women eat meat. But maybe no-one really cares about what is really real these days, when are all engaged in free floating exchange of signs and symbols (especially those that give us a feeling of ‘realness’), and so are eating meat in order to absorb its power as a sign of masculinity and human domination over nature.

However speciesist it may sound, I’m pretty sure that the animals in the feed lots and the abattoirs waiting to become meat remain stuck in the violent, deadly real.


Helen Addison-Smith

Helen Addison-Smith has been previously published in journals such as Island, Hecate and refo, and was featured in Overland's first e-book Women's Work. She's a reformed chef and a persistent single mother.

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