Author Meets Critics:Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture
This Author Meets Critics conversation focuses on Emily Contois' book Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture (UNC Press, 2020). Contois met with advertising, gender, and food culture specialists to discuss the following topics: the intersection of food studies, consumer culture, and gender identities; the importance of doing interdisciplinary research; the concepts of gender contamination and dude masculinity; the relationship between gender and neoliberal capitalism; the intersection of food, gender, and national identity; the representation of working class culture in dude food culture; the reason why Guy Fieri became a popular dude food celebrity; why food media and advertising have been conventional in how gender is represented; dude masculinity's connections to misogyny; possibilities to expand the book's research beyond the United States; diet foods' illusions of abundance; the encouragement of men and women to engage in indulgent restraint; the role of brands to transform how gender is represented and acted upon in society; whether brands are authentically supporting and engaging in social issues and movements related to gender; prescriptions for masculinity through cookbooks; and advice for advertisers and marketers based on reading the book.
branding, class, cookbooks, diet food, dude, femininity, food, foodways, gender, gender contamination, Guy Fieri, masculinity, media, national identity
The panelists first introduce themselves, their affiliations, and their areas of expertise. Food and media studies scholar Emily Contois then provides some background about the goals of her book. She had already done a lot of work on women and femininities in food studies, but she saw a gap in the literature about masculinities and food studies. As she studied men, masculinities, and food more, she came to see that the advertising industry also constructs ideas about what it means to be a woman and feminine. Diners, Dudes, and Diets is intended to be an accessible book for the industry, scholars, and general public to learn more about the power of consumerism and food culture to shape and reflect identities. It takes an interdisciplinary approach, which was inspired by Contois' undergraduate studies in the liberal arts, her work in public health, her Masters degree in gastronomy, and her PhD in American studies. She sees her book as weaving these perspectives together to examine how we think about food, health, and bodies within the broader context of American life and consumer culture. Some might say that she is undisciplined by being so interdisciplinary, but she believes having an interdisciplinary perspective showcases the realities of the interconnections found in our everyday lives.
Two concepts ground Emily Contois' book: gender contamination and dude masculinity. Contois explains how gender contamination is a concept invented by marketers. The argument is that once a product is considered feminine, consumers will resist marketers trying to make the product masculine or appealing to men. For example, when Luna Bars were marketed early on as a meal replacement with vitamins specifically for women, when it was targeted later toward men, some men worried that Luna Bars would cause them to grow breasts. This fear is where the idea of the dude comes in. To get more men to watch food television, drink diet sodas, eat yogurt, or go on a diet, advertisers depicted a particular form of masculinity based on the "dude," resisting some of the norms of conventional masculinity. This version does not see being the breadwinner or getting six pack abs as the ideal. Rather, dude masculinity celebrates being a slacker, an underachiever, or just an everyday working guy. This variant of masculinity emerged during the Great Recession of 2009 when many men's economic opportunities were very negatively impacted by the downturn in the economy. The unreasonable standards of conventional masculinity were harder to achieve at this time, which was exacerbated by threats to the authority of straight White men. The dude, thus, was a protective mechanism for men who felt threatened. The advertising industry and food media made good use of dude masculinity to thwart this perceived threat of gender contamination.
Media, communications, and gender studies scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser thanks Emily Contois for writing an interesting, fun, and engaging book that would be helpful to teach in classes like hers, such as her course on Mediated Feminisms. Although she is not an expert in food studies, Banet-Weiser finds the book incredibly accessible and a rich resource for thinking about the social construction of masculinity.
Banet-Weiser asks Contois to elaborate on her thoughts about the relationship between gender and neoliberal capitalism as it relates to her book. Contois believes neoliberal capitalism's focus on individual responsibility and self-control relates significantly to the issues in her book. For a long time, media and advertising pushed a particular idealized vision of masculinity in the form of straight White masculinity, which has regularly been epitomized on the covers of Men's Health. Women and men have faced pressures to control their appetites and take individual responsibility over what they consume, even when their food environments, including food advertising, push them to consume more. For Contois, the tension between the dreams of individual responsibility and the realities of failure when dieting is very telling. Despite some companies like Weight Watchers (rebranded in 2018 as WW) telling men and women that they can take control of their appetites and food consumption by joining the WW community, many people are still left on their own. Neoliberal society is rife with precarity, which drives consumers to believe that if they consume the right products and use the right tools of selfempowerment, they will succeed. The reality is that many people continue to fail at dieting and eating healthily, and without an adequate public health infrastructure to provide lasting solutions to help people, individuals will continue to struggle despite brands' messages of success.
