Fast-Food and the Feminization of Health

Advertising has long relied on gendered and sexualized images and text.  Advertising uses hyper-gendered images and text to catch our attention and it participates in (re)constructing stereotypes (see here).  The health food craze of the 80s and 90s hit fast food restaurants hard.  The McDonald’s colors (red and yellow) came to signify unhealthy food.  Many chains changed their logos to include blues, purples, and greens to appeal to what they perceived to be a more “health-conscious” set of standards of American fast-food customers.

For instance, as Americans became increasingly conscious of the detrimental effects of fried food, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to “KFC” and commercials in the early 2000s implied it was an abbreviation for Kitchen Fresh Chicken.  But in 2007, “Kentucky Fried Chicken” was resurrected and this time period marked a change in the way fast food advertising dealt with what they perceived to be a much more health-conscious population.

While initially, fast-food chains tried to disguise their food in more healthy packaging, from the mid-2000s on many chains charted a different route to address this problem.  Perhaps reminded of Bruce Firestein’s 1982 classic satirization of American masculinity, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, fast-food restaurants became emboldened to challenge American men to forgo health concerns in their advertisements.  This theme is probably best illustrated by Burger King’s 2006 commercial, dubbed the “Manthem,” used to promote their newest sandwich to the menu: the Texas Double Whopper.  The commercial rewrote Helen Reddy’s classic “I Am Woman”–a song released in 1971 that was widely held as capturing some of the spirit of feminist activism during that time.

The Manthem promotes the anti-feminist notion that men have been injured by feminism, women’s empowerment, and gender equality–that they have been tamed.  Beginning with a man eating in a fine dining restaurant with a woman, and served a miniscule portion of food, he turns it down, leaves the restaurant and becomes part of a mob of men eating burgers and participating in all kinds of “manly” cultural activities.  It ends with the mob storming a man driving a minivan on a bridge.  The driver grabs a burger, joins the crowd, and they all triumphantly throw his van off of the bridge.  This advertising theme implicitly supports evolutionary-biological myths about men’s behavior and “needs” (see McCaughey’s work on the topic here).

The commercial is clearly intentionally over the top, but a great deal of sexism and heterosexism is disguised as “just for fun” or “only a joke.”  There are effects regardless of the intentions.  The Manthem–and advertising like it–celebrates men coming together who have “had enough.”  It exalts men engaging in all manner of dangerous, unhealthy, and anti-social acts to reclaim a manhood that Burger King is telling them they’ve lost.  While less explicit, they’re participating in a discourse similar to the Men’s Rights movement (see Mike Messner’s discussion of the rise of this discourse here).  These advertising campaigns foster an understanding of men as “unmanly” unless putting themselves and their well-being in harm’s way.

Feminizing health may be a good way to sell burgers, but it can’t be good for men in the long run.

There’s not actually a good piece analyzing masculinity in fast-food advertising, and the transition in tactics seems to be a fruitful topic for further analysis.  There is an interesting chapter in Food for Thought that begins this discussion, but there’s much more work to be done here.

5 thoughts on “Fast-Food and the Feminization of Health

  1. I think it’s a stretch to say that the “Manthem” ad suggests men have been injured by women’s empowerment. There’s nothing gendered about not wanting to pay a lot of money for a tiny portion of food, which is what sitting in a fine dining restaurant at the beginning signified…

    • Thanks Tracey. I’d agree that there’s nothing inherently gendered about not wanting to pay a lot for a small portion of food. In the Manthem commercial, however, not wanting to pay a lot for food is culturally gendered. So, as he’s leaving the restaurant and sings, “…and I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food…” he’s helping to construct a gendered relationship with food and eating. In fact, the commercial makes an explicit reference to Firestein’s book when he states, “I’ll admit I’ve been fed quiche.” This commercial capitalizes on the “crisis of masculinity” discourse–a sentiment that historical evidence has shown to arise at moments when moves toward gender equality are made. If you haven’t watched the commercial yourself, it’s worth a view.

    • The ad doesn’t suggest the price of food is what is gendered–it is the portion and composition of the food. The ad suggests that healthy food in reasonable portions is not manly and basically a tool that silences and takes away mens’ power. The entire commercial shows men reclaiming their “I AM MAN” status through eating this meaty burger that will cures their “starvation” that has been a result of “chick” food. Look at where women are in the commercial in comparison to these men; they aren’t storming out of the restaurant, marching through the streets, or using super human strength to pull a dump truck. Instead, they are left at the table, on the sidelines in cheerleading outfits, and by minivan proxy, being thrown over an overpass into that dump truck. Through the consumption of this burger and the strength it gives them, men are once again able to “roar”, which is a direct implication that they had previously been silenced by “chick” food.

  2. Great post! This is the topic of discussion in my “Globalization of Food” class this week. In fact, my students are reading an article that discusses Manthem in very similar ways to your analysis.

    Here is the citation if you are interested: Buerkle, C. Wesley. “Metrosexuality Can Stuff It: Beef Consumption as Hetero-Masculine Fortification.” Text and Performance Quarterly 29 (2009): 77-93 (there is link to the pdf version on his webpage: http://faculty.etsu.edu/buerkle/research.htm)

    • Thanks Bhavani! I appreciate it. I’ll look this article up. Sorry to take so long to reply. Your response was somehow routed to my spam folder. Thanks again.

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