In the opening sequence of episode 3 (“The Stall”) of the new hit murder mystery series Poker Face, the character George (Larry Brown), a Black pitmaster at a Texas roadside BBQ joint, stumbles guiltily and weepily from his trailer with a DVD copy of the film Okja gripped in his hand. The story of a young girl who takes on a powerful company that kidnaps her best friend, a super pig named Okja, has inspired a number of people to rethink eating animals, and George’s path is classic. For them, a film they’ve seen or a book they’ve read often creates a new framework for how they think about animals. Similar to a religious conversion, George abandons his old ways for the new, brought on by an external factor. That not only means a change in his diet, it means giving up the business that he shares with his white wife and brother, despite his fame as one of the best pitmasters in Texas.
The scriptwriter, executive story editor Wyatt Cain, could have easily gotten this conversion portrayal wrong. Television representations haven’t been kind to vegetarians and vegans. The Straw Vegetarian is a common TV Ttope, with examples that include Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons, Phoebe in Friends, and Penny on The Big Bang Theory. Characters who refrain from consuming animals are either mocked or portrayed as hypocrites and fanatics who wish to force everyone to eat kale. Very few well-rounded vegetarian or vegan characters exist.
George challenges the trope. Poker Face depicts his shift as an intimate exploration of identity transformation that Cain takes seriously. And that transformation is often a threat. George’s wife and his brother murder him once he decides to go vegan because his veganism is a threat to their small BBQ business. To American agriculture. To the constructed whiteness of the stereotypical Texan identity. Cain reveals the hatred and, in extreme cases, violence vegans face, particularly Black American vegans. From the use of irony to the characterization of a scene-stealing “fascist dog” in the episode, Cain reveals the complex entanglement between humans and animals, and in doing so, for perhaps one of the few times in television history serves up an episode filled with a vegan sensibility that provides viewers with a more authentic representation.
Poker Face is a classic murder mystery featuring Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale, a human lie detector. In each mystery of the week, Cale uses her skills to uncover and bring the culprits to justice. The victim is introduced in the opening of each episode, providing viewers with the crime’s background, including the killers’ motivations. Interestingly, in this episode, Cale is the catalyst. Once she sees George’s small trailer on the wide, open landscape, she worries he will get bored. She provides him with DVDs—Okja, but also tellingly, Babe, a story of a pig on a family farm, and Charlotte’s Web, a story of a farm spider trying to save a pig from slaughter. While George’s conversion is accidental on her part, she is the only character who supports him. Cain establishes how much of an outsider a vegan feels in a non-vegan world, and this outsider status threatens their being. Rejecting that non-vegan world, George tells Charlie after his viewings, “I’m a murderer.” When he says he told his brother he was “out” she says, “Good for you. You know, it took guts to do that”.
Turning vegan isn’t good news for George’s brother, Taffy, played by the charming Lil Rel Howery. As a Black man who wears a cowboy hat, a bolo tie, a denim shirt, and a vest, he defies the stereotypical white Texan identity. Yet, Texas culture accepts him because of the particular ways he bolsters the state’s meat culture—he hosts a popular radio show praising meat and has a shady big beef rub deal he’s trying to close. A vegan brother doesn’t fit the Texas narrative he’s constructed for himself. Plus, Taffy is broke. After George tells him not to worry, Taffy will be able to buy him out. Taffy exclaims, “I don’t save like you do!” George tells him he’s called a banker to manage the buyout. He’ll go over the books, but as the audience knows from the opening, Taffy’s been skimming.
With obvious irony, this setup scene takes place in a meat locker, between hanging carcasses of pigs and cows. The audience can practically smell death. Taffy fails to care for the animals turned into commodities for the BBQ joint and fails to truly see and understand his brother. Within a couple of hours, he will turn George into mere meat. In the scene, Taffy tries to convince George to remain in the BBQ biz, and George justifies his decision by saying he no longer wishes to be a part of “the self-perpetuating cycle of endless cruelty”. Unlike Taffy, George sees the meat for what it truly is.
