Search Term Sampler: Why do certain foods seem to be gendered?

Some intrepid researcher was led to my site by Googling this phrase: gender connotations to food

So glad you asked! I’ve been working on a chapter on that very topic. I had a pedantic overview of some different perspectives that are not strictly relevant to the chapter’s argument, so I’m happy to relocate that content somewhere other than the recycle bin.

There are many, many theories of which foods are gendered and why. For example: in Sweetness and Power (1985), Sidney Mintz examines how sugar became a commonplace and inexpensive staple, particularly in the 19th century. He looks at some sources that describe the use of jam and sweetened tea among women and children of lower-income families: since there was only so much money to spend on food, the greater part of household meat and carbs were given to the male breadwinner; women and children were “systematically undernourished” by this arrangement, and ate more sweetened goods to make up for the missing calories. So, sweet things became the realm of women and children because of gendered division of labor (masculine labor was thought to require stronger fuel than feminine or domestic labor) and also, implicitly, gender inequality (which is what determines that masculine labor has more value or that masculine bodies are more capable of valuable work). In this division, masculine foods are substantial and filling; feminine or infantile foods are insubstantial and light.
Mintz suggests that this gendered division of labor and nutritional fuel may be partly responsible for the way we expect sweet things to be “more the domain of women than men.” Certainly that feminization of sugar still lingers today, particularly in marketing: consider the way chocolate is advertised versus salty snack chips, for example.

At one point in his analysis of class distinctions in food consumption (Distinction, 1979), Pierre Bourdieu suggests that some gendered distinctions may be rooted in the physical act of eating. For one example:

“In the working classes, fish tends to be regarded as an unsuitable food for men, not only because it is a light food, insufficiently ‘filling,’ which would only be cooked for health reasons, i.e. for invalids and children, but also because, like fruit (except bananas) it is one of the ‘fiddly’ things which a man’s hands cannot cope with and which make him childlike. . . but above all, it is because fish has to be eaten in a way which totally contradicts the masculine way of eating, that is, with restraint, in small mouthfuls, chewed gently.” Real men, apparently, eat with “whole-hearted male gulps and mouthfuls.”

This may seem ironic, now that we know how much cod The Rock eats in a day, but in any event: in Bourdieu’s theory, it’s not just the foods you eat but the praxis of eating that genders food. Feminine foods are those which require fussy preparation or delicate eating; masculine food is anything but that.

Carol Adams explores the cultural connotations of meat, vegetables, men and women in the formative book  The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990). On one hand, she writes, there is the nauseating cultural association of meat with women’s bodies: the animals we use for meat are often feminized or sexualized in advertising (there are some good examples on this Sociological Images Pinterest board), and when women are sexually harassed or abused, we often draw on the imagery of butchery to describe the experience (as a mild example, “he treated me like a piece of meat”). At the same time and not coincidentally, meat as a food is considered fit for male appetites (think of the steak dinner specials and barbecue utensils associated with Father’s Day gifts) while vegetables are for women and possibly children (consider women laughing alone with salad). Adams draws a comparison to the evolution of language:

“Both the words ‘men’ and ‘meat’ have undergone lexicographical narrowing.  Originally generic terms, they are now closely associated with their specific referents.  Meat no longer means all foods; the word man, we realize, no longer includes women.  Meat represents the essence or principal part of something, according to the American Heritage Dictionary.  Thus we have the ‘meat of the matter,’ ‘a meaty question.’ . . .  A complete reversal has occurred in the definition of the word vegetable.  Whereas its original sense was to be lively, active, it is now viewed as dull, monotonous, passive.  To vegetate is to lead a passive existence; just as to be feminine is to lead a passive existence.”

Adams suggests that the semantic shift occurred because vegetables became more associated with women, although it’s just as possible that vegetables came to be associated with women because they are less valued.

I chose these three examples because they consider very different foods (sugar, fish, vegetables) and offer sociological or cultural theories for gendered associations rather than biology or evolution. Taken together, such disparate examples suggest that what genders certain foods is context more than anything else. After all, the men:meat::women:vegetables association has endured for decades, yet we may now see women promoting and consuming meatcentric diets or men espousing vegetarianism in ways that also conform to binary gender norms, but for different reasons.

The binary element is key: foods are only gendered in contexts that recognize two genders and see them as fundamentally different, perhaps opposite. Our language and culture is full of binary pairs of contrasting concepts, but the two elements of a binary pair are rarely considered equal; one is marked in some way. I like the way Dan Jurafsky explains binaries and markedness in The Language of Food:

Markedness has to do with oppositions: in pairs of words like happy/unhappy, good/bad, capable/incapable, or honest/dishonest, the first of each pair is unmarked or neutral and the second is marked. There are many linguistic cues to which member of a pair is unmarked. The unmarked form is shorter. . . . Unmarked words tend to come first in “X and Y” phrases like “good and evil”. . . Unmarked words are neutral in questions. . . . Sure enough, across languages, the unmarked form is much more likely to be positive (happy, honest) rather than negative (unhappy dishonest); it’s very rare across languages for a negative word like sad to be the basic form and unsad to be the way to say happy.”

You don’t need linguistics cues to perceive that in our language, woman is the marked element of binary gender. In a culture that values men more than women, man is neutral while woman is a special class: men eat food; women eat womens’ foods. (Consider how rarely you see a man in a yogurt commercial, for example.) Or, to revisit Bourdieu’s praxis of eating: men eat, women eat fussily or delicately. This is are the mild scenarios, mind you; The Sexual Politics of Meat points to many more hostile binaries that recast men as predators, women as prey,

In any case, many of the foods that are culturally considered feminine are defined in opposition to masculine foods: sugar and vegetables are for women because meat is for men. It can also work the other way, creating a tautology: if sweet foods are for women, then men must eat foods that are salty or bitter. At that point, whether these oppositions are rooted in physiology or historical fact ceases to matter; the connotations linger long after the context.

2 responses to “Search Term Sampler: Why do certain foods seem to be gendered?

  1. Pingback: Hegel on the difference between men and women | Scenes of Eating·

  2. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Ephemera | Scenes of Eating·

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