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playing to the paparazzi

July 19, 2010

Animal rights activists utilize a variety of tactics to try to stop the torture and exploitation of nonhuman animals. Activists do everything from civil disobedience to letter writing campaigns to try to stop animal exploitation. One component of most activist campaigns is outreach and education. In trying to spread our message to a wider audience we often try to garner media attention and while media coverage can assist in achieving our goals, it can be a damaging distraction for activists.

Vegina in a cage, hoping to get the media out and convince passers-by to stop and learn about vivisection

I am in no way suggesting any focus on media is bad. I have participated in and supported media stunts myself (the photo of me  in this post is a testament to that). However, too much concern over the media can distract us from helping animals. It is one thing to do something to get the media to show up to a protest, it is quite another to allow their presence to distract from the business of protesting. This became salient for me at a circus protest last week.  The plan was to have “the largest circus protest in history” with the goal of dissuading people from attending the circus and to send Ringling Brothers the message that until the circus stops imprisoning, beating and torturing animals, activists will be there. This protest had over 250 activists; a couple large groups decided not to go in and a couple of children convinced their families to turn in their tickets and attend. The protest was a clear success in so many ways but in some ways we also failed.

A celebrity appearance was arranged for the protest. Activists were not told who was coming but it was requested we not do any chanting until she arrived because she was “sensitive to that sort of thing.” We complied out of respect to the organizers, specifically PeTA who had made the request and arranged the celebrity appearance. The celebrity was Olivia Munn and she arrived about 45 minutes prior to the start of the circus. To start with, Olivia Munn is a questionable celebrity spokesperson. She is inarticulate about the issue, says questionably racist things like “I just have an extra special place in my heart for elephants because of my Chinese history,” and has recently done a horse racing themed magazine promo. While these are all important reasons to critique PeTA’s choice to utilize a naked Munn on their anti-circus ads and to have her make appearances at the circus protest, in this post I focus on my concern over the way that the protest deteriorated for the sake of photo ops with Munn.

Check out this video of the protest. Complete with an interview with Munn.

The half hour preceding the start of the circus, the most crucial moments when the heaviest influx of potential patrons was arriving, people were posing for photo shoots with Munn. The entire troupe of activists was asked to pose for a barrage of photos in one big group-shot just 15 minutes before the start of the circus. We were asked to silence ourselves for the sake of a celebrity’s presence because the organizers felt that the potential media attention was more important than our efforts to turn people away from the circus. We were expected to halt outreach efforts and pose for the sake of a potential news story in the most crucial and valuable moments we had.

Protesters Posing with Munn

Angry tears welled in my eyes as I stood for group photos. I felt frustrated and trapped, but I complied with the request to pose. I don’t know why I just stood there and why it took me so long to break free from the crowd and begin chanting. When the chanting started those of us who were loud raised our voices, those of us who were good conversationalists talked to passers-by and potential patrons. In the last moments a family decided not to go. We did our job.

I understand why media matters to a degree, but as activists the attention should never be on us. We are fighting for animals and they need to be our focus every moment. Large organizations can focus on systemic routes to change, but systems of exploitation and oppression will not change until individuals demand it. As grassroots activists our power lies in focusing on change at the individual level. We need to focus on saving individual animals and changing the minds and hearts of individual people.

We need to stop trying to get attention and get to work because we have a lot of work to do. Fuck the media; what we need to do is to free animals from imprisonment, torture and exploitation. Saving one animal means more than any news story ever written. We need to make it clear to specific individuals and business that exploit animals that we will be in their face until they stop torturing and murdering animals. Convincing one vivisector to quit his job will save countless animals and redirect millions of dollars away from animal exploitation. Closing down a single furrier will guarantee that hundreds of animals will not suffer for vanity. We need to convince individual people to refuse to partake in the annihilation and exploitation of animals. Every vegan prevents the murders of 90 individual animals each year. Every time an individual refuses to wear skins, purchase companion animals from breeding mills, use animals as a form or entertainment or to eat dead flesh, there is a little more hope for a world in which compassion trumps violence.

