In 2008, PETA released their list of the “Top 10 Movies That Make You Go Meatless.”[1] Featured on the list was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – the 1974 horror classic that has, in the wake of PETA’s article, been reclaimed as a vegetarian movie. Namely, essayist Rob Ager gave a vegetarian reading of the film in his 2015 YouTube video; he sees the acts of the Sawyer family, who brutally murder their victims by bludgeoning them with sledgehammers, hanging them off of meat hooks, and, finally, stuffing them into freezers as a metaphor for the unethical treatment of animals in the food industry.[2] Tobe Hooper, the film’s director, said that “the heart of the film was about meat; it’s about the chain of life and the killing of sentient beings.”[3] Hooper was convinced into becoming a vegetarian during the filmmaking process, with Guillermo Del Toro subsequently following suit.[4]

Also on the list was Chicken Run, Aardman Studio’s beloved children’s classic, which depicts a group of Claymation chickens who live in terror of Mrs Tweedy, a tyrannical farm owner. Slowly, they become aware of Mrs Tweedy’s plans to make them into pies. The industrialisation of the farm’s harvesting techniques – “chickens go in, pies come out”[5] – leads the chicken population to plot their escape. Although it’s doubtful that this film has led its audience to be put off by their Sunday roasts, it’s still an important and overlooked satire of post-industrial meat harvesting, in which machines have replaced the human act of animal slaughter. Chicken Run charts the inception of the modern meat industry, where machines carry out our dirty work and, subsequently, we ignore the injustice in every chicken pie we consume.

Almost ten years later, there have been two critically-acclaimed films that follow in the wake of these two features. Raw, by French-Belgian director Julia Ducournau, is an artful piece of body horror that follows a vegetarian fresher through her first year of veterinary school, and Okja is a (sort of) family-friendly adventure feature, which focuses on a genetically engineered pig as its owner tries to free it from its captors.

Raw is quite different in tone from Texas Chainsaw; although its gore-filled set pieces led paramedics to be called into initial screenings,[6] in order to tend to unconscious audience members, its body horror is engaged with intelligently.

Justine is a first-year veterinary student and has been a strict vegetarian her whole life. In her first week at vet school, she is dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and thrust into the middle of a rave, bodies writhing, breasts and torsos and skin exposed, like Dante walking through hellfire. During initiations, she is forced to eat a raw Rabbit kidney, breaking her strict vegetarian diet. In the wake of this encounter, Juliet becomes ravenous: she devours a kebab like a rabid animal at a gas station, highlighting her new-found intrigue in the taste and texture of the body. But, as her cravings develop, she sneaks into the kitchen for a midnight snack of raw chicken breast. This marks the moment at which her body takes over; she is guided not by intellect or rationale, as seen in early scenes in which she uses rhetoric to defend her diet, but by the unconscious desire to sink her canines into cold, dead tissue. After this, her condition spirals out of control, as she bites off the bottom lip of the fresher she’s forced to kiss and even takes a bite of her sister’s severed finger. Now, she’s a full-blown cannibal (a motif previously discussed by culturised’s Katie Goh in relation to the film’s gender dynamics).

We might read Raw through the lens of vegetarian ecofeminism – facets of ecofeminism that link the oppression of women with the oppression of non-human animals. Carol Adams, in her article “Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals”, makes the case that ecofeminism is “now inadequate because it fails to give consistent conceptual place to the domination of animals as a significant aspect of the domination of nature” and that animals have, like women, been treated as objects as a result of patriarchal oppression.[7] In a heated discussion over lunch, Justine argues that monkeys feel just as much pain as a human does when they’re raped. “So a raped woman, raped monkey, same thing?” asks her peer and she replies, coldly, with “Yes.” Rather than existing simply as a metaphor for the barbarity of animal persecution, the discussion of speciesism is used to juxtapose Justine’s moral philosophy with later scenes, which depict her as being unable to suppress her animalistic desire for flesh. During this scene she also embodies the ethos of vegetarian ecofeminism; yet as she slowly descends into cannibalism, her status as a reputable ecofeminist is eroded. It would be tenuous, perhaps, to suggest that Raw is a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of being a meat eater and an ecofeminist simultaneously, but it does bring to light issues such as speciesism and how we consider animal welfare in relation to our own bodies as human beings.

It is more sound to suggest that Juliet’s release from the constraints of vegetarianism does not just exist solely as an allegorical tool to chart her progression into adulthood – it is more complex than that. Raw doesn’t just tackle adolescence and animal welfare, but sexual maturation, too. At the same time as she develops a taste for meat, Juliet masturbates, loses her virginity to her gay flatmate, and becomes absorbed into the same tableau of jolting limbs and libido-filled body parts at the same rave that she first encountered as a Bambi-like fresher.

Ducournau’s debut feature is a coming-of-age tale that charts how the movement from adolescence into adulthood causes a change in perspective towards bodies – human, animal, and sexual. In Raw, eating meat is an act of self-discovery and exploration, a method of unlocking repressed, unconscious desires, and an authentic look at the juxtaposing horror and beauty of the human form during the metamorphosis of sexual liberation.

Raw is not a plea to bring down the meat industry. Meat eating is not condemned, nor exposed as insidious or unethical. Some may interpret the final scene as an argument for meat consumption as a natural evolutionary act, but its connotations seem to be more intrinsically linked with the concepts of fate, how parents deny their natural sexual nature, and the comprehension and reconciliation with death.

