By Emma Taylor
You will all have probably seen the scandal of ‘Lady Doritos’ in the headlines a couple of weeks ago. In an interview, the CEO of PepsiCo suggested that the company may start producing crisps specifically aimed at the female market – crisps that were less messy and would fit in a woman’s purse. Somewhat predictably (and justifiably), the internet kicked off, pointing out women can eat normal Doritos just fine, ‘thanks very much’. It was later declared to be false; PepsiCo released a statement denying any creation of such a sexist crisp.
However, although this particular rumour turned out to be false, the way food can be perceived as ‘male’ or ‘female’ is not. What is worrying is that the rumour was so believable. It could happen. I was buying a birthday card a couple of days ago, and the array of cards almost formed a line-up of gendered food stereotypes. Pink female cards were all cupcakes and sparkling wine; male cards, in blue and grey, were burgers and beer. The sphere of food is permeated with gender norms, from the way food is advertised to us to the way celebrity chefs form their identities. Everyone remembers the classic Yorkie bar (‘It’s not for girls’, and, if that wasn’t clear enough, a picture of a girl with a big red line through her).
Are there foods that are ‘male’ and ‘female’? Of course not, yet stereotypes dictate rules that are dizzying.
Part of the issue is the way food is advertised to us. Food seems such a neutral ground – it is a basic human need – yet somehow gender stereotypes are manipulated into selling us yoghurt, ice cream and beer. In 2014, McDonalds was heavily criticised for advertising their fries as ‘tall, blonde and gorgeous’, as if women could be classed as food to be consumed for pleasure. However, although this was so blatant it was noticed, my television screen is a kaleidoscope of stereotypes. We have all seen the advertisements of women in white dresses floating around in Paradise, eating low-fat yoghurt in the sunshine. The camera moves into a close-up shot of her mouth eating the yoghurt; her lips close around the spoon. The same shot is used to advertise ice cream lollipops and chocolate. Men, meanwhile, flip burgers and down beer. No low-fat yoghurt for them!
Why is yoghurt (always low-fat) seemingly such a female food? Are there foods that are ‘male’ and ‘female’? Of course not, yet stereotypes dictate rules that are dizzying. There are articles written for women on what not to eat on first dates (apparently not spaghetti, burgers, pizza or anything too messy which would presumably be ‘unladylike’); cupcake shops are often coloured in pastel pinks. In the food world, there are often worrying signals we are still stuck in the 1950s world, in which women whip up buttercream dressed in high-heels and iced with as much makeup as the cake is with icing. This stereotype – of the 1950s housewife, prettily chained to the kitchen – could be applied to some cookbook covers today.
Food itself is not gendered – there is no reason why a fairy-cake with a cherry on the top would be more female than a steak and chips.
Food itself is not gendered – there is no reason why a fairy-cake with a cherry on the top would be more female than a steak and chips. It is the way food is marketed that is gendered, and that is the crucial difference. There have been huge gains, and women are reclaiming the kitchen in their own way. Female chefs are making strides in the food industry; the tide is turning. Yet if we insist on advertising ice cream lollipops with such casual sexualisation, there is still a problem. It is this – no matter how sweet the ice-cream – that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Photograph: Emma Taylor