Recent critical theory work has begun to do the same. In one of the foundational texts of vegan studies, The Sexual Politics of Meat, vegan feminist Carol J. Adams says that animals are made absent through butchering. But the animal doesn’t have to remain absent. While surrounded by this absence, the conflict between the two brothers in Poker Face compels the audience to see beyond the meat, as George does.
George’s murder implies that seeing the animal behind the meat is dangerous. Despite the diet’s growth (vegetarians and vegans now make up about six percent of the American population), those who refrain from eating animals face serious backlash, so much so that there’s now a term for it: vegaphobia. In Great Briton, for example, the police there recorded 172 hate crimes against vegans from 2015 to 2020. An entire subgroup on Reddit, “Against the cult of veganism”, is devoted to gleefully disparaging them. Members of the Alt-Right have created a battle between plant-based milk and dairy milk, zealously insisting that drinking soy milk is a threat to white masculine supremacy.
I don’t wish, however, to suggest all vegans are victims. The issue isn’t so clear-cut. Hitler was a vegetarian, after all, and a surprising number of the Alt-Right and Neo-Nazis are vegan, staking a white claim to land and nature. For the most part, however, when vegans identify themselves and explain their reasoning to those who are carnivores, they call into question a long history of exploitation, both animal and human, and it’s a history that many don’t like to think about.
A perfect example occurs in another recent popular show, Yellowstone. In season 5, episode 5, “Watch ‘Em Ride Away”, a vegan environmental activist from Portland, Summer Higgins, played by Piper Perabo, is arrested for protesting animal slaughter on ranches in Montana. Patriarchal cattle rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) befriends her and they flirt. She comes to live at the ranch to serve out the remainder of a prison sentence, an act Dutton is able to perform as the now-elect Governor. The Yellowstone co-creators, Taylor Sheridan and John Linson, suggest that Dutton wants Summer to see him as someone who cares for the environment as she does, hoping she may influence others.
That proves difficult. In episode 5, Summer antagonizes the Dutton family about eating meat at dinner. Unruly and take-no-shit, Dutton’s daughter Beth takes the outspoken and “rude” vegan outside, where she punches Summer in the face. A fistfight ensues, bloodying both women. This gives Sheridan and Linson, the writers of the episode, an opportunity to suggest how easily vegans could be swayed to the Dutton way of life and thinking. As soon as Summer returns to the table from the fight, she plops a pile of mashed potatoes on her plate. Beth, who’s seemingly impressed by how the “hippie” Summer held her own, says, “Wait. There may be butter in that.” Summer says, “Fuck it” and shoves a spoonful in her mouth. For Beth and the other Duttons, the taming is necessary.
Cows played, and continue to play, a central role in the economic growth of the United States, particularly in a place like the Duttons’ Montana. The Duttons will accept environmentalism up to a point, but only on their terms. Summer represents all who the Duttons believe want to take their wealth and land. Later in the episode, she even assists in cattle branding. She’s been broken, ironically, like a horse.
George and Taffy’s BBQ joint is tied up in similar wealth. Texas has the most cattle in the United States. It’s interesting to examine the episode of Yellowstone alongside Poker Face‘s “The Stall”. Is it fair to contrast the two? Poker Face is a comedic mystery drama, while Yellowstone, a soap opera, relies on stereotypes, and Summer’s dinner table lecture is a vegan stereotype. While this tirade results in a brutal beating, it doesn’t result in murder. So why does George have to die and not Summer? Because as a Black vegan, George is considered more of a threat to white American culture than Summer Higgins, and this is where Poker Face provides a far more complex vegan representation than Yellowstone, a representation that examines both race and food.
George’s rejection of Taffy’s way of life isn’t just about diet. Taffy’s affect – his denim clothing, even his full-size pickup – reads stereotypical, white Texan. On the one hand, this characterization illustrates that he’s not distinct from white people; he, too, can enjoy the Texas aesthetic. However, Taffy is steeped in the muck of agricultural wealth, and this, and perhaps only this, has allowed white Texans to allow him in their club. George’s rejection of meat could mean Taffy’s expulsion from that club.
