Wednesday, 31 October 2012

FCC: Food, Gender and Sexuality

With the end of October (Happy Halloween, by the way) came the end of this year’s Food and Culture Colloquium’s focused theme of food identity (or rather, the general intersection of food with aspects of identity). Following September's introductory themes, we began the month with a session on deep listening skills and self-reflection to help us identify what we are passionate about and to use that as motivation as we work toward instilling change within and outside of our communities. Over the last three weeks, we focused on food's intersection through three pairs of identities: language and ethnicity, religion and spirituality, and nationality and citizenship. Gender and sexuality took the stage this week and without question revealed that any one of these pairs could rightfully be singular themes for an entire colloquium series. Before I continue, though, I would like to direct your attention to the above video clip (in fact, there are a fair few for this post), as today was Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF Day (as well as National Caramel Apple Day).

This week's session, presented by our first faculty-staff-student combination, was by far one of the best attended we've possibly had since our kickoff and began with a looking at gender from the most private of sectors: the home. After viewing the 1949 video posted above, one might ask to what extent the framework of “men heading off to work while women stayed behind in the kitchen” still exists. As we ponder such a question, Outlook President Taylor Klassman also shared the below Desperate Housewives clip and Bree’s portrayal of, as described, the quintessential chef. 

To what extent is it feminist or anti-feminist to play the game and make money off the commodity of being the successful housewife and entrepreneur?

And as we shift over to the visibility of women on the food scene, where do the numbers fall and what are we suggesting to our future generations? As Taylor shared, 78% of all household meals are prepared by women, and working women spend more than twice the time in the kitchen as men do. Looking at the image that Director of the Center for Women and Gender Action Dr. Marci McCaulay shared, again, how far we have gone in mitigating (if at all) such societal expectations? What are the gender roles being enforced (unintentionally or otherwise) in the photo above?

Indeed, it appears that the trend remains that the role of women in food-related job sectors are somewhat reduced to blogging, cookbooks, television and magazines, roles which are arguably much more behind the scenes. The statistics are especially telling when we consider that only about 15% of all executive chefs are women (what does this say when we think about the number of women who cook at home?) and 39% focus on pastries. Conversely, the growing trends are promising when 40% of those undergoing training in the New York Culinary Institute, as well as those chefs who appear on national television, are women. This move then into the public kitchen questions the roles and credibility of the ones who wear the chef’s hat. 

In a spirit of dialogue, we were asked to share the gender expectations we bring into the given setting of the restaurant scene. Who greets? Serves? Busses the tables? And given our responses to these questions, is it surprising that while restaurants employ over 10 million women, women early less than their male counterparts? Certainly economic expectations such as tips and social considerations such as gender-specific work benefits and sexual harassment issues may play a role in determining pay, but to what extent is the clear economic inequity based on gender justifiable? 

The many questions raised in this first part of the presentation concluded as we continued to dialogue about eating in the food scene, to which Taylor “queered” the experience for us and asked us to consider what it might be like to enter a restaurant with someone of the same vs opposite gender. What would the experience be like between walking in alone vs with a group? 

Undergoing another transition change in subject, Denison Feminists President Paige Umberger focused her portion of the presentation on the movement to diminish the existing dichotomy of human and non-human: namely, ecofeminism, the philosophical and political movement that combines ones fears and concerns with ecological ones. Another way to put this is the aim of helping us to understand that we are not superior to but rather in relationship with animals. In the end, this boiled down to Carol Adams and her work on the relationship between feminism and vegetarianism. Here, Paige spoke of most feminist’s inner dialogue and natural suspicions of what is “natural”. Adams’s work falls into four main points which Paige much more eloquently shared but which I shall briefly summarise here. The first is that the “historical” argument for the consumption of meat is no longer valid today; rather, we (generally speaking) eat too much meat and considering health concerns we eat too much fat. Second is the absent referent of “out of sight, out of mind”. While zero-impact farms and areas exist where consumers know where their food comes from, it’s much easier to intentionally remain blinded by the reality of the meat industry and the general oppression of animals. To an extent then, the human element of participation in such an industry creates a third troublesome element of the disembodiment of workers just as relevant as the oppression of women and the animals themselves. Last but not least, this lens highlights and relates the domination of animals for production for domination of Earth, returning us back to the imbalance and dichotomy that ecofeminism (and feminism in general) is fighting against.

From, essentially, the objectification of animals as somethings-which-will-be-turned-into-food the final segment of this session’s presentation focused on visual media, with a specific emphasis on one becoming a piece of meat through objectification, fragmentation and consumption. Sharing through the lens of Naomi Woolfe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies Jill Gillespie guided us in dissecting the above photo collage. From the sexualisation of food as they replace body parts to the conflation of women’s bodies, objectification becomes particularly evident in the age compression, vacant expression and submissive displays of behaviour through these images. As suggested here, ads don’t sell sex but rather they seem to sell more so sexual discomfort; additionally, they seem to suggest that women’s words are not to be believed.

With this in mind, food is somehow attributed gender and sexual attributes, and protein in particular (specifically meat, and referring back to feminist theory) tends to speak toward hyper masculinity and continues to push along the hierarchy more subtly displayed in advertising to younger generations (as evidenced in the images Marci shared) and not so subtly as presented in the commercial above.

In writing this particular post, I wasn’t exactly sure how to end such a packed hour which again could have well been integrated into individual seminars and courses. But what I think becomes evident most of all is just how evident and consuming discussions built on our identities play into the presentation and politics of food (and vice versa). 

Suggested readings for this session:
"Old Gender Roles with Your Dinner?" (Frank Bruni, 2008)
"Nutrition Thumbs Up for Dad!" (Karen Ansel, n.d.)
"Tipped over the Edge- Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry" (Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 2012)
"Sex and the Kitchen" (Elizabeth Cline, 2009)
"Fraternity Culture, Misogyny, and Pig Roast = Sexual Politics of Meat" (Carol Adams, 2012)
"Food: My Feminist Issue" (Marie Drews, 2007)
 "Beauty and the Feast" (Juliana Tringali, n.d.)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here.
To check out the album of photos from our October colloquium sessions, click here

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