Diners, Dudes, and Diets

It took me six months to dream up the title Diners, Dudes, and Diets (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). For anyone who’s ever watched Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, my inspiration is likely pretty clear. As I researched gender and power in contemporary American food media, I spent years analyzing Fieri’s polarizing persona (and watching dozens upon dozens of episodes of his shows), but I’d been thinking about what and why we eat for much longer.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the language of the weight loss industry and how it crafts a dieting theology based on “guilt-free” and “sinfully delicious” eating. Although I loved that research and writing, my younger self worried that such bookish activities were not enough to make a difference in the world, so I went to graduate school to study public health nutrition. I was convinced that fresh fruits and vegetables could fix everything, or at least put a dent in “diet-related diseases.” I’m now less interested in how 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.2 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.3 While applicable to multiple identities, the dude primarily connotes a sense of masculinity that is inherently white, straight, cisgender, and youthful.

Guy Fieri, the dude of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

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 Hollywood celebrities and sports stars like Chris Hemsworth and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In the United States, the idealized masculine character is typically defined as a white middle-class man, who’s strong, competent, in control, competitive, assertive (even aggressive), and breadwinning, as he’s oriented toward the public sphere rather than the home.4 This “hegemonic masculinity” also shapes notions of health, as “real men” supposedly value independence, take risks, and are relatively unconcerned with well-being, as they eschew “healthy” behaviors and disease prevention as feminizing.5 These health-based stereotypes partly drive the ideas that “real men don’t diet” or eat salads at Super Bowl watch parties – or wear masks during a global pandemic.

The dude resists the breadwinning, professional achievement, and competitive spirit of hegemonic masculinity. Despite his lackadaisical demeanor, however, the dude remains complicit in hegemonic masculinity’s overall structure of power and inequality. He retains his spot atop a gender hierarchy that subordinates women and femininities, as well as marginalized masculinities, by race, class, and sexualities. The dude simply opts out of the struggle.

While my book explores food media through the story of the dude, I wrestled with how to study masculinity without putting men at the center of my research. Feminism and feminist theory do not take aim at white men, and neither do I, in my work or in my life. (This seemed to be a point of confusion when I analyzed the YouTube series Hot Ones and was subsequently trolled, which, yes, I wrote about for Nursing Clio.) What I am invested in is showing how the power of masculinity and whiteness works, and to understand how the oppression of a patriarchal system functions, flows, and replicates so that we can reconfigure it. Patriarchy oppresses all of us—not all of us equally, not by a long shot—but all of us to varying degrees, compounded by gender, sexuality, race, and class. Gender contamination is the product of a patriarchal society and system that upholds the power of men and masculinity, whiteness, and affluence. Examining gender (like the dude) in food media provides an opportunity to unpack and challenge these structures of power.

Indeed, studying how industries construct masculinities and approach men has greatly informed my understanding of femininities and women’s experiences with food, our bodies, and our media lives. For example, even as cookbooks invited men to cook at home and referenced professional female chefs, many still reinforced male supremacy, as they shared foundational myths of cavemen cooking over fire or framed cooking as a way to seduce women. What’s more, when Coca Cola and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group launched diet sodas for men, they created new and better tasting artificial sweeteners for these drinks, based on the gendered assumption that men crave (and deserve) beverages with real sugar-like flavors more than women, consumers who had long sipped sodas of varyingly acrid flavor. Companies marketed yogurt to men as a protein-filled post-workout snack, while pitching them as pitiful dessert substitutes to weight-watching women with flavors like Key Lime Pie and Strawberry Cheesecake. Commercial weight loss programs promised men they’d effortlessly lose weight while eating whatever dude food they wanted, at the same time that they encouraged women to restrain their appetites, constrain their bodies, and reform themselves.

A yogurt advertisement promises to help men find their “hidden abs.” (Courtesy Powerful Foods)

The dude reveals a specific case in which culture and identity merge with the marketplace and its capitalistic aims. The food media landscape forms a key site for analyzing gender and for understanding the drivers, mechanics, and logics of gender anxiety. These cultural texts do not just describe gender. They culturally reproduce gender binaries that uphold ideology and inequality.6 A series of interconnected binaries—masculine/feminine, public/private, production/consumption, real/unreal, rational/irrational, and satisfaction/restraint—fueled the dude and upheld white heteropatriarchy.

The food, media, and marketing industries employed such binaries to their benefit when they sought more male consumers for products like cookbooks and yogurt. These binaries circulated as food’s cultural capital exerted greater influence in American life and as food media expanded its reach. They formed a backdrop as men experienced the social shifts of the twenty-first century, including the Recession and the ongoing question of how to be “a real man” in an ever-changing consumer society.

The dude provided an answer.

Adapted from Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture by Emily J. H. Contois. Copyright © 2020 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org

Notes

  1. Jill Avery, “Defending the Markers of Masculinity: Consumer Resistance to Brand Gender-Bending,” International Journal of Research in Marketing 29, no. 4 (December 2012): 322–36. Return to text.
  2. Lessley Anderson, “Will Eating Luna Bars Make a Guy Grow Breasts?,” Chowhound, May 22, 2008, https://www.chowhound.com/food-news/54511/will-eating-luna-bars-make-a-guy-grow-breasts/; Men’s Health Forum, “Luna Bars – Will They Turn Me into a Woman?” Men’s Health website, April 24, 2007, http://forums.menshealth.com/topic/63643898180487791; Andy Kryza, “11 Foods That No Man Should Eat… Ever,” Thrillist, September 16, 2013, https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/foods-that-no-man-should-eat. Return to text.
  3. In this book, I examine the gender discourse of the dude, not dudes themselves. With this distinction in mind, I still use “he” instead of “it” throughout the text for readability. Also, the dude is similar to the “slacker man” analyzed by Michael Mario Albrecht, Masculinity in Contemporary Quality Television (Routledge, 2015); David Denby, “A Fine Romance: The New Comedy of the Sexes,” The New Yorker, July 23, 2007; Suzanne Leonard, “Escaping the Recession? The New Vitality of the Woman Worker,” in Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in an Age of Austerity, ed. Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker (Duke University Press, 2014), 31–58; John Troyer and Chani Marchiselli, “Slack, Slacker, Slackest: Homosocial Bonding Practices in Contemporary Dude Cinema,” in Where the Boys Are: Cinemas of Masculinity and Youth, ed. Murray Pomerance and Frances Gateward (Wayne State University Press, 2005), 264–76. Return to text.
  4. Laura Grindstaff and Emily West, “Hegemonic Masculinity on the Sidelines of Sport,” Sociology Compass 5, no. 10 (2011): 860. Return to text.
  5. R.W. Connell, Masculinities, 2nd Edition (University of California Press, 2005); Will H. Courtenay, “Constructions of Masculinity and Their Influence on Men’s Well-Being: A Theory of Gender and Health,” Social Science & Medicine 50, no. 10 (2000), 1385–1401; Will H. Courtenay, “Engendering Health: A Social Constructionist Examination of Men’s Health Beliefs and Behaviors,” Psychology of Men & Masculinity 1, no. 1 (2000): 4–15. Return to text.
  6. Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, 10th Anniversary Edition (University of California Press, 2004), 110. Return to text.

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