Historian Sarah Elvins commends Emily Contois for writing a clear, accessible, and informative book. She found Contois' argument about culture not being neutral especially helpful. She also thinks the book is perfect for the classroom where many of her students will learn that food has often been gendered in various ways, such as steak being seen as masculine and salads being coded as feminine. Throughout her reading of the book, Elvins wondered what Contois' thoughts were about how nationalism factored into the gendering of food. For example, French food might be coded as feminine, but Australian barbeques are seen as masculine. Other foods like Tex Mex and some Italian dishes are classified as American despite their origins not being solely American. Contois appreciates this question because she believes that notions of national identity map onto the gendering of food. Recently, protein has been seen as distinctly masculinized and a symbol of American exceptionalism, especially in how Americans take pride in eating as much protein as possible. American food celebrity Guy Fieri is a case in point. In his show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, Fieri explores American food and what it means to be American through food, which often involves a lot of animal protein. Because of Fieri's image as the all-American White dude, he can navigate the food world with more ease than others, and is able to sell outlandish versions of fusion food that other chefs might not be able to get away with.
Food writer Christina Ward builds on Elvins' question by talking about her experience working with cook show host Padhma Lakshmi, whose Hulu series Taste the Nation explored food in America, what defines American food, and how people come to identify as American through what they eat. For Ward, Fieri embodies an aspirational working class version of the dude. However, Fieri is not really a part of the working class. This leads Ward to ask Contois to talk about the construction of dude masculinity through the lens of class.
Contois first explains that working class masculinity has often been seen as true and real masculinity. As she was looking at cookbooks showcasing dude masculinity, she noticed how men are often dressed in what looks like welder's aprons or tool belts that have kitchen tools. She also paid close attention to the language used in these cookbooks. Kitchen equipment was often referred to as a toolbox. All these masculine metaphors encouraged men to cook without threatening their masculinity.
Contois explains that she is most interested in what Fieri represents on an abstract level. He has become a populist food figure because he goes against the grain of foodie culture that has often criticized him for not looking the part. His wearing of sneakers, shorts, bowling or Hawaiian shirts, and sunglasses show that he eschews stuffy formulas of what a chef should look like. Many of Fieri's fans have indicated that they like him because he doesn't talk down to them. He has a sense of authenticity that resonates with his fans even if Fieri himself is not authentically working class.
Media studies and communications scholar Melissa Aronczyk found Emily Contois' book to be eye opening, especially in what it reveals about how conventional food media is in terms of how gender is constructed and represented. Aronczyk asks Contois to elaborate on why food media is very conventional in relying on old stereotypes about men and women. Throughout her research about food and gender, she has always been frustrated by how the stereotypical images of men and women have repeated themselves for a long time—going as far back as the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century. She finds consumer culture playing a significant role in perpetuating these stereotypes. Over time, advertisers have always tried to use empathetic voices to teach men and women to consume in particular ways to navigate the anxieties and struggles at a given moment in time. In particular, women were often encouraged to buy many domestic appliances in order to be modern and a part of the middle class. Another reason for the persistent conventionality of gender stereotypes in food media comes from a lack of diversity of those working in food media and the advertising and marketing industry, especially among those at the highest level within the C-Suite. The only way change can happen is through diversifying who works in the advertising, marketing, and media industries.
Sarah Banet-Weiser brings up a COVID-related ad put out by the United Kingdom's National Health Services, which shows four families staying safe in their homes. In all of those houses, women are shown doing housework. In examining the media landscape now and in the past, Banet-Weiser wonders if there is a networked form of misogyny at work that isn't exclusively tied to advertising, marketing, and food. She has observed a broader confluence of organizations such as Q Anon that harbor extremist ideologies that have been fueled by the latest crisis of masculinity led by prominent leaders like former President Trump. Christina Ward agrees and worries about what the most recent crisis of masculinity will lead to in terms of how masculinity is reimagined and acted upon.
Emily Contois believes that the dude is part of broader misogynistic backlash to women's increasing power as well as efforts to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. The current crisis of masculinity centers on the destabilization of an assumed default and powerful White male. However, the dude discussed in Contois' book is not trying to be violent and powerful. Rather, he is a slacker, which helps protect him from the larger forces seemingly working against him. Going forward, Contois is interested in looking at the prevalence of the dude and dude culture in other contexts beyond the United States. She also appreciates how everyone has noted the representation of working class status that does economic work for brands but does not represent actual people's experiences.
Sarah Elvins is intrigued by the constant illusion of abundance in food marketing in the United States, especially when diet foods are being marketed. By definition, diet foods are not as good as the regular or "real" things, but because they are diet foods, people think they can supposedly have as much as they want. For Elvins, this reveals a tension between consumer culture and diet food. Consumer culture says there are abundant options out there that we can have as much as we want. Diet food gives an appearance of moderation but encourages us to not actually limit our consumption. In fact, much of diet food is bad for people and doesn't work as people might assume.
