Alex Bove wants to know, “Should we really be shaming men for being able to pronounce quinoa?” On meat, masculinity, and men’s health and the sexual politics of meat.
As a fan of American football who does not consider himself a manly man™, I often find the messages advertisers attempt to send sports viewers puzzling. This Bud Light commercial played in heavy rotation during a recent N.F.L. weekend, and it’s made me think about the relationship between meat and masculinity:
Our male protagonist laments that an unnamed “she” packed veggie burgers in his tailgating cooler. He recalls “accidentally” eating one last time, when his team won. Ascribing a causal relationship to these two events, he reluctantly drops a quinoa burger onto the grill, despite his claims that it tastes like a dirty tree branch and his male friend’s comparison of the patty to a loofah. The ad’s tag line is that Bud Light is for “the fans who do whatever it takes.”
The ad relies on several tropes of hegemonic masculinity. The protagonist is a solitary male whose female partner is more concerned about healthy eating than he is. He is also presented as a buffoon who can’t pronounce “quinoa” and who believes in sports superstitions (indeed, the commercial closes with a riff from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”). In the end, however, he will do anything, no matter how loathsome or humiliating, for his team. The ad’s tagline reassures men that “it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.” It’s important to remember that normalcy is desirable, but that the ends justify the means.
More importantly, the ad links meat eating with masculinity. The veggie burger is a poor substitute for a “real” burger: it both looks and tastes unappealing. Also, a real man would never voluntarily eat quinoa. Every circumstance leading up to his choice to eschew meat is accidental and/or fateful. He endures ridicule for his decision, but we are also meant to see his sacrifice as an act of bravery (thus, he is able to retain his masculinity, despite the obvious threat to it).
As Carol Adams points out in her germinal book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, meat and masculinity are intimately connected, and meat eating is also related to the oppression of women. Just as we dissect non-human animals’ bodies into cuts of meat, we dissect and fetishize women’s body parts. Studies have consistently shown that violence against animals is correlated with violence against women. Adams suggests that the power relations that characterize patriarchal gender norms are reinforced by the imperative of male (masculine) meat consumption.
When we value meat eating as a masculine activity, we devalue not only women, who are statistically more likely to be vegetarians (for reasons of health and compassion for animals), but we also devalue men who choose vegetarianism or veganism. Indeed, a 2012 study found that both men and women associate meat—particularly “muscle” meats, steak, etc.—with masculinity. In addition, the study analyzed 23 languages and found a preponderance of masculine words used to describe meat.
The conflation of masculinity and meat eating is not just bad for men and women socially. It is also, quite literally, bad for men’s health. The two leading causes of death among men have both been linked to red meat consumption. A plant-based diet has been shown to lower the risks of several more major causes of male deaths (diabetes, stroke, and kidney disease, usually a complication of high blood pressure). Yet we persist in our assumptions that a healthy masculinity must include eating “manly” foods, and that foremost among those foods are high fat, high cholesterol animal products.
We must stop shaming men for knowing how to pronounce quinoa, and for wanting to adopt a diet based on compassion, concern for the environment, and concern for their own long-term health. Doing so will require us to jettison our ideas about the importance of men being physically big and strong, since a major justification for excessive meat consumption is that it provides necessary protein. It will also require us to abandon long-standing notions—perpetuated by entire academic fields, like evolutionary psychology—that men are natural hunters, an idea that we apply not only to our dietary gender norms but to our rhetoric around heterosexual dating (what Julia Serano calls the predatory/prey model) and traditional family dynamics.
Embracing a new generation of tofu-hungry men may seem weird, but it’s only weird if it doesn’t work, right?
photo: Thomas R. Stegelmann / flickr