Gilmore Girls is coming back this weekend and I cannot wait! In my never ceasing effort to demonstrate how linguistics is a part of everyday life, our reality shaping and being shaped by discourse, I found a paper just for you – the die-hard GG fan!
But, like everything in life, even GG is not perfect. In fact, the show suffers from many problems such as homophobia, the ‘token’ black guy, veganophobia, and a dichotomy of attitudes towards animals and nature (for example, Lorelai jumps up when she sees puppies but hates gardening). This is another Ecolinguistics post, the first installment of a rave about an awesome paper I’m reading in preparation for writing another research project, which I’m so excited about:
That could be me: Identity and identification in discourses about food, meat, and animal welfare by Alison Rotha Moore.
This is a dense, well-written paper that discusses intricate links between identity of consumers, animal representation through Systemic Functional Linguistics, genre and more. In order to do this paper justice, and at the same time explain the different themes clearly, I will discuss Moore’s ideas in stages.
As Moore notes, there has been an increase in people’s interest in animal welfare discourses in many fields that deal with language but there isn’t a very large body of work on discourses involving animals. (I’m working on one as we speak!) .
The absent referent
The first of Moore’s research questions that I’ll discuss in this part was how do our patterns of language obscure the reality of animal suffering and make meat eating (and other animal products) seem natural?
Moore writes elegantly and draws extensively on Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat‘,
and Systemic Functional Linguistics'(SFL) register theory to examine how eating meat and factory farming seem natural through habitual patterns of language. One of the central notions of SFL is the idea that texts have the meanings that they do because of choices speakers and writers make, at the lexicogrammatical (words and grammar) and semantic levels (Halliday and Matthiessen 2004 in Moore, 2014, p. 64). However, ideologies that exist in society, be it sexism or speciesism are never merely about the lexical choice (whether people refer to a pig, pork, or dead pieces of pig flesh).
Ecolinguistics extends the use of critical discourse analysis to human-animal relationship:
If discourse analysis can help reduce our reliance on factory farming by deconstructing its naturalness, this has the potential to reduce enormous amounts of suffering among intelligent, social ‘animal’ beings.
So how has eating meat become normal practice and what does this have to do with Gilmore Girls?
Carol Adams (1990 in Moore, 2014, p. 67) describes the detachment that occurs when people eat meat, between themselves and the “implied other”:
Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. The ‘absent referent is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep out ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal.
Some discourse analyses of distancing devices around meat consumption echo the fragmentation that physically occurs in slaughterhouses. In his book Every 12 Seconds, Tim Pachirat infiltrated a slaughterhouse as a worker, documenting the physical compartmentalization of the process of killing animals. The cognitive and linguistic separation has been studies by Stibbe (2001) who presents many features used to present cattle in meat industry discourse. For example, lexical semantics such as animal slaughter is neutral while slaughtering humans conjures brutal killing. (I talked about this in a previous post)
Impersonal pronouns are also widely used. To illustrate this, I will share with you a personal anecdote. When I was in fourth grade we were learning about personal pronouns he/she/it. There were three gapped sentences to complete with the correct pronoun, one of which was about a dog. I asked the teacher what do you do if you don’t know the sex of the animal? She replied that it didn’t matter because animals were used with ‘it’. From the position of a 10 year old, I tried to insist that animals were my friends and not an object but the default authority of the teacher trumped my efforts.
Bednarek (2010, in Moore, 2014) investigates food, animals and identity (which we will look at more closely in the part 2) in television ‘dramedy’ (drama+comedy) series. Bednarek found that likable characters in Gilmore Girls are constructed positively through meat-eating while vegetarian and vegan characters were negatively portrayed. For example, do you remember Luke going on a ‘psycho date’ with April’s swimming coach?
Luke’s character is a healthy eater. When he comes back from the date, he grabs a left-over slice of pizza and says ‘thank god, real food’. And Luke hates pizza.
Lane’s mother, Mrs Kim is not the friendliest character and she also happens to be ve*an.
As Cole and Morgan point out, this serves to reinforce mainstream views on vegetarianism and veganism. More importantly for our purposes, however, is the example of the absent referent resurfacing for a moment in one Gilmore Girls episode: Swan Song, season 3, episode 14 (no, I don’t remember this by heart – I had to google):
RORY: Let’s make it a foursome.
EMILY: That’ll be nice.
RORY: Yeah, it will be nice, right Grandma?
EMILY: Very nice. We’ll have lamb.
RORY: So, it will be nice for everybody? Everybody will be nice to everybody? The key word being nice.
EMILY: Yes, very nice.
RORY: Really, really nice?
EMILY: Of course it’ll be nice. That’s what I just said.
RORY: Good. Nice would be nice.
EMILY: And a nice night it’ll be.
LORELAI: Well, not so nice for the lamb.
As Moore notes, the lamb here is on the verge of reappearing as a social subject but the opportunity to continue and develop this notion is not taken up in subsequent scenes. Moore terms this as aporia, an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text, argument, or theory. She argues that when aporia and the reinstatement of the absent referent occurs, the dominant discourse cannot remain cohesive and coherent. She sets out to examine other registers that deal with food and animals, namely recipes, for this disjuncture in mainstream discourse. We will look at this in part 2.
As Moore notes, Ecolinguistics is still limited to considering the endangerment of nonhuman animals such as whales and tigers, while pigs and cows are considered ‘safe’. The survival of species seems to be more important than the cost to individuals.
And animals are individuals. It has been demonstrated time and again by countless videos that animals each have their own interests and exhibit complex personalities. In Part 2 I will discuss discourse as identity, as it is actively and interactively negotiated.
Before I rush off to watch the new GG, I would like to wish all of my American friends a happy and peaceful Thanksgiving – one that celebrates life, not detracts from them.
Moore, A.R. (2014) ‘That could be me: Identity and identification in discourses about food, meat, and animal welfare’, Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 9(1). doi: 10.1558/lhs.v9i1.59.
Adams, C.J. (1990) The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory. 10th edn. Oxford, Eng.: Polity Press.