George isn’t alone. Black veganism is on the rise. Meat-eating is a food culture that a large number of Black people have been rejecting. Indeed, Black vegans out pace white ones in their conversion – about eight percent of Black Americans identify as vegan versus three percent of all Americans, according to a Pew Research Poll. For some Black Americans, it means a return to some of the foods from their ancestors of the African Diaspora. But, more importantly, according to vegan activists of color Aph Ko and Syl Ko, in their 2017 book Aphro-Ism, speciesism, which means treating members of one species more important than members of another species, is responsible for not only the oppression of animals but the perpetuation of racism as well. When speciesism is questioned and fought, all humans and animals can have liberation.
In Poker Face, speciesism collapses. A stray dog jumps into her car when Charlie Cale stops for gas near George and Taffy’s BBQ joint near the beginning of the episode. She attempts to remove the dog, but he snaps and barks, forcing her to drive off with the dog in her passenger seat. As they drive, the dog continually barks until Charlie finds a soothing radio station, an Alt-Right talk radio show—the only station that will calm him. A “fascist dog”, Charlie calls him, sighing and then attempting to change the station. But the dog paws the radio knob, demanding her not to change the channel. Each of these actions is framed as the dog’s choice. The dog is sentient, and that sentience results in a blurring of the line between human and animal.
The dog’s ultimate choice is his attempt to save George. Viewers are used to seeing a human saving an animal, not the other way around. When Charlie shows up at the BBQ joint, George is the only human the dog responds to: He immediately kneels down to the dog’s level and pets him. The dog appears right before the murder and fiercely protects this bond by barking loudly. (The BBQ joint patrons are only across the field.) By barking, the “fascist dog” then attempts to stop Taffy from leaking gas into the trailer, where his brother is passed out from the drugged bottle of beer slipped to him. Taffy uses a BBQ pit log to beat the dog. Believing he’s killed the animal, he rushes the dog to the side of the road in hopes a driver may believe he was just hit by a car. Taffy illustrates that someone who harms animals will find it easy to also harm a human being. This isn’t meant to imply that Black American suffering and oppression are equal to animal suffering and oppression but are intimately interlocked.
George’s compassion inspires Charlie to save what she calls the annoying “MAGA dog”, and she takes him to a vet, who discovers a splinter, leading Charlie to investigate George’s murder. The dog is part hero, an essential side-kick to Charlie’s lie detector skills, and is rewarded at the end. The final shot of the episode shows the dog curled in blankets next to the feet of the Alt-Right radio talk show host, who is, as Charlie learns during the course of her investigation, a Black actor who performs a variety of radio voices and doesn’t believe anything he spouts. The dog, smarter than Charlie, isn’t racist after all. Instead, the dog understands far more than she does.
George’s understanding of the intimate connection between humans and animals helps to convert him to veganism. Will the vegan feeling of Poker Face convert some viewers to veganism? Just maybe.
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Continuum. January 1990.
Alam, Anam. “Veganism-related hate crimes are on the rise in Britain”. The Vegan Review. 8 August 2020.
de Coning, Alexis. “Why So Many White Supremacists Are into Veganism”. Vice. 22 October 2017.
de Visé, Daniel. “Vegetarianism is on the rise — especially the part-time kind”. The Hill. 23 November 2022.
Gambert, Iselin and Linné, Tobias. “How the alt-right uses milk to promote white supremacy”. The Conversation. 26 April 2018.
Ko, Aph and Ko, Syl. Aphro-Ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters. Burning Books. June 2017.
Mercer, Amirah. “A Homecoming“. Eater. 14 January 2021.
Rao, Vidya. “Black and vegan: Why so many Black Americans are embracing the plant-based life”. Today. 26 February 2021.