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Sports, Gender & Society…and Food?

On Friday, April 7, I was fortunate to catch the webcast of the Radcliffe Institute’s fabulous conference, Game Changers: Sports, Gender, and Society. Why was a food studies researcher jazzed to learn more about sports? Well, the more I’ve studied food and masculinity in media and consumer culture, the more salient sports and athletic themes have become in my work.

As conference presenters emphasized, sports in American culture do much to create and sustain the gender binary, to subordinate and marginalize women, to construct conventional masculinity, to maintain notions of male superiority, and to uphold existing hierarchies of power that privilege white, male, able bodies.

This is why sports are repeatedly invoked in the dude food, men’s cooking, and manly dieting that I research. It’s why Coke Zero ads incorporate and run during March Madness, and why Oikos Triple Zero yogurt features the NFL seal on every package and NFL quarterback Cam Newton as the face of the product. It’s the reason Guy Fieri had a cooking show solely dedicated to tailgate food. It’s why Charles Barkley, Dan Marino, and Terry Bradshaw have each served as spokesmen for men’s commercial weight loss programs. Despite Title IX, despite the successes of women in sports, despite general social trends toward (at least somewhat) increasing gender equity, sports remain strongly ingrained as masculine in the American imagination. As a result, food makers and marketers invoke sports to negotiate masculinity in and through their products.

This is but one way that the themes of this conference apply to food (and my work), and there are certainly others. For example, the struggles of female athletes for access, resources, media coverage, and (well deserved) glory also mirror the challenges faced by female chefs for recognition and advancement. And in her comments, sportswriter Kavitha Davidson directly called upon advertisers to recognize female sports fans, noting (rightly) that women often not only consume the products advertised during sports broadcasts, but are the ones who purchase them. In many cases, these are food and beverages—and in the campaigns I’m researching, advertisers very frequently employ distinctly misogynistic messages that not only alienate female consumers, but also uphold and reinforce gender hierarchies.

Leaving food studies out of it, the conference panels, discussions, and remarks were fascinating in their own right and provide space to think about identities and justice more broadly in American society. I tweeted throughout the event and have gathered them here:

Top image credit: Emily Contois, 2017

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