Bottom line: we need to fight for animals not for notoriety or media attention.object>

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Free from Press permalink
    July 19, 2010 10:45 pm

    Over the weekend, I overheard a group of activists agreeing to what I consider a rather obvious falsehood. They accepted the notion that if the media doesn’t cover a protest, then the protest “didn’t happen.” This is startling in its absurdity. I wondered if other events, and not just protests, had this rather unusual quality in relation to media. For instance, if one’s birth is not covered by the media, did it not happen? Or if a physical assault is not covered, did it not happen? Hm. These questions would only stump a philosopher.

    • Franklin permalink
      July 20, 2010 8:53 am

      I understand. If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to listen, does it make noise? It may make a sound, but noise is a judgment call from human beings. There need to be human beings to Judge that Noise happened.
      When I am involved in a protest, clearly, we are making sound. Our sounds have the ability to educate those who are listening about animal issues. People who are NOT listening may call it noise, and that judgment call would be wrong. We are exercising our first amendment rights as citizens of the USA, to educate people on animal cruelty. I cannot think of a better use of “Sound.”

  2. Alison Stone permalink
    July 19, 2010 10:58 pm

    This has been a topic which has received great debate amongst my friends. Celebrity-chasing Peta is nothing more than a welfare group, that get huge amounts of donations due to their celebrity work, but the money spent chasing / placating celebrities is often at the expense of animals. I have seen a poster from Peta with a naked chick on to raise awareness about circuses, quite possible the one mentioned here (I have no idea who she is, or why she is famous). And while the being naked against fur was catchy and sort of made sense, I dont quite get the connection between being naked and circuses.

    And while I am talking about celebrities, slightly off topic, Alicia Silverstone, who is the great champion of veganism. Recently bragged on her twitter site about eating a burger king burger, yes it had a little dairy in the sauce and a little cheese but it was “yummie” and great for those flirting with vegetarianism. She sells books that promote a kind-diet and has become the defacto spokesceleb for veganism, but she talks often about her cheese eating.

    Is there a different kind of vegan for celebrities? The cheese-eating vegan?

  3. Becky Bristol permalink
    July 19, 2010 11:40 pm

    Do you hear those sirens? Sounds like the sound of the Vegan Police to me! Watch out! Apparently they give tickets out to people who use the media to bring awareness to Middle America! We’re humans, so we’re inherently fallible no matter how vegan/animal rightsy we are.

    Hey, here’s an idea! How about ditching the whole “I bitch about other vegans/activists/people on my core fundamental side” thing and attack those industries? How about that? Because then I wouldn’t feel like I just wasted minutes of my life reading some girl bitching about the very people that are fighting the same fight with her.

    • July 20, 2010 1:27 am

      I agree, what is most important is to do what we do best and let other activists do what they do best. The problem comes in, and the “vegan police” come out, when the actions of activists hinder the ability to actually help animals. This post is bringing attention to one issue that I feel activists need to be cognizant of as they take part in demos so that they are not distracted from helping animals.
      On a personal level, outside of the issue this post is addressing, I am a bit miffed by your comment becasue you seems to be doing what you critique me of. If you are not into “the whole ‘I bitch about other vegans/activists/people on my core fundamental side’ thing,” then why are you engaging it? It seems counterproductive and hypocritical.

      • Becky Bristol permalink
        July 20, 2010 2:10 am

        Well, I wrote a smart-ass comment because the media is power. Don’t knock it. A family or two leaving the arena because of the protest is nothing. You can save all the animals you want from a furrier but chances are, you’ll go to jail and a jailed activist is no good to anyone.

        Most likely, more families weren’t able to make it to the circus because of traffic or it took forever for the kids to get ready. I’ll tell you what though, because of those photos taken, my aunt in Minnesota wanted to know why the heck anyone would protest the circus, so she Googled the hell out of it, found why and posted the links of the protest everywhere and told all her friends about it. It’s a good thing. Don’t get so miffed.

        Not sure what a big deal about a C list celebrity is, not so sure why they wanted her to pose nude and I don’t care about any of it or her stupid comments, I’m pretty sure PETA doesn’t either. What IS good about it is that Middle America assumes that if you’re on TV, you’re somebody. Middle America usually equates animal rights activist with “bat-shit crazy” so it adds an air of legitimacy no matter how minuscule it may seem, which it is indeed. How about we just stop attacking each other and attacking them?

