AUTHOR’s NOTE: This blog entry includes image captions that are rich image descriptions to convey the most relevant content to readers who don’t perceive the same content in the images as does the author, for whatever reason. As they do contain content, I recommend reading them where you might otherwise skip captions.
Feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky has written that femininity is a disciplinary regime that not only subjects women to the judgment of the male gaze but also, in a modernization of patriarchal power, causes them to internalize those judgments and recast them on both other women and upon themselves whenever they turn their mind’s eye upon their own bodies and behaviors. Masculinity also functions in this way, preventing men from being their full selves and penalizing them for deviating from gender norms. However, as Marilyn Frye has observed, men who restrict themselves in order to conform to gender norms gain social power (taking up more space, dominating discussions, exerting power, etc.) by doing so while women lose social power (becoming smaller, giving way in discourse, attaching themselves to those in power, etc.). In this blog entry, I am going to take these ideas about the power of gender norms, which includes food behaviors, and apply them to a bit of internet culture that has come across my radar recently in the form of a meme.
CAPTION: The image shows a screenshot of a discussion forum in which a user says “the social acceptability of bacon culture vs. the hatred of pumpkin spice culture” and “this is an example of misogyny. because male interests are always cool and female interests are always shameful.”
Now, it is certainly possible that the simple fact that many women like bacon and many men like pumpkin spice is a counterexample for this argument. However, almost none of the images and text I have found in internet culture associate bacon with femininity and pumpkin spice lattes with masculinity, while many do the reverse. I believe there is something to this claim however simple it’s presentation here. It is not simply who has the interests. Rather, it is that the interests pertain to food. And food is highly gendered. Indeed, the positive valence of bacon in internet culture, combined with the negative valence of pumpkin spice in internet culture, indicates that something else is likely at work.
Consider the following series of images which illustrate these valences and some of their content.
CAPTION: There are 4 memes in a 2×2 grid. One shows actor and action movie star Liam Neeson looking very serious with the text “If you try to pass off turkey bacon as real bacon one more time I WILL FIND YOU AND KILL YOU.” A second shows celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey yelling at an Asian woman in the kitchen and saying “This bacon is so undercooked it’s trying to pull me over for speeding.” A third shows a picture of rapper Xzibit smiling and laughing with the text “You dawg I heard you like bacon. So I put bacon on your bacon so you can eat bacon with your bacon.” The fourth and final image shows the Dos Equis beer brand’s spokesman (The Most Interesting Man In The World) with the text “I don’t always eat bacon. But when I do, I put extra bacon on my bacon.”
Note how the visual and textual content is masculine: not only are men overwhelmingly pictured, but many are aggressive, as in the Liam Neeson image in which he delivers a bacon-related threat while maintaining a stoic face, and the image of a celebrity chef yelling at kitchen staff for improperly preparing bacon. Note also that the Neeson meme specifically not only lauds bacon from pigs, but demeans the lower salt, lower fat bacon made from turkeys. I doubt it is a coincidence that lower salt and lower fat turkey bacon has a connotation of being better for dieting, and dieting in turn has a feminine connotation. Consider the experiments conducted by Luke Zhu and his colleagues on priming—how culture imprints concepts in our minds—and food. Zhu’s team asked 93 adults to consider the following foods and say whether they were masculine or feminine: baked chicken vs. fried chicken, baked potatoes vs. French fries, light potato chips versus regular potato chips, and baked fish versus fried fish. People tended to see healthier options as feminine and unhealthier ones as masculine.
The images above also involve excessive consumption, itself a kind of unhealthy risk-taking: would you like bacon on your bacon? Xzibit is ready to offer you some and the Most Interesting Man In The World always has extra! Compare this with the classic image of women eating small salads alone with apparently great joy.
CAPTION: This image, a screen shot of Google search results for the term “women eating salad”, shows many women eating small bowls of salad smiling and laughing, alone, while they move food towards their mouths, but never actually chewing. Most appear to be white, though there is one who may be racialized as Asian. None would be deemed black, and few could be racialized latina on appearance alone.
Both aggression and excessive consumption are traits associated with what RW Connell calls hegemonic masculinity. This form of masculinity is the one that is dominant in a given culture, and generally promotes the dominant social position of men while subordinating the social position of even gender-conforming women and of other people with subordinate or non-conforming gender identities. In US culture, it tends to be characterized by violence/aggression, emotional restraint except with respect to anger displays, dominance displays, risk-taking, and competitiveness. All of this helps to make sense of why eating fatty, salty meat in large quantities lines up with hegemonic masculinity quite so well. As writer Juliana Roth has said,
Embedded into our very cultural fabric is a connection between meat and the stereotypical masculine realms of American life: sports, weight lifting, bar culture, cars, running a family. Imagine the Super Bowl without buffalo wings, or watching March Madness over salads instead of burgers and beer.
Now consider the scrutiny that women fall under when they eat in public, where women’s eating is too often seen as shameful. Indeed, the constant notion that one’s behavior, like one’s body, is subject to the gaze of others—and the internalization of this gaze—is classic Bartky-style disciplinary regime. Such regimes are meant to control, not to benefit the one who is disciplined.
