In Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, the most high-profile press the pair of producers did for the recent documentary adaptation of Foer’s anti-meat book Eating Animals, they did a sort of good-cop/bad-cop routine. Or, rather, hard-line cop/easygoing cop; while Portman espoused the benefits of her rigorous no-animal-product lifestyle, Foer offered a milder alternative.
When asked if people give him guff for not devoutly adhering to day-in, day-out veganism, he responded, “I guess, but I don’t really think their approach is right, so it doesn’t really bother me… People that say ‘Are you really a flexitarian? You do realize that wine is sometimes not vegetarian?’ Even if those people come from a good place, it’s just not helpful to move the world toward a better place and instead makes people feel defensive and pissed off and condescended to. So when I have a conversation about it, I try to move it away from those kind of lifestyle questions and more toward, ‘What do you care about? Where do you come from? What’s your family like?’”
This is the challenge of food-industry documentaries in miniature: be partisan, but be chill about it. Eating Animals and its brethren in the fight against factory farming — Super Size Me, Food Inc., Cowspiracy, the whole stomach-turning lot — are action-oriented cinema, expressly made with the intention of swaying a viewer to their way of thinking. Still, nobody (including this meat-eating writer) likes feeling pitched-to, least of all via images of concentration-camp-style poultry prisons and farmers fisting their cows. It’s a hell of a thing, cognitive dissonance.
All the same, recent viewings of Eating Animals and Morgan Spurlock’s never-to-be-released sequel Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! piqued my curiosity about the people who do respond to such arguments. What is the thought process when a person sees a movie and decides to make a radical life change as a result? Do they think of their diet as a political or ethical choice? Does suffering only become real once we’ve seen it?
Canvassing friends, friends of friends, casual acquaintances, and cooperative strangers from the internet, answers to these questions started to take fuzzy shape. The interviews form a portrait of a highly personal process that’s often a far cry from the immediate road-to-Damascus moment one might imagine. Says Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, “Being a vegetarian is a psychological phenomenon, something that happens in thought, yes. But there’s also a more complicated answer. I’m a father to twin daughters, and they have completely different eating habits, despite having been raised in the same household under the exact same conditions… There have to be other factors at play.”
Following the release of Bong Joon-ho’s agitprop E.T. riff Okja, Google results for “veganism” spiked by 65 percent, and in the wake of Super Size Me, McDonald’s enacted changes to their menu and branding to compete with rising rates of vegetarianism. A 2012 study from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychology reads, “surprisingly little is known about the psychology of vegetarianism, and equally little is known about the differences between those who were raised vegetarian, and those who chose to transition to vegetarianism later in life.” These results present just a little bit more building on that “surprisingly little.”
Respondents saw the light with the help of a wide array of films well beyond those revolving around McDonald’s-scarfing. Forks Over Knives was a common response, as was Earthlings and A Place at the Table. Daniel recalled watching a DVD bundled with a Victory Records CD release, and seeing PETA videos containing “really extreme stuff.” Just as frequently, however, narrative films would have an intense impact. Okja was a popular mention, along with Babe and Charlotte’s Web. Says Matthew, “I still refuse to eat any pig-related materials because I have associated a strip of bacon with Wilbur crying over his mortality. That alone scarred me, because I felt sorry for Wilbur. I, too, don’t want to die.”
Matthew’s words place him in one of two camps that began to emerge in aggregating the responses. The turn to vegetarianism or veganism following an extreme film appears to come either from a mental line of reasoning or a visceral, gut rejection. Matthew takes a more intimate, holistic slant to the more general idea that there’s something wrong with the act of killing an animal to consume its flesh. Even when lucid about their own misgivings, converts take all manner of objections. For many, it’s a matter of ideology; João lives in Pelotas, Brazil, where barbecuing is practically a national pastime and it’s not unusual to watch that night’s dinner killed in the morning. But seeing What the Health framed something he had taken for granted as part of a much bigger picture.
