Burgers teetering with more toppings than beef. Yogurt sold in plastic cups resembling six-pack abs. Chicken wings with a hazy orange glow, so spicy they bring you to tears. This is just what “dudes” eat, right? According to Emily Contois, there’s something else going on beneath the extreme flavors, chiseled packaging, and radioactive condiments.
In her new book Diners, Dudes and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture (UNC Press, 2020), Contois (MET’13) uncovers how dude foods were powerful cultural constructs deployed by food marketers in the wake of the Great Recession to advertise products coded as feminine to a male audience. At a time when many unemployed millennial men were unable to fulfill the traditional masculine role of breadwinner, Contois says, food marketers crafted this slacker, anti-elite persona to sell cookbooks, diet yogurt, and cooking shows without making the male consumer feel emasculated. A far cry from the days of real men don’t eat quiche, the dude—with his presumed dad bod—represented a new kind of masculinity, where a man could buy cookbooks, go on Weight Watchers, and take a trip to Flavortown with Guy Fieri without being any less manly.
In highly readable prose, Contois’ book serves up plenty of critical analysis of cringe-worthy commercials, packaging, and marketing campaigns from the 2000s to today, including the Dr. Pepper TEN: It’s Not for Women campaign, and the shape of the Powerful Yogurt cup, made to resemble six-pack abs.
“Things like flavor, texture, particular foods, ways of eating, appetites are all ways gender is socially and culturally constructed,” says Contois, a University of Tulsa assistant professor of media studies. Once trolled for her analysis of the YouTube interview show Hot Ones, where contestants eat progressively spicier chicken wings, Contois’ latest work exposes the white, patriarchal structures of power at play in our food media and on our plates.
Contois will discuss her book tomorrow, Friday, February 19, at noon as part of Metropolitan College’s Spring 2021 Pépin Lecture Series in Food Studies & Gastronomy. The virtual event is free and open to the public. Registration is required.
BU Today spoke with Contois about the power of food and food media to shape our perceptions of gender, her time at MET’s Gastronomy program, and how she’s trying to make academia a more welcoming place for all.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
With Emily Contois
BU Today: You began your graduate studies and career in public health, but later found you wanted to study food from a liberal arts perspective. What led to the career change?
Emily Contois: There was a moment where I thought I might not finish public health school. I really missed that liberal arts perspective that I had in my undergrad years. It was my boyfriend, now my husband, who said, “No! You have this amazing scholarship, this is an opportunity, just finish it.” And I’m so glad I did. It gives me a really different insight into how I train my students and into the question of how is humanistic, social scientific research still really useful in the real world? What are the practical implications? How are we influencing the lives of everyday people with the kind of knowledge we produce?
BU Today: How did you get interested in food media and gender?
Emily Contois: I started researching trophy kitchens and HGTV when I was still working [in healthcare and wellness]. I realized it wasn’t fulfilling me, and I started buying used cultural studies textbooks. I started to research again and think about these ideas. In Understanding Gastronomy, the opening theory and methods course [of MET’s Gastronomy program], I got to write a research paper on the topic. One of my arguments was that the kitchen is actually this gender liminal space. It’s a space where we “make women,” through all these expectations about cooking, nurturing, feeding, and food labor. But the trophy kitchen space, with its gigantic island and fancy pans, is where men perform a “domestic self” in an interesting way. I had done all this work on diet culture as an undergrad, and this blossomed while I was in the Gastronomy program, where I looked at men and masculinity in my thesis.
BU Today: In Diners, Dudes and Diets, you look at “dude” masculinity and the foods that define this identity. Who is this post-2000 dude, and what are his foods of choice?
Emily Contois: The dude is a type of masculinity. He upholds some of the conventional things; he upholds that power dynamic of the patriarchy, but he resists some of it in that he’s the slacker hero. He’s this average, or below average, guy. He is not trying to have six-pack abs. He is not a really strong breadwinner, he’s not super assertive—he’s pushing back against that.
I argue that, historically, part of this is because of the context of the recession. These ideas about what a “real man” is are always out of reach, but they become really impossible then, particularly for millennial men. To be able to buy a home, to have a good-paying job, those were legitimately out of reach for a while. And for some, they have remained that way.
I was interested in how the food media and marketing industries used that cool, nonchalant slacker identity to convince men that they could buy a cookbook. They could drink diet soda. They could go on Weight Watchers, but coolly, and as if they didn’t care, so there was no threat to their masculinity. As these industries marketed to men, they had to come up with this different way of being a man. So, the dude came from culture; he’s historically specific, but he was manipulated and deployed by these various industries.
