After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Identify common rhetorical strategies used to construct narratives of moral consumption.
- Trace the complex relationship between mainstream veganism and discourses of white femininity using the skill of close-reading.
- Situate analyses of food media within enduring and overlapping systems of power.
Vegan options are more widely available than they once were in places like North America and Europe. With more vegan cookbooks, Netflix documentaries, fitness blogs, and meat alternatives in fast-food restaurants and grocery store deli sections, it would seem as though veganism has captured mainstream attention.
That said, the cultural politics and culinary roots of vegan foods are more complex than this popularity signals. For one, vegetable-based diets are much more than a trend; some branches of Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have practiced forms of ethical vegetarianism and veganism for thousands of years. In addition, vegan practices rooted in equity and anti-oppression, such as those taken up by intersectional feminists, activists, and scholars have gained traction on social media. Yet most often, voices in the food media align vegan practices of non-violence, as well as the core ingredients in plant-based protein alternatives—like fermented soy, garbanzo beans, and quinoa—to the work of white bakers, chefs, cookbook writers, recipe developers, and other personalities. In addition to erasing culinary histories, popular vegan promotion also perpetuates notions of purity and restraint. Online platforms that claim to concern themselves with topics that are “important to women,” such as Canada’s integrated media brand, Chatelaine, and Gwenyth Paltrow’s modern lifestyle brand, Goop, have ever-growing banks of vegan recipes composed by white wellness ‘experts’. These recipes are often described using morally suggestive language like “good,” “healthy,” and “cleaned-up,” implying a virtuous element to consumption, one that is deeply gendered and heavily informed by whiteness and diet culture.
In the history of mainstream vegetarianism and veganism, an appeal to morality—particularly one that prioritizes the interests and experiences of women who are white, cis, straight, slim, and able-bodied—is not new. During the Victorian era, vivisection was protested and vegetable-based diets were championed by financially and socially secure, white English women who saw certain kinds of cruelty as morally reprehensible. In demonstrating a more public expression of white femininity, early expressions of mainstream vegetarianism and veganism not only outlined the values of an emerging white middle class, but also participated in defining, on the one hand, socially acceptable forms of violence (which included violence against women of colour) and, on the other hand, unacceptable forms of violence (such as violence against animals).
One problem that continues in the promotion of veganism today is that it centers the experiences and interests of white women in defining “virtuous” eating. This definition is inflexible, as it does not account for all of the cultural, economical, ecological, and geographical complexities that inform people’s food choices. Because of the ways veganism and morality have been aligned in complicated ways, vegan food media offers a rich site to study how language shapes, reflects, and produces ideas about food and morality.
This chapter explores how the language of morality tries to place mainstream veganism within a neat politics of consumption without critically examining how it is implicated in violent systems. By examining two examples of vegan food media, I explore how the language of morality operates as a pervading rhetorical strategy that takes away from the transformative possibilities of vegan practices. I have employed the literary method of close reading to locate and problematize the language of morality in mainstream vegan narratives. Close reading requires deep and sustained attention to how words are used and what those words connote and/or evoke. By using this method, I locate a pattern in the ways in which vegan practices are communicated in popular culture examples, and explain how this pattern interacts with race and gender in the space of food.
Morality and Race
PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is probably the most controversial voice on veganism. Founded by Ingrid Newkirk in 1980, PETA has historically catered to white-middle class ideals and sentimentalities. On the one hand, PETA demonstrates outrage against the animal-related cultural practices of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. On the other, they continuously appropriate vegetable-based recipes from these communities in order to promote an abundance of healthy veggie options on their website and other platforms.
In May of 2020, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, PETA held an investigation on the status of wet markets in Asia. This investigation was titled “Filthy ‘Wet Markets’ Are Still Selling Scared Animals and Rotting Flesh Despite Mounting COVID-19 Death Toll.” (The tagline on the PETA website goes on to say, “It’s bloody, filthy environments like these in which zoonotic diseases originate.”) In the investigation, PETA relied heavily on racializing morality to promote veganism and posited that wet markets in Asia are a locus for disease. However, the investigation did not address the importance of wet markets in urban spaces, where access to fresh foods is limited; nor did it account for any religious, cultural, geographic, or economic variances that inform people’s food access and food decisions. After all, not everyone has equal access to food, and not everyone eats the same foods for the same reasons.
In contrast to publications like Chatelaine and Goop, which use words like “clean” and “pure” to describe vegan recipes, PETA uses words like “bloody,” “filthy,” and “rotting” to illustrate wet markets in Asia. What does this kind of language imply about the people who acquire or sell fresh food there? By excluding important context, such as the existence of wet markets in North America and Europe, PETA’s language highlights the racial biases and binaries embedded in the organization’s mainstream messaging.
