Soyboys and Sensitivity: Mocking Meat-Avoidance from Punch to Twitter
Rebecca Jones | Strathclyde University
Issue 02 - December 2020
Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians, a cartoon by John Leech mocking vegetarianism, published in Punch by William Bradbury of London, 24th December 1851. (Source: University of Strathclyde Library)
ockery of vegetarianism is no more recent a socio-cultural development than meat-avoidance itself. For as long as people have been rejecting flesh diets, troubling western society’s sense of who eats and who is eaten, vegetarianism has been regarded with curiosity, confusion and dismay.
In 1851, the satirical magazine Punch printed a cartoon, Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians, which featured an apparently rapt and aghast public, spectating at a display of human-vegetable hybrids. The ‘remarkable little boy fed upon turnips’ is entirely human from the neck down, with a bulbous turnip for a head. A ‘young gentleman of property fed upon radishes’ poses jauntily, his human body dressed in dapper clothes, his nose and hair made of radish tendrils. The ‘old gent fed upon beet root’ sits heavily, supporting his weight with his walking stick, hardly recognisable as human at all – his limbs are tendrils, his body round like the vegetable, his hair leafy. We are to understand that, having partaken too enthusiastically of these vegetables, these individuals have begun to take on their traits – they have become what they eat. This was far from the only time that Punch would publish material making fun of vegetarians in the nineteenth century, but it is, to my mind, one of the most evocative.
The vegetarian diet had gained considerable traction earlier in the century, when figures such as Percy Shelley, Frank Newton and Joseph Ritson had made the case for ‘Pythagoreanism’, or vegetarianism as it would later come to be known. In accordance with the views of ancient philosophers including Pythagoras and Plutarch, Shelley was keen to present the case in terms of Man’s improvement and progress – meat-eating brutalised Man, he claimed, and so avoiding meat had a positive civilising effect. The case for vegetarianism was made in highly anthropocentric terms – a shift from meat-eating to meat-avoidance would be good for people, and good for society. Ritson dared to press the matter more forcefully in terms of animal rights, and the cruelty visited upon animals in the production of meat. Ritson was roundly ridiculed for taking such an empathetic view, and rumours of his insanity abounded – a man of his standing ought not, it was thought, display such sensibility as to accord subjectivity to animals. He was regarded as being emotional, not rational as a man ought to be. If vegetarianism was to be the way of the well-to-do man – at a time when the frequent eating of meat was popular as a way for the wealthy man to demonstrate his fortune - it must be in pursuit of his own self-improvement and the fight against social and moral decline, rather than any sympathy with the brute creation.
'Impiger iracundus inexorabilis acer', an etching mocking Joseph Ritson for his vegetarianism and compassion for animals, by James Sayers, published by Hannah Humphrey, 22nd March 1803. Note that he wears sandles, a widely-recognised stereotype of the vegetarian even then, while a cow placidly eats leaves through his window and a cat is tethered to prevent her from devouring a nearby mouse.
Vegetarianism went on to grow exponentially in popularity in the UK during the first half of the nineteenth century, and the Vegetarian Society of the UK was formalised in 1847. Its roots were certainly in religious sects, driven by the work of William Cowherd, Joseph Brotherton and James Simpson of the Salford-based Bible Christian Church and the ascetic Concordium of Alcott House, Richmond, who included James Pierrepoint Greaves, William Oldham and William Horsell. It is important to understand, however, that as well as its involvement with religious concepts of purity and self-denial, from the very beginning vegetarianism was inextricably linked with a broader radical and reforming social movement, secular as well as religious, stretching as far back as the late eighteenth century. For adherents both religious and secular, this was a movement that sought to return mankind to a quasi-utopian state, more natural, healthier and less brutal than that heralded by the Industrial Revolution. While disagreements about the essential nature of vegetarianism and the best way to promote it often occurred within the movement, there was broad consensus that the consumption of flesh inflamed the animal in Man – his temper and impulsiveness - threatening to render him no better than animal himself. A simple, unadulterated diet could prevent this, affording health benefits to the individual and the wider population that would allegedly improve living standards for all. Perhaps unsurprisingly, vegetarianism often went hand-in-hand with the temperance and anti-tobacco movements, and suggestions that it was both more nourishing and more economical contributed to debate about public diet and health at a time when malnutrition and abject poverty were rife. Vegetarianism, it was suggested, could radically alter the world.
