Feminist Perspective on Food Advertisements

“Advertising is the witchcraft of the twentieth century. It has its incantations, it’s how-to recipes,âÂ?¦its priests and priestesses, its temples whores and secret languages”(Barthel, 1998: 18).

Strict gender roles are ubiquitous in our society and affect a myriad of issues and food is not exempt from gender classifications and stereotypes. Food advertisements are imbued with language and images that deflate, starve and marginalize women. It is incumbent upon us as members of society, as women and consumers to analyze advertisements and see what conflicting and complimenting aspects are represented. We cannot blindly accept every image and philosophy that ads dictate, by doing so we accept rigid gender roles and buy into the sexist anti-feminist ideology, thus perpetuating these harmful images and ideas.

In the essay entitled, “Hunger as Ideology,” by Susan Bordo analyzes different advertisements and investigates the gender, psychological, ideological and cultural meanings behind them. Bordo’s essay reflects the profound impact of food and gender in our society. Bordo found that men are pushed to eat big meals, whereas women are either recommended to curb their appetite or binge. Women’s role as nurturer and responsibility for the private sphere is perpetuated. “Hunger as Ideology” illustrates a number of points that redefine how one looks at an ad.

Following Bordo’s example of analysis I took six-food advertisement and applied a feminist perspective to them. These ads were chosen because they illustrate my feminist perspective accurately. They were selected from gender-neutral publications like Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine and from Vogue, a magazine aimed at women.

Fashion magazines conspicuously do not contain ads for food; food advertisements would conflict with their perpetual weight loss campaign. Ads for alcohol were present in abundance, which advocates alcohol use/abuse but neglects the simple act of nourishing the body. Magazines like VOGUE, Marie Claire and Allure do not have advertisements for food, but more mainstream magazines that are gender neutral like Time, People and Entertainment Weekly do contain these ads.

An ad for Hennessy Cognac [Fig. 1] featured in Vogue magazine is an example of alcohol ads in fashion magazines. The ad shows a couple sitting together, the woman wistfully looking towards the camera with longing while the man is yearning for her. The caption above the man’s head reads, “wants a commitment” while the caption above the woman’s head states, “wants a crÃ?¨me brulÃ?©e.” The man only wants the woman while the woman has no regard for the man and just wants a crÃ?¨me brulÃ?©e drink, making the woman appear fiendish and unconcerned with anything except alcohol. It is a dangerous message to send out to women and men alike, it speaks to the vulnerable side of women and promotes drinking and it tells men to feed women liquor because that is all they are concerned with.

A Hunt Snack Pack’s ad [Fig 2] features a man dressed in fishing garb enjoying a chocolate pudding snack while fishing with his friends. The catch phrase is, “Tastes like Somebody Loves You.” It gives special importance to food and makes it appear as a vehicle in which love can be displayed and offered. This has a deleterious effect on how food is viewed because it personifies food, as if food itself can take care of you, and thus creates a life of it’s own. Bordo writes, “Male eating is inextricably tied to female offering of love”(Bordo, 1993: 159). The implication is that if you are a well-fed man then you must have a woman that feeds you and loves you. It makes women appear as nurturers, and chastises them for not feeding their loved ones, as if they don’t give their husbands and children well balanced snacks and meals then they do not love them. In exchange men look needy and infantile always depending on a woman to feed and nurture them. Bordo states, “Food is equated with love maternal and wifely love throughout our culture”(Bordo, 1993: 159). This stereotype is in direct opposition to feminist thinking that makes men and women equally responsible for food preparation and household chores. The ads that do not contain images of women say as much as ads that does. Even when women are not present in the ads there are always implications and assumptions toward women and their roles.

Two different ads for Pillsbury Grand cinnamon rolls feature women happily adoring and enjoying the roll. The slogans are different but there meanings are the same, “Suddenly, you become a morning person”[fig 3] and “Let your mind unwind” [fig 4]. The reference to becoming a morning person is a hint to the obsession that women have with food and an assumption that a woman would change her schedule to eat a certain kind of food. “Let your mind unwind” is a reference to the emotional bond that women feel with food. It is implied that if a woman eats this roll that is wound up, she will literally unwind by eating it, and her mind will relax as well. An article entitled, “The Angry Appetite: Women, Anger and Food” states that women are socialized and expected to suppress their anger and so to release the anger in a “quiet” way, so they eat.