“As I grew up and heard about factory farming and cruelty against animals, I think my brain was pretty much numb to it all,” João says. “But to know the atrocities that are being done to our bodies and our health only so a handful of rich people can keep getting richer was the absolute nail in the coffin for me.”
Jean’s thoughts follow a similar path, though he finds that the films he saw were more of a jumping-off point than anything else: “The documentaries made me more aware of how bad the meat industry is for the animals, for the environment, and — to an extent — for our bodies. I don’t remember a damn thing about either film. The important thing is they changed my perspective and caused me to look at food differently. I didn’t switch to vegetarianism/veganism immediately after seeing the films. I needed time to soak in more information and let ideas incubate before I was willing to make an actual lifestyle change.”
In these instances, there’s sometimes a bit of pining for the lost food group. (Emily confesses that “occasionally, I still miss bacon.”) Not so for the second camp, the sick-to-the-stomach crowd. For them, it’s not that eschewing rather than chewing is the right thing — it’s the only thing that won’t make them wretch. Cinema is a vivid, sensuous medium that’s been known to induce vomiting in midnight-movie crowds from coast to coast, and there’s no gore quite like the real-world gore of a slaughterhouse. A school-mandated viewing of Super Size Me rewired Taylor’s digestive tract:
“Seeing the full scale of it, the sheer size of the meat production just for one specific company, that really made me feel physically sick,” she recalls. “The movie gave me a full media overload, like when you start to feel nauseated as if you’ve been watching too many advertisements in a dark room. It felt like the weight of the cattle industry hit me all at once. That night after we watched that movie in my school auditorium, I came home from school and my parents made us steak, and it tasted like literal shit. I gave it up right then, and it lasted for seven years.”
This deep-seated instinctual reaction appears to go both ways, however. Most fascinating of all were the rare cases in which these aggressive anti-meat films had the exact opposite of their planned effect on a viewer made only hungrier for delicious muscle tissue. Kameron fried up a pan of bacon directly upon returning home from a screening of Okja:
“Honestly, I cook bacon as a snack all the time, so seeing Okja beforehand, in that case, made it funny to me, and made for a funny Instagram caption. But I would’ve made the bacon anyway; if it’s in my fridge when I get home, I make some.”
To that same effect, Grace got only cravings where Taylor got stomachaches. “We watched Super Size Me in my high-school health class one day, and I was not particularly affected by the film’s argument, I guess, because I spent the entire time thinking about how good the nuggets looked onscreen and how much I wanted them. I went directly to McDonald’s after school and ordered a six-piece.
Grace continues, “I was partially moved to go get nuggets after watching the film because I consider a McDonald’s chicken nugget to be the most seductive-looking food on earth, and it is impossible for me to view images of them for an hour and not want to eat them. But beyond that: The film’s messaging didn’t work for me because, as far as I could tell, its supposedly revolutionary finding was that eating McDonald’s every single day is probably unwise. I thought it felt a bit like a stunt. It’s not that I think eating McDonald’s is healthful or ethical; just that the film didn’t convince me that it was an unacceptable occasional indulgence — or even that, if I were interested in trying to make my dietary choices more healthful and ethical, boycotting McDonald’s would be an especially effective starting point.”
Grace and Kameron are proud testaments to the fact that for some people, some viewpoints are set and immovable. That leaves plenty amenable to persuasion, for whom movies render the abstract frightfully concrete. The brain’s function is such that, when watching a movie, images and isolated lines of dialogue are more easily retained than entire scenes or linear details of a plot. Eating Animals and the like lodge themselves in the memory, nagging at a conscience (or just intestinal fortitude) until the thinkable is unthinkable. Konstantinos articulates the power of this experience better than I could hope to:
“The truth is, I already knew and believed most of what the film tries to convey — most people do. Sometimes, good art doesn’t just help you change your perspective, it inspires you to take that extra step. Roger Ebert said that movies are machines that generate empathy, and Okja helped me feel on a deeper level what I had only understood: that animals are sentient beings, who can form meaningful bonds with others.”