PETA’s latest celebrity endorsement ad features R&B star and TLC member Rozonda Thomas, popularly known as Chilli. The PETA ad features Rozonda Thomas clad only in body paint behind the bars of a cage, the ad sends a series of mixed messages about women, sexuality, race, and lastly animal rights. PETA is no stranger to creating controversy with their ads. Just this summer the activist organization used 16-year-old singer-songwriter Samiya Najimy with the phrase, “Vegans go all the way” stamped across her body. PETA has a history of sexualizing and exploiting women in their ads for the sake of shock value.
This particular ad is no different and claims, “Beaten, lonely, and abused: Boycott the Circus” in big bold lettering. Not only is it a loaded image to have a woman of color painted and posing like an animal, it’s a whole other nasty can of worms to use equally loaded language. It is a staggering statistic that one in four women are victims of some form of domestic abuse and that the frequency of abuse is much higher amongst women of color. Come on PETA, think a little. It would be another ad if it were a campaign about abuse and the subject looked scared instead of sexy….but no, PETA is talking about animals. So what are you appropriating Chilli to here?
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It’s not the first time (oh far, far from it) that the intersection of gender, race, and nonhuman species have brought up debate. When Beyonce released the “Run The World (Girls)” video, academics and social critics alike flocked to the Internet to discuss how the video was/wasn’t feminist and how the imagery of a black woman in a desert landscape amongst jungle animals raised major questions about race and sexuality. Though the debate still continues, at least in the video the intersection of these topics has images of powerful women as opposed to powerless as often utilized by PETA.
The subtext of this latest PETA ad says, “Tigers in circuses are visciously struck with sticks to make them perform difficult and confusing tricks, and they’re confined to cages barely larger than their own bodies. Help stop this cruelty by never attending a circus that uses animals.” Okay, so that should have been the take-home message of the ad here. Problematically, we see instead, a woman of color directly imagined (no metaphor here) as a caged animal, a victim of abuse, and, yet, still posed for sexual gaze or pleasure.
In regards to the campaign and the issue of animal abuse in circuses, Chili explained to PETA, "If you can raise awareness to something that's important, such as this, then you should...Because I know for a fact that I would never want to be in a cage."
Maybe next time, listen to your endorsers, PETA.