I kicked off my environmental ethics class this semester with a discussion on Cecil the Lion and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I added this to a primer exercise during which I ask students, what about non-human nature triggers our moral sensibilities? It was a difficult but interesting discussion to have on the first day. What follows is an attempt to develop some of my reflections on this exercise, especially regarding the role that sex, gender, and race played in the viralized Cecil narrative.
For the past month, I’ve been anxiously following the internet’s response to the death of Cecil the Lion. My attitude has ranged from fascination to horror. I was especially moved by the following tweet by Roxane Gay, author of the NY Times best seller, The Bad Feminist:
I’m still trying to figure out how to be good at Twitter, and this, I think, is Twitter done well.
Gay raises a critical question: How did the death of a lion attract so much sympathy, outrage, and effort so quickly in a time when many innocent black men, women, and children are being killed by police officers? Walter Palmer, the American dentist who paid to hunt and kill Cecil, had his felony records exposed and was forced to shutter his dental practice due to a deluge of protesters and angry Yelpers. Jimmy Kimmel, visibly choking up with emotion, urged his viewers to contribute to the Wildlife Conservation Research Fund in a segment of his show dedicated to Cecil. The clip went viral. All of this happened within 24 hours of identifying Palmer as the killer. Donations to the fund netted over $150k in the 24 hours following Kimmel’s emotional plea for contributions. Within a week, three major airlines (Delta, American, and Continental) announced that they would no longer transport ‘big game trophies’.
By contrast, it took over six months to bring charges against Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice, an unarmed 12-year old.
Many find this disparity deeply frustrating, and understandably so. Some commentators issued pleas in the key of an inter-species egalitarianism: Why compete for the most-oppressed award? Humans and non-humans are both targets of violence and harm. But in context, this message sounds too much like a version of the #AllLivesMatter rebuttal, a tone deaf argument that quickly fell flat to my ears.
A sort-of parody, #AllLionsMatter, even trended for a few days, offering a new way to mock a naive, color/species-blind commitment to equality.Certainly the structure of privilege and power that allows humans to hunt and kill animals parallels that which allows white officers to so carelessly kill people of color, writes Lori Gruen in Al Jazeera. Carol J. Adams, famous ecofeminist and animal rights advocate, even tweeted about Gruen’s article:
This strikes me as true, but it leaves my initial question unresolved. Big game hunting isn’t an incredibly rare activity, so what was special about Cecil? What about this event so quickly grabbed and held the internet’s attention, and moved so many to act so swiftly? Any why haven’t we seen a popular parallel response regarding the many human lives lost? Clearly there isn’t a single answer, and I’d like to avoid the obvious ones (it’s easier to question the character and responsibility of humans, but not animals; Cecil has a name, but so does Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin.., etc.). I’d like to wager a response that uses some conceptual tools I recently picked up from Adams.
Disclaimer: This is not an argument in favor of giving Cecil equal (or unequal) standing to human lives. It’s merely an attempt to explain the resonance of this story through a culture that appears to be more sympathetic to lions than people.
The night before our first meeting of the semester, I finished reading Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat. When I rewatched the Kimmel clip with my students as part of the above-mentioned exercise, I noticed that Adams’ work helped elucidate a powerfully gendered subtext to the Cecil narrative. I assured the class we would have to come back to Kimmel after our ecofeminist readings later in the semester. At any rate, I knew I had to write about it to get my thoughts in order. Here is the clip:
I think this Kimmel clip may be how Cecil first captured my attention one morning when I was scrolling bleary eyed through my Facebook feed while feeding on my breakfast. The story certainly had other outlets, but I think Kimmel played a big role in amping up the message. Here’s why.
First, the low-hanging fruit. Kimmel is a man who showed emotion against his will on national television. Men, of course, are not supposed to do that. Not on TV, not alone, not ever. Emotion interjects itself into Kimmel’s monologue for less than 5 seconds — a quivering voice, a few nervous glances off camera — but the intensity of those 5 seconds is enhanced by gender. A man becoming weepy against his will signals a strong emotional event. Test this thought by changing the speaker’s gender: Would the plea have raised as much money or attention if Kimmel had been a woman? Would a clip of a woman tearing up over Cecil had gone viral? If so, I suspect it would have taken more than 5 seconds to make an equivalent impact.
Second, Kimmel uses gender to taunt and sanction Palmer. The teasing made me uncomfortable when I first saw it back in July. At best, it’s sophomoric and reminiscent of Kimmel’s time as co-host of The Man Show — yeah, I did my best to forget about that blemish in Comedy Central’s history too. But now that I was armed with Adams, I asked myself, how does gender amp up sympathy for Cecil?
