The Cultural Politics of Fur

The Cultural Politics of Fur

Book Review by Carol J. Adams

The Cultural Politics of Fur
by Julia V. Emberley

Cornell University Press, 1998

Emberley sees the anti-fur movement as an attempt by alienated middle-class whites to join, on their own terms, the progressive groups that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s.

This past October, The New York Times announced that fashion had resurrected fur. Look around and you’ll see it, too: the fur ads, the glossies — VogueElleHarper’s Bazaar, store windows, catalogs, society pages. It does indeed appear that fur is back.

“The anti-fur movement had its moment and spent itself,” opined scholar Julia Emberley when she was quoted in the Times article. Commenting on fashion’s revival of fur, she blamed the anti-fur movement: “Consumers have become cynical because the movement presented itself in a very morally self-righteous way. Many consumers feel that it is effectively an issue of consumer rights.”

Emberley, author of The Cultural Politics of Fur (which is more accurately the British and Canadian politics of fur), elaborates on this position in her book. After years of hearing from animal advocates that “fur is dead,” the fashion industry, driven by profits not ethics, of course, is seeking to reestablish the notion that fur is glamorous. “Heroin chic” has suffered a backlash, and fashion is now offering a revived hidebound fad. Pelting us with it, so to speak, as they proudly declare that fur is about “choice.” As they do so, they borrow language from the abortion rights movement to legitimize conspicuous consumption.

Perhaps fur’s new exoticism is directly connected to its bloody history. Maybe the message of fur is not only “I, as a consumer, have the right to make a choice about what I wear,” but also “I have the right to have others killed on my behalf.” Maybe fur is back precisely because the message that fur is dead has been heard and absorbed by fashion. But before we accept this thought-the complete amorality of consumers-let’s consider other explanations.

Perhaps it wasn’t effective for anti-fur activists to link their campaign to the issue of dead animals. Was the pitch to women on the street so confrontational that consumers couldn’t separate the message from ordinary street harassment? Did the message become yet more urban pollution to ignore? Couple that possibility with the recent financial wooing of fashion designers by the fur industry — which has spent millions of dollars to send designers, all expenses paid, to Europe to learn how to work with furs. The fur industry is sophisticated in finding the weak spots in the fashion world and manipulating them: young designers, the constant need to feed consumers something new; advertising dollars. Fad is fundamental to fashion, and this season, the newest must-have status symbol is clearly fur.

It’s harder to determine if fur is back to stay. There’s certainly an upsurge in fashion coverage and media attention right now. Fur sales are increasing-from $987 million in 1991 to $1.25 billion last year — but it has yet to be seen if they will rebound to the 1987 high of $1.8 billion. Since most of the companies in the fur industry are not publicly-owned, they don’t have to post their earnings. Significantly, a number of fur salons have closed in the last decade. And anti-fur activists have changed their tactics. Their confrontational actions now target stores rather than individuals, and their aim is to disrupt business. Civil disobedience strategies include activists chaining themselves to the doors of fur-selling department stores.

If fur is being revived as acceptable, even enviable fashion, then we must ask: Did the anti-fur movement fail to get its message out? Did we get it out only to have it usurped (“Fur is dead. So what? It looks good.”) Or is faddishness so compelling that activism will never prevail against the cultural pressures to imitate the celebrity look?

Emberley’s Cultural Politics of Fur places itself squarely in this area of the contested meaning of fur. The strength of her book is that it shows the complexity of the meaning of fur and how deeply it is part of our cultural history. We all know that fur is associated with wealth, and Emberley examines this history. In the Middle Ages, legislation in Britain, even now a bastion of class-consciousness, regulated which fabrics could be worn by the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. “This legislation was meant not so much to curb extravagance as to preserve certain commodities for the wealthy, ensuring that symbolic displays of wealth were reserved to the property-owning classes,” Emberley writes. In 1355 prostitutes were forbidden to wear fur. And wearing pelts became one way for aristocrats and bourgeois women to create “a symbolic code of female economic power that could be misread as identical with the economic and political realities of their husband’s material wealth and social power.” In the recent past, fur-wearing women were seen as symbols of their husband’s financial successes. Emberley tries to show that for women in earlier centuries fur-wearing was an attempt to negotiate not a reflective status vis-a-vis a man, but their own. Today, of course, that is also true. Modern advertising often suggests that a dress-for-success wardrobe for any professional — female or male — is incomplete without fur, and women are urged to purchase their own.