Emily Contois appreciates this observation about what American studies professor Carolyn de la Peña calls indulgent restraint in her book about culture and sugar substitutes.1 In this world of diet food, fakeness comes to be gendered as feminine and for women. The idea that women's appetites need to be restrained continues to be maintained through diet food advertisements. Women are encouraged to be proud in their pursuit of the lack of calories and fat, which ultimately pushes women into eating disorders, disordered eating, and distorted thinking about food in general. Things become even more apparent and striking when looking at how diet products are marketed toward men. Marketers and advertisers appeal to men through the emergence of "zero" and "un-diet" products. Men are told similar messages as women in that they can be empowered and can find strength and satiation through the consumption of nothing. Although one might think that this puts men in the same boat as women, if one were to look at how feminized salads have been reconstructed as "power bowls," and masculinized because they are filled with all sorts of protein, one realizes that the gender inequities haven't gone away. Gender divisions in food culture persist.
When asked if brands could be transformative by taking a post-gender approach to food marketing, Emily Contois reveals that advertisers and marketers didn't like the idea when she pitched it to them. The industry practitioners she has spoken to have tended to say that they do not want to get rid of gender because it is a powerful way to create stories, develop ads, and segment audiences. Contois agrees that gender can be used to tell powerful stories but only if those stories are not filled with stereotypes and misogynistic ideas. If femininity is knocked down while White masculinity is propped up, there is no room for necessary change. However, Contois believes that the fight shouldn't be stopped because there is some resistance. She believes that change will come as more critically thinking and gender-aware students enter ad agencies and marketing consultancies.
Based on her observations, Banet-Weiser doesn't think there's a single ad that isn't gendered in some way. Some companies have taken the lead in representing the problems of misogyny and contributing to ways to combat it in the world beyond advertisements. Gillette's 2019 "We Believe" ad is a case in point. Not only did they represent sexual harrassment head-on, but they donated proceeds from their sales to several organizations that deal with sexual violence. Contois agrees and notes that while this point doesn't come through in her book, it does in her teaching where she and her students examine how social issues and movements are treated in advertisements and whether brands put their money where their mouths are. Just creating an ad is not enough. Her students repeatedly have identified brands' need to give money, time, and resources to the causes and communities involved.
Christina Ward and Emily Contois discuss the various ways cookbooks geared toward men have projected an ideal of masculinity that men were encouraged to learn and follow. From cookbooks by the likes of Gettleman Brewing Company, Marlboro cigarettes, and Esquire magazine, there are many examples of how readers could learn to fit into particular idealized gender roles and class statuses at a given moment in time. Contois notes that one cannot be completely sure whether the prescriptions found in cookbooks and magazines are actually followed by those reading them, which leads her to discuss some of the ways in which she studied actual consumers of dude food media.
One area that Contois is interested in and also troubled by is the use of humor. Many dude cookbooks relied on ironic humor and satire, but such tongue-in-cheek forms of representation reinforce very real and pervasive hierarchies. Humor allows one to analyze the deeper meanings within a culture. One example is the 1982 book Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, which was intended to be satirical.2 The focus on quiche relied upon anti-French sentiment. This attack on France and a French food is indicative of a longstanding gendered condescension many Americans have had against France and the French. Some people may argue that such representations are just a joke, but such jokes serve as a defense mechanism to reinforce harmful divisions and mask genderbased anxieties.
All participants were asked to give advice to marketers and advertisers based on their reading of the book. Melissa Aronczyk says that brands need to diversify their executive ranks to make significant and lasting change. Sarah Banet-Weiser advises practitioners to take the global insecurities created by the pandemic seriously. They need to recognize how women have been disproportionately and negatively impacted by the turbulent economic climate in which we live. Rather than developing new pandemic-related products to benefit those at the top, they should focus on creating things that provide comfort and a sense of community during this time. Christina Ward recommends that advertisers and marketers lessen the gap between actual lives lived and what is projected as aspirational. If advertisers present actual life rather than life as it ought to be, people and brands would do better. Sarah Elvins encourages brands to not be shortsighted in their attempts to reach men and women separately. Products that might be pegged for men may interest women and vice versa, so more focus should be on making new connections with all consumers, which could ultimately lead to more profits by building more brand loyalty among more people. Emily Contois has hope for a reimagined industry if students with critical and creative thinking skills are brought on to understand and use data in responsible ways. She wants the industry to hold itself accountable for its social and cultural impact as well as the value it tries to bring to the world. Advertisers and marketers need to remember the power they wield in shaping our media and economic landscape.
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Dr. Emily Contois is a scholar and teacher of media, food, and identity. Her book, Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media & Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) demonstrates how the food, marketing, and media industries manipulated the concept of "the dude" in order to sell feminized food phenomena to men post-2000. She considers examples such as cookbooks, food TV, yogurts, and weight loss programs. She is also co-editing a volume on food and Instagram with Dr. Zenia Kish.
