June 23, 2011

Food & Gender: Men are Carnivores, Women are Meat

Men are carnivores. Women are meat.

This is what one might conclude based on most representations in Western media that involve any combination of men, women, and meat. Men typically exhibit manliness through the consumption of meat, women and displays of physical strength. Women are instructed to make themselves appealing and available for consumption, whether visually or physically. Meat is often associated with wealth and violence; one must have more resources to purchase a steak instead of beans, and someone must kill an animal for that steak to end up on a plate. The images below offer some examples:
Text at bottom reads:
RED MEAT: We were meant to eat it

Herbivores/Vegetarians/Vegans, or simply those who restrict their meat consumption, are often trivialized and mocked as hippies or tree-huggers, presented as weak (regardless of gender), or ignored and merely tolerated. I admit, acceptance of vegetarianism as a reality in Canadian and American society has increased, with vegetarian dishes being offered on wedding RSVP cards and meatless food (in addition to side salads) now being widely served in restaurants.
Another aspect of vegetarianism's portrayal is the perceived gender of food and its accompanying stereotypes about strength and weakness. This might seem silly. But if we assign these foods as either feminine or masculine, I'm sure that most people (at least most people I know) will arrive at the same conclusions. 

Steak | Bacon | Beer | Cheeseburger |
Corn on the Cob | Whiskey

Tea | Chocolate | Salad | Yogurt |
Wine | Berries
| Tofu | Chicken

Consider where you got these ideas: Why did you feel that certain foods were more masculine or feminine? (Let me know in the comments!)

Commercials, such as this one from the Burger King 'I Am Man' ad campaign, definitely reinforce gender stereotypes and segregate men's food (i.e. burgers) from "chick food" (i.e. quiche and tofu). Pay attention to the lyrics of the song, which has been dubbed a "Manthem" (anthem for men, since men have been so oppressed and need to unite and rebel, get it?):

Note the use of multiple second wave feminist movement symbols: burning undergarments, banners being unfurled over buildings, marching in the streets, and the parodying of Helen Reddy's song I Am Woman.
Manthem Lyrics
I am man, hear me roar/ In numbers too big to ignore/ And I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food!/ ‘Cause my stomach’s starting to growl,/And I’m going on the prowl,/For a Texas Double Whopper!/ “Man that’s good!”/
Oh, yes, I’m a guy!/I’ll admit I’ve been fed quiche!/Wave tofu bye-bye!/Now it’s for Whopper beef I reach./ I will eat this meat/(Eat this meat)/‘Till my innie turns into an outie!/
I am starved!/ I am incorrigible!/ And I need to scarf a burger beef bacon jalapeno good thing down! (Yeah!)/ I am hungry!/ (I am hungry)/ I am incorrigible!/ I AM MAN!
U.S. published men's magazine Esquire has a food blog titled "Eat Like A Man," where the authors impart wisdom and reinforce the gender of certain food. A recent post declared that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates eats like a man because he loves eating beef. A recent post about a new dessert began:
I know what you think of the frozen-desserts aisle: That's a place for women and children, not men. That there's a reason you never saw Steve McQueen or John Wayne eating frozen desserts, and it's because it's not possible for a man to look cool while eating a Popsicle or scooping melting ice cream off a cone.

That all may be true, and probably is.
Note: Based on her name, Elizabeth Gunnar, author of these (and many other posts), is a woman.

Advertising certainly plays a role in the food preferences of some people. Culture, or perhaps different/lack of advertising, help shape food preferences outside of North America. In a post at Salon.com, Riddhi Shah presents studies showing that the gender of food may be a regional thing, and she reflects on the eating habits in her household:
But beyond the borders of the United States, the story is different. The same study found that in Spain, men and women craved chocolate equally — about 25 percent, while in Egypt, neither sex craved chocolate, with both sexes showing a high preference for salty foods...

And when I took my work home, I realized that my husband and I — both of us grew up in India — have eating habits that fly in the face of all these studies. My husband has an insatiable sweet tooth, can't go to bed without his nightly Mars bar, and diligently spends hours in the fruit aisle. I, on the other hand, am a complete dairy fiend, love my protein, adore a good whisky, and wouldn't notice if Ben & Jerry's stopped producing Cherry Garcia tomorrow...
A Japanese friend recently told me about new language being used to describe the dating habits of Japanese people. Apparently, people in Japan are noticing a decline in nikushoku men and a corresponding rise in soshoku men.

Meat-eating/carnivore | Grass-eating/herbivore
Aggressive toward women, love, and sex | Not aggressive toward women, love, or sex
Prefer beer to cocktails | Prefer cocktails to beer
Prefer going out | Prefer being at home
Not fashion conscious | Fashion conscious
Not eco-conscious | Eco-conscious
Eat, drink, weigh as much as other men | Eat, drink, and weigh less than other men

Pair the idea of meat-eating and grass-eating people with other connotations that meat carries and we get some sexist results. Meat-eating men are supposed to eat meat/women (consuming women; women as meat).
Text reads: Skin good enough to eat

Meat-eating women are supposed to eat meat (male genitalia are often associated with meat; oral sex reference). And then grass-eating people are either meat or alone.

