“Diners, Dudes, and Diets” Reveals the Absurdity of Gendered Food

Emily J.H. Contois, author of Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture (Photo credit: Courtesy of the author)

Women are often the obvious subjects of inquiry for feminist writers. We wonder: How do women experience, cope with, and adapt to a patriarchal world? How is the “female body” othered, surveilled, and regulated? And while these are critical questions to ask, they position men as the invisible, unexamined other. With all eyes on women, attention is diverted away from the way men are hurt by the patriarchy they’re simultaneously upholding. In her debut book, Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture, food scholar and culture critic Emily J. H. Contois turns our gaze toward men and the ways patriarchy constrains their lives and bodies. Her entry point to the big questions? Dude food. She walks us through the way food is marketed to men by analyzing cultural relics such as men’s cookbooks, diet foods for men, and even Guy Fieri—the very embodiment of dude food. But it’s so much bigger than food. Contois writes in her book, “Food remains one of the most fraught spaces within consumer culture for shaping and reflecting identity, who we are and who we want to be, how others see us and how we wish to be seen.” If we understand dude food—and The Dude himself—we can better understand the gender-anxious, binary-obsessed world that made The Dude possible. 

By naming and examining dude food, Contois gives us the language and historical context for an omnipresent phenomenon we’ve all surely noticed. From yogurt for men (a.k.a. “brogurt”) and Dr. Pepper TEN’s tagline “it’s not for women” to the countless ads equating eating meat with being masculine, we’ve all encountered the bizarre ways foods are packaged—and repackaged—to appeal to men. Contois explains this advertising strategy as a reaction to gender anxieties of the early aughts, when a global “mancession” or “he-cession” led journalists and cultural critics to mourn the “death of macho.” Amid this crisis, The Dude appeared—embracing mediocrity along with his dad bod and eating hot wings until it hurt. The Dude is the antithesis of diet culture, rejecting anything healthy or explicitly low fat. As its masculine opposite, dude food reveals the absurdity of the women-centered diet culture of calorie counting and restriction and, more broadly, of all gendered food rules. 

As much as advertising agencies try to convince us otherwise, foods aren’t inherently masculine or feminine; instead, these gendered ideas about food are cultural constructs that we have the power to undo. Contois doesn’t want The Dude to continue to exist because, though he constrains men, he also reinforces the cisgender binary that hurts everyone. Bitch talked to Contois about what The Dude teaches us about feminism and racial politics and what the world might look like if we embraced gender as freeing and expansive rather than as a rigid code of restriction and oppression. 

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What sparked your interest in masculinity and food? Was there something specific that drew you toward this element of food studies?

I was studying diet culture as an undergrad during this weird early 2000s moment where the diets that happened to be popular were South Beach and Atkins. More and more men were doing those diets, unlike previous low-fat diets where you just ate salads. When I presented at one of my first academic conferences, someone pointed out, “You have this one line about men and masculinity. Maybe you should look into that more.” It was a generative moment. But I started with women; I was interested in [the relationship between] diet culture and women. My first published essay was [about] Drop Dead Diva. I was really interested in representations of women’s bodies, our identities. Studying men and masculinity was a way to understand gender and power, and it’s actually taught me quite a lot about women, femininity, and the idea of the feminine—particularly how it’s constructed by advertisers and marketers.

Do you think this study of masculinity is beneficial to feminism?

The book uses a feminist approach to unpack patriarchy and put it in a historical, cultural context. It plays out in texts you might not expect, like [the hashtag] meatsweats, cookbooks, and crazy media phenomena. I often say patriarchy oppresses all of us, [but it doesn’t impact] all of us to the same degree; the story is also about how patriarchy traps men. A piece I wrote for NBC News this past Thanksgiving was about how everybody could push back against the patriarchy. My argument is never just about freeing women. Women have been inequitably oppressed by this patriarchal system, so that dynamic is always there, but [I’m always focusing on] that broader project.

As its masculine opposite, dude food reveals the absurdity of the women-centered diet culture of calorie counting and restriction and, more broadly, of all gendered food rules. 

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Dude food seems to promote a destruction of men through excess. How do you see dude food reinforcing the promotion of women’s destruction through restriction?

We can make the argument that patriarchy created the thin ideal: women’s appetites and bodies as physical manifestations of [the expectation to] not take up space, have voice, or have power. That’s quite similar to some of these aspects of toxic masculinity that we see [promoted] through patriarchy, expecting men to not care for their bodies, to eat spicy food until it hurts, and to eat lots of food until it hurts. Men who say “I’m full” get ragged on. These patriarchal elements hurt [all] of us. I make the flip side of the argument in the book about “zero,” the marketing method of selling non-diet diet food to men. We’ve marketed it really differently for women. We’ve seen zero applied to things like power bowls—pumped-up salads [with] an “ancient grain” and super foods added. These discourses make you wonder: Is it empowering? Is this better than diet culture, or is it showing the underbelly of wellness culture?

How much of this is an American or Western phenomenon, and do you see dude food playing out in other contexts? 

The sense of entitlement to eating well, the ideas of being masculinized, and having a particular class understanding that reinforces these ideas of white supremacy isn’t only American. There are a couple examples I bring up in the book from Australia and the United Kingdom. In those similarly colonial spaces—Australia in particular—you see very similar dynamics. Australia has a really big dude food culture. We were there very briefly, and one of the things we saw in the grocery store was that milk became a masculinized food. Chocolate milk was branded as the perfect macronutrient balance for your post-workout drink. It went from kid food to this post-workout, protein-filled drink.

But there were instructions on the carton on how to open it. It would say something like, “Bust open here!” It was all this violent, ridiculous language about how you’re supposed to physically interact with this container in this manly, violent way that’s meant to come up against kid food. [Australia also] has a heavy meat culture that’s tied to the idea that meat is masculine. I don’t think any of us have gotten any further than Carol J. Adams did 25 years ago with The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. She laid it all out. I’m just showing how it has  been deployed by [the food] industry and animated in particular cultural moments. But her theory of meat eating and constructing men, masculinity, imperial power, and whiteness was right from the very beginning.

Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture by Emily J.H. Contois (Photo credit: The University of North Carolina Press)

How does whiteness make dude food possible, and how much of The Dude is built on a colonialist legacy?  I’m thinking, for example, about Guy Fieri “reinventing” sushi by taking this Japanese art form and turning it into this unrecognizable, meat-filled American food.

Even though The Dude slacks off, it’s [still] a privileged identity. To just fuck around and not care—that’s only [possible in] a position of status authority and relative comfort. That’s part of the way patriarchy and whiteness [work], and there’s an investment in the ongoing authority of whiteness and masculinity. With Fieri, it’s much more about this complicated multiculturalism he creates on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; he’s not free from the imperialist logic and inherent white supremacy [found in] food travelogue shows. People like Anthony Bourdain were doing it better [by] having conversations that scholars would say are more [about] gastrodiplomacy. But Fieri is in that tradition of food-travel shows where you’re going out and “discovering.”

When I did an analysis of his cookbooks, some of the language that came out was you’re on a journey, you’re on an adventure, you’re discovering culinary wonders and bringing them back. He turns all that finding, seeking, and discovering into [a form of] sharing and promoting, but it’s still similar to travel shows, which typically cast a place with a colonialist, outsider gaze. It’s from that place of privilege that he can say we should unmark all these marked categories—[that] it shouldn’t be “ethnic food.” He wants it all to be fair game in a way that is [seemingly] genuine: We want to enjoy everything. We want everything to be available. But [his approach is coming] from a position of power, [and this power] wouldn’t be equitably distributed to a small immigrant-owned business that wanted to [do] the same kind of mass-fusion hybrid cuisine as Fieri.

We’re in a moment of crisis and social unrest: How do you see The Dude playing out over time, or alternatively, what would be your ideal future for masculinity and food?

I don’t want The Dude to exist at all. I’m fine with that gender type just totally fading away. But he’s been with us for 100 years; he was [just] configured in a different way and attached to food in this 21st-century moment. In the marketing space, or even in journalism and media, there’s this idea of niche audiences, and so often, there’s this reductionist idea of who that audience is. Who are you trying to reach? We’ve [been reductionist when it comes to] gender in women’s media, women’s films, and women’s literature. Sometimes I love Jennifer Weiner freaking out about the idea of “chick lit” more than her actual books; [she was making] such an important argument. I want that [gendering] to go away with food.  

I made that argument to a group of advertisers once: What happens if we don’t target market by gender anymore? What if we just market great products to people? What would happen if we did that? One [way] they pushed back was [by saying] our gender identities, in addition to all the other parts and pieces of ourselves, are a meaningful way to connect. After the Gillette ad about toxic masculinity got all this backlash, there was an ad that featured a Black transgender man learning how to shave with his dad. It was really beautiful. Gender told a story about shaving, stepping into manhood, and having the support of a father; I want to see the gender stereotypes go away.

The United Kingdom banned ads that talk about women, men, transgender folks, and nonbinary folks [in disparaging ways]. Ads and media production should be held accountable for what they put out in the world because they can start conversations and be a part of moving us forward and making things more wonderful, but they can also do real harm [by] constraining who we are and who we dream we can be.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Andréa Becker
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Andréa Becker is a PhD candidate and NSF GRFP fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center. As a medical sociologist, her research looks at how gender, sexuality, and race shape the way we understand health, medicine, and our bodies.