Meat and Masculinity

20 Dec
An LG Electronics advertisement for a microwave.

An LG Electronics advertisement for a microwave.

The following is a guest post by Ashley Maier.  Ashley has been involved in the movement to end gendered violence for over 15 years and currently serves as a Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.  You can also check out her personal blog here.

Food is just one of those things – if it tastes good, we generally want it.  Thinking beyond that palate pleasure can be challenging and uncomfortable.  Can’t this be the one area of our lives that doesn’t have meaningful consequences, that doesn’t require yet more analysis?  As desirable as that situation is, when we realize all that lies behind the production and sale of the items we eat multiple times a day, our food choices take on much more meaning.  Food is, after all, an industry.  As groups like Food Empowerment Project point out, our daily food choices have direct links to issues like child slavery (chocolate), migrant farm worker abuse (produce), environmental racism (factory farms), and more.  Indeed, one food choice has particular links to masculinity: meat.

In an unapologetically sexist advertising world, those in the business of selling the consumption of animals and products related to it use tropes about masculinity to no end.  In doing so, they send a loud and clear message: meat is manly.  Tofu is for wimps.  Real men eat meat.  Indeed, as Carl’s Junior continues to play out its tired sexism in yet another commercial featuring a writhing supermodel and a dripping burger, advertisements for other “manly” products like beer shame men who can pronounce the word “quinoa.”  It’s not just that vegetarian or vegan men get their man cards revoked at every turn, it’s that the more one consumes meat and identifies with that behavior, the more manly he becomes.

In her groundbreaking book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, feminist scholar Carol J. Adams points out that the connection between meat and masculinity goes far beyond typical sexist advertising.  Animals are commodified and sold in ways that feminize and sexualize their bodies.  Meat isn’t just manly, it’s sexy, literally.  To consume these animal’s bodies is to wield power – to dissect, ingest, and ravage female bodies.  Here, meat eating becomes a symbol, a tool, of patriarchy and oppression.  It is both a reflection of a culture that allows violence against women and a means through which to perpetuate it.

What’s more, when we look at the actual “product” being sold, we see that this feminization isn’t off the mark.  To supply meat and animal byproducts is to rely on female reproduction.  So, pigs spend their lives confined to tiny gestation crates where they cannot turn around, going insane while they endlessly birth and suckle piglets who will be taken away from them.  Hens spend their lives stacked on top of each other in tiny wire cages, feet growing around the bars and no room to spread their wings, laying egg after egg – something their bodies were never meant to do – while hundreds of “useless” male chicks are crushed and suffocate after being thrown into dumpsters alive.  Cows face perpetual pregnancy via a “rape rack”, vocally and viscerally mourning the loss of every calf who is taken away, only to repeat the cycle over and over again until sent to a terrifying end in the slaughter house, deemed too old and worthless to be useful.  And so much more.  This is what lies behind the manliest of foods.

Unfortunately, these messages work.  Studies increasingly confirm the gender norms associated with meat eating.  For example, researchers at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky found that men in their study linked meat eating with manhood, power, and virility.   Another study at the University of British Columbia found that vegetarian men were seen as less macho (and “wimps”) compared to those men who eat meat – even by non meat-eaters and women.  This is particularly troubling given the very real connection between meat consumption and negative health outcomes for men, such as heart disease.  Yet again, just as we see with other violent and aggressive behaviors, that which is considered manly is that which actually harms men.  Moreover, given the realities of situations like food deserts and health disparities, these messages, easy to brush off as routine sexism, have very real consequences for men in marginalized communities.

In the end, what’s most interesting (or concerning) is that a common response to the “meat is manly” message relies on and perpetuates the very same problematic gender norms.  Now, we must prove that vegetarian men are indeed manly.  But is it really necessary or effective to call men who don’t eat meat pussies?  Our food choices can demonstrate respect for all creatures, including other men, and most certainly women.  A “whose food is manlier?” war won’t get us anywhere.  The problem isn’t that meat-eating men have chosen the wrong manly food, it’s that as long as masculinity is associated with violence against women, industries based on the consumption of animals and their secretions (“feminized proteins” according to Adams) will thrive.  To challenge harmful notions of masculinity is to challenge these industries.  To challenge these industries is to work towards healthy definitions of masculinity – in all senses of the word healthy.

Further Reading

Adams, C. J. (2003). The pornography of meat. New York: Continuum.

Davis, K. & Lee, W. (Eds), Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Press.

Donovan, J., & Adams, C. J. (2007). The feminist care tradition in animal ethics: A reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Harper, A. B. (2009). Sistah vegan: Black female vegans speak on food, identity,health, and society. New York: Lantern Books.

Kheel, M. (2008). Nature ethics: An ecofeminist perspective. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rozin, , P., Hormes, J. M., Faith, M. & Wansink, B, (2012). Is meat male ? A Quantitative Multi-Method Framework to Establish Metaphoric Relationships. Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 629-643.

7 Responses to “Meat and Masculinity”

  1. Marsha December 22, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Thanks, Ashley! A cogent and powerful essay that helps us continue to clear away the fog of culture that tells us what is “normal” and “manly.”

  2. Ali Seiter January 6, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

    Awesome piece, Ashley. Thanks a bunch for shedding light on this urgent topic.


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    […] Unfortunately, these messages work. Studies increasingly confirm the gender norms associated with meat eating. For example, [in 2012] researchers at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky found that men in their study linked meat eating with manhood, power, and virility. Another study at the University of British Columbia found that vegetarian men were seen as less macho (and “wimps”) compared to those men who eat meat – even by non meat-eaters and women.” (blogroll) […]

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