In 2019, let’s be honest: vegans are everywhere. We’re out in droves purchasing Burger King’s Impossible Whopper (no mayo, please!), we’re on the front lines marching for animal rights in New York City, we’re at the forefront of climate strikes. In some way,s “vegan” can still be a dirty word, but in others, it’s no longer the taboo it once was.
Unfortunately, there’s one place vegans aren’t: television.
Sure, vegan chefs may get featured on morning shows, and vegan actresses might get roles on popular sitcoms, but TV is really lacking strong vegan representation. Fortunately, there is one show that is beginning to get things right.
NBC’s Superstore, a sitcom featuring a wide variety of characters working in a Walmart-esque store, has been welcoming to veganism. In fact, you shouldn’t be surprised if you see a veg-friendly brand in the background of a scene taking place in the frozen foods section. However, the show does take it a step further by including a vegan character: Dina Fox, an atypical assistant manager.
Not only is Dina vegan, but she is one of Superstore‘s main characters. By writing such a character, Superstore, whether intentionally or not, helps normalize veganism and make the entire lifestyle more appealing and accessible.
Vegan Representation in Other Comedies
It’s very apparent that veganism isn’t often presented in a positive light in media, unless that media is created by vegans. It’s unfortunate: we see vegan stereotypes constantly reinforced. This is never good, as it reflects poorly on the vegan community and the movement as a whole.
So how exactly has television (and film) presented vegans and vegetarians in the past?
Lisa Simpson is perhaps television’s most known vegetarian. When The Simpsons wanted Paul McCartney on the show, they created a story where Lisa is horrified by the thought of eating meat and learns about vegetarianism. McCartney agreed to lend his voice and name to the show on one condition: Lisa would have to remain vegetarian. And she has, which is great, but it hasn’t always been pretty.
In that particular episode, Lisa is mocked for her distaste for meat. Her family has one thing to say to her: “You don’t win friends with salad.” When she brings a meat alternative to a barbeque, guests laugh in her face. She’s even labeled as an “agitator” at school because she asked for a vegetarian dish to be available in the cafeteria. In that episode, Lisa essentially learns that…she should keep her vegetarianism to herself.
Similar reactions are seen in Gilmore Girls. Mrs. Kim is a strict Seventh-day Adventist and vegan. While her religious views can definitely be seen as problematic in the show, her veganism should not be. But, unsurprisingly, it is for many of the show’s characters. Her daughter, Lane, sneaks non-vegan food into her diet, and, when Lorelai and Rory are at Mrs. Kim’s Thanksgiving dinner, they are horrified to learn she is serving tofurkey.
A more recent example is How I Met Your Mother. The show features a few different vegan side characters, none of which are particularly, well, good. For example, one of Ted’s former girlfriends has a vegan relative. She’s portrayed as an obnoxious hippie, immediately painting all vegans with the same brush. Even worse, she was never really vegan: once her relationship ends, she is more than ready to start eating meat again, which presents veganism as a temporary state. That’s it. That’s the joke.
Later in the series, Marshall works for an environmental organization, and we eventually learn that his boss is vegan at Marshall and Lily’s housewarming party. How do we find this out? He starts a fight with Ted when he realizes the vegan spring rolls have all been eaten.
In all of these examples, we don’t see vegans in the best light. As a result, it allows the average viewer to not only stereotype all vegans but mock them as well for their lifestyle and diet choices.
Dina the Vegan
In Superstore, we see something different. Dina Fox, an employee at Cloud Nine, is open about her veganism. She uses it to distract people, talking endlessly about the different varieties of plant-based cheeses (“We’re in a nut cheese renaissance” was apparently improvised by actress Lauren Ash) to help her co-workers. She’s an animal lover, especially when it comes to her birds, whom she treats as her children.
We see her at restaurants and eating (she knows the struggle of fries being the only vegan option), and, while in one episode, we see her break her vegan vow (in an effort to salvage Amy’s horrible Golden Globe’s party, she eats raw chicken), it doesn’t mark return to meat for her. Instead, the scene is a moment of anguish and is really hard to watch, as she cries and has a breakdown with each bite.
After this scene, Dina doesn’t realize how much she missed meat. She doesn’t admit that the chicken tasted delicious. She doesn’t announce a return to meat-eating. She doesn’t do any of the things so many non-vegans think vegans would (or should) do. We never see her consume meat again because she knows how horrible it is. Nobody mocks her for this lapse, and no one seems to bring it up again. Despite that act – an act that can be interpreted as a moment of compassion for a friend – Dina is still vegan and people respect that.
Apart from that, her veganism is only casually mentioned on the show because, most of the time, it doesn’t have to be mentioned. She doesn’t push her vegan views on her co-workers, and she generally only brings them up if it’s relevant to the conversation. Because there is more to Dina than being vegan, just as there is more to every other vegan.
Why Is Superstore’s Vegan Characterization So Important?
While Dina is an open and proud vegan, she isn’t pushy. She doesn’t shove it in other people’s faces, and the writers don’t use her veganism as a means to mock others. Sure, her being vegan is used for jokes (see the aforementioned nut cheese spiel), but those jokes are not being made at the expense of Dina or other vegans.
Being vegan is just one facet of Dina’s character. She’s also a bird lady (as opposed to the other often stereotyped cat lady), a gun-lover, and a no-nonsense assistant store manager. None of these things (especially being a gun-lover) scream “vegan,” they don’t necessarily fit the stereotype, yet that doesn’t make her any less of a vegan.
Dina is never presented as “the vegan.” Instead, she is portrayed as a human being with a variety of interests, quirks, and traits. Cloud Nine’s Assistant Store Manager is tough, she can be mean and cruel, careless of other people’s feelings and boundaries, but she’s real. She is flawed – at times deeply flawed – but her flaws, her negative traits, and bad behavior do not include being vegan, which is unlike most other veg*n characters in media.
Perhaps most importantly, Dina’s veganism is accepted and respected. Her co-workers don’t disrespect this particular choice of hers. She’s not viewed as weird for being vegan (she’s certainly viewed as weird for other things though). Everyone lets Dina be because, although they are not vegan themselves, they recognize that her being vegan is harmless. And besides, Dina’s co-workers have plenty of other things to criticize.
What Can Other Shows Learn From Superstore?
Superstore is great for vegans because Dina is such a well-rounded character. Other shows that feature vegans put them in very specific categories: they’re annoying, they’re preachy, they’re hippies. No one likes them.
But viewers like Dina! American audiences like a vegan character! Amazing, isn’t it?
So should other shows do the same? Absolutely. Introduce a vegan character (ideally one that isn’t annoying and preachy). Write a story where one of your characters embrace veganism. Have a character reference being vegan – and have been vegan this whole time without audiences knowing it.
It’s that simple.
Being vegan doesn’t have to be their only trait, but having it be one part of their character, no matter how minor, can benefit real vegans everywhere.