The conscious mind understands fully the need to lose the weight but the body had been programmed to exercise the jaw, the very same part we exercise in speaking or speaking up. Lock it down, hold it back, and a state of tension is created. Eventually the tension becomes so great, it needs to be released. As the body needs to chew to released swallowed or repressed expression (Passerelli, 1997: 11).
On the literal level this ad identifies a women’s brain with food but from a psychological stance it implies that women think only in terms of food and make it into compulsive behavior. Bordo writes, “The talk of ‘obsession’ and ‘innermost cravings,’ the furtiveness, the secrecy, the use if food to satisfy emotional needs, all suggest central elements of binge behavior”(Bordo, 1993: 162). When ads depict women with uncontrollable appetites for ice cream and describe a woman eating an entire pint of HÃ?¤agen Daz, it normalizes binging, which promotes eating disorder tendencies (Kilbourne, 1995). Susie Orbach, author of “Fat is a Feminist Issue II” credits binge eating to women’s oppressive role in society,
The roots of compulsive or binge eating in women stem from a women’s position in society – she feeds everyone else, but her needs are personally illegitimate. Food, therefore can become a way to give to herself (Orbach, 1982: 25).
These types of ads achieve their goal economically by making women crave the product, but socially it puts them deeper into a hole that consists of cravings and obsessions. Advertisements that encourage binge eating contain a commodity feminist agenda; they present feminism as a style that capitalizes on changing attitudes among women (Goldman, 1992: 133). Thus, a woman who is fed the commodity propaganda is made to believe that it is acceptable to eat whatever she wants and however much she wants because she is empowered.
This coupling of women and food commits women to a vicious love/hate relationship that causes women to feel guilt for eating, dependent on food and diet. Jean Kilbourne states in her video, “Advertising and the Obsession with Thinness” that ads construct an image that, “a good girl is a thin girl, a fat girl is a bad girlâÂ?¦Women are ashamed to eat, they are made to feel guilty for eating”(Jhally, 1995).

There are a few ads that show the dualities between men women and food, most ads imply the disparate views but few ads actually illustrate them. An ad for Boca Burgers [Fig. 5] shows, a married couple, Nancy and Scott Baker, sitting side-by-side and listed along each of them are their eating ideologies. Their ideologies are classic dictations from society. How society wants men to eat, and how they expect women to eat. Nancy insists on a low fat diet, she only eats baked potato chips, thinks of her body as a temple, prefers to cook her own food. At the opposite side of the food spectrum is her husband, Scott who has a voracious and manly appetite, who prefers drive thru fried food, likes real potato chips, and considers a low fat diet a coincidence. The only thing that this couple has is their taste for the product Boca Burger. Scott is allowed to enjoy and crave fattening foods because society does not put an emphasis on men’s weight, and a hearty appetite is considered masculine and thus feeds into the patriarchal ideology of masculinity. “Men are supposed to eat spontaneously and expansively”(Bordo, 1993: 144). If society allows a woman to eat then she must be concerned with what she is eating and always keep fat content and body image in mind. Women’s cravings are marginalized and compartmentalized so that their dangerous hunger and obsession does not grow and become uncontrollable.

This advertisement maintains difference feminism, that men and women are different biologically and socially therefore their tastes in food would be disparate as well.

An ad that does not contain any people but has innuendos and relevance is a Hershey kiss ad [Fig. 6]. There are two kisses next to each other one with a gold wrapper and the other with a silver wrapper. The line that appears under it says, “Precious Metals.” There is a double entendre to this slogan. The first is the literal sense, that the wrappers represent the colors of metal, thus making it a precious metal. The candy is then seen as a reward, like a medal. The second meaning is in direct conversation with women’s passion/fascination for jewelry; comparing the candy to jewelry personalizes and engenders the candy. The appeal of the actual candy is also directly aimed at women. Hershey’s Kisses are more of a feminine candy, with the ornate wrapper and the small size. The name “Kisses” also co notates a feeling that you are receiving love from a candy; a chocolate kiss brings women comfort when they are not receiving any love or affection from anyone else. Women like eating bite sized candy because it makes them feel as if they are eating less.

Most commonly women are used to advertise, not ice cream and potato chips (foods whose intake is very difficult to contain and control), but individually wrapped pