Food Media, Gender, and Power: An Interview with Emily Contois

Food Media, Gender, and Power: An Interview with Emily Contois

Julia Ehrhardt

Emily J. H. Contois has been researching masculinity in American diet culture for over a decade. During that time, the rise of social media, a devastating economic recession, and an unprecedented fixation on food combined to radically transform two enduring national obsessions: hegemonic masculinity and our fear of fat. In Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture, Contois deftly documents how the emergence of a new masculine identity—the “dude”—enabled food marketers, media, and culinary professionals to sell both diet food and a countercultural male lifestyle to consumers hungry for both. Astutely applying a historian’s lens to a sagacious selection of examples, Contois interprets cultural phenomena—cookbooks, diet sodas, “brogurt,” and diet plans marketed specifically to “dudes,” as well as the popularity of Food Network star Guy Fieri—to demonstrate food’s impact on male gender identity. Contois reveals how “dude culture” softens the rigidity of gendered food rules but does not fully eradicate them. Ultimately, this sophisticated yet accessible work proves that we need more expansive, more inclusive, and more representative relationships between the food media we consume and the gender identities we inhabit.

Julia: When I first encountered you as an undergraduate, you were a dancer who had become interested in food studies. Can you narrate for readers how your academic interest in food began?

Emily: First, thank you for interviewing me about my book, Julia! It’s special that a professor I had during my first semester of college has been part of every step on my academic journey. To your question, my grandmother was interested in, maybe obsessed with, nutrition and eating healthfully. I start Diners, Dudes, and Diets reflecting on how she and my mom would cook Thanksgiving dinner together, but my grandmother never ate it, instead opting for a Lean Cuisine meal. Training to be a professional ballet dancer with a naturally muscular body also strained my own relationship with food. So, from my life, and then from my education and research, I’ve long been fascinated with food’s contradictions, paradoxes, and tensions; how and why we love food, but are also often quite anxious about it, individually and culturally.

Julia: I remember quite well your undergraduate honors thesis on dieting. Back then, when we thought about gender and food, men and their relationships with food often took a backseat to work on women. What interested you about men and food?

A bacon salad, à la Atkins diet. (Courtesy FlyerBine)

Emily: It actually sprung from my honors thesis (with you!) on the early 2000s dieting industry. I was reading about how more men were following “low carb” diets, like Atkins, in part because they didn’t require eating lots of vegetables or giving up foods like bacon. At the same time, I’ve also worked to study gender relationally. In that way, researching men reveals how the food, media, and marketing industries approach women and construct femininities—and how limited these strategies are for non-binary genders.

Julia: When I think of the word “dude,” the image that comes to mind—Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)—has nothing to do with food. Can you tell us about the subset of the male gender you categorize as “dudes,” and how you come to conceptualize “dude food” in the book?

Emily: The slacker dude appears in a number of films from the late 1990s and early 2000s, including The Big Lebowksi. I theorize the dude as a specific gender discourse that both resists hegemonic masculinity (drawing from sociologist Raewyn Connell’s foundational work), and still remains complicit in its overall structures of power and inequity. Cool, unserious, and ironic, the dude shrugs off demands of manhood like competitiveness and breadwinning, which the Recession made all the more difficult to achieve. I see dude food as the culinary manifestation of the dude and the “dad bod” as his embodiment. While dude foods are often meat-based, they’re also about full-throttle flavor, massive portions, unfussy and anti-elitist presentation, nutritional risk-taking, and enthusiastic excess. I define dude food as comfort food with an edge of competitive destruction for how it indexes the politics of gender, sexuality, class, and race.

Julia: I am also really taken with the media analysis you have done in your book in the chapter on Guy Fieri. How does he come to represent the prototypical food “dude”?

Emily: The Guy Fieri chapter was my favorite to write. He’s understood as a “dude chef” for the multiple ways he resists expectations of normative masculinity, food media celebrity, and cuisine. Rather than a serious, award-winning chef, Fieri purposefully presents himself as “off the hook” with much-parodied rock ‘n’ roll flair and over-the-top food that promises eaters a trip to Flavortown. I’m also fascinated by how Pete Wells’ zero-star-poor review in the New York Times of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar actually furthered Fieri fandom. Especially in the last few years, Fieri has been recuperated from a flaming flop in the New York Times to a charitable good dude savior, especially for his work during the California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 and with the National Restaurant Association during Covid-19. And despite how he still repeats the imperialist framework of most food travel shows, there have also been (serious? ironic?) calls to rename Columbus, Ohio after him.

Julia: I often think about the lessons and insights food can teach us about gender in ways that other subjects of scholarly inquiry cannot or do not. Is there something about gender that your exploration of dude food gives us insight into that other avenues of scholarly inquiry can’t or don’t?

Emily: One of the things I’m analyzing in this book is what marketers call “gender contamination,” the idea that consumers resist brand gender-bending, especially that men resist “feminine” products. I ultimately argue that the whole idea of gender contamination serves the marketplace more than it represents actual folks’ perspectives, but it nevertheless affects food and food media given the enduring feminization of food and its connections to domesticity. What’s more, the “threat” of gender contamination for men is perceived as greater from food than from other consumer objects because we eat food. It comes into us and becomes part of our bodies, our waste, our cells, and ourselves. The dude was a strategy to combat those layered and complicated gender anxieties.

Julia: I’m also considering the new ways we think about gender and the emergence of gender identities that are more fluid and not binary, alongside the popularity of plant-based meat substitutes that run the gamut from the Impossible Burger to cauliflower steaks, as well as the rise of flavored waters and seltzers (as alternatives to traditional sodas) and alcohol-free spirits. Given these changes, what will the concept of “dude food” in the future look like?

Emily: With plant-based meat substitutes, I’m fascinated by how masculinity seems to be tied to not just animal meat, but to protein itself. Even as folks switch protein sources, many of the structures of inequity inherent to meat eating (such as sustainability or food access and security) aren’t fading away. The dude gives us a window into understanding how and why white heteropatriarchy shapes food culture and media, and how to change it. We’re in a moment when brands and agencies are focusing on “corporate social responsibility,” so there’s hope for change in how brands link food and gender, or not.

Julia: Before you earned your PhD, you studied nutrition and public health. The breadth of your food knowledge thus spans disciplines far afield from the typical scholar of food and media. What insights does your training in nutrition and public health give your perspective on men, “dudes,” and food consumption that you would not have otherwise?

Emily: Like many of the historians of medicine who are part of Nursing Clio, I’m invested in training future generations of doctors, nurses, dietitians, and other health professionals to think more critically and holistically about health and illness, sustenance and nutrients, bodies and identities, and systems and culture than standard curriculum might otherwise encourage. I’m committed to that work because I genuinely believe in the public’s health as a human right. My training in public health also reinforced that if I was going to pursue interdisciplinary work on food, health, and media, I needed to still think about practical applications and key recommendations from my scholarship. I tried to make the book’s conclusion as satisfying as I could so that we can take some specific steps, both individually and structurally, toward a food media future that is full of more joy and justice.

Julia: An obvious final question, what’s next for the research projects you are working on or would like to pursue?

Emily: Well, I coedited Food Instagram: Identity, Influence, and Resistance with my friend and colleague, Zenia Kish, so we’re excited for that project’s next steps. I just finished a chapter on the photo essay “Women Laughing Alone with Salad,” and I’m working on an article about the lasting cultural influence of Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche (1982). I’m also writing a chapter about food in the 2020 presidential campaign. I’m also looking forward to some rest!

Featured image caption: Emily Contois’s Diners, Dudes, and Diets is now available from University of North Carolina Press. (Courtesy Emily Contois and UNC Press)

Julia Ehrhardt is a Reach for Excellence Associate Professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies in the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma. She researches and teaches courses on American literature, women and gender, and food studies.

1 thought on “Food Media, Gender, and Power: An Interview with Emily Contois

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      Sometimes gazing at a vista from a completely unusual vantage offers the most interesting perspective – I would say this is a terrific example of that. Thanks. I’m looking forward to reading the book!

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