Emily Contois on Food, Gender & Health in U.S. Popular Culture

Emily Contois on Food, Gender & Health in U.S. Popular Culture

Real men don’t eat quiche. You might have heard
this phrase before. It was the title of a 1982
best-selling book of satire, and it covered common
stereotypes about masculinity. And while it sounds
like a joke, it actually gives us two important
things to think with. The first is the concept of a
real man, who is and who isn’t. Gender studies scholars
give us the concept of hegemonic masculinity to work
through these cultural ideals, how we come up with ideal
forms of masculinity that come to be culturally normative. This is a form of
masculinity that maintains the dominant position
of particular men in society, while it subordinates women
and men who aren’t white, middle class, or heterosexual. In this way, it’s
a significant way that power is organized
in our societies. But real men don’t
eat quiche gives us one way of thinking about
how hegemonic masculinity is constructed, and
that’s through food. My research looks
at the connections between gender and food, the
body, and ideas about health. But sometimes, your
research is like a puzzle. And when you study
popular culture like I do, those pieces are all around
you in your daily life. I find them in the
grocery store aisle, or I’m flipping
through a magazine, or another friend sent me a
link on Facebook last night, more dude food to include
in my dissertation. But my job is American
studies scholar is to be able to bring those
pieces together, to interpret, historicize, and theorize them. So what I see is that
food and masculinity have been coupled in
highly ambivalent ways since about the year 2000. Let me show you my puzzle. There’ve been a slew of
new products for men, like diet sodas and yogurts. Powerful Yogurt even has the
tagline, “find your inner abs.” And just in case
you can’t, there’s a six pack chiseled to
the side of the package. There have also
been a full corpus of cookbooks just
for men, with titles like A Man, a Can, a
Plan, and Dude Food. We’ve also seen changes
in food television. I’m particularly
interested in Guy Fiere, and the particular kind
of populous bromanship that he performs in
kitchens across America. And it’s only since
the year 2000, the commercial
weight loss programs have also developed
programs just for men. So it’s here that I can give
you a specific example of how this connection between
food and gender works. Just like real men
don’t eat quiche, the cultural refrain is
that real men don’t diet. So Weight Watchers came up with
their Lose Like a Man campaign, and in the process,
had to masculinize and defeminize the
act of dieting. And they did it through
overt depictions of hegimonically masculine
food, ways of eating, and food environments. And these become
grossly apparent when you compare the
women’s program right alongside the men’s
program, which is what we’re going to do. Here you see two
former Weight Watchers telling their success
stories of how they used the Weight Watchers tools. The woman uses it
to dine out and make healthy choices, following
a strained eating pattern in order to lose
weight, well our guy here goes out to a sports bar. And Weight Watchers
tells him that anything is on the plan, even man food. That’s actually what they call
it– burgers, beer, pizza, and tacos. Our woman takes her tools into
the grocery store, a space, since its inception in the
post-war period, that’s been framed as a
housewife’s paradise, while our guy takes it
to the convenience store. He’s busy and on the go. And he uses the barcode
scanner on his phone to buy a bag of
chips– again, not a particularly healthy
choice– while our Fair Lady uses it to buy a
box of whole wheat pasta. And she’s seamlessly
transported into her kitchen, another conventionally
feminine space, where she prepares a healthy
meal using the recipe database on the website, while
our guy friend gets to eat his favorite food
anyway, porterhouse state. And he grills it outdoors. So what does this
puzzle tell us? And why does it matter? I look at cultural
representations like this to see how they construct new
definitions of masculinity, and how real men
are supposed to act. And while these forays of
men into the world of food could yield more
progressive, fluid, flexible, and
inclusive definitions of masculinity, what I
see is a reinforcement of hegemonic masculinity. And this has real ramifications. It influences, for example,
how scientific studies about weight loss are designed. It impacts how public
health programs and policies are developed and implemented. So when I tell people
that I study dude food, I’m using it as a
lens to understand the broader and deeper
social anxieties of our time. So when I’m studying
dude food, I’m looking at ongoing negotiations
for power and authority, for our identities,
and equality. Thank you.

7 thoughts on “Emily Contois on Food, Gender & Health in U.S. Popular Culture”

  1. What makes a woman qualified to speak on masculinity? If you haven’t lived our experience (using your language there), you must remain silent.

  2. This is made up nonsense. It has no real implications or importance. It does not belong in a University. It seems she is unaware of marketing and branding.

  3. Where are you going to cook your pasta, on the grill or in a pot in a kitchen? People can choose to eat what they want, just because I tell you that's going to make you fat, doesn't stop you from eating it.

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