Did you know that some food products are marketed by gender? Power bars and diet sodas are for women, and meat is for men, of course. Where did this food and gender issue start?
Professor Emily J. H. Contois studied the collision of food and gender in Diners, Dudes & Diets, a provocative new book. Contois shows us how the gendered world of food production and consumption influences the way we eat, and how food itself is central to our identities.
Here’s an excerpt about how food producers and marketers introduced the idea of gendered foods in a rush to find new customers, and how their work influences us as writers and authors.
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How we write about food and gender matters
“Will eating Luna Bars turn me into a woman?”
A (presumably male) member of a Men’s Health online forum asked this question in 2007. Clif Bar & Company launched the Luna Bar brand in 1999 into a sports nutrition market far less crowded than today’s. They dubbed it “The Whole Nutrition Bar for Women.” Clif Bar reported after the launch that they routinely fielded anxious queries from men. Some wondered if eating Luna Bars would cause them to grow breasts.
While this may sound like a joke with an unsatisfying punch line, men’s hesitancy extended beyond Luna Bars. In fact, the concern gripped the food, media, and marketing industries at the turn of the twenty-first century. Could the Food Network get more men to watch food television, if men perceived cooking as feminine? How could food and beverage companies encourage more men to drink diet soda or to eat yogurt? Could Weight Watchers grow their male membership, if real men don’t diet?
I examine these questions in Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture. I analyze advertising campaigns and marketing trade press from the past 20 years, as well as an array of food media forms. They include cookbooks, diet books, menus, magazines, food blogs and websites, podcasts, social media platforms, newspapers, food industry reports, restaurants, food criticism, food company histories, and food television.
Rise of the Dude
From these sources, I argue that to engage more male consumers in cooking, food, and dieting, marketers used the cool and playful appeal of “the dude.” It’s the slacker guy, one celebrated for his sublime averageness. The food, media, and marketing industries deployed the dude as they sought to convince men to engage in supposedly feminized activities. But they did so with so little enthusiasm or investment that it still protected the power and boundaries of conventional masculinity.
Diners, Dudes, and Diets holds a number of lessons for food writers interested in identity and dedicated to inclusion and equity. For example, “dude food” appears on innumerable menus and populates Instagram feeds with images by turns enticing and grotesque. It also imparts distinctly gendered messages with its massive portion sizes, exaggerated ingredients, immoderate nutrition, and an inherently privileged “whatever” attitude.
In cookbooks, many written for men reinforce outdated gender conventions. They invoke the symbolic power of meat, the subtext of female seduction and objectification. They imply that celebrity chefs have the authority to convince everyday men it’s masculine to cook at home.
In food television, food writers and journalists have tried to describe, analyze, and deride the popular appeal of dude chef Guy Fieri. He played a key role in masculinizing Food Network’s audience. Pete Wells’ zero-star-poor review in the New York Times garnered many clicks, shares, and giggles. But in the aftermath, it only made Fieri’s star shine brighter, as an affable good dude.
For far too long, some food writers have upheld the gender binary as they write about foods, beverages, and dieting as “feminine” and “masculine.” I explore how diet sodas, yogurts, and commercial weight loss programs were marketed to men. The same argument could be made for rosé, salads and home gardening. These layered stereotypes extend from gendered notions of packaging and advertising messages. They limit the possibilities of whom each of us can be.
Gender is a product of our culture. What we think of as masculine or feminine transforms over time. We’re currently in an important moment of reckoning for food media and writing, as we acknowledge and address whose stories get told, and whose don’t. Who has a seat at the table, and who doesn’t. Who has the power and authority to make decisions and bring about change—and who should and must.
A book about dudes might seem like an odd place to look for these answers. But unpacking how the food, media, and marketing industries attempted to talk to men about food and gender charts a path for how we writers can do our jobs better.
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Adapted from Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture by Emily J. H. Contois. Copyright © 2020 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
Update: Phyllis Freeman won a copy of Diners, Dudes & Diets.