“What the hell are you doing son?! You can’t win a war with this!’ - Yells an elderly combatant authoritatively at a young lad, as he grabs a vegetable skewer from the youngster’s hand in displeased manner, interrupts his attempt to flirt with women and drags him into the surreal scene of armed battle.
‘-Don’t eat like a rabbit!’ – instructs the elder soldier the inexperienced, confused colleague, after he makes sure that the two make it alive and safe out of armed clash with nemeses. Putting a plate of juicy, steamy piece of steak in front of the young man, he adds knowingly: ‘-You want to act like a man? Eat like a man!”
Such is the absurdist storyline of a barbeque sauce commercial, starring Sylvester Stallone. His mentor akin, wise and muscular character, radiating rock-hard reliability, hands down age-old knowledge to the weakly successor whose problem lies in his ignorance in making decent dietary choice. Well intentioned advice of the hyper-masculine, elderly soldier is meant to guide the timid, young fighter towards growing into physically strong, red-blooded man. All he’ll have to do to achieve the state of being his virile self, is to opt for the right food-meat and then, everything else that go well with it.
While form of message delivery may seem ludicrous, the meaning behind this commercial is barely detached from deep-seated socio-cultural beliefs and expectations that surround men’s dietary habits. The advertisement, although hyperbolic, and amusing to those who are less sensitive to gender stereotyping, accurately replicates actuality that even food, seemingly label-neutral, essential element for biological survival, has hardly escaped gender-based classifications in social context. Not only has some food been stuck between male-female suitability dichotomy but ranked hierarchically too, with animal meat, for instance, having occupied top position on nutritional pyramid.
In light of this certainty, it comes as no surprise that mass-media, and particularly, commercial media have eagerly capitalized on nutrition-related societal attitudes, and repeatedly have represented animal meat, as distinctly male-relevant nutriment. Various types of mass-media projects, such as lifestyle, cooking and entertainment broadcast programs, have chosen to go beyond implicit allusions to masculinity and meat consumption. While featuring explicitly male-centric titles, language, and content to target male audience, they have placed particular emphasis on the role of meat in men’s food life. “Eat Like a Man”, “Knife Fight”, or “Man v. Food”, are three such media projects that endow special value to eating and especially, to consumption of meat, presenting this practice as integral part of masculine identity.
“Eat Like a Man” for instance, is successfully running multimedia segment of men’s lifestyle magazine, Esquire. It is a cooking and food guide for men, produced in the form of online TV series, a blog and a popular cookbook that teach male population how to prepare, or where to enjoy dishes that feature meat: steaks, ribs, barbecue, etc. In short, suggestive of specific dietary pattern that its male consumers are assumed to follow.
When deconstructed, the anatomy of the project reveals its unambiguously masculine nature. Hosts and master cooks are men, language is sharply androcentric, visual images are awash with objects, symbols and performances that normally induce associations to masculine gender. Knives, row flesh and animal dissection, grilling, alcohol, fire and intense tournaments between male cooks resemble animal sacrifice rituals with skinned, whole animals. Cooking competitions under the name “Knife Fight” (Esquire.Com) are accompanied by cheering crowds who observe sorting and cooking process live, like a spectacle of combatant athletes. Dialogues between hosts or their monologues with male audience in mind, draw parallels between manliness and hunger which mostly gets satiated by animal meat dishes.
Another media output, “Man v. Food” puts at its heart a trait generally ascribed to masculine form of expressiveness-voracious appetite. The highlight of the project is male body instrumentality and constant need for replenishment of physical energy (Newcombe, et al. 2012). These reality television series portray unrestrained hunger quests of its alpha-male host who picks dishes heavy on animal protein in places where meat is always the star of the show. Entire semiotic composition of these series revolve around dominant personality traits of the host, for whom, over-consumption of meat abundant platters, is the major way of self-expression.
Gender Identities of Audiences in Formation
One could argue that the practice of animal meat consumption is exploited by the media as easily identifiable material for construction of a male identity which, in scholastic literature is referred to as hegemonic masculinity (Lampropoulou & Archakis, 2015). A man with hegemonic masculine qualities possesses traits such as dominance, assertiveness, aggression, power-characteristics that bestow on him hetero-normative desirability, turning him into an ideal towards which majority of audiences gravitate or aspire to become.
In their pursuit to promote consumption of specific goods, media representations influence more than material aspects of meat-related praxis. Fundamentally, they reproduce meanings that partake in identity formation of audiences and kindle outlooks about gender-based dietary behaviors. However, it is not only the mainstream media that create favorable environment for manufacturing hegemonic masculinities. Rather, this is a result combined of multiple variables that extend to wider socio-cultural fabric.
Identity formation in general, is a complex process that feeds on meanings derived from many different sources, ranging from history, geography, biology, collective memory, personal fantasies, religion and other power structures. Individuals and societies only process and adapt these meanings depending on particular time and place (Castells, 2010). Nevertheless, when speaking of multiple phenomena that collectively contribute to the process of identity formation, the role of the media, the major culture producer, cannot be ignored.
