Have you read a book (or watched a movie/show) lately that featured a vegan or vegetarian side character? Did you notice how they were characterized? Were they friendly? Or did they feel like an exaggerated version?
Here’s the thing: vegans have a bad reputation. It’s sad, but it’s true. We’re obnoxious, we push our beliefs on other people, we’re weird hippies, and somehow we’re also simultaneously ridiculously unhealthy – skin and bones from lack of protein! – and annoyingly health conscious, eating nothing but salads.
Unfortunately, these stereotypes frequently make their way into fiction.
A couple years ago, I was reading The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli. The premise sounded fun – “One devoted modern girl + a meddlesome, traditional grandmother = a heartwarming multicultural romantic comedy about finding love where you least expect it” – and I was excited to dive into the novel, as I’m nothing if not a lover of romantic comedies. In the book, Raina Anand allows her grandmother to play matchmaker, but, of course, all of her grandmother’s matches are duds. One of her earliest dates happens to be a vegan. While I would love to say that this man was a fabulous representation of what the vegan dating pool has to offer…he was not. He was the worst of all vegan stereotypes rolled into one: judgmental, rude, wouldn’t stop talking about WFPB foods…it was awful and immediately left a bad taste in my mouth, honestly ruining the reading experience for me.
A similar thing happened shortly after reading The Matchmaker’s List. It was another supposed romantic comedy, this time No Judgments by Meg Cabot. As it turns out, the title was a lie, as plenty of judgments abounded, some of which were directed at a character who is apparently vegan. At first, I had high hopes for this one; after all, a massive hurricane hits and “animal-loving Bree does become alarmed when she realizes how many islanders have been cut off from their beloved pets.” An animal lover? Nice! But as I was reading, this, uh, lovely exchange happened:
“She’s one of those ditsy yoga moms, doesn’t believe in vaccinations or television or public school.”
“Oh, that explains it. I thought she was on drugs.”
“No, just vegan.”
At this point, I should know better. Yes, just because someone is described/describes themselves as an “animal lover,” it doesn’t mean they’re vegan. But I’d expect them to be – I don’t know – somewhat nicer to people who are saving animals by leaving them out of their meals. Especially when this book is all about saving animals.
Can someone explain what this accomplishes? What are authors like Meg Cabot and Sonya Lalli trying to achieve with these characterizations? Are these moments supposed to be funny? “Haha! Aren’t vegans the worst?!”
Honestly, it’s low-hanging fruit at this point. It’s tired. It’s unnecessary. But authors are apparently okay with alienating a chunk of the world’s population. And it’s not just white vegans of the Western world that these authors end up alienating. It’s, for example, the 20-40% of people in India who identify as vegetarian. Authors assume that all readers have the same narrow-minded view of vegans and vegetarians as they do, and that’s simply not the case anymore.
Though only around 8% of the world (and probably under 2% in the United States specifically) call themselves vegan, the world is definitely changing. A whopping 54% of young Americans (age 23-39) identify as “flexitarians,” someone who is “someone who is semi-vegetarian but still occasionally eats meat.” These are people who have already been lured into the world of plant-based eating and may possibly switch to vegan or vegetarian full-time in the future. At any rate, they don’t have the horrifying view of veganism as some authors tend to.
With novels like Crazy Stupid Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams or Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert, which both feature vegetarian heroines, and Twice Shy, Sarah Hogle’s most recent novel whose hero is not only vegetarian but aspires to open up an animal sanctuary, I’m hopeful that authors are starting to see the error of their ways. I’m hopeful that as veganism becomes more mainstream, with how accessible options are, we will begin to see more positive vegan representation. More vegan or vegetarian protagonists, more vegan or vegetarian side characters that aren’t the villain, that don’t succumb to cheese or fish in a moment of weakness.
It’s 2021. It’s time to welcome meat-free main characters into your fiction.
Want to read more vegan- and animal-friendly books? Join Vegan Book Club, an online community for plant-based bookworms! Learn more about Read Vegan, Vegan Book Club’s upcoming zine dedicated to vegan literature, and send us a pitch!
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