Food and gender through the context of the media

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Before the Neolithic revolution most humans lived in hunter/gatherer societies. It was the role of men to hunt and provide the meat and other salvageable animal products that were needed in those times for the survival of the group as a whole. Another role of men was to protect the women and children of the group from any outside threats. It was the role of women to rear children, prepare and cook foods, craft from animal product and other natural materials, and to gather plant based food and water. This ideological explanation of past gender roles is widely accepted. From this root grew the idea of women belonging in the kitchen cooking for men, the idea of men providing the meat, patriarchal meat eating, and the idea of the aggressive male protector. Because food is needed for human survival, these types of gender roles originate from a system based upon the obtainment of foods and other natural materials. These ideological gender roles are still present, enforced, and policed within our society today.

Food related gender roles are not the only way food is gendered. Certain types of food are literally assigned gender through the masculation and feminization of foods; in conjunction women are animalized and animals are sexualized, creating the subconscious thought that women, animals, and food are all equal items for male consumption. Have you ever participated in or heard someone making some type of penis reference about a hot dog or sausage? Have you ever heard female breasts referred to as melons? The media is responsible for implementing and maintaining these types of stereotypical food based gender associations.

Through the media: food based gender roles, the consumption and preparation of food, the equation of women to food, the animalization of women and sexualization of animals, and the masculation and feminization of food are all part of the socially constructed ideology of gendered food.

For centuries it has been the role of women to prepare and cook most foods for the group or family, while it has been the role of men to hunt and provide food for the group or family. These past gender roles are used to institute modern ideas of gender roles which are enforced by the media. The sitcom (situational comedy) style of television programming is normally used to display the ideal image of the nuclear family. In many sitcoms you will notice the wife character is usually in the kitchen cooking or serving the man in some form. On certain occasions, such as Independence Day themed episodes, you may notice that the husband character takes up the cooking. This type of masculine cooking display is always the cooking of meat, outside on a grill. Sometimes the woman will be permitted to cook the meat as long as the man is the one serving it to the family; this usually occurs on Thanksgiving or Christmas themed episodes. This act of serving the meat symbolizes the age old masculine gender role of the man as the hunter and provider of meat. He slices the meat and gives it to his family to show that he has the strength that brought down the wild beast that they are about to consume, reinforcing the idea that his brute power is needed for the family’s survival and continuity. However, it is ironic that in modern times it is the woman who is expected to go out and buy the pre-slaughtered and butchered meat that the family consumes. It is ironic that the man partakes in “traditions” that are symbolizations of acts that he does not actually commit. He is always portrayed to be without conflict, taking all of the credit.

During an interview with gender and diversity studies graduate student Veronica Limberry, she stated that:

Western history constructs men as being the hunters, so from our own historical perceptions of ourselves, men kill things to provide meat. Stemming from that, adverstising today provides us with men being associated with hamburgers, and manly meals always involving meat. I think that’s why we see men cooking meat, because if men aren’t associated with meat then they are not being manly. If a man was in the kitchen, which is where we most often see women, it would associate him with being a woman. 

This makes perfect sense because as stated in Gendered Lives by Julia T. Wood, in reference to male gender development, “The prime directive is don’t be female. The most fundamental requirement for manhood is not being womanly” (Wood 180). This is explains why it is acceptable for men to cook the meat, when cooking is normally associated with women. Meat is a symbol of masculine virility, therefore it is for men and preparing and cooking meat is acceptable when done by or for a man. Meat is a constant for men and it is intermittent for women, this pattern is painfully observed in famine situations today. In a global perspective women are starving at a rate disproportionate to men. Ethiopian women and girls are obliged to prepare two meals, one for the males and a second, usually containing no meat or other substantial protein, for the females (Adams 48). This notion is exemplified in the famous speech Ain’t I a Woman by Sojourner Truth when she stated, “I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?” (Truth Lecture), acknowledging that women have less access to food than men. This should give you an idea of just how much meat and masculinity are intertwined. These food based gender roles and stereotypical ideas of food and gender identity are fully implemented by advertising within the media. This is why you see ads for convenience foods with tired and over worked women in the kitchen, and why you see ads featuring men having fun cooking hot dogs on the grill out in the open air. In the Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams points out how these roles have been implemented in even our earliest forms of media illustrating that, “Fairy tales initiate us at an early age into the dynamics of eating and sex roles. The king in his counting house ate four-and-twenty blackbirds in a pie while the queen ate bread and honey” (Adams 49).

