A woman clad in tie-dye, with colorful beads threaded through her matted hair enters the screen of a popular TV show. Before she even opens her mouth, we can guess her role. She probably uses mind-altering drugs that have a comically analgesic effect. She is probably the secondary character, only appearing in one episode before the main characters become irritated with her incessant preaching. Most significantly assumed, however, is that she is probably a vegetarian.
Popular media most often portrayvegetarians as hippies, who are “horrendously uncool, self-absorbed, lazy, smelly, insufferably self-righteous, and possessing a philosophical outlook that falls somewhere between well-meaning obliviousness and outright dope-addled stupidity.” Despite this statement seeming harsh or being an exaggeration, there exist countless media examples that contribute to this stereotype, strengthening its effect. Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand, for example, completely embodies the role of a vegan hippie, as perceived by the public. Unabashedly rude and casually inappropriate, his character evokes a sort of uncomfortable laughter. A type of laughter that we know is wrong, but is otherwise uncontrollable. And, his veganism makes us all the more uncomfortable, as he exalts himself for his superior lifestyle, facilitating our characterization of Snow as a crazy, self-obsessed, jerk.
As with most stereotypes, a gender bias is prevalent. If these hippies are women, they are belligerent and harbor a deep hatred for other carnivores. Emotional in nature, this hatred is displayed through amusing outbursts of rage and sorrow. A perfect example of a “hippie vegetarian woman” depiction in the media comes from the popular show How I Met Your Mother. In one episode, when Ted, the main character, cannot remember a past girlfriend’s name, Lily names her the “disguisting smelly hippie.” Then, in the flashback, the “disguisting smelly hippie”, interrupts a celebratory toast at dinner to throw red sauce on the hibachi chef and yell, “meat is murder” before frantically running out. Although the awkward situation elicits amusement, this scene raises several questions about our perceptions through media stereotypes.
Much of comedy walks the fine line between comically overexaggerating the personalities of characters, and blatantly stereotyping them. Many movies and television shows are based on this type of humor, which ironically ridicules the ignorant stereotyper as much as the stereotyped group itself. However, the irony is sometimes clouded by the preposterousness of the stereotype, and, as a result, the audience begins to regard stereotypes as the truth. It’s admittedly easier. The view of characters in one-dimension is sometimes required by comedy shows and movies to achieve their primary goal of entertainment, but vegetarianism is one of the only attributes reserved for the obnoxious and strange. Rarely is a vegetarian character presented as socially normal and not used as a target for ridicule.
Despite the trend to scorn vegetarians in comedy, all who adopt vegetarianism are not necessarily presented negatively or as a minor character. In fact, one of TV’s most beloved characters is a self-proclaimed vegetarian: Phoebe Buffay from Friends. However, the stigma still persists: she may not be a disliked character, but she is definitely the most misplaced, representing vegetarianism as an odd and eclectic lifestyle. Characterized as naively optimistic and idealistic to a fault, Phoebe has been the target of several jokes regarding her vegetarianism. For example, when she craves meat during her pregnancy, she strikes a deal with Joey, another character on the show. According to the deal, Joey becomes vegetarian while Phoebe eats meat for the duration of her pregnancy, based on the logic that “no extra animals would be harmed.” The deal, although laughable, perfectly conveys the bias against vegetarianism as just a phase or a flimsy set of dietary guidelines. Although Phoebe remains a vegetarian throughout the series, recurring attacks on her lifestyle cause it to appear tenuous and inconvenient in the real world.
This assumption seems valid in a country with only 0.1% of its population identified as vegetarians. In fact, the majority of the television audience chuckles at these ignorant jokes without even realizing the impact of such stereotypes. The first step to acceptance, it is said, is realizing inherent ignorance and prejudice. However, popular culture, so crudely representing the 0.1%, has denied the minority a voice to even claim misrepresentation. The problem, however, is much bigger than the misrepresentation; it is that these stereotypes, with a lack of real-life examples to prove them wrong, actually appear true. We have all met intelligent cheerleaders, social geeks, and humble intellectuals that break down the oversimplified portrayals of secondary characters in comedies, but with so few members of vegetarianism and with a population so unaware of their participation in branding these members, the stigma against vegetarians remains and grows stronger.
As with any group, a few extreme cases exist, and due to the small population of vegetarians, these cases form lasting, and quite often, the only impressions, with the aid of popular television shows and movies. However, in reality, the majority of vegetarians and vegans are pacifists, who, like all with the desire to increase animal welfare, avoid violence and hostility. And, as the number of vegetarians grows, the stereotype will begin to degrade. As vegetarians begin to voice their concerns, hopefully, popular culture will shift from the portrayal as self-righteous, belligerent hippies to a character who has simply made a different lifestyle choice. Although the class of vegetarians include both venerable peacemakers like Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi and quarrelsome protesters, most fall somewhere in the middle, gently expressing their concern for animal welfare, their health, or the environment while leading normal lives, despite dietary restrictions. As Hazel Grace, a character from The Fault In Our Stars, so eloquently puts it, her choice to become a vegetarian is “to minimize the number of deaths [she is] responsible for.”