“Real Men Eat Meat”: Our Gendered View of Vegetarianism
COMMENTARY BY: NEHA VERMA
The popular fast-food chain Hardee’s put out a new commercial this month to promote its latest menu addition – a Jalapeño Turkey Burger. The ad features a muscular man in a tight-fitting shirt, chomping on the burger while the heavy-metal song “The Ultra Violence” by Death Angel blares in the background.
The commercial isn’t the chain’s first male-targeted ad. An older Hardee’s commercial showed Gizem Memic, Miss Turkey 2010 from the Miss Universe Pageant, wearing a bikini printed with turkey burgers.
“To help you remember our new delicious charbroiled turkey burger,” the (male) voice on the commercial says, “we hired Miss Turkey. To help you remember Miss Turkey, we put her into a bikini. And to help you remember Miss Turkey’s bikini, we had it designed with these little tiny pictures of our charbroiled turkey burger.”
It’s no surprise that these commercials attempt to appeal to men, specifically heterosexual men between the ages of 18 and 30.
Meat consumption and masculinity have long been linked in American society, and Hardee’s advertisements utilize this link to suggest that “real men” eat meat and men who abstain from burgers are not masculine enough.
From a young age, we are taught that men are supposed to be strong, both physically and emotionally, and eating meat is associated with that strength.
From a physical strength standpoint, eating meat is often linked to building muscle; in terms of emotional strength, not getting worked up about food choices implies a “manly” lack of sentimentality.
In a study published last spring in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers conducted various experiments to examine what people unconsciously think of certain foods, and they found a connection in people’s minds between masculinity and meat.
“To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American food,” the authors wrote. “Soy is not. To eat it, they would have to give up a food they saw as strong and powerful like themselves for a food they saw as weak and wimpy.”
Another study published in Appetite journal found that while people see vegetarians as more virtuous, they also consider them less masculine.
While certain men, such as retired professional boxer Mike Tyson and performer Usher, can promote their vegetarian diets with confidence and still be seen as symbols of masculinity, they are the exception rather than the rule.
In the past five years, the U.N. released a report saying that animal agriculture is responsible for eighteen percent of greenhouse gas emissions (more than the entire transportation sector combined), and studies have shown that eating less meat can significantly reduce one’s risk of heart disease and cancer. Additionally, reports of the horrific animal abuse that occurs on factory farms have become more and more widespread.
In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes: “We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, ‘What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?’”
Despite the growing evidence that going vegetarian is helpful to animals, humans, and the planet as a whole, perhaps a major reason why men are still clinging to their burgers (and not even willing to eat less meat) is because they are worried about no longer being seen as “real men.”
But here’s the issue – there is no such thing as a “real man.” The term in itself is problematic, confining men to a stereotype that involves chowing down on burgers and objectifying women in bikinis.
In perpetuating the notion that “real men” eat meat, we not only promote the factory farming industry, but we also perpetuate patriarchal gender roles that limit both men and women. And we owe it to ourselves – as well as to our planet and to the animals – to do better than that.