Pets or Meat
21 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2005
The central question to be explored in this essay is whether and when commingling commodification with affection can be more problematic than naked commodification. The notion that it is problematic to allow commodification to leach into certain realms thought of as properly the domain of affection, the notion that such realms simply should not be commodified, is a familiar one, central to policy debates on matters such as the legalization of prostitution, premarital agreements, and organ donation. The concern here is with the possibility and danger of leaching in the opposite direction, with what happens when affection is commingled with a transaction whose commodification is taken as a given. The title is taken from the scene in the Michael Moore film Roger and Me depicting the marketing of rabbits. Moore spots a crudely hand-lettered sign offering, "Rabbits or Bunnies, Pets or Meat for Sale." The female entrepreneur who posted this sign takes Moore around back to cages full of live rabbits of various ages and makes clear the choice she's offering her customers: pets or meat, you decide. If a customer wants rabbits as meat, she will provide them slaughtered and dressed; on the other hand, a customer who wants rabbits as pets, can buy them, think of them as bunnies, and take them home as pets. "Pets or meat" is an interesting way of framing the question, because the choice being presented is importantly not one between commodification and noncommodification, but between two fully commodified transactions. To the potential customers of the roadside stand, both the meat and the pets are available exclusively for purchase. Yet, in one case, and not necessarily in the other, the commodification is commingled with affection.
The dynamic at issue, the potential commingling of commodification with affection, is common in human relations with other animals from lab and farm animals to pets. It is also common in pink collar work: consider, for example, the secretary who is given flowers instead of a bonus or the housekeeper whose employer insists she is "one of the family." Each of these cases we today think of as troubling, although it is not clear that more naked commodification of personal services would be preferable. Finally, the dynamic is common in situations where what is in question is the commodification of affection itself. Two related problematic assumptions are at issue here: where love is present there is no bargaining and one must not bargain about love. Of course, we do bargain about love all the time. While laws against prostitution may say that money may not legally buy certain kinds of love, we do, well within the bounds of the law, explicitly bargain and pay for other kinds of love. One question posed in the piece is why do we not think of nannies as mistresses and babysitters as hookers.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation