You wouldn't know it by looking at my humble exterior, but I happen to be an avid and discerning amateur scholar of the motion picture and television arts and sciences. …In other words, I really like to watch movies and TV. …In other words, I'm a couch potato.
Now, before you form any judgments as to the value of this activity, I would like to point out that it benefits my vegetarianism in at least two important ways. First, being a couch potato affords me with plenty of time and opportunity to consume vast quantities of vegetarian foods. (A complete record of such foods is preserved between the cushions of the aforesaid couch.) Even more important, the diligent study of such current art forms as Entertainment Tonight and such classical forms as Blockbuster's Favorites puts me in the perfect position to assess the changing image of vegetarianism and vegetarians in our popular culture.
Did I say changing image? Well, I guess that's correct. The fact is that 25 years ago vegetarians didn't even exist on TV or in the movies. Things have come a long way since then. The good news is that as we burrow into the new millennium vegetarian characters and references to vegetarianism are now commonplace on both the big and little screen. The bad news is that the vast majority of these characters and references exist only for one purpose: to help meat-eaters feel smug about their dietary choices.
Let me put it this way. Remember when the only African-Americans in the movies and on TV were actors like Stepin Fetchit and characters like Amos & Andy? Well, that's still where we vegetarians are.
See if you recognize some of the ways Hollywood stereotypes vegetarianism.
- The Hopeless Hippy—The most common stereotype is to portray vegetarians as losers, wedded to outdated values and unable to function in our society. A great example of this is the totally unsuitable blind date Hugh Grant is fixed up with in Notting Hill. I guess the message is that vegetarians may be harmless enough, but jeez—nobody would want to date one!
- The Victim—Hollywood reflects (no, maybe it creates) the "kill or be killed" mentality in our society. On the African veldt herbivores get eaten and carnivores triumph, so the logic is that the same hierarchy should apply to human characters on the screen. Maybe the 400th James Bond movie will finally portray the spy as a vegetarian, but we're not likely to see it in our lifetimes.
- The Casual Reference—Casual references to vegetarianism abound in the movies, but invariably lead to nothing. Consider Walter Matthau's comment to Audrey Hepburn as their characters walk by a meat packing operation in Charade: "It's enough to make you a vegetarian." Apparently it isn't. Those same characters share chicken and liverwurst sandwiches. The fact is that movies want to show big slabs of "beef" (we all remember the scene in Rocky) because of the visceral effect they have on the audience.
- Thank God You're Not a Vegetarian—A favorite Hollywood trick is to have one character offer another some disgusting dead thing to eat. When the second character balks, there's the question: "You're not a vegetarian [said with distain] are you???" The thought that he or she could be aligned with such a group invariably causes the character to down the offensive item to prove his/her valor and immediately bond him/her to the audience. See, for example, all of the Indiana Jones movies and the entire Survivor television series.
Isn't there any good news for vegetarians coming out of Hollywood? Actually, there is. There's a growing group of actors endorsing vegetarian and animal rights causes (Woody Harrelson, Pamela Anderson, Alicia Silverstone, James Cromwell, etc.), and there have been some popular movies with surprisingly strong vegetarian themes.
Of course the bad news is that those vegetarian themes are only implied, and never stated (the latter would be box office suicide). And while vegetarian ideas in movies may eventually catch on and be effective, for now they seem to be getting lost in the shuffle. Consider this recent dialog on the Internet:
"First Babe, now Chicken Run. Is a vegetarian conspiracy underfoot to brainwash youngsters against meat-eating?"
"For what it's worth, both of my kids were hungry for chicken after seeing Chicken Run."
As a vegetarian and movie lover I try to remain hopeful, despite Hollywood's track record and the even less enlightened state of its audience. In the recent movie The Contender I really found something to cheer about. That movie (one of the very few to actually say the word vegan) uses meat-eating as a metaphor for corruption and evil. The heroine, a vice-presidential candidate who "doesn't eat meat," has her political status threatened by an evil Congressman (Gary Oldman) who loves the stuff. There's even a great scene of a political newcomer being corrupted by none other than a fish sandwich (I think they stole this plot from Genesis). The scenes of Oldman, sneering and nasty as he savors his steak dinner, are classic.
Finally! I thought. Now there's a real Hollywood bad guy!
Some Vegetarian TV and Movie Trivia
- Only one movie has ever had the word "vegetarian" in its title: Vegetaren ("The Vegetarian"), a 1992 Swedish short subject.
- "'Vegetarian' is an old Indian word meaning 'I don't hunt so good.'"—Reg Hunter, The Red Green Show (1991).
- "Oh my God, are they vegetarian? That's not in the book!"—Counselor Deanna Troi, Star Trek: Insurrection (1998).
- From Return of the Swamp Thing (1989):
Swamp Thing: Me? Your Boyfriend?
Abby Arcane: Why not?
Swamp Thing: You said it yourself: I'm a plant.
Abby Arcane: That's okay, I'm a vegetarian.