The marketing of food is also gendered. Basically anything that is not sold in a grocery store, such as fast food, is marketed towards women. You will usually see ads that tell women their product will make cooking for the family more convenient. These ads always feature a woman who is over worked and then is saved by the product that makes her and her family happy. In Katherine Parkins’ book Food is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, she informs us that:

Even though advertisers commissioned countless research studies to evaluate female consumers, food advertisers frequently neglected their findings and almost exclusively marketed their foods to women using a traditional guise. In order to maintain and stimulate their base, advertisers preyed on women’s insecurities, lavished them with false praise, and encouraged an entitlement to free time to necessitate convenience foods. (Parkins 77)

This makes sense because it is easier to manipulate someone by taking advantage of their socially conditioned insecurities than with the truth. The same concept applies to the masculine marketing of meat. In numerous ads I have seen tofu and vegetables referred to as “chick food” and meat products labeled as manly. A great exemplification of this can be found in a Hummer advertisement featuring a scrawny man buying tofu. As the man picks up his tofu, he witnesses another man who is tall and muscular buying steaks. In an attempt to regain his masculinity he rushes out and immediately purchases a Hummer.

The gendering of food goes beyond the classic and stereotypical food based gender roles of past and present. These types of gender role ideas have been long discussed in feminist theory. In order to fully decipher and decode the perpetuations instilled in us by the media, we must recognize that women are equated with foods and animals. “Women are often trivialized by language. They are frequently demeaned by metaphors that equate them with food (dish, feast for the eyes, good enough to eat, cheesecake, cookie, cupcake, hot tomato, honey pie) and animals (chick, pig, dog, cow , bitch)” (Wood 117). While researching this trend in the field I also heard more vulgar references to women’s genitalia such as pussy, roast beef, and meat curtains. My research leaves me to believe that Wood was rather modest in her listing of terms equating women with animals and food. When discussing the equating of women to animals and food it is important to understand that women and animals often become absent referents.

When you replace the meaning of a word that refers to someone with a word that refers to “something else," that “something else” becomes a kind of absent referent. The most obvious instance I can exemplify is the usage of the word bitch to describe women. Here the actual bitch (female dog) becomes the absent referent. Carol J. Adams uses the term absent referent to help explain a psycho-social detachment that occurs within meat-eaters by saying that in meat the absent referent is animal death. Adams goes on to explain:

The animals have become absent referents, whose fate is transmuted into a metaphor for someone else’s existence or fate. Metaphorically, the absent referent can be anything whose original meaning is undercut as it is absorbed into a different hierarchy of meaning; in this case the original meaning of animals’ fates is absorbed into a human-centered hierarchy. Specifically in regard to rape victims and battered women, the death experiences of animals acts to illustrate the lived experience of women.

The absent referent is both there and not there. It is there through inference, but its meaningfulness reflects only upon what it refers to because the originating, literal, experience that contributes the meaning is not there. We fail to accord this absent referent its own existence. (Adams 67)

This should give you an idea of how to begin understanding absent referents dealing with food and gender through the context of the media.

It is also important to understand that women are animalized and animals are sexualized when discussing the equation of women to food and animals. This means that women are portrayed as animals and that animals are given feminine characteristics and portrayed as sex objects. On the Ludacris album cover for Chicken and Beer, Ludacris is featured behind a plate of dead chicken’s wings; he his holding up a woman’s leg and sprinkling salt on her skin as he prepares to consume the human female leg. This symbolizes that there is no difference between the “food” on his plate and the female body part in his hands. In this instance animal oppression and the oppression of women both become the absent referents. Understanding the equation of women to food and animals, absent referents, and the animalization of women and sexualization of animals, we can now observe that through the use of absent referents women, animals, and other minorities have been made into objects that are easily interchangeable for the consumption of the dominant patriarchal culture. This is a social construction that is completely enforced by advertising and the media as I exemplified using the Ludacris album cover. In an exclusive interview with Carol J. Adams I asked her, “Why are we equating women to animals and food?” She responded by saying that in order to maintain dominance, the dominant white male culture equates those who are not dominant with each other (Adams Interview).