Dr. Contois completed her PhD in American Studies at Brown University with a Doctoral Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies and three specialized teaching certificates from Brown's Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. She is the author of more than twentyfive peer-reviewed articles, chapters, reference entries, and reviews.
Her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Huffington Post, and Salon, among others. As a public scholar, she has also appeared on CBS This Morning, BBC Ideas, and Ugly Delicious with chef David Chang on Netflix. She is the book reviews editor for Food, Culture & Society and serves on the boards of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, H-Nutrition, and the Bloomsbury Food Library. She also writes for Nursing Clio, blogs at emilycontois.com, and is active on social media at @emilycontois.
Melissa Aronczyk is an associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity and the coeditor of Blowing Up the Brand: Critical Perspectives on Promotional Culture. Her forthcoming book, authored with Robert Brulle and Maria Espinoza, is The Climate of Publicity, a critical history of public relations and environmentalism.
Sarah Banet-Weiser is Professor of Media and Communications and Head of the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics (LSE). Professor Banet-Weiser earned her PhD in Communication from the University of California, San Diego. Her research interests include gender in the media, identity, citizenship, and cultural politics, consumer culture and popular media, race and the media, and intersectional feminism.
Her research is deeply interdisciplinary, as is her scholarly editorial work. She is a former editor of the flagship journal of the American Studies Association American Quarterly, and was a founding co-editor of the New York University Press book series Critical Cultural Communication Studies. Currently she is co-editor of the International Communication Association journal Communication, Culture, Critique. Professor Banet-Weiser has been the recipient of international fellowships and visiting professorships at, among others, the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris; the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the University of Portugal in Lisbon; social media collective Microsoft Research New England; and McGill University in Montreal.
Professor Banet-Weiser is the recipient of scholarly and mentoring awards, including the International Communication Association's Outstanding Book Award for Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (2012), the Constance M. Rourke Prize for Best Article in American Quarterly, and the Mellon Graduate Student Mentoring Award. She is a distinguished faculty fellow at the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the University of Southern California. She comes to LSE after 19 years in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where she was Professor, Vice Dean, and Director of the School of Communication.
Sarah Elvins is Professor of History at the University of Manitoba, where she teaches US history. She has taught courses in American popular culture, food history, and consumer culture. Her research involves the study of consumption and culture in modern America, particularly consumer identity and local cultures. She is the author of Sales and Celebrations: Retailing and Regional Identity in Western New York State, 1920–1940 and various articles on the Great Depression and alternative currency, consumption, retailing, and cross-border shopping. She is currently working on an article about the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Christina Ward is an award-winning writer and editor who seeks to tell the stories of who we are and who we want to be through our shared food history. Her 2017 book Preservation: The Art and Science of Canning, Fermentation, and Dehydration was short-listed for national and regional food writing awards. She is a featured contributor to Serious Eats, Edible Milwaukee, The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, Remedy Quarterly, and Runcible Spoon magazines. Her second book, American Advertising Cookbooks: How Corporations Taught Us To Love, Spam, Bananas, and Jell-O was published in October 2018.
Christina, despite klutziness, is often found in classrooms and community kitchens with sharp knives and spilling vinegar into unsuspecting handbags while wildly gesticulating as she teaches folks how to make perfect pickles. She is a regular guest food expert on Fox6 News' Real Milwaukee television program and on public radio stations across the United States.
Christina can trace her Milwaukee and Wisconsin roots to the early 1800s. Her love of history comes from her father who instilled the idea that we are all manifestations of our ancestors. Her love of cooking comes from her mother who was a terrible cook; which gave her the inspiration to learn how to cook for herself and siblings. She prides herself on having a hungry mind interested in learning about people, the foods they eat, and the stories that rise from that convergence.
Edward Timke is an affiliated scholar with the Department of Cultural Anthropology and instructor of advertising, design, and creativity courses for the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke University. He is also Adjunct Professorial Lecturer for the School of International Service at American University. Edward is Associate Editor of Advertising & Society Quarterly and a contributor to ADText. Timke's specialties include advertising and media history, international advertising and media, and media theory and research methods. His work focuses on the role of advertising and media in shaping how different cultures understand and imagine each other. Timke received a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the Circulating American Magazines Project (www.circulatingamericanmagazines.org). He has also received numerous awards and nominations recognizing his excellence in teaching and mentoring of student research.
1. Carolyn de la Peña, Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
2. Bruce Feirstein, Real Men Don't Eat Quiche: A Guidebook to All That Is Truly Masculine, (Pocket Books: 1982). The book sold 1.6 million copies and the phrase became widely used, and a catchphrase of the 1980s on par with "Where's the Beef?" The 1987 comedy Real Men reflects the social anxiety and staying power of the phrase.