Thursday, March 13, 2008


How do you convince manly men to give up meat? With naked ladies, of course.

MACLEAN’S.CA - March 6, 2008


In late 2006, Johnny Diablo, a committed vegan of 23 years, opened a restaurant/bar in Portland, Ore., to prove that meatless fare could be delicious and satisfying - something guys could eat while they're hanging out and just being guys. But the venture flopped. "Even though Portland is known for being open-minded and liberal, I just could not get these guys to come in here to try the food," he says. "We do a very good job of making authentic-tasting, meat-style dishes - but in their heads, they were like, 'I can't go into a vegetarian place.' " So last month, after retooling both the space and the concept, Diablo reopened the doors, unveiling a devil-themed venue called Casa Diablo Gentlemen's Club - the world's first vegan strip club - where, as he told local media, "We put the meat on the pole, not on the plate."

Needless to say, at Casa Diablo, all of the food and drink, along with most of the dancers, are vegan. Also, dancers are prohibited from wearing stage costumes that are made from animal products (happily, there is vinyl). So far, this bait-and-switch tactic is working well on male patrons. "The girls get 'em in, then I get them to try the food with the free sampler plate," he says. After a few drinks, many of them, loosened up, gradually accept that vegan can be delicious and manly. Business is good. "We've got a lot of repeat customers," he says. "They're really happy, loving the food, loving the whole concept."

At first blush, Casa Diablo is just another example of simple, unimaginative "sex sells" marketing: slap a woman's naked body on something and watch the money roll in. But Diablo's carrot-and-stick vegetarianism pitch is actually part of a broader effort to overhaul vegetarianism's wimpy image and to break, once and for all, the historical ties that bind meat-eating and masculinity.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a pioneer in this effort, has been dangling Girls! Girls! Girls! as a reward for meat-free living for years. Its early campaigns featured such uber-babes as Pamela Anderson and Cindy Crawford, who said they would "rather go naked than wear fur." (Crawford, as an aside, went on to become the face of the fur brand Blackglama.) Over the years, PETA progressed to ever-racier approaches, like the "Sexiest Vegetarian Next Door" contest, and the spring-break inspired "Milk Gone Wild" campaign, which was banned from airing during the Super Bowl. A 30-second TV-spot released last fall, in which actress Alicia Silverstone emerges naked from a swimming pool, was also spiked by censors - then downloaded online in droves. Other recent ads have functioned as showcasing opportunities for a naked Eva Mendes and a corseted Dita Von Teese. Last week, PETA members outdid themselves in London's Covent Garden by getting a topless pregnant woman, caged and on all fours, to protest the treatment of pigs. As predicted, the press bit.

"The important thing to keep in mind," says PETA spokesperson Lindsay Rajt, "is that unlike our opposition, the wealthy meat industry, PETA has to rely on getting free advertising through media coverage of our campaigns and demonstrations. Experience has taught us that provocative and controversial campaigns make all the difference."

Indeed, PETA's nudie campaigns have proven effective in boosting click-through rates on its websites, where it posts actual information about animal suffering. Also, they're helping to rebrand vegetarianism - once considered a hippie-dippie fringe movement populated by women with excess body hair - as something cool that bombshell actress Sophie Monk would do. But not surprisingly, that has earned the ire of some feminist groups that resent the promotion of animal rights issues at the expense of women's issues. They say PETA is fighting the exploitation of one group by steamrolling another. "For me as a feminist, the means absolutely do not justify the ends," says Carol J. Adams, a feminist-vegetarian and the renowned author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, "because women are the means to somebody else's ends."

What PETA is shying away from admitting, its critics say, is that in order to convert a critical mass of people to vegetarianism, groups like PETA have learned that they have to distance themselves from feminism - even if it means subverting it. There is a deeply entrenched psychological connection between meat-eating and the male identity. "Our culture, especially in the United States, still invests a whole lot in the machismo of meat-eating," says Adams. Real men eat steak and potatoes. They hunt deer, barbecue ribs, carve turkeys. If animals rights groups are ever going to persuade male consumers to change their carnivorous ways, Adams says, they're going to have to reassure them first not only that vegetarianism is a healthy, viable and ethical choice, but also, crudely put, that vegetarianism isn't for pansies. Part of PETA's strategy is a new campaign featuring top athletes, including NFL tight end Tony Gonzales, Olympian Carl Lewis, and Ultimate Fighting champion Mac Danzig. But the best and most effective sell is still women. Naked ones.

Basically, as Adams sees it, the women in PETA's ads, like the strippers at Casa Diablo, are offering themselves up as sub-ins for meat. "One of the things about strip clubs is that they've always associated women's flesh and animal flesh," says Adams. "When I've talked to strippers and pole dancers, they've all said there's something really creepy about doing what they're doing and watching men eat these big hunks of steak."

Even creepier, Adams points out in her more recent book, The Pornography of Meat, is that in food advertising, meat has long stood in for women. "Meat advertisements often pose animals in conventional sexualized positions," she says. It's not uncommon to see a "rear shot" of a cow in lipstick, or an illustrated chicken, pulling up its feathers to reveal a delicious thigh. ("Are you a leg man or a breast man?" chicken ads from the '80s used to ask.)

"PETA is very sophisticated," says Adams. "They know what they're doing, but every time PETA uses female sexuality, it accomplishes two things: it reminds us of the kind of voice that women are allowed to have, which is their bodies. And it reminds us how difficult it is to see that animals are worthy of our care, because PETA can't even use animals themselves to represent their need to be liberated. And I would say, the reason people can't see domesticated animals as individuals is because they've been associated with femaleness."

PETA's standard response - somewhere between an eye-roll and a shrug - is to point out that women freely choose to participate in its campaigns, unlike the animals it's lobbying for, who don't get to choose their fate. "We feel that all people should be free to use their minds and bodies as political instruments to help those who have no voice," says Rajt.

In Los Angeles, an all-girl activist rock group called the Vegan Vixens is making good use of its instruments. Comprised of five women with centrefold bodies and fashion sense, the Vixens started out as an outreach group, speaking and performing at various functions with an aim to converting men to veganism. "I think there's nothing more masculine than a man who's sensitive to the animals and the environment," Vixens founder Sky Valencia told Maclean's.

Their songs, which they call "green music," include Real Men Don't Hunt and Fishnets, Oil Spill. (Sample lyric: Our bodies are hot / if you want to please me / change your habit of leather / it's just so damn easy.) They've appeared on The Howard Stern Show a number of times (if they didn't show their boobs, he'd threaten to spray a lethal substance onto mealworms), and they're regulars at the Playboy Mansion. "In between entertaining," says Valencia, "we'd kind of brainwash them about being vegan and say, 'Look how wonderful this lifestyle is!' " They have yet to convert Hef, she says, but he does seem to be adding more vegetarian options to his spreads. More recently, they launched a magazine-style TV show, and a cookbook - complete with pin-ups of themselves in organic bikinis - is imminent.

When the Vixens first launched five years ago, they received piles of angry letters from feminists who loathed their approach. But then, the tone began to change as letters started rolling in from women wondering how they keep their bodies so lean. "The sex appeal really helps out a lot because sex sells," says Valencia. "Whatever it takes to stop the abuse. And if it takes us in bikinis, that's not a big deal. We'll do it."

Johnny Diablo will do whatever it takes, too. No matter how many women have to doff their cruelty-free clothing at Casa Diablo. "Critics throw that word around a lot: exploitation. Let's look at it. How are we exploiting women?" he says. "Are we hacking off their limbs? Peeling their skin away? Putting them on a barbecue? What we're doing to animals is not exploitation; we're murdering them. It's not apples to apples. Critics like to connect it and I wholeheartedly disagree with the people who are in that camp. I call them Feminazis, and I say, 'Hey, we're Femilibertarians: do whatever you want, as long as you don't step on somebody else's hooves.' "

Far more pressing, he believes, is winning over as many people to vegetarianism and veganism as possible, starting with toughest converts: guys' guys. "You know, I'm a steak-and-potatoes man myself," he says. "I'm six foot two, 270 lb., a big-time athlete, but I just realized in my heart 23 years ago that I don't want to hurt any animals. When anybody, man or woman, when they actually see the information out there, and all the suffering, and how it's not good for your body anyway, it's not good for the earth, it's a win-win situation when you go this route." But a lot of guys, he says, are still afraid their friends might make fun of them if they found out they were going to a veggie restaurant. "It all starts with breaking down the fear. Any time someone eats in my place here, that means they didn't eat some poor creature someplace else. All I'm trying to do is save as many lives as possible and break down the myths in any way possible." Even if this means creating some unappetizing new myths on the way.

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