Despite the formal foundation of a Vegetarian Society, meetings of both committed vegetarians and curious omnivores across the UK, and an eventually impressive proliferation of urban vegetarian restaurants by the latter part of the nineteenth century, it would be misleading to suggest that vegetarianism had become anything other than marginal by this point. It was, nevertheless, a persistent presence in the broader public consciousness. The very fact that Punch published such a cartoon in 1851 is evidence that the diet was at least widespread enough for such a lampoon to be both recognisable and resonant to their readership at that time. Whether or not this mockery was essentially good-natured or not is, to some extent, besides the point. Both mockery of and open hostility to vegetarians seems to have been motivated by one chief cause still recognisable today. In short, they departed in a significant way from the status quo, from the archetypical norms and aspirations as prescribed, in this case those relating to British diet and, specifically, how the ideal British man ought to behave.
This may seem peculiar given the disproportionate numbers of influential men involved in the nineteenth-century agitation for vegetarianism in the UK. Of course, we ought to acknowledge the contributions of several prominent women, including Annie Besant and Anna Kingsford, among others, and there would inevitably have been many more women whose contributions to the movement, not just in public but in private, have not been celebrated as they should. However, it remains the case that the vegetarian movement at this time was not the predominantly female pursuit that it is sometimes perceived to be today. The movement was engaged in rethinking the hegemonic, publicly visible and socially engaged masculinity of the day. Nineteenth-century vegetarianism was not a rejection of masculinity per se. Rather it was a reconfiguration of it along radical, new lines; an attempt to reconcile meat-avoidance with masculinity, and ‘pure’ diet with the purified spirit that transcended the body.
Despite the convictions of those within the vegetarian movement, however, it was already popularly held that having meat to eat, far from being debasing or brutalising, was in fact the true sign of a man. Then as now, meat, and particularly red meat, was considered the correct foodstuff for the ideal man. This tells us as much about how manhood was perceived at the time as it does about the friction between meat-eating and meat-avoidance. The vast majority of men (and their families) would have been far too poor to be able to eat meat with any kind of regularity. Meat-eating didn’t just signify manhood. It signified the white, heterosexual, wealthy, educated, physically fit, European (in this case, British) man, who had long been and would continue to be considered the default human being. This is a social structure that prevails to this day, and which is being increasingly interrogated in twenty-first-century discourse.
The conceptual link between masculinity and meat-eating has been deconstructed by feminist theorists since the middle of the twentieth century. Feminist academic Carol J. Adams, in particular, has written extensively on the social construction of both women and animals as commodified products for the consumption of men, and of the attendant expectation that ‘real’ men will partake of both. The nineteenth-century notion of meat consumption as a signifier of masculinity and wealth is testament both to the accuracy of Adams’ theory, and the fact that it is not a phenomenon restricted to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the nineteenth century, the right kind of man could signal his masculinity, wealth, authority and influence by eating meat as ostentatiously as possible. Conversely, the vegetarian man was subject to suspicions about his masculine status, which goes some way to explaining why the priority of vegetarian discourse at the time was in promoting it as a way to a better masculinity and a better society.
Meat-avoidance, then, represented a profound statement of intent – a declaration against the status quo, and particularly of a certain kind of masculinity, that dominated and was considered correct. Vegetarianism as both a movement for societal good and an individual course of self-betterment in the mould of Shelley certainly seems to have remained in ascendancy in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Vegetarianism was frequently connected with the kind of radical, reformist causes that sought to subvert long-held socio-political and cultural structures – structures that benefitted those with power. While some of the mockery of vegetarians was essentially affectionate and a response to what was seen as an idiosyncrasy or a neurosis there was, among many, the sense that it formed part of a broader movement that posed a real threat to the British way of life. While, as a piece of satire, Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians perhaps seems tame, especially by the standards of twenty-first-century satire, there is an anxiety underlying it and others like it.
This radical context was certainly one of the reasons that vegetarians were frequently lampooned, mocked and even regarded with a certain degree of suspicion. Historian Rod Preece has suggested that a grudging tolerance of vegetarians was more common at this time than blatant hostility. While that may be so, even the tamer mockery levelled at vegetarians hinted at far more profound worries that lurked beneath the humour. Much of this anxiety came to rest upon the question of national identity and how it was constructed. If British identity was marked out in part in the eating of beef, for instance, then to eschew this was, by extension, to eschew Britishness, or even to pose a threat to it from within. A man of power and influence who rejected this basic tenet of British masculinity may well be harbouring other unpalatable socio-political convictions. The emergence of vegetarianism from a broader radical tradition can only have compounded the sense of its adherents resisting a carefully constructed sense of Britishness and manliness, especially at times of socio-economic and political strife, and of war.