Branding Veganism with Kindness and Love
In the age of social media, brands have gone online to participate in cultural activities and social movements. Language plays an important role in how brands position themselves in these spaces. Sometimes the sentiments expressed on social media are extensions of an organization’s commitments to social justice. Other times, these sentiments overemphasize a brand’s advocacy work by deploying culturally and emotionally charged words. Words like “consciousness,” “love,” and “kindness” are particularly popular in the branding of vegan businesses as they work to sell veganism as an entirely virtuous form of consumption.
This kind of morally coded language was mobilized at large after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. At this time, many businesses flooded social media with statements about their brand’s commitment to ending racial violence. However, many did not take responsibility for their racist business practices, nor were they transparent about the steps they would take going forward. One example of how this played out in the vegan community was with two cookbook authors and vegan bakery owners. These two white women posted a response to anti-Black racism that claimed to “welcome an open dialogue of kindness, love and support” on Instagram. Shortly after the post went live, Black women spoke out, stating that their questions and criticisms of the brand were being deleted from the comment section of the post.
As the post gained more attention, the owners disabled the comments entirely, hiding the initial concerns from view. They then posted two follow-up apologies that were accompanied by graphics reading “With love” and “We are built for love,” but refused to re-open the comment section. In these posts, the owners used the business’s branding as evidence of their innocence; they claimed that their vegan business had always been a place of “love” and “inclusivity,” for people and for animals. By erasing the words of Black women, the business owners re-centered their virtue narrative, using morality and animal-rights as the anchor. Comments and articles that were posted in defence of the owners similarly evoked these ideas to cast the women as victims of an angry and mean-spirited digital mob. The concerns of Black women were transformed into a narrative about white women’s virtues.
Although it is deployed differently in each observation, the language of morality in mainstream vegan discourse serves to persuade readers or customers to think or feel a certain way, not only about their food, but also about the brands they support. By paying close attention to the language of mainstream veganism, one can observe how words can reinforce violent structures of power. While vegan food writing and marketing may seem inconsequential in the face of issues like starvation, institutional racism, settler colonialism, and environmental degradation, there is much to unpack in terms of how appeals to morality enable people, institutions, and businesses to deny their complicity in violent systems on the basis of their food choices. These examples point to the ways in which food practices, and the people who partake in them, are represented in cultural conversations.
As a cultural practice, veganism certainly carries transformative possibilities. From destabilizing hierarchies between human and other-than-human animals to increasing the availability and affordability of culturally specific foods in the diaspora, to reducing the environmental impact of the food system, veganism (or plant-based eating more broadly) is rich to think with. There is a lot of exciting and collaborative work happening in the space of vegan food. However, the transformative potential of these kinds of shifts are limited by the ways that mainstream veganism, as a practice and a cultural text, continues to perpetuate narratives about eating that frame some people’s diets and cultural practices as more virtuous than others. At the same time, these same narratives ignore big factors that shape people’s food choices, including geographic location, cultural and religious practices, and structural barriers within the food system. Paying close and careful attention to the narrative of mainstream veganism is one place to begin reframing conversations about food to address topics of access and equity.
- Why do you think the topic of morality plays such a critical role in conversations about veganism?
- How do food media and popular culture shape the way we talk about food? How might this reflect and/or enforce systemic barriers to food access?
- What would a more inclusive veganism look like? How can vegans not perpetuate some of the problems examined above regarding race and gender?
Cooke, S. 2021. “Learning to Unlearn with Dr. Emily Contois,” May 7.
Harper, B. 2016. Sistah Vegan – Anti-oppression, food justice & veganism, January 27.
King, M.T., and W. Jia-Chen Fu. 2021. “Rumor, Chinese Diets, and COVID-19: Questions and Answers about Chinese Food and Eating Habits.” Meant to Be Eaten. Heritage Radio One. Accessed May 12.
McGregor, H. 2020. “Episode 3.17 On Veganism.” Secret Feminist Agenda, January 29.
Satterfield, S., A. Kennedy, Y. Narayanan, Y. Batista. 2020. “Episode 29 The Morality of Meat.” Point of Origin, produced by Whetstone Media (podcast), November 18.
PETA. 2020 . “‘Wet Markets’ Still Killing Despite COVID-19.” PETA Exposés and Undercover Investigations (blog). Accessed January 19, 2022.
- PETA 2020. ↵