Turn on the TV for a sitcom or two these days and you'll come face to bare chest with the Zesty Guy, a character whose white t-shirt combusts while he's trying to shill Kraft's Italian salad dressing. Heavy on winks and elbow jabs, it's a self-referential strategy to mitigate the cheesiness of using an ad hunk, as made popular by Old Spice and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. They belong to a genealogy of ads that would have us believe the average American woman lives on the basic food groups of chocolate, yogurt, salad, and diet drinks.
Knowing our own predilections for carne asada tacos, negronis, and medium roast coffee at the Weekly, we decided a Venn Food diagram was only appropriate. Because even as food ads targeting women have become more tongue-in-cheek, they've only shifted laterally from butter substitutes to Greek yogurt, Fabio to John Stamos. And as much as we've got a soft spot for Uncle Jesse, we all know that's not that much progress…
Moral of the Story: When it comes to women and food, the Daoist attitude toward truth(s) applies: The more you insist you know, the less you really do. For every woman who lives on yogurt and salad, there's another who loves a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with steak cooked medium rare and a side salad.
Earlier this month, Bon Appétit made a reference about how grilling is essentially a male activity in a post featuring, well, men on the grill. The exact line: “Women like grilling things too, of course, but at this point in history, grilling, like crying about sports and being a Fortune 500 CEO, is firmly located in the domain of Dude.” The joke fell flat, and brought out a host of objections with Eatocracy's Kat Kinsman leading the charge on Twitter.
Bon Appétit's attempt illustrates, for one thing, that tongue-in-cheek works best when a large enough audience cares to be in on the joke. It's why the latest Kraft's Zesty Italian marketing campaign comes across as banal at best.
Methodology: We began our unscientific study by logging a substantial amount of TV, watching primetime network and cable for recurring food commercials targeted at women. We then asked a cross-section of women of varying ages, sizes, ethnicities, marital status, sexual orientation and professions for a snapshot of their dietary habits for comparison.
Analysis & Notes: We found ourselves in a morass of paradoxes and anxieties. One woman apologized for having certain preferences — like yogurt — that she says echo the stereotypes. We also heard from women about their love for burgers and pizza, with one declaring that she'd only eat salads with a generous garnish of fried onions. (We think she was mostly joking, maybe to hit home how far removed salads were from her everyday meals.) Few spoke kindly of the cloyingly sweet cocktails known as “girly drinks.”
In a survey released last year, most women indicated they'd opt for merlot (or Cabs), proving in part that Chardonnay is more for rom-com heroines and a select group of Real Housewives. In fact, if not for wine, women are more likely to be found with a pint of craft IPA.
When it comes to chocolate, the reaction was mixed — with some enjoying the candy and others not. We have Madison Avenue circa the 1960s to thank for the image of women falling over themselves for chocolate.
Food studies scholar Fabio Parasecoli says in fact that media and advertising are to blame for building many images and expectations. He wrote on The Huffington Post that “gender is performed, regulated, and reinforced by daily gestures and practices that are so ordinary we often fail to even recognize them.”
So how do we get to the bottom of it all? It never hurts to ask an open-ended question. Just don't follow up with an opinion informed by a stereotype that's posed as a question.
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