The Perpetuation of Unsustainable Development by the Patriarchal Conception of Animals and Women

Jinnie Liu

How Patriarchy Towards Animals, Which is Similar to Patriarchy Towards Women, Impedes Sustainable Development by Glorifying a Carnivorous Diet

Mmmh, a Bleeding Plant Burger?!
The Impossible Foods just invented a curious thing: the Impossible Burger. It is juicy, smells like beef, feels like meat, and tastes just like any other succulent burger.1 However, the Impossible Burger is entirely plant-based.

The inventor, a Silicon Valley startup, exists for the purpose of producing sustainable, plant-based foods.2 Initiatives like these are highly relevant for sustainable development, given the turn that the 21st century has taken. First, the infamous documentary Food, Inc.3 has shown us the inhumane industrial practices that pervade livestock production. We now know the ethical costs of sustaining our eating habits. Second, even if we ignore animal suffering and ship the thought onto another planet — a far, far away industrial production world invisible to us when we shop for our packaged meat — we can no longer deny that animal farming is unsustainable environmentally. According to the United Nations, livestock production needs roughly 30% of the world’s ice-free landmass and produces around 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions.4

Given these 21st century issues, innovators like the Impossible Foods are valuable because they can potentially revolutionize our diets for the better. Fortunately, such companies have already gathered much support. By 2015, venture capital firms and even Bill Gates have provided the Impossible Foods with 74 million dollars in funding.5

Nonetheless, despite the scientific success and the financial support from the enthusiastic business community, one tremendous obstacle remains for initiatives like the Impossible Foods: culture.6 In an article about plant food companies, the Economist remarked, “[E]ven if the scientific hurdles of making plants taste like meat and other animal-based products are overcome, the bigger obstacle these companies face may be cultural.”7 Likewise, in the same article, Patrick Brown, the Stanford University biochemist who founded the Impossible Foods, talks about gender preferences to explain why marketing plant-based foods to carnivores is difficult. His view is that “meat has a masculine bent to it”, and that one cannot “sell it the same way they sell lettuce”.

In essence, stereotypes, gender perceptions, and how these two shape our relations with animals are significant obstacles to overcome before society moves towards a meat-free lifestyle. Ultimately, these problems may all come down to one thing: patriarchal thinking. That is, the thinking that underlies both the way men relate to animals and the way men have historically related to women.

But Nah Thanks, Plant-Based Burgers Are Emasculating!
Gender perceptions and stereotypes can impede the changes needed for sustainable development. With the stereotypical North American man who wakes up to his sizzling bacon, it can be counterintuitive for members of the male community to entirely replace their diets with plant-only nutrition. Statistics on veganism seem to evidence such reluctance. The Huffington Post reported in an article that in 2014, 79% of vegans were women (so our George Laraque is one of the few vegan men!).8

Likewise, in a dissertation authored by Jessica Cuming at University of Portsmouth,9 the author concluded that gender significantly shapes the experience of veganism, influences a person’s motivation in their conversion to veganism, and affects the reactions of other people to a person’s vegan diet.

For instance, an entirely vegan man may have his masculinity challenged by his male counterparts, while his diet will be more readily accepted by his female friends. Veganism simply does not have the “masculine bent” to it.

Further, domination and hierarchal thinking10 also prevent the total replacement of meat in patriarchal men’s diets. Such thinking is a “virile” thing. Historically, men have placed themselves above animals. They hunted them, exposed them as trophies, used them as transport vehicles, and used them to satisfy their physical needs. This cultural “legacy” — in addition to being similar to the way these men treated women! — contributes to make the idea of veganism counterintuitive for them.

In short, from a social perspective, a large-scale diet change is probably a distant goal for now. This is so because the stereotypical, yet cultural, association of meat with masculinity still affects half of the population.

Root of the Problem: Sexualized Perspective of Animal Food, Gender Inequality, and Ultimately, Patriarchy
The association of meat with virility may lead us to the root of our unsustainability problem: patriarchy. This brings up an interesting intersection between gender inequality and men-animal domination. In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory,11 Carol Adams pins this phenomenon down eloquently. Noting that eating meat is equated with virility in many cultures, she draws the connection between animal slaughtering and violence against women. She also elaborates the link between objectification of women and objectification of animals, whilst explaining “the carnivorous” diet by pointing to patriarchal thinking.

In essence, equating meat-eating with virility is a sexualized conception of animals, which stems from the patriarchal thinking that also underlies the men-women dynamic. As mentioned, men relate to animals like they have historically related to women. Both are treated as objects and are referred to with terms that separate them from their natural identity. For instance, just like women are chicks and bitches instead of “women,” cows are not cows: they are cattle.12 Moreover, in the hierarchal, patriarchal thinking, men place themselves above animals just like they have placed themselves above women. This, for them, justifies the mistreatment of animals as things to be slaughtered and eaten.