By comparison, Okja is a very different beast; wide-eyed, anthropomorphised, and doggo-friendly. For 10 years, Mija has been rearing Okja, a super pig, on her farm in South Korea, but now the time has come for the Mirando Corporation to bring Okja back to New York to feature in their new marketing campaign, as the figurehead for a new sustainable, eco-friendly, and inexpensive meat product. Mija, with the help of animal liberation activists, goes on a rescue mission to bring Okja home.

Like Joon-ho Bong’s previous feature, Snowpiercer (2013), Okja is an anti-capitalist work that paints the Mirando Corporation as vain, superficial, and manipulative. Lucy Mirando justifies their cruel meat cultivation and harvesting techniques by claiming to be sustainable, in an attempt to create the façade of a global corporation that is sympathetic to the world’s ecological crisis, when, in reality, the sheen and sparkle in their marketing campaign hides a darker truth. In the film’s final act, Mija and the animal liberation activists travel to a slaughterhouse to save Okja. The aesthetic choices are interesting here: Bong borrows imagery from documentaries such as Cowspiracy (2014) and Vegucated (2011) that expose the barbarity that is practiced in slaughterhouses across the globe. The audience see images of Okja on a grainy screen being tortured by Jake Gyllenhaal’s goofy TV presenter, echoing PETA-friendly activism ads, and we also see the pens in which the super pigs are kept. Aesthetically, these fields resemble concentration camps: dark, damp, and surrounded by towering electric fences. This works to anthropomorphise the super pigs – if the wide-eyed, playful nature of Okja and his relationship to Mija didn’t reinforce this enough – in order to draw parallels between the oppression of animals and the prison camps of the twentieth century. In Okja, the Mirando Corporation resemble a well-marketed dictatorial force ruling over innocent living creatures with an iron fist.

Yet Bong hardly paints the animal liberation group that Mija encounters as saints either. Although they have admirable intentions, their methods are questionable. Like Lucy Mirando and her team of corporate big-shots, they too manipulate Mija by attempting to sacrifice Okja for a greater cause, in their wish to capture footage of the super pig in the slaughterhouse in order to expose Mirando to the public. This disregards the welfare of Okja and fails to reunite Mija with her friend. During the parade scene, members of the liberation group go undercover in the procession and sit in open windows with snipers. Strangely, the scene resembles that in The Dark Knight (2008) in which the Joker disguises himself as a police officer, while members of his anarchic group wait for his directions. It’s an odd parallel, but an interesting one nonetheless; it makes us question where activism ends and terrorism begins. For all the good that animal liberation groups do, Okja suggests that, sometimes, they too sacrifice animal welfare to suit their agenda.

As Seán McCorry, writing for The Conversation, argues, “Okja is a well-engineered beast who contributes to lower environmental impact, but she’s also an individual animal who loves and is loved – and she has an ethically significant interest in her own well-being.”[8] Here, McCorry notes that Okja probes the question of solving our ongoing environmental crisis without reducing our meat intake, while simultaneously posing the further question of attaining sustainable meat production by ignoring animal ethics.

But Okja is not a film that strives to convert its viewers – it is not mere vegan preaching. In fact, Mija and her father do not practice vegetarianism themselves, as the viewer is witness to various instances where they consume meat or fish. What it does do is engage with the politics of meat production, criticising both the capitalist mechanisms that facilitate animal suffering inherent to the meat industry and the activists whose radicalism is manipulative, while making the audience sympathise with Okja as a victim of persecution.

Neither Raw nor Okja attack vegetarianism head on. Ducournau’s feminist tale engages with meat consumption to talk about the horror of the body and the perception of the self during sexual maturation. Whilst not explicitly utilising vegetarianism as a recurring theme it does involve its antithesis, meat eating, in its maze of symbolism to make the audience consider their status as just that, flesh. Likewise, Okja doesn’t side too obviously with the animal rights activists; it finds room to criticise organisations like PETA as well as the corporations who disregard animal suffering. Its biggest achievement is sitting in between these two groups and finding a space to make us sympathise with the super pigs. Where these two films have crossed paths in this analysis is in their attempt to humanise animals – Raw by making parallels between the oppression of women and the oppression of non-human animals, and Okja by using Holocaust imagery to depict the super pigs as victims of persecution.

Both Raw and Okja have been critically successful, even if they might do little to change our attitudes. No doubt, Raw might get our stomachs churning, and Okja might make us sob uncontrollably, but will they make us put down our knives and forks? I think not.

 

[1] PETA, “Top 10 Movies That Make You Go Meatless”, PETA, 2008. https://www.peta.org/blog/top-10-movies-make-go-meatless/

[2] Rob Ager, “Animal cruelty themes in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE part 1 film analysis by Rob Ager”, YouTube 13th September 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxxATDKcLz0

[3] Calum Waddell, “Interview: Tobe Hooper”, Bizarre November 2010. http://archive.is/clG4J

[4] Ibid.

[5] Chicken Run, Dir. Peter Lord and Nick Park, Aardman Studios, 2000.

[6] Adam Gabbatt, “Cannibal horror film too Raw for viewers as paramedics are called”, The Guardian 14th Spetember 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/sep/14/cannibal-horror-film-raw-toronto-film-festival

[7] Carol Adams, “Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals”, Ecological Feminism, Vol. 6.1 (1991), 125-145: 125

[8] Seán McCorry, “Okja: a film that provides food for thought on ‘sustainable’ meat production”, The Conversation 2017. http://theconversation.com/okja-a-film-that-provides-food-for-thought-on-sustainable-meat-production-80088