The First World War, the interwar period, the Second World War and the eventual end of rationing in the 1950s all, of course, had their specific impact on the way in which meat-eating was regarded in Britain. War brought about great scarcity of meat in the general population, and even for troops on active service – men who were generally recognised as ‘needing’ a ration of meat in order to be strong enough to fight properly – the amount available was small. Rather than creating a climate in which vegetarianism thrived out of necessity, this seems simply to have made meat all the more desirable, a food choice that came to symbolise recovery and victory, especially as meat-avoidance had been linked to conscientious objection and pacifism. By the 1950s, meat-eating was once again considered not only an expression of affluence, but one of national pride too. Meat meant strength, and strength meant masculinity. The vegetarian man remained an affront to the dominant societal expectations levelled against him, and discourse around him became entrenched in accusations of femininity, weakness and irrationalism. By the time the 1960s and 1970s brought about yet another linkage of vegetarianism with other radical, subversive positions including second-wave feminism and the anti-nuclear movement, vegetarians, and especially vegetarian men, were once again figures of mockery and often enormous suspicion.
In the twenty-first century, we have ways of engaging in political discussion, activism, debate and satire that are a far cry from the limitations of copies of Punch circulated in print. Social media has provided us with a space that defeats some barriers to participation while creating new ones. Whether one regards social media as a positive, empowering development or an anti-social contradiction in terms (or, as is most likely to be the case, something between the two), it is clear to anyone who uses social media platforms that they have had a democratising effect on commentary about society and politics in the twenty-first century. For the growing number of vegetarians and vegans in the western world, it has provided a space for connection. While prominent vegetarians were meeting fellows from places including the United States and Germany in the nineteenth century, British vegetarians are now far better able to connect with their counterparts the world over, and the discussion about vegetarianism and veganism as a movement for better health, environmental defence and an expression of our ethical contract with the non-human animals who are killed for meat, crosses more boundaries than ever before. It is possible for more of us to see and learn about things in a way that encourages intellectual and emotional connection and more united acts of dissent.
In the last few years, the term ‘soyboy’ has emerged on social media, particularly on Twitter. While there has been some attempt by self-identified ‘soyboys’ to reclaim the term in an empowering way, and to claim vegetarianism and veganism as compatible with masculinity, it is, for the most part, deployed as a pejorative. Chiefly used by those with right-leaning politics as a way to lampoon and undermine the socio-political statements of men of left-leaning or liberal politics, ‘soyboy’ is an insult which alludes to meat-avoidance. It implies a man who chooses to consume soy instead of the more traditional meat-based fayre that is seen to typify men conforming to the dominant models of masculinity. These models still prevail today, albeit in the face of growing movements towards social justice activism and meat avoidance, respectively. Used derisively, we are to understand that the ‘soyboy’ is feminised, even unnatural, and his political judgement and validity weakened as a result. Meat-avoidance, then, again forms part of a variety of characteristics that disrupt the social and political status quo. Just as in 1851, the vegetarian man is frequently mocked in an attempt to defuse the threat he is believed to pose to socio-political structures. Interestingly, while many male vegetarians and vegans present their meat-avoidance as a deliberate, counter-cultural rejection of masculine stereotypes, there are also many examples of male meat-avoidance that reinforce those stereotypes rather than questioning them – there is still an aspirational ‘real man’, but now ‘real men’ avoid meat rather than eating it.
Nearly two centuries separate Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians from ‘soyboy’, along with an enormous difference in how we acquire information and share attitudes. Nor is it necessarily fair to imply that ‘soyboy’ and the Grand Show were or are equally pernicious or offensive. However, these two phenomena have something in common. Both emerge from fears and anxieties about men who disrupt the socio-political status quo in some way. The two examples embody anxieties about consumption and ingestion, national and gender identity, as well as the power of food to shape the human in myriad ways. Of course, vegetarian discourse itself has often colluded with notions of rationality as a desirable masculine trait – we need only refer to the constant preoccupation with situating vegetarianism as a benefit to Man and the frequent side-lining of ethical animal welfare concerns to see the truth of this. That we are what we eat – that we are either strengthened or weakened by it, physically and mentally - is not a new concept. The ways in which we consume ideas and negative stereotypes about meat-avoidance and radicalism still abound, and these have historically been used in attempts to undermine, both through open hostility and mockery, progressive political and social justice movements in general.
Adams, Carol J., The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Early History of the Vegetarian Society https://vegsoc.org/about-us/history-of-the-vegetarian-society-early-history/
Gregory, James, Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement in Nineteenth-century Britain, (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).
Preece, Rod, Sins of the Flesh: A History of Ethical Vegetarian Thought, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008).
Spencer, Colin, Vegetarianism: A History, (London: Grub Street, 2016).
Rebecca Jones is a PhD researcher in English at the University of Strathclyde. Her research uses theoretical approaches from ecofeminist animal studies to analyse masculinity, meat and species in fiction since the publication of Frankenstein in 1818. She is particularly interested in science fiction and fantasy texts.