We have embraced how historically and modernly food is gendered through the assignment of gender roles. We have also discussed how women are animalized and equated with foods. In these ways foods are masculated and feminized, but the foods are also literally masculated and feminized. As a result of historical and stereotypical genderings based on food, food has come to be gendered as well. With vegetables becoming the symbol for female passivity and meat becoming the symbol of the dominant male, we have learned how some foods are for men and others are for women. In modern times the media is responsible for upholding while policing and enforcing these ideas. We have come to see food items such as melons and milk jugs to represent female breasts, while penises have come to be represented by sausage type foods and meat in general. You can see this trend occurring often in fast food advertisements. In one Burger King ad, they are advertising a sandwich called the “Super Seven-Incher." The ad features a woman with an open mouth presented with a phallic sandwich representing a penis. The ad reads, “It’ll blow your mind!” The sexual innuendo is obvious and intended. This is just one example from many. The media is so successful in its masculation and feminization of food that people within our culture literally cannot look at a hot dog without seeing a penis. In a popular movie entitled American Pie, a young man attempts to have sex with a pie because he is told by a peer that a woman’s vagina is like warm apple pie. Pies are usually associated with vaginas. Here we have women being equated with food that is equated with female genitalia. We can now understand how the entire concept of women being equated with food and animals is deeply intertwined with the literal masculation and feminization of food.

Observing how the media has skewed our image of women and food and animals, metaphorically putting them on the same plate, some women choose to actively and knowingly participate in the patriarchal treatment of women and eating of meat. Ariel Levy defines these women as female chauvinist pigs. A female chauvinist pig is a woman who participates in dominant male culture, attempting to exclude herself from the women who are being oppressed. They find enjoyment in the exploitation and objectification of women. In reference to female chauvinist pigs’ participation with the sex industry culture, Levy argues, “While the FCP shuns girly-girls (the type of woman an FCP despises) from her social life, she is fixated on them for her entertainment. Nobody has to wax as much as porn star, and most strippers wouldn’t be caught dead without a manicure. Weirdly, these are the women (the ultimate girly-girls) who FCPs spend their time thinking about” (Levy 101). This same concept can be applied to women who participate in masculine meat eating and adhere to the equation of women to animals and food. It makes sense that a woman who knowingly consumes a product that hurts women, and uses language oppressive to women, could also be labeled as a female chauvinist pig seeing as meat is used to exploit and objectify women. Levy goes on to state:

There’s just one thing: Even if you are a woman who achieves the ultimate and becomes like a man, you will still always be like a woman. And as long as womanhood is thought of as something to escape from, something less than manhood, you will be thought less of, too.
It can be fun to feel exceptional, to have a whole power thing, to be an honorary man. But if you are the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven’t made any progress. (Levy 112, 117)

This is a statement that I could not agree more with. Problematically, you may have recognized within the term itself, “female chauvinist pig," there is an absent referent: an actual pig who has been attached negative connotations referring to masculinity.

We have women as animals, we have women as food, and we have hot dog penises and vaginal pies. We have women at the stove, we have men on the grill, and we have men defined by meat and women defined by domesticity and sex appeal. We have women as the meat the men are eating made by women for men who killed the meat and even women participating in role of the oppressor. It's like an endless cycle that almost doesn't even make sense. However, there is a way we can make sense of it all: by setting aside what we have been conditioned to accept; by realizing and making the connection to animal and human oppression and taking a stand to say "no more”; by educating ourselves further on the issues so we can come to understand how powerful the media is in shaping who we are and then pushing it back. Perhaps then we can create a humane and peaceful world, just as the one labeled as a monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein envisioned:

My food is not that of a man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human. (qtd. In Adams 150)

Works Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: a Feminist-vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.
"Interviewing Carol J. Adams." Telephone interview. Dec. 2011. Web.
"Interviewing Veronica Limeberry." Personal interview. Nov. 2011. Web.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free, 2006. Print.
Parkin, Katherine J. Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2006. Print.
Truth, Sojourner. "Ain't I a Woman." Speech. Women's Convention. Akron Ohio. 1851. Web.
Wood, Julia T. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.

Steven Garnett | Blog |Facebook | @stevengarnett
Tennessee Steven is currently pursuing a B.A. in women's studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the founder of Vegans and Vegetarians of the Tri-Cities and the graphic designer for Build It Up East TN. Steven is a vegan, active feminist, and environmentalist. He enjoys film, art, and delicious vegan cuisine and wishes to educate others about oppression, regardless if it's animal oppression or human oppression. He also writes the blog "Male Vegan Feminist and the Dark Side of Masculinity."

Photo credit: Burger King

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