I know, I know. This campaign ended weeks ago, everybody has already weighed in on it, it’s old news. But I didn’t hear about it until yesterday, so I’m guessing maybe some of you didn’t either. After all, though I sort of lost track of mainstream news on my bike trip, I still tried to keep up with milk news.
For a week in July, the California Milk Processors Board ran an idiotic ad campaign suggesting that male victims of women’s hormone-induced bitchiness could placate their female companions by force-feeding them milk. The ads featured images of clueless dudes clutching generic milk cartons and lines like “I’m apologize for not reading between the right lines” or “I’m sorry I listened to what you said and not what you meant.” Text across the bottom of the ads reads, “Milk can help reduce the symptoms of PMS.”
Plenty of other bloggers have explained why these ads are offensive and also just stupid. What I want to talk about (and this should not surprise you) is milk. In advertising milk as a female elixir, these ads come close to reminding consumers of a truth that I think most milk processors would prefer they ignore. Cow’s milk, even the homogenized, pasteurized, skimmed, water-added, synthetic vitamin fortified stuff shown in these ads, comes from cows’ breasts. And human breasts have the same primary purpose. How unsexy is that?
Humans are animals. We eat, sleep, fight for our own survival, and have babies. But also, we’re different from other animals. We send text messages, make jokes, write novels. It’s this “they’re different than us” mentality that allows us to reserve human ethics – which, after all, we made up – for other humans. Sure, when you think about it, it’s a little weird that we hold cows hostage for their bodily fluid, but it’s not that weird, right?
The men over at the California Milk Processors Board, in accordance with patriarchal tradition, resolve the “we’re animals but also we’re not animals” conundrum by implying that humans’ more animalistic qualities really only apply to female humans. They portray women, who, after all, are constantly leaking blood and milk and squeezing babies out of our various orifices, as hormone-crazed bitches. This allows men to claim rationality for themselves. Biological problems demand biological solutions, say the rational dudes in the ads. Feed her milk. What, I’m reading too much into this?
Others argue that drinking animal milk is so inherently weird (or even so inherently sexist) that we shouldn’t do it at all. How many times have you heard someone say, “we are the only species that drinks another species’ milk?” Yeah, some people give milk to their cats. That’s the exception that proves the rule. Lots of animals eat meat, and many of us can come to terms with meat-eating by embracing our place in the ecosystem as just another animal species. Most vegan ethics, I think, ask us to rise above our animal selves. But dairy consumption, in all of its weird contradiction, belongs only to that animal-but-not-animal middle realm. It is distinctly, confusingly human.
We can only drink milk because of complex co-evolutionary relationships that have developed over thousands of years. Have you ever tried to milk a wild animal? Of course it won’t let you. Over time, people in milk-drinking societies evolved the ability to digest lactose as adults. Dairy animals evolved to produce large amounts of milk for human consumption – and also to depend on humans for survival (source).
This is a relationship that needs to be treated with reverence and respect. The factory farms that supply California milk processors with most of their raw material are obviously exploitative and cruel. And the relationship between farmers, milk drinkers, and dairy animals will always involve imbalances of power and tricky questions of control. But I think it can be done well.
Starting next Saturday, I’ll be exploring what this means by working at Coonridge Goat Cheese Dairy in western New Mexico. I can’t wait to meet the goats! If you have something to add to the discussion, please make yourself heard in the comments section.
This post is a part of Fight Back Friday.