But when we think about dude food, we’re thinking about exaggerated comfort food, like gigantic burgers, nacho-everything, bacon-everything, all those sorts of things too.
BU Today: Some may wonder what diet yogurt and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives have to do with patriarchy. How does unpacking food media give us the opportunity to understand and challenge structures of masculinity, whiteness, and affluence?
Emily Contois: I got trolled for writing about Hot Ones [a YouTube show where those interviewed eat spicy barbecue wings], and making this argument that things like flavor, texture, particular foods, ways of eating, appetites are all ways that gender is socially and culturally constructed. If you don’t know the concept that gender comes from our social arrangements and culture, then all of this does seem really shocking. But, when we understand that’s where gender comes from—it is not biological, it is not innate—it is only through repetition throughout our social and cultural lives that this idea of what the heck masculinity, femininity are comes to resonate.
Food media, identity, and power touch everybody.
Part of the reason I study food media is because it’s all around us now. We’re in a moment where so many people are interested in food culture, even folks who would never call themselves “foodies”—like some who really love Guy Fieri—because it seems so pretentious. But they’re still enthusiastic about food! This is a moment of such widespread food media consumption, and because of Instagram, even amateur production of food media. It’s all around us, and it’s where all these questions about gender and power, inequity, justice are so easy to see.
BU Today: Your book charts how a period of major social and economic distress—the Great Recession of 2008—transformed food media and gendered ideas of what “dudes” were expected to do and eat. Have you observed any changes in food media since the start of the pandemic?
We have double pandemics, right? We have the coronavirus, and we have systemic racism actually being spoken about and protested. It’s been interesting to see these big moments of potential change in food media when it comes to diversity and inclusion, particularly racial representation at the highest levels. I’m really excited about what that means for the future of food media.
The pandemic also showed us that you could turn back to food when you have the time. I think some people rejoiced in having the time to bake and really enjoy cooking. Our lives were stretched so thin that when that time came back, I think for some people it was a time of pleasure, to really enjoy food in a way few Americans get to.
At the same time, if you are an essential worker, like my husband, nothing has changed. Or your life has become far more complicated and strained. I think remembering those two poles—not everyone was bored at home watching Netflix and loving their sourdough starter—a lot of people were still working, getting sick, and having to navigate our inequitable and inefficient healthcare system. We also have to think about meatpacking plant workers, grocery workers, DoorDash—these inequitable systems gave us more [opportunities] to talk about our food system, and its many challenges. There’s lots of work for us to do.
BU Today: You describe yourself as an “unconventional academic.” You frequently make or contribute to popular media, but you also share the behind-the-scenes of academic life via your blog and social media. Why are you interested in being a public scholar?
There’s lots of reasons. I will acknowledge, I’m a tiny bit of a diva, I like having people to talk to and think with. The academy is small, why would I only want to talk to academics?
The justice issue is also big for me. What does it mean that we produce knowledge so jargon-heavy that only a handful of people can understand it? And then we publish it in peer-reviewed journals that are owned by for-profit institutions that put them behind paywalls so hardly anyone can read them. The whole system is super broken. I like to be able to share information on podcasts, to write different kinds of articles for different kinds of audiences. Knowledge should be accessible for everybody. And it is more fun when you’re thinking with people across disciplinary boundaries and outside of the academy, because food media, identity, and power touch everybody.
To your point about peeling back the curtain on how academia works, this place has boundaries, this idea of the ivory tower, for a long time that’s what these institutions were. And so I am privileged that I got to have a tenure track job. I knew that if I got the chance, I was going to break it down from the inside at every opportunity to try and make it a more just and joyful place, and to bring in all the other kinds of folks [academia] literally needs. These have long been patriarchal, white supremacist institutions, and so I am going to do everything I can to reorient that.
BU Today: What’s your next project?
My colleague and friend at the University of Tulsa Zenia Kish and I are both in media studies and work on food. At the end of the month, we’re submitting the manuscript for Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Resistance, an edited collection of 17 chapters from contributors all around the world. There are a number of books on digital food that cover YouTube and Facebook, but no one has done a book on food and Instagram. We’re really excited to fill that gap. I think that’s how you know you’ve found the right field and the right set of questions, when you’re always working on things.
Emily Contois will discuss her new book, Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture, as part of the Spring 2021 Pépin Lecture Series in Food Studies & Gastronomy on Friday, February 19, at noon. The virtual event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Registrants will receive a link to the webinar via email. Find more information about the Pépin Lecture Series here.