Earlier this year, in the hot summer streets of Tbilisi, a crowd of sausage wielding men descended on a vegan café. Fillets were thrown, chops brandished. Whilst the men had an overt political motivation to their actions – they were members of a far-right group, who objected to the liberal minded patrons of the café – there was also a more nuanced incentive; they were red blooded Georgian men, here to exhibit their masculinity and virility in the face of the root eating vegans. The image is amusing, sinister, disconcerting.
Before this tale was recounted to me by a Canadian expat in Tbilisi, I had never interrogated the gendering of food. Yes, I’d always noticed that when out for a meal with my 6ft2 vegetarian boyfriend, the waiters would always assume the medium-rare steak was for him, the risotto for me. But I’d never thought any further. When I did, I found the ingrained gender norms around our food culture were astonishing.
It’s insidious in language. Phrases such as ‘bringing home the bacon’ and ‘beefing up’ are demonstrative of power, whilst being in a ‘vegetative state’ symbolises a total lack of agency. It’s insidious in marketing. Think fast food chain adverts – Burger King’s ‘I’m a Real Man’ being the classic example, Carl’s Jr’s ‘Man Up’ a more recent illustration – and contrast that to yoghurt commercials. It’s pervasive in food literature, as exemplified by Fierstein’s satirical ‘Real Men Don’t Quiche’ and Esquire’s recipe book ‘Eat like a Man’. Even in Games of Thrones, Daenerys has to eat a raw horse heart in order to be accepted as a true leader; in this visceral scene, blood smeared across her face, the consumption and digestion of raw meat symbolises raw strength. Would her actions have had the same impact if she’d ripped into a mango/quiche/bean stew? I think not.
In essence, to eat meat is to be assertive, dominant and masculine. To be vegetarian is to be soft, emotional, weak.
This has lead to complex debates in feminist circles as to whether it is possible to be both a feminist and a meat eater. In Carol Adam’s book ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’, she argues that in a patriarchal, carnivorous society, both women and animals lose their subjectivity. Eating meat objectifies animals and the ownership of the body is lost – think of the lost apostrophe in ‘chicken(‘s?) breast – in the same way that women are objectified.
The debate surrounding this is fascinating and multifaceted, but as a now 90% vegetarian and self-proclaimed environmentalist, what is of primary concern to me is how to decrease meat consumption for the sake of the environment. As quick sound bites, a widespread adoption of the vegetarian diet would reduce global food-related emissions by 63% and the carbon footprint of a vegetarian is half that of a meat eater. But whilst these statistics point to a strong case for decreasing meat consumption, this isn’t about forcing people to act; it is about allowing them to make those choices without fear of gender related reprisals.
How to convince those men for whom eating meat is an integral part of their masculinity? Or for those who would like to move away from eating meat, but fear the retribution of others who would see them as ‘less masculine’ as a result? Although it seems insulting to men that their masculinity is considered by some to be tied up with eating a hamburger, these can be genuine concerns – indeed, a study recently conducted at UBC found that even among women and non-meat eaters, men who were vegetarian were considered ‘less manly’.
As a feminist, how to galvanise a shift to a less meat intense diet poses difficult questions. Is the best path to convince men by using the dominant gender paradigm, a strategy chosen by PETA and their marketing of veganism? Their latest advert – which was considered too steamy to be shown at this year’s Superbowl – compares the libido of a meat eater to that of a vegan; whilst the meat eater has had his post sex shower, dressed and left, the vegan is still hot and sweaty between the sheets. In a similar vein, the ‘latest craze’ in New York is the bleeding veggie burger; a great option for those who don’t want to eat meat but miss the experience, or merely subtly replicating the feeling of power and dominance. Is bowing to meaty, masculine stereotypes passive or pragmatic?
In an ideal scenario, of course, the link between food and gender would be totally debunked. Men would eat yoghurt and quiche and no-one would care. But the associations between meat and masculinity are long standing and whilst they are changing, I’m not sure the planet has time to wait for food to become gender neutral. It’s a numbers game; the more men that reduce meat in their diet – even if incentivized by notions of increased virility and bleeding veggie burgers – the less linked it will become to masculine norms. And, for now, that seems like the most effective option for the planet.
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