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Meat, Masculinity and Resistance: Balancing on The Binary Spectrum of Gender

written by Fenna Nijboer

In a world where the binary division between gender consists of men and women is dominant, there are strict ideas circulating what it means to be a man or woman. Enhanced by popular media and discourses, our idea of what it means to be masculine invokes different qualities than what it means to be feminine. The idea of what gender is has historically, and still plays, a vital role in defining the nature of our roles, positions, and place in life. So does the notion of masculinity align with (amongst others) rationality, independency, confidence and dominance while being nurturing, assertive, emotional and sensitive evoke femininity.

In the battle against climate change, these ideas can become problematic.

Why? Isn’t that something unrelated to environmentalism?

Well, no. It is all linked together. For example, think about the image of grilling red meat on the BBQ – who do you see behind the BBQ flipping burgers? Another one: think about fast cars driving and racing with humming backfires – who is sitting in these cars? It is most likely that thinking about these situations visualize these as something masculine or manly. “Real men eat meat” or “going vegan makes you a soyboy” are no rare phrases circulating in the so-called West.

“Real men eat meat” or “going vegan makes you a soyboy” are no rare phrases circulating in the so-called West.

Arguably, these ideas about what it means to be a ‘real’ man stand in the way of our road to an eco-friendlier world – right?

While it is true, according to this Dutch research (cis)men* eat more meat, drive more, recycle less and care less about these behaviors, it is too simplistic to explain this difference based on stereotypical assumptions about gender difference. Rather, this can be explained by how we perceive eco-friendly behavior. According to a research on eco-friendly behavior and gender, women are more likely to embrace environmentally friendly products and behaviors due to the association between green behavior and femininity and the related stereotype that green consumers are more feminine.

Consequently, this green-feminine stereotype scares men away from green behaviors to preserve their macho image. Moreover, there is a dominant perception that eating meat is good for testosterone, while being vegan lowers the testosterone level. According to Pohlmann, men incorporate red meat in their diets once they feel that their masculinity is threatened. By consuming meat, men are exercising control and dominance, perpetuating patriarchal notions of superiority. Yet, the reverse is true: being vegan in fact improves one’s testosterone level in opposition to consuming meat. Though, the link between eating meat and masculinity remains dominant.

To explain where these perceptions of masculinity, manliness and femininity come from, we need to take a sidestep.

The arrangement of gender dynamics is not coincidental or random but is rather the outcome of structures of power that, arguably, date back to the start of industrial capitalism. Friedrich Engels argues that capitalism intensified (not created) the male domination, and patriarchy by explaining three points. First, capitalism creates more wealth which leads to a greater power for men, as they are historically speaking wage earners and owners of property. In addition, to expand the capitalist economy, people must be defined as consumers. People, especially women, had to be convinced that personal fulfilment can be derived from buying, owning and using products. For example, the housewife was the target consumer for branded goods – especially household products – in the early days of branding. Lastly, society had to assign women the task of taking care of the home so that men were allowed to work. This was also enforced through branding and advertisement, where the focus was on targeting housewives, emphasizing their role in the household. It was not a natural nor biological gender dynamic but the systematic effort during the 19th century by elites to maintain the ideology of separate spheres where women were directed to the domestic sphere and men controlled the public sphere.

In fact, this heavy advertising and branding is also linked to the construction of eating meat equals manliness. Eating meat, especially red meat, is frequently and typically depicted in media, advertising and popular culture as an act of ‘manhood’. For example, meat products are marketed and advertised with heavily sexualized women to sell their products to a male audience. The connotation here is that eating meat will get you women, but at the same time also that meat and women exist for the pleasure of men. Alternatively, companies depict meat as being eaten by men, with advert taglines such as “feed the men” and “man up” and images of strong, heavy and uber-masculine men. Or think about supermarkets: meat-based meals are marketed in opposition to the foods that are typically advertised and marketed towards women and are routinely meant to ‘slim down’ the eater. These gendered food practices are actively produced and reproduced by both men and women. In other words, the relation between meat and masculinity is just marketing, media and PR.

The relation between meat and masculinity is just marketing, media and PR.

As an example, check out this advertisement:

Once you fall out of the frame of idealized ‘Western’ traits of masculinity, one risks losing their privileged position and might face exclusion. This is because gender cannot be isolated to just a characteristic of an individual. How we make sense of the world, ourselves and give meaning to things is gendered. Think for example, the products we buy, the clothes we wear, our jobs and professions – all these aspects are coded as either masculine or feminine. Masculinity then is not so much a personality trait but more a frame through which we evaluate gendered performance.

Masculinity then is not so much a personality trait but more a frame through which we evaluate gendered performance.

Fortunately, these gender identities can shift over time as social norms about the appropriate gender roles change. We see that the roles given to women in our society change as we recognize that these previously mentioned characteristics are wrongfully ascribed. Collectively, there is resistance to these traits and emphasis is put on positive traits of women. This also works for masculinity, since veganism has become more masculinized by vegan men while explaining and enacting veganism. While this movement seems positive, and is in a way positive, it (oftentimes) still implies that gender comes with natural, biological characteristics.

But, rather than perceiving gender as something static and fixed, gender is fluid and dynamic. Gender is not located within people but comes from communication dynamics in particular social contexts. People do gender, meaning that people engage themselves in gendered behavior and roles while engaging in everyday practices and life. Gender, then is, performed by people. We are constantly involved in performing a gendered identity that is driven by its context and for which we are held accountable by others. In other words, gender refers to the social meaning of masculinity and femininity. And as already hinted, gender guides not only how we think about ourselves and the social world, but it also involves power and hierarchy.

The moment that a perceived feminine practice is masculinized rather than accepted as a feminine identity, men can undermine challenges to the gender binary and perform a slightly less conventional masculine practice rather than undoing it. It does little to disrupt existing gender power relations, and further reifies symbolic and social boundaries. It is not just about maintaining the binary difference between genders but ultimately, they preserve a gender hierarchy and structures of power and inequality. Important to mention is that the acceptance of this slightly less conventional masculine practice is generally more accepted for white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied and cis men as it allows them more flexibility in their gender expressions than other identities due to their privileged position. Rather than challenging the restrictive gender norms and inequalities, a so-called ‘hybrid masculinity’ is developed. They are often “redoing” gender instead of “undoing” it by still adhering to the accepted performance for each gender. At the same time, they are reinforcing and redefining ideas of acceptable performances of white, middle-class, heteronormative masculinity. This is important because it allows them to maintain their powerful positions and maintain social dominance. What at first seems like a powerful movement towards climate change and disrupting the gender binary becomes less radical once we realize that it might be a result from, albeit positive, social dynamics that makes veganism and vegetarian diets more culturally accepted for performing masculinity.

Altogether, it is a positive development that the gendered diets of veganism and vegetarianism become disrupted due to the rise of vega(n) cismen. It is important to realize that our perceptions of what it means to be masculine or feminine are not arbitrary but carefully constructed – so is gender inequality. Thus, it is important to challenge and resist the idea that gender is either x or y (literally and metaphorically), instead of adhering to this oppressive and limited binary-spectrum of gender. We must acknowledge that these structures are intrinsically linked and influence people dependent on their social identities. People who are actively challenging the restrictive gender binary and its heteronormative, patriarchal, classist, ableist and racist social structures that have allowed for exploitative and destructive practices should be looked at as an example in the battle against climate change.

*with cismen I refer to people - in this case men - who identify as the same gender identity as the sex they are born with

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