- The Toxic Body Politic: Ethnicity, Gender, and Corrective Eco-Justice in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats and Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold’s Blue Vinyl
It is the winter of discontent for Jane Takagi-Little, the protagonist of Ruth L. Ozeki’s novel My Year of Meats (1998). Operation Desert Storm is raging in the Middle East, and she is an unemployed documentary filmmaker of mixed Japanese and Caucasian descent living in New York City’s East Village. A call comes in the night, and Jane, who defines herself as an opportunist and idealist, jumps at the chance to work on My American Wife, a weekly television series sponsored by the Beef Export and Trade Syndicate (BEEF-EX) geared toward Japanese housewives. This national lobby uses the show to market meat from the US to Japanese consumers who, until recent westernization, ate mostly rice and fish. With the advent of global capital, the lure of the “all-American” wife and her family preparing and eating “nourishing” meats signifies “wholesome values,” according to a tongue-in-cheek memo Jane writes to clarify the show’s purpose in her role as “cultural pimp” (9) or mediator between American and Japanese misconceptions of each other. The paradox is, as Jane explains, “the average Japanese wife finds a middle-to upper-middle class white American woman with two to three children to be both sufficiently exotic and yet reassuringly familiar” (13). But something is rotten in this equation.
In fact, this novel shows how the failure to make connections between consuming and desiring, whether it is the food we eat or the ethnic and racial images we exoticize, is dangerously naïve. Ozeki makes this connection by illuminating a direct and insidious relationship between meat production and environmental and public health issues, especially for women, children, persons of color, and the poor.1 Ozeki links corrupt market forces to the destructive deployment of stereotypes and power relations based on gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and nationality. In My Year of Meats, Jane narrates her “accidental” and yet uncanny discovery of the widespread use and dangers of hormones such as DES (diethylstilbestrol), which have been easy fixes for medical doctors, who prescribe it to pregnant women even in the knowledge that it does not prevent miscarriages, and ranchers, who illegally inject it into cattle on feedlots (part of the American factory-farming [End Page 43] process the novel documents). With pathos and humor, Ozeki’s work suggests the importance of environmental justice and ecofeminism as social movements and interrelated critiques that have the power to bring together seemingly disparate individuals in a global economy; the novel also makes a claim for a kind of environmental and social justice citizenship. Moreover, what we consider to be forces of globalization have transcended our sense of local and foreign, as transnational corporations have become “increasingly flagless and stateless, weaving global webs of production, commerce, culture and finance virtually unopposed” (Karliner 178). Yet consumer culture, writes Inderpal Grewal in her discussion of the link between biopolitics and geopolitics within colonial discourses of the US and Europe, “provided the modalities through which national and international belongings could be imagined, and resistant identities recognized” (17). What concerns Ozeki, in fact, are the ways in which ethical actions are made possible by the “affect” produced (Palumbo-Liu 60, 66) in those who “consume” media content and then engage in embodied coalitional politics.
Just as DES exposure motivates Ozeki’s protagonist to become a more environmentally conscious television producer, this same chemical also proves to be the toxic rite-of-initiation that prompts Jewish American filmmaker Judith Helfand and codirector Daniel B. Gold to make the documentary film Blue Vinyl (2002), a muckraking account of the discovery of the toxic processes in the manufacturing, consumption, and disposal of a common household product, polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Helfand, a DES daughter who had a hysterectomy at age twenty-five, had worked on George Stoney’s documentary The Uprising of 1934, which used oral histories to understand textile strikes in the southern US, merging issues of workers’ rights and family health and safety (Helfand, “Connecting” 121). Her first solo documentary, A Healthy...