    • Cherry Bomb permalink
      July 22, 2010 12:13 am

      Why is the animal rights movement out of all movements for social change supposed to just accept what people do in the name of animal rights and that is supposed to be ok? No questions, no introspection, no reflection about whether a tactic is successful or not. Oh no, according to the great Vegan god Becky, all vegans are supposed to just accept what anyone does or says because otherwise is a waste of her time. How about an anti-fur peta model one day and appearing blackglama ads the next, thats ok too. Then you get the situation of being in a restaurant, ordering the vegan meal and its smothered in cheese, because according to some people cheese is vegan.
      Vegan is what it is, not about police, not about celebrities. There is no hyphen on it.

  4. July 20, 2010 7:50 am

    I think the question you should be asking yourself has nothing to do with media attention but instead why PeTA would select Munn, who has made comments in support/admiration of horse racing, a wicked sport.

    Media attention — and sometimes catering to them in media stunts that you yourself have participated in — is a fundamental part of social movement recruitment and success. Becky got it right when she said that “Middle America usually equates animal rights activist with ‘bat-shit crazy’ so it adds an air of legitimacy no matter how minuscule it may seem.” It’s not about ignoring the media to focus on the animals and not ourselves; instead, it’s about utilizing the media to gain support, inflame the anger about how other living creatures are being treated, and to draw more activists to the cause.

    I appreciate your sentiment, but it comes across as elitist and exclusive. Shouldn’t you want to get a positive and successful image of your movement out into the mainstream to help inspire others to put the animals as their number one priority?

  5. July 20, 2010 7:57 am


    For me personally, the biggest part of the media coverage that had me mortified was the selection of such an inarticulate spokeswoman who clearly knew very little information about the cause. I can’t even count the number of “likes” “ummns” “you knows” and times she looked down. The crux of her argument was “this isn’t 1920”-that is an aside, not a thesis.

    Had she memorized even 1 or 2 statistics or learned a specific story about an elephant who was cruelly killed, I have a sneaking suspicion that more people would have “Googled the hell out of it” and began making their peers aware of these atrocities.

    PeTA should have just stuck with Linda Hogan as the key celebrity…she had a lot more passion and discussed a specific eye-witness account.

    And if PeTA is that insistent that they need a sexy young face, she should have had a crash course in the issue at hand or at the very least, an acting class so she could feign a sincere interest.

    • July 20, 2010 7:58 am

      PS, I didn’t even touch on Munn’s horse racing spread because it goes without saying that I was extremely infuriated.

  6. July 21, 2010 12:00 pm

    Media attention can be a disaster and usually is when people trivialize such important and serious issues with naked women and sensational cartoon like tactics. Getting any kind of attention is not always a good strategy, as a matter of fact it can be very harmful to the issue. The words -animal rights activists- have not had good PR and mainly because of some the ridiculous antics used to get attention. Whether we want to admit it or not there is a very negative view of AR people through the rest of the world….outside the small vegan clicks here and there.
    Most humans are already hostile or ignorant to the concept that animals deserve rights so why would you want to confuse the ideas surrounding the issue anymore? Why make animal rights look silly or like a TMZ fest?
    Can you imagine using naked women to bring attention to the violence in Darfur? Can you ever imagine Amnesty International dressing up in costumes and bringing out a tacky celebrity to bring attention to child slavery or sex trafficking issues? Do men looking at naked women really change their minds about the ethical aspects of killing non humans? No… they do not and it only encourages the same oppressive and sexist culture they live in.
    Having famous people get behind or lend support to a political campaign..etc..does bring attention to an issue and can convert people into supporting the philosophy or ideology…but it needs to be done with dignity and respect if you want the issue itself to be respected as well. Non human animals deserve this respect and they deserve to be thought about with dignity instead of being seen as part of a media ‘circus’.
    Thanks for writing this post.


  1. PETA, you are not the voice of Animal Rights (so stop talking) « vegan animal liberation alliance

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