Television sitcoms once portrayed women almost exclusively as June Cleavers and Donna Reeds, housewives with no interests beyond serving their husbands and children. These characters represented the absence of a woman’s perspective, a cultural denial of a woman’s life. But over time, sitcoms evolved to more accurately reflect the lives of women, and popular culture evolved with them. When will this evolution happen for nonhuman animals and the acknowledgment of the cruelty of animal agriculture?
Studies show that television sitcoms can shape public opinion regarding gender, race, and human rights, and “have the potential to substantially shape individual-level opinion.”
Sitcoms provide an opportunity to inform and educate the public about the realities of animal agriculture, but instead mostly ignore, deny, and excuse the killing and suffering of animals, reinforcing our cultural blindness to the plight of nonhumans.
The most common way that sitcoms teach us to live in denial about the atrocities that underlie animal-based food production is simply by pretending that meat has no source. There are countless examples of sitcom characters happily eating hamburgers and pot roasts or cooking bacon and eggs, behaving as if the meat in front of them did not come from a dead, abused animal body.
Modern Family, Parks & Rec, and 30 Rock
Modern Family’s Thanksgiving episode “Three Turkeys” focuses on the experiences of Phil and Gloria spending the day cooking turkeys. One of the dead turkey bodies is carelessly tossed into a suitcase for comedic effect. This treatment of the turkey’s carcass as an object and a prop models a cavalier attitude toward the dead body that would be considered odd and inappropriate if the characters acknowledged the fact that they were tossing around the body of a recently living being. Instead, the audience is encouraged to pretend, along with Phil and Gloria, that the turkey’s carcass was never a living creature, that it has no history or context, and that it is simply an object for humans to do with whatever they’d like.
Some sitcoms, such as Parks & Recreation, take this form of denial one step further by fetishizing meat-eating. Throughout the series, Ron Swanson makes it clear that meat is his favorite food. This is considered an endearing attribute by his coworkers and by fans of the show. In the episode “Indianapolis,” Ron proudly displays a scrapbook he has assembled with photos of every steak he has ever eaten from his favorite steakhouse. Such fetishizing separates the meat from the life of the individual cow who was killed, encouraging viewers to do the same.
This abstraction of the reality of what the meat is allows the meat object to exist as a sort of ethical blank slate, which Ron is then able to associate with a feeling of pleasure and identity, like a favorite sports team. As we watch Ron fetishize meat-eating with no criticism or consequences from his fellow characters, a strong message is sent to the audience that there is no reason to feel uncomfortable about eating meat, that it is a source of contextless joy and something that Ron is proud to associate himself with. If the reality of the suffering each cow endured before being killed and dismembered to end up on Ron’s plate was acknowledged instead of pretended away, Ron’s extreme love of meat-eating would seem shockingly callous.
Other sitcoms do acknowledge the animal suffering connected to meat and food production, only to then quickly discount, justify, or rationalize it away by creating excuses for harming and killing animals for food. For example, on 30 Rock, in “Chain Reaction of Mental Anguish,” Kenneth has a memory of bonding with a pig and eventually eating him. To his credit, he shows actual emotion and remorse. But Jack Donaghy quickly thinks up an excuse to assuage Kenneth’s guilt. Jack tells Kenneth that he actually honored his pig friend by eating him and benefited from the pig’s “sacrifice.” If watchers had any doubts about their meat-eating, those doubts are washed away by this process of internal justification. This sends the clear message that animal agriculture is an unavoidable reality that we must learn to accept, shrug off or ignore.
How TV shows can do better
Television writers must come to understand that, as with issues of gender, race, and human rights, they have a social responsibility when depicting meat-eating to acknowledge what is really happening and where that meat came from.
Two examples of a starting place for sitcoms to acknowledge the suffering of animals that underlies our food system are Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons and Dina Fox in Superstore.
In The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson has been an important voice for compassion toward animals for most of the show’s 32-year history. In “Lisa the Vegetarian,” she connects a lamb she bonded with at a petting zoo with the meat she is being served for dinner. While she sits at the table in front of a plate of two slices of meat, Lisa imagines the lamb standing in front of her with two empty spaces in his body. In her imagination, she makes the lamb’s body whole again by returning the two slices of meat to it. Not surprisingly, the showrunner at the time, David Mirkin, was a vegetarian himself.
In Superstore, Dina Fox is an animal-loving vegan character. In “Golden Globe Party,” she decides to eat a piece of chicken despite her veganism in order to support her best friend. Her friends watch uncomfortably as she holds the drumstick and tearfully says, “I guess this is what he used to stand on, they just took off the little foot.” Then, she holds the chicken up to her mouth and says, “I’m going to eat a bird now. I’m going to eat a bird now.” This scene forces the audience to take the first step toward facing the realities of animal agriculture by opening our eyes and looking at what we are really doing when we eat meat.
These examples provide a path for sitcoms to acknowledge the connection between meat-eating and the cruel realities of animal agriculture, and to begin to emerge from the denial of the atrocities against nonhumans committed by our society.
Carrie is a writer based in northern Indiana. She writes to bring awareness to the plight of nonhuman animals and to change the way they are viewed and treated in our culture.