Adams develops a conceptual tool, the absent referent (2000, pp. 52ff), that is helpful here. Animals are the absent referent in meat eating. We change the way we talk about a pig by calling it ‘pork’ or ‘bacon’, or a cow by calling it ‘beef’ or ‘hamburger’. Adams claims that violence against animals and women are linked through this same structure of the absent referent:
Just as dead bodies are absent from our language about meat, in descriptions of cultural violence women are also often the absent referent. Rape, in particular, carries such potent imagery that the term is transferred from the literal experience of women and applied metaphorically to other instances of violent devastation, such as the ‘rape’ of the earth in ecological writings of the early 1970s. The experience of women thus becomes a vehicle for describing other oppressions. Women, upon whose bodies actual rape is most often committed, become the absent referent when the language of sexual violence is used metaphorically. These terms recall women’s experiences but not women. (pp. 53-4)
In other words, we often describe violence against nature in terms that recall violence against women; when we do so, we refer to women implicitly, who thereby explicitly remain absent. With the concept of the absent referent in mind, let’s return to Kimmel’s taunting. He suggests that Palmer needs to hunt in order to – ahem – perform sexually: ‘Is it that difficult for you to get an erection that you need to kill things that are stronger than you?’ Here a violent act of sport, hunting, becomes a substitute for sexual potency. Kimmel emasculates Palmer by challenging his potency. It’s then important that Kimmel slips in a Cosby joke. If hunting is Palmer’s cure for erectile disfunction, then taking a pill is the better choice if he wishes to avoid ‘becoming the most hated man in America who never advertised Jello pudding on television.’
The logical structure of these jokes imply that hunting Cecil was an act of sexual violence. We ‘hate’ Cosby because he drugged and raped women, and we ‘hate’ Palmer because he took advantage of Cecil. Palmer will probably brag with his male buddies over his conquest, Kimmel goes on, the evidence of which is his trophy. The jokes sanctions Palmer, who transgressed the acceptable boundaries for expressing his masculinity. A man is shaming another man as if he had committed an act of sexual violence against a woman. Therefore, woman is the absent referent in the outrage over Cecil’s death, at least in the narrative Kimmel constructs through his jokes.
How is a lion, especially a male lion, feminized? There is danger in hunting lions and other large animals since they have the potential to kill humans. Goodwell Nzou, native Zimbabwean, writes in the NY Times that lions and other wild animals are considered ‘objects of terror’ by those who live near them. Children are trampled to death protecting crops from elephants and buffalo. The author himself lost part of his leg to a snakebite as a child. Nzou parallels my question, how can lions attract more sympathy than African lives? He writes, ‘please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.’ (For more about how western brands of conservationist environmentalism are blind to their own privileges, see also Guha 1998.)
Lions can be very real threats, but Cecil was never a threat to Palmer. The dentist and his guides lured the lion out of a protected area using bait tied to a jeep. They then exposed him with a spotlight so they could attack. In this sense, Palmer took advantage of Cecil, who in different circumstances, would have made a dangerous encounter. Palmer’s hunting techniques aimed to neutralize any threat the lion might have posed. If the dentist had nearly died during the hunt, the narrative would have been completely different. Kimmel’s jokes would have seemed out of place if the lion were a threat and not a victim.
Finally, I would like to briefly extend this notion of feminization and threat to the BLM movement. Fallon is challenging another man for taking advantage of a ‘woman’. This is a powerful narrative, well ingrained in our culture. Cecil accords with the bad-men-take-advantage trope, while BLM is in contention with the black-as-threat trope.
In order to feel sympathy for Cecil, you must not consider him a threat, as Nzou points out. So what does that say about the different reactions to Cecil and to those deaths highlighted by BLM?
In this photo from Ferguson a team of heavily armed police are reacting to an unarmed black man holding his hands up. At least three rifles appear ready to fire. The military-style green camouflage of the police uniforms is radically incongruent with the urban backdrop; failing to camouflage, its only purpose can be to signal force, power, and violence. This display in turn is radically incongruent with the single man, arms raised in surrender. Written on a nearby mailbox is ‘Fuck the Police’.
During the events in Ferguson, a white officer was caught animalizing protesters (‘Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!’) There is a long history of animalizing minorities in order to de-humanize them. Women and minorities are both animalized through the metaphorical power of language, but there is an important difference. Animalizing women transforms them into objects (pieces of meat, helpless subjects of violence). Likewise, Cecil was a dangerous animal feminized, transformed into a passive victim of male violence. But when minorities are animalized, it often transforms them into potentially dangerous animals (angry, irrational, violent, destructive, base, unpredictable, criminal). One’s response is to protect and sympathize with the former, while needing protection from the latter. The former kind of animalization demands a careful touch, while the latter justifies violence. In animalizing people of color, the dangerous lion is cast as the absent referent.
So another way to understand the sympathy for Cecil is by asking who felt threatened by those who lost their lives. Police violence can be rationalized — by the public as well as by the officers themselves — if policing involves encounters with the unpredictable, the dangerous, the animal. Often it does. But when patterns emerge that reveal lethal police violence is applied unjustly more often to persons of color, then it becomes more and more clear that policing protects some more than others.
The above photo from Ferguson almost acts as a litmus test. ‘Fuck the Police’ is either read as a threat to safety or a protest against a unjust, irrational, powerful beast. Who is the perceived threat in this situation? Whose death inspires sympathy? Who plays the role of the lion, with claws out ready to strike? Which threat are we more likely to encounter in our own daily routines? Who is cast as dangerous in the narratives we rehearse and the jokes we tell?
- Adams, Carol J. 2000. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-vegetarian Critical Theory. 20th Anniversary Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Guha, Ramachandra. 1986. ‘Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique’. In Environmental Ethics 11 (1): 71-83.