Culture  /  Argument

Diners, Dudes, and Diets

How gender and power collide in food media and culture.

... food directly affects our health (though it does) or how it might change the world (though it can). I’m more invested in understanding why we believe this, why we continue to find in food such profound power, and why food remains such an anxious arena within our consumer culture and popular media.

... food directly affects our health (though it does) or how it might change the world (though it can). I’m more invested in understanding why we believe this, why we continue to find in food such profound power, and why food remains such an anxious arena within our consumer culture and popular media.

In Diners, Dudes, and Diets, I focus on a particular kind of anxiety about our identities, which marketers call “gender contamination.” Marketing scholar Jill Avery explains this concept as “consumer resistance to brand gender-bending”—that is, how consumers react, sometimes quite negatively, when a brand’s perceived gender changes.1 In her study, Avery researched men’s reactionary, hyper-masculine responses when the Porsche Cayenne SUV became popular among women drivers, since these men considered Porsche a masculine brand—heck, one of the poster children for male midlife crisis! This idea of gender contamination can work in multiple directions. For example, a woman drinking a brand of whiskey marketed to men can create perceptions of empowerment. But for male consumers, sipping a diet soda marketed to women can lead to a perception of social stigma because the brand is feminized.

Since we eat food, fears of gender contamination stretch beyond social concerns that a man might be considered feminine to the perceived risk of actually becoming a woman. I’m not making this up. When Luna Bar launched in 1999 as “The Whole Nutrition Bar for Women,” men routinely asked the company if eating the bars would turn them into women or cause them to grow breasts. In a heteropatriarchal society like the United States, such a transformation represents a decline in status and power, a fear to be avoided at all costs.

In the early twenty-first century, the food, media, and marketing industries navigated this tension as they sought to sell supposedly feminized food fare to men. In Diners, Dudes, and Diets, I start with men’s cookbooks and progress to food TV shows and stars like Guy Fieri, food and beverage products, and commercial weight loss programs. In each case, I show how marketers employed “the dude” as a specific form of masculinity that could withstand potential feminization. While never a dominant gender type, the dude celebrates the slacker and the average (or even below average) guy. While applicable to multiple identities, the dude primarily connotes a sense of masculinity that is inherently white, straight, cisgender, and youthful.

Studying how men engaged with the dude reveals anxious and ongoing discussions of how to be “a real man” in the contemporary United States, fears that only deepened during the Great Recession era. When I ask my students for examples of “real men” from American media, they list well-muscled ...