Fur is also sexual fetish, and Emberley examines this association as well. Fur provides tactile sensations, as well as feelings of mastery and control. Emberley proposes that “the fur-clad white woman fetishizes the fear of a masculine loss of power and authority.” She points out that in the 1980s the British anti-fur group Lynx used fetishistic pictures of fur-clad female tyrants in ads to portray fur-wearing women as indifferent to suffering. Thus whether she is a fetish fixation or a reprehensible symbol, “the fur-bearing woman, as a class unto herself, collectively [appears] as a cold and cruel monstrosity, an accessory to the crime, who would wear her capacity for terror and violence on her sleeve.”

When I first read Emberley’s book, I was disturbed by it for several reasons. To begin with, it’s burdened by a dense, academic style and long, convoluted sentences. Moreover, Emberley is rather careless in handling the reality of the anti-fur movement. She’s quick to damn the movement for ignoring the impact it has on the lives of Native trappers. She reminds readers that, “For northern indigenous peoples, fur trapping represents one means of material support, as well as a symbolic tie to traditional ways of life.”

Emberley sees the anti-fur movement as an attempt by alienated middle-class whites to join, on their own terms, the progressive groups that emerged in the 1970s and 80s. But this is a limited analysis. Emberley focuses on one British organization and makes it representative of all anti-fur politics. From this perspective, activists appear reactionary or moralistic and the movement look naive in its attempts to use the fashion industry to critique the fashion industry.

One would never know from reading her book that feminists have protested both the killing of animals for fur and sexism in the anti-fur movement. Yet we have. One would never know that animal defense organizations led by women — such as Friends of Animals — have pioneered nonsexist ads, for example: “Get a feel for fur. Slam your fingers in a car door.” And one would never know that there are Native Americans who protest the fur business and its effects on indigenous peoples.

The Native Animal Brotherhood has argued for many years that the fur industry is anti-traditional and that it was a primary force behind the historical subjugation of native peoples. They argue that the industry undermines the economics of the native environment by killing many small carnivorous animals rather than one large herbivore. (I learned of the Native Animal Brotherhood in the space of two phone calls and a few hours. This group is based in Canada, where the author resides. Emberley began her book in 1992, yet in all this time she has apparently not discovered their existence.)

As I reread Emberley’s book, I began to wonder if she herself is anti-fur but disturbed by the anti-fur movement’s limited approaches in the 1980s. Her book would then be an attempt to increase the sophistication of the anti-fur movement, to show us how completely fur is embedded in culture.

Emberley reminds us that in Northern Canada the First Nation’s lack of access to organized labor complicates the goal of eliminating the trapping of animals. She examines texts that “not only challenge the idea that the fur trade is a historical component of indigenous peoples’ lives, but also question whether the trade, in its present reality, would be necessary if Dene and Inuit women and men had access to organized labor.” If she had incorporated the efforts of the Native Animal Brotherhood in her book, her arguments would have been even stronger. Emberley mobilizes British history, film studies, literary studies and colonial studies to demonstrate how many-layered are the texts of fur: so that wealth, libido, and the “femme” as fur-wearer all coalesce. The “symbolic capital invested in this figure of the fur-clad bourgeois woman” is so enormous that anti-fur groups haven’t been able to let go of it even in their own ads.

For Emberley, fur has multiple meanings, but the anti-fur movement has only one representation: disturbing, dated advertisements from Britain. These ads never represented the entirety of the anti-fur movement, yet she grants them near-iconic status. In doing so, she freezes the anti-fur movement rather than allowing it a dynamic and changing nature. She does to the animal defense movement what she portrays it as doing: treating its target as one-dimensional.

Students of culture such as Emberley tell us that fur and the anti-fur movement are never solely about the animals. Well and good. Who would disagree with that? And it is important for us to recognize just how freighted the issue of fur is. But the issue of fur is never not about the animals, either. Can the determinedly fashionable fur-wearing woman be completely oblivious of the association between fur and the animals who die to provide it? Living, active rabbits, beavers, muskrats, foxes, raccoons, minks, lynx, otters, and other assorted fur-bearing animals are never mentioned in Emberley’s book.

Does this mean that the animals’ experience of fur is not part of “the cultural politics of fur”? Even if culture and fashion can neutralize the reality that fur is dead, what about the process of killing? Behind the trappings of fashion are leg-hold traps, anal electrocution, and neck-breaking. What Emberley proves, perhaps unintentionally, is that the barbarous methods of how turning fur into fashion are so explosive — for consumers of fur as well as consumers of culture — that they can’t circulate freely. Thus like the fur-bearing animals themselves, the meaning of fur remains trapped in a human context. Animal defenders are left to gnaw at the steel traps of cultural discourse.

Reviewed by Carol J. Adams, who co-edited two anthologies: Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations and Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals.