In the ancient Greek mythological text, Theogony, Hesiod narrates the coming of Gods into the universe that was originally in a state of chaos. Within this chaos comes a series of stable, analogous, mutually constitutive antitheses. These antitheses — night vs. day, human vs. divine and disorder vs. order (to name a few) can be viewed through the primary antithesis, female vs. male. This is due to the obsessive attention ancient Greek thought pays to gender. Gender basically determines the entirety of the cosmos.
Other antitheses, such as passion vs. reason, soft vs. hard and dark vs. light easily align with the female vs. male antithesis. This almost instinctual assigning of qualities to gender begs us to question how we think about female and male and why we think that way.
Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. What the hell does Greek mythology and its specific attention to gender have to do with veganism? And why am I reading misogynistic ancient texts in my spare time? (answer: I’m not, it’s for a class).
Theogony is one of the first sources of male hegemony. The male Gods control and shape civilization whilst regarding women as evil; in fact there is no race of women until Zeus creates Pandora. This masculine dogma — encompassing power, reason, and dominance — offers a lens to explore the relationship between meat and masculinity.
The masculine idea that “you are what you are” (whereas femininity revolves around dressing up to become something) is embodied in this text, and has become part of our social dogma. However, men are not inherently controlling, aggressive and non-emotional. Men may feel that their gender is natural, but they actually perform masculinity as a script given to them by society. This idea of performativity is important because it limits who you can be.
Statistically, there are more vegan women than vegan men. Big surprise. There is an unrelenting amount of social pressure on men to obtain optimum physical musculature (take a look at Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron if you’re ready to witness the horrors of extreme masculinity). One of the most convenient ways to bulk up is to consume protein-packed meat. Not only is eating meat convenient, but it’s been ascribed to the dominant dogma. In other words, not eating meat puts a man’s machismo at steak — I mean stake.
The idea of homosociality, or performing masculinity for the approval and recognition of other men, plays a vital role in the continual performativity of masculinity. Just as Arnold Schwarzenegger flashes his “guns” to the scrawny men in the gym, men eat meat when they’re together. When was the last time you saw a group of buff guys chowing down on sofritas at Chipotle?
Homophobia and misogyny are main vectors through which heterosexual masculinity is secured and circulated. So, when a guy stops eating meat, his masculinity can become subordinate, and even questioned by his male friends who are desperately trying to secure their own masculinities. Thus, masculinity is structured through systems of reward and punishment. When a man cries, for instance, his tears can either be rewarded or punished; rewarded in somber situations such as when a family member passes away, and punished in situations where his sensitivity is deemed unmasculine, such as when he falls and scrapes his knee.
So how can we push against the dogma and remove male veganism from subordinate forms of masculinity? Unfortunately, the construction of masculinity can’t come undone on a daily basis, as it has created regularity and that regularity has instituted a sense of comfort. To push against this comfort is the only method for progress.
We need to make it socially acceptable for men to feel vulnerable, to freely project their emotions and to feel compassion for other people and sentient beings. Fighting against this social stigma will give both males and females a sense of empowerment, because all identities intersect. After all, gender is just a social construct.
I think that what the intertwined relationship between meat and masculinity comes down to is a complex system of oppression. Men are culturally reinforced to eat meat to free themselves from subordinate masculinity, but isn’t it ironic that by doing so, they’re losing power by abiding by this system? And if that’s countered by the argument that contributing to violence (toward animals and others) makes one powerful, what kind of society are we if that’s what we truly value?
Moral of the story: It’s cool to be compassionate, regardless of gender. We all could use a little more love and compassion in our lives towards ourselves, the animals and our undogmatic identities.
Tessa Nesis is a sophomore majoring in NGOs and social change. Her column, “The Sentient Bean,” runs on Thursdays.