How’s your summer going? Every season has its meat stereotypes, but summertime presents an entire smorgasbord for studying the sexual politics of meat: Have you felt the need to get a cologne that smells like barbecued meat? Or been tempted to buy Esquire’s “Eat Like a Man” cookbook to learn how to cook “manly protein”? Maybe you subscribe to The Family Handyman and are following their advice for grilling. They entitled their article “Men. Meat. Fire! (And beer).” They depict an excited 30 something white man, standing over an outdoor grill, about to flip some piece of dead animal flesh. Maybe your father or grandfather has handed you their copy of the AARP magazine, opened to “The Steaks Were High: A big ol’ rib eye bridges the gap between a father and son.” Maybe you heard about the firefighter who goes back to eating meat because the other vegetarian in the firefighter’s group is known to be a coward.
All of these together represent the most recent examples of what I have called “the sexual politics of meat.”
Statistically, it is true, American men eat more “beef” than women. A lot of industries need American men to continue to eat beef—to begin with the beef industry, but also steakhouses, fast food burger joints, magazines that help to establish just what is “manly” and what is not, and then, let’s not forget, open-heart surgeons.
During “The Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show” I show a famous Burger King commercial.
When the commercial is over, I point out all the stereotypes and put downs about feminism that exist in the commercial: throwing over the “soccer mom’s car,” the idea that men should burn their underwear based on the idea that women once burned their bras in protest (they didn’t), and the use of the tune to the “anthem of the women’s liberation movement.” But equally important is the coercive message that this is what men should do—eat dead animals.
Anthropologists who accept the sexual politics of meat might claim this emphasis on man the backyard griller and burger chewer is an understandable reclamation of man the hunter, the domesticated urbanite given a chance to reclaim his “primal needs.”
But I see it as part of the recuperative aspects of the sexual politics of meat. I see a message that seems to be saying “you men, you can get in touch with your inner neolithic, caveman self, let your inner carnivorous juices flow. Overcome wimpiness! Find freedom.” When I see a message like that, I think, where does this anxiety about male identify come from? So, veganism is such a powerful challenge to the way men think about themselves that in and of itself it can undermine cultural stereotypes!
Isn’t there something a little ironic that the equating of meat with freedom and strength requires accepting cultural dictates (non-freedom) and being afraid to challenge stereotypes (surely a form of weakness) and benefiting from some entirely cowardly ways of treating and killing animals?
Perhaps there’s something encouraging that so many different cultural arbiters—from the magazine for over 50s (AARP) to Esquire, from fast food places to cologne makers, anxiously reassert this connection. Maybe their anxiety to assert the connection indicates it is already fraying.
Maybe this attempt to maintain a cultural consensus shows that, well, the steer is already out of the barn. Far may he run!
Perhaps the need to constantly reinforce the association of meat eating and men suggests that it is indeed a fragile association. If the burden of maintaining or upholding gender stereotypes relies on what, or who, you eat for lunch, then they are already at a pretty shaky place.
I know animal rights activists who, when they speak at high schools and colleges are asked “won’t being a vegan make me a wimp?” Wimp—coded for sissy, not man enough. The sexual politics of meat creates anxiety about rules and expectations about consumption.
It’s the 21st century. We’re remaking ourselves on our blogs, our tweets, and on facebook or google+. We can control interpretations. How? Make new associations. Strength comes from refusing to be culturally coerced into eating meat. Refuse the anxiety; change the expectation.
Breaking stereotypes may feel hard, but there are a lot more people out there doing that than are recognized. Moreover, at least one study has shown that as we become vegetarians, we actually change our brains, and become more compassionate.
Perhaps opening our hearts will reduce the need for surgeons to do so decades from now.
There’s no need to be grilled because of who’s not on your grill.