To go back to the point of socio-cultural context, it should be acknowledged that historically, animal flesh has been regarded as first-class protein in most cultures. With strong ties to masculine enterprise, meat has been reckoned as paramount foodstuff for nurturing virility in men (Adams, 2010). Even praxis related to meat sourcing: hunting, slaughtering animals, dissection or selection of prime cuts, have been dominated by men and as a result, general societal outlooks have developed in a way that expertise of meat handling has been ascribed to men.
Food studies that examine determinants of dietary choices through multiple dimensions, suggest that what people choose to eat is not governed by purely biological or economic reasons. In addition, preference for particular type of food is shaped by social and cultural transactions, as well as psychological factors. This implies that dietary behaviors, amongst other external stimuli, are influenced by gender norms too and people, who represent a specific gender group are socialized so that they abide by established standards. One research project which analysis the role of food in men’s everyday life, asserts that: “Food practices help men confirm and subscribe to traditionalist tastes of manhood thereby allowing the construction of strong male identities and relationships” (Newcombe, et al. 2012). Compliance with widely accepted norms enables men to affirm who they are, and adjust to wider social context. In addition to nutritional worth, practice of meat-eating carries performative value for them as well.
Some data confirm that meat-related dietary choices vary amongst gender groups even in most carnivorous cultures. USDA statistics on meat consumption illustrate that within US population which ranks among world’s leading meat-eating nations, men eat considerably more animal flesh than women. It is true that these findings represent a single society, however, the given data imply that divide in dietary preferences when it comes to meat consumption, exists between genders.
Brainprints of Hegemonic Masculinity and Why This Matters
Nowadays, because of feedlot industry, animal meat has become easily available commodity, so the focus from how or who obtains meat, has shifted to who eats or should eat meat. The media, as demonstrated in cases selected for this article, is effectively engaged in this undertaking. Framings they provide present meat-rich diet as a preference conditioned by gender roles, masculine self-concept and power status. These representations cultivate preconceptions on gender-based dietary behaviors in viewers who already have such and in those who don’t, manage to create unconscious bias to certain degree.
If you, as a regular media content consumer, think of a typical media representation of meat-eating, would your immediate mental image involve presence of a man or not? If he were in charge of cooking meat, wouldn’t he be standing behind the grill or employing some other primordial preparation method? If he were there just to enjoy the meal, and had to choose between vegetable dish or let’s say, steak, what do you think would be his most predictable move? Now, think of a hungry male, a successful person of high social standing. What would he prefer to eat, especially at times when his intention were to get away from usual daily responsibilities? One iconic, popular media image floating in your mind could be “House of Cards’’ Frank Underwood, at Freddy’s BBQ joint who loves to satiate himself with juicy ribs with his bare hands.
Such media-driven images, prone to pronouncing carnivorous qualities in men, reinforce mental imprints in audience consciousness without providing grounds for them to question, why it is so that meat-eating is expected from men more than from women. By accentuating certain behavioral bias, enquiry into mechanisms that normalize such interpretation of reality, is never made.
Systems of power and domination have permeated all aspects of everyday life. When speaking of food, nothing illustrates this thesis better than eating of animal meat by humans. Mainstream media discourse on meat consumption and parallels to hegemonic masculinity, which to some degree, reflects socio-cultural convictions too, maybe telling much more of the entire social system than one might expect. If examined from sociological lens, the practice of animal meat-eating can provide a glimpse into underlying structure that drive human societies, such as hierarchical system of values or power. At macro level, this top-down structural mode of functioning is what molds patterns of resource distribution, validates human dominance over and abuse of nature, even of other humans with lower social status, or of different gender, race etc (Warren, 1987).
In the age of media saturation, symbolic representations, especially, emphatic, recurring ones can be powerful. Portrayals that match dominant type of masculinity with carnivorism, leave traces on much larger phenomena than individual dietary preferences. Firstly, such figurative associations reinforce established attitudes that sustain existing hierarchical power systems. Secondly, they perpetuate gender dichotomies even at such fundamental level as nutrition. Representational bias of media images on meat consumption automatically undermine other versions of masculinities or lifestyles that do not necessarily emulate the suggested version.
Indirectly but still, carnivorism-related, socio-culturally propped media constructs play part in affecting non-human environment too which in return, influence human societies. Increasing number of research suggests that methane emissions, pollution of natural resources, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, public health issues such as rise of antibiotic resistance, and even food security, are closely associated with the growth of livestock industry (Boell.de, 2014). In face of growing demand on factory grown animal protein, the role of mainstream media representations of meat consumption and masculinity could be reconsidered. The meaning behind this dietary habit as incarnation of masculinity or any other privileged state of being, could be redefined in given context.
While mass-media, with their symbolic power, may be reproducing cultural scripts related to meat-related dietary habits and supporting undesirable effects that are tied to the practice, this is by no means limits to their potential. The media, as powerful culture generators of the day, have ability to introduce new discourses, “new models of performance” and new “frameworks of action” (Abercrombie & Longhurst, 1998). This means that they can provide symbolic environment for nourishing different kind of associations to animal meat consumption than that which represents hegemonic masculinity, dominance and power. 
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