In Japan, interesting social changes are resulting in independent women who don't feel that they need men. And many Japanese men are backing away from their traditional role as aggressor/pursuer in relationships with women. With declining birth rates and marriages, those with an interest in perpetuating the perceived homogeneous Japanese nation are concerned. However, some women are taking on the more assertive role of finding a mate, which solves the problem of people being alone but complicates the traditional gender roles.

I am especially intrigued by the idea of nikushoku/carnivores and the implication that men are supposed to hunt women. The metaphor blatantly uses meat to symbolize women as something to be hunted, violently subdued against their will, and consumed. This analysis could be seen as an over-reaction. And understood in a vacuum, this could be the case. However, the carnivore/herbivore dichotomy exists in nature and this metaphor is being lived out by people in Japan (and elsewhere).

HUNTHING FOR BAMBI: video game in which you hunt naked women
The idea of women being meat, which is available for consumption at the will of the consumer, is neither rare nor absurd. In addition to being treated like a piece of meat, a woman in North America can easily find people of her gender being portrayed as something to be consumed, such as beer and pieces of meat:

Text at bottom reads:
Break the dull beef habit
In some cases, celebrities actively participate in identifying themselves with meat or animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was outraged that Lady Gaga wore a meat dress, claiming it glamourized the murder of animals. It is interesting to contrast Lady Gaga and PETA's media representations: Lady Gaga claimed she was making a political statement and told Ellen DeGeneres "I am not a piece of meat." PETA represents sexual images of women as meat to promote vegetarianism, veganism, and animal rights.

Want to see more? Watch this Carol J. Adams slideshow!

And how did being treated like a piece of meat come to be a negative thing? Why does it mean being treated like you are worthless, disposable, inferior, and existing for the pleasure of someone else? Because that's how our society treats meat and, by extension, animals. And women and animals (or more broadly, nature) are often treated as inferior - not to mention people of colour, immigrants, people with disabilities, etc. This seems to me to be an extension of the complex web of inequalities that makes up society. But this also goes beyond human society and a new question stands out to me: why do we treat meat (and animals, and nature) as worthless, disposable, and inferior, and existing solely as a source of pleasure for someone else?

Carol J. Adams has a lot to say on the topic. Her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, is on my to-read list and her website/blog have offered me lots of information in the meantime.

In her blog, Adams addresses Myths about Vegans, one of which is relevant to this topic, and worth quoting at length:
In 1990, I wrote a book called “The Sexual Politics of Meat” to dissect the idea that eating animal flesh makes someone strong and virile. The myth gained steam in the 1960s when anthropologists Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey attributed the advancement of civilization to “man the hunter.” Today, cultural messages — from Burger King’s “I am Man” ad campaign to a Hummer commercial implying that a guy who buys tofu must “restore the balance” by buying a huge car — reinforce this myth. Even Michael Pollan, who details a boar hunt in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” falls prey to the idea that men must fell prey: “Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling.” For vegans, this cartoonish hunter porn is ridiculous. What Pollan sees as a dilemma, we welcome as a decision.

But if real men once ate meat, it’s not so any longer. Olympic track legend (and New Jersey state Senate hopeful) Carl Lewis is a vegan. Former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson is a vegan. Outkast’s Andre 3000 is a vegan. In Austin, a group of firefighters went vegan. But beyond the famous names who have embraced veganism for ethical or health reasons is the incontrovertible fact that eating meat doesn’t increase libido or fertility — and a vegan diet doesn’t diminish them.

In sum, the gender of certain foods, like chocolate and red meat, appears to be less universal than the association of women with meat and men as carnivores. I encourage you to start making more connections between vegetarianism/veganism/animal rights and feminism/sexism/gender stereotypes. Hopefully these ideas will provoke reflection on what you put in your mouth.

I'll leave you with one more thing to think about:

 What is the significance of Lady Gaga posing in a meat bikini
on the cover of VOGUE HOMMES JAPAN?

Please let me know what you think in the comments!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It was an interesting blog post. There are a lot of things to think about. I just had a thought. Some men want women to wear animal patterned clothes or underwear, and some women including me like to wear them. I wonder if this is also connected. Maybe I was unconsciously trying to be a prey. I'm impressed you found those interesting photos; it must have taken a lot of time.

  3. I hadn't considered animal patterns on clothing... I wonder if animal prints are meant to make a woman into prey or to make a woman feel/appear wild, like an animal?
    Thanks for the comment. Even more food for thought!

  4. Hi Meg.
    I had an important question to ask you. Do you have an email I can contact you through?