What’s the best way to use the modern factory farm as a metaphor? To describe the existential plight of prepubescent girls, according to Madoka Magica. We are led to think that this show is about cute aliens terrorising moe girls, until it throws us a curveball 11 episodes in, alluding to the classic vegetarian alien analogy.
Jonathan Safran Foer puts it this way: “If we were to one day encounter a form of life more powerful and intelligent than our own, and it regarded us as we regard fish, what would be our argument against being eaten?”
This is Kyubey’s exact line of reasoning. Humans don’t have any qualms about using animals as resources, so what right does Madoka have to tell him, a member of a vastly more advanced species, that using humans as resources is wrong?
We can think of every reason why humans are fundamentally different from animals (as the folks over at overthinkingmadoka.com have already done for us), but it doesn’t change anything. Just as a pig is more advanced than a fish than an insect, but we treat them the same anyway, it is always possible for an alien species to be so advanced that the differences between human and nonhuman animals are negligible. Sure, Kyubey feigns some semblance of ‘negotiation’ with his magical girl victims, but how is that any different from building slaughterhouses with winding paths and high walls, so that cows don’t see that they’re going to die until the very last moment?
So let’s say a highly advanced alien species descended on Earth. In that case, would we wish that the aliens were compassionate towards us? Or would we bow our heads and submit that the dominant species has every right to do anything it wants to the inferior one, because that’s the logic that we have been operating on?
I doubt that the show has a vegetarian agenda – or at least not one that I could find after 5 minutes of intense google-searching (which is enough for me because vegetarians tend to be very vocal about their vegetarian agendas). So why invoke the alien analogy? Perhaps the creators did this simply to add to the edginess of the show by alluding to real world horrors. Perhaps they thought that Kyubey likening humans to animals was such a ludicrous idea that it only served to make him seem more despicable.
Regardless, the comparison is quite astute. There are many disturbing similarities between Kyubey Energy Incorporated and Tyson Foods, and the ways in which we try to justify these industries. Here are some of them:
1. Reason equals supremacy. I’m sure many of us believe that humans are somehow more capable of enjoying life than animals because we can conceptualise and reason about it in abstract ways. Descartes thought that animals were nothing more than complex machines – unthinking, without personality, unable to value their lives. Vegans, in contrast, are seen as needlessly sentimental. Kyubey is almost a parody the Cartesian mode of thought. If reason equals supremacy, then it would logically follow (see what I did there?) that unadulterated reason equals godhood. Who needs emotion when you have freakin’ reason? Emotion does terrible things to you, like making you feel guilty about your actions.
2. It’s all for the greater good. Kyubey is a bona fide utilitarian, and that leads him to believe that inflicting suffering on one species is justified so long as the increase in pleasure/decrease in suffering of another outweighs it. When it comes to justifying the meat, egg and dairy industries, we obviously engage in this kind of reasoning as well.
3. It’s actually in the interest of the victims. Kyubey seems to think that humans wouldn’t mind being used as resources if it would preserve the life of the universe long enough for us to eventually become one of the dominant species as well (pfft, as if they would let us). At the same time, allowing teenage girls to live out their magical girl fantasies before they eventually crumble to despair and agony sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Likewise, Michael Pollan, in his unreasonably influential book, argues that we are doing animals a service by farming them because the life of a caged animal is not much worse than a life in the wild, and certainly much better than not existing in the first place.
4. It’s terribly inefficient.
Really, Kyubey? Really? Keep telling yourself that, bro.
Overall, however, I do think that Madoka Magica captures the sense of futility of being a farmed animal quite well. It is a crushing feeling to learn that all the emotional struggles of the main cast, from Sayaka’s dilemmas about altruism and self-interest to Homura’s attempts to protect Madoka at the cost of alienating herself, are all part of the ploy of a greater species that can’t even begin to understand any of these ramifications. Kyubey is oblivious, apathetic and foreign, but not evil. To him, humans are just a resource, nothing more. Unlike someone who deliberately commits moral transgressions, Kyubey simply doesn’t see the sense in introducing morality into the equation in the first place.
Whenever animals are rescued from factory farms, they are so traumatised that it takes a really long time for them to trust anyone again. They think that the world is out to harm them, and they are aggressive towards everyone. It is mind-boggling that the experiences that mean so much to them mean so little to most of us.
Perhaps this is best exemplified by Kyubey’s parting remark to Madoka.