As I have written elsewhere: “There is some pretty good evidence that dieting and food surveillance do indeed result in disordered eating and in unhealthful weight-control behaviors. Emphasis on food control and shaming as a means of meeting social expectations has serious pitfalls…” With this in mind, let us return to the subject of the original comment that sparked this reflection, and consider how pumpkin spice latte consumption is often—not always, but illuminatingly frequently—framed. Consider the following illustrative memes, how they interpolate the consumer of pumpkin spice latte as female, and what attitudes or behaviors or dress or other characteristics are associated with that consumer.
CAPTION: These four images are common internet memes about pumpkin spice latte consumption. The first image shows Ryan Gosling, whose “hey, girl…” has amusingly been adopted for feminist Ryan Gosling memes. This, however, is not perhaps so feminist. Over Ryan Gosling’s image, stoic-faced in a plain white t-shirt with his arm muscles showing, are the words “Hey girl, I got you a pumpkin spice latte, let’s stay home and talk about our favorite parts of fall.” In the second image, a background of an autumn tree has upon it the words “If you look in the mirror and say ‘pumpkin spice latte’ three times, a white suburban girl in yoga pants will appear and tell you everything she loves about fall.” In the third image, there is only an orange background and the words “I spilled my Pumpkin Spice Latte, and now a bunch of ants are making brunch plans and doing yoga.” In the fourth image, we have a version of the “first world problems” meme type which always uses the same image of a white woman crying; the overlying text says “I want a pumpkin spice latte. But Starbucks doesn’t sell them until September.” In the final image, a Tampax box is pictured with an orange stripe across it, orange wrappers seen through the transparent portion of the box, and the words “pumpkin spice” across the orange stripe.
As we can see, all four of these portrayals of pumpkin spice are heavily gendered—is there anything more gendered than feminine hygiene products? They also tend to conceive of the pumpkin spice latte not just as female, but as a “girl” rather than a woman, thus implying immaturity.
However, the above images are also raced and classed: “white suburban girl” in “yoga pants”, and the implicit “first world problems” nature of the fact that these beverages cannot be consumed at Starbucks until September. This complicates matters somewhat. I would be interested to hear the reader’s thoughts on the role of race and class, as well as gender, in social judgments on food. I am sure we can think of types of food or ways of consuming food that are raced, classed, and gendered. One of the most distressing stereotypes of black southern folks is the “fried chicken and watermelon” allusion, which is also associated with inarticulate, lazy, easily frightened, useless buffoons. This racialized food imagery has been used in the media by some people to re-center President Obama’s and Michelle Obama’s blackness (search “Obama” in the previous link) and was used by a private girls’ school in Northern California to incorporate Black History Month into lunch time with a lunch of these items and cornbread.
But for the moment, let’s leave what I believe to be the clear fact that pumpkin spice latte is a food that is raced, gendered, and classed. Let’s look at some of the demeaning responses to pumpkin spice latte consumption.
CAPTION: There are four images. The first image is a modified cell from a Batman and Robin comic book. It shows a costumed Batman slapping Robin across the face as though to snap him out of some delusional state. Robin is saying “Pumpkin Spice Latte, Pumpkin Spice Cookies, Pumpkin Spice…” and Batman, while hitting him, is saying “PUMPKINS ARE FOR CARVING!” in much bigger text as though yelling. In the second image, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey is seen leaning forward, bent at the waist, face fully forward, yelling “PUMPKING SPICE?!? The only ‘flavor’ I want in my coffee is whisky!” In the third image, a deliberately stereotypically dorky looking man is smiling and laughing in self-mockery. The words overlayed on the image say “I like pumpkin spice. F*ck me, right?” In the final image, we see a light-skinned woman with long dark hair, smiling with her chin resting on her hand. The superimposed words say “If liking pumpkin spice lattes & wearing uggs makes me a basic white girl, than [sic] please, just call me Becky.” This latter is a reference to a line from a Beyonce song in which the narrator tells her lover that if he is going to treat her badly he can just call “Becky with the good hair,” whereas Urban Dictionary defines a “basic girl” as “your run of the mill white girl that has no identity of her own… like a cracker-jack house in a middle class neighborhood.”
Like the bacon responses to turkey bacon, these demeaning responses to consumption of pumpkin spice latte are masculinized, aggressive and sometimes even violent, in one case valuing alcohol consumption over flavoring in a clear kind of risk-taking, and even in one case self-directed (for failing to meet masculinity norms). Note the reoccurrence of a certain celebrity chef who seems to crop up in masculine food memes. Disliking pumpkin spice latte is strongly associated with masculine ways of expressing dislike, as in these popular memes. And like the images of pumpkin spice latte consumption more generally, they are not only gendered but also classed (Uggs) and raced (“basic white girl”; “call me Becky”).
I’ve tried to show how gender, class, and race are working in reinforcing ways to frame our thinking about pumpkin spice latte consumption, but I think that bacon is framed almost exclusively in terms of gender. Agree or disagree with respect to my claims about these particular foods, it is clear that there is some loaded rhetoric here, carrying a heavy cargo of gendered fetishization and scorn. And even when bacon and pumpkin spice lattes are long gone, some foods will continue to carry such cargo.
Now, I am off to eat bacon with my hands and drink me a pumpkin spice latte while wearing trousers and a good bra.