The implications may be the following: since the sexualized conception of animals exists in parallel to the gender inequality issue, so long as gender inequality persists, the tendency to place men above animals and use animals like consumption objects will not be coincidental. Both sexism and animal objectification stem from patriarchy. The former may have caused the other, or at least reinforced it, but one thing is certain. So long as there is patriarchy, there will be no sustainable development for women or for animals. Stabbing a bloody steak with a fork will be a lingering habit, since it is a bloody manly thing to do, just like taking hold of a woman. Stereotypical, but the stereotype is there and it affects us.

Root of the Problem from a Legal Perspective: Ecofeminism
The connection between gender inequality and our conception of animals is also coined in the legal community: ecofeminism. In January 2016, the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy, a law and policy review within the McGill Faculty of Law, organized a colloquium on Women and Sustainable Development. Heather McLeod-Kilmurray, an ecofeminist legal scholar who spoke as a panelist, presented the enlightening approach of ecofeminism. In short, ecofeminist analysis identifies the intersections between the male-female relationships and the human-nature relationships. Like Carol Adams’ book, this analysis reveals the connections and causes between the objectification of animals and the objectification of women. It is propounded that men’s conception of nature is one of patriarchy, hierarchical thinking and domination. And this conception pervades men’s relationships with both women and animals.

Now, the law can be a tool for change. So why do we not use the law to solve the problem by condemning patriarchal attitudes towards animals and women? This is because, currently, the law is part of the problem.13

Unfortunately, in our legal systems and our policies, patriarchy is still institutionalized. Just like women have been men’s property in many laws, certain laws of the food industry use denaturing and objectifying terms for animals. For instance, US’ Humane Methods of Slaughter Act refers to pigs as swine and cows as cattle. Similarly, in private law, any student who has sat in introductory property law classes has probably encountered the notion that animals are one’s property.

Those familiar with the feminist legal theory will be familiar with this “institutionalization” argument (e.g., Catharine MacKinnon’s work). Just like the feminist legal theory posits that gender inequality is embedded in our legal system itself, ecofeminism posits that the patriarchal perspective of animals is inherent in environmental law.14 In both cases, patriarchy is institutionalized.

Now What?
We have begun with the association of meat-eating with masculinity, and have tried to explain this sexualized conception of animal food. In short, the association exists because men have traditionally related to animals just like they have related to women. The association exists because of patriarchal thinking.

Although it is ultimately uncertain whether gender inequality caused patriarchal thinking with animals, these intersections are enlightening. The gender inequality perspective at least informs us on the manner in which men tend to relate to animals. One dynamic is informative of the other. Likewise, examining the intersections allows us to conclude that both gender inequality and patriarchal thinking with animals will perpetuate unsustainable development.

Environment, then, is also a gender issue. So long as women are treated as inferiorly, there will be no sustainable development because the tendency to treat animals in a similarly objectifying manner will likely still exist. Each of these mistreatments is worthy of consideration because each shows the presence of a harmful domination thinking that perpetuates oppression towards both women and nature. Each of them are symptoms of patriarchy, and both need to be eliminated.


(1) Tim Bradshaw, “Food 2.0: the future of what we eat”, Financial Times (31 October 2014), online: <>.
(2) The Impossible Foods, company website, online: <>.
(3) Food, Inc., 2008, Documentary film (Los Angeles, California: Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2009).
(4) The Economist, “Silicon Valley gets a taste for food”, The Economist (7 March 2015), online: <>.
(5) CNBC, “2015 CNBC’s Disruptor 50”, CNBC (12 May 2015), online: <>.
(6) Supra note 4.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Taste Editors, “Veganism Is A Woman’s Lifestyle, According To Statistics”, Huffington Post, Huffington Taste (1 April 2014), online: <>.
(9) Jessica Cuming, “Gender and veganism: men’s and women’s perspectives on being vegan” (2012) University of Portsmouth Dissertation.
(10) Heather McLeod-Kilmurray, “Ecofeminism” (McGill International Journal of Sustainable Develop-ment Law and Policy’s 3rd annual colloquium, delivered at the Faculty of Law, McGill University, 15 January 2016) [unpublished].
(11) Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-vegetarian Critical Theory, 20th anniversary ed (New York, NY: Continuum, 2010.
(12) Supra note 10.
(13) Heather McLeod-Kilmurray, “An Ecofeminist Critique of Canadian Environmental Law: The Case Study of Genetically Modified Foods” (2008) 26 Windsor Rev Legal Soc Issues 129.
(14) Ibid.