I’m thrilled to share a recording of my talk, “Dude Food: Gender and Health in U.S. Popular Culture,” which is based on my dissertation and was presented on November 5, 2016 at the Brown University Graduate School event “Research Matters!” You can also watch the other nine fascinating talks here.
This event challenged me to distill my dissertation into a crisp 5-minute talk intended for an informed, but interdisciplinary audience. It also made me grapple with the question of why my research matters.
This can feel like a loaded question in food studies.
As a younger discipline within the academy and one focused on a seemingly quotidian aspect of the human experience, food studies has been in the past dismissed as frivolous and unserious. This dismissal pointedly invokes notions of gender. For example, in Food: The Key Concepts, Warren Belasco proposes that such judgement rests in the tradition of classical dualism between the glorious (masculine) mind and the “gross” (feminine) body. He also argues food studies’ reputation has “been hindered by another Victorian relic,” the “separate spheres” that delineate a set of inter-related binary constructions: masculine/feminine, public/private, production/consumption (p. 3). Belasco further contends that the food industry has “obscured and mystified” the links from farm to fork, rendering them too “vague” and “ephemeral” to seem worthy of study (p. 5). To this list, Jeff Miller and Jonathan Deutsch in Food Studies: An Introduction to Research Methods add that food studies research is fun. A field rooted in such levity may incite “a certain amount of corresponding resentment” among our colleagues in other disciplines (p. 7).
The question of why something as seemingly trivial as “dude food” matters invokes similar intellectual debates. As a scholar of contemporary popular culture, I accept the challenge to interpret, historicize, and theorize our current moment, as it transpires all around us. Like Kathleen Franz and Susan Smulyan argue in Major Problems in American Popular Culture, I maintain that popular culture affords rich evidence that is meaningful, multifaceted, and political, as it articulates identity negotiation, the growing pains of social and cultural change, and the tensions between resistance and containment. Or as Fabio Parasecoli puts it in Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture, “Pop culture constitutes a major repository of visual elements, ideas, practices, and discourses that influence our relationship with the body, with food consumption, and, of course, with the whole system ensuring that we get what we need on a daily basis, with all its social and political ramifications” (p. 3).
I study dude food to discover how our society defines and redefines what gender is, as a dynamic process rather than set of stagnant characteristics. For all the reasons that food studies has been historically denigrated as a field, food makes for meaningful evidence to understand gender performativity and how power operates in society. As Alice Julier and Laura Lindenfeld argued in “Mapping Men Onto the Menu: Masculinities and Food” in a 2005 special issue of Food and Foodways, “The control of food production and consumption is inextricably tied up with issues of power and position.” In this way, I study dude food to understand the broader and deeper social anxieties of our times: ongoing contests for the authority to define our identities and our selves, our borders and our boundaries—and to maintain specific crystallizations of power.
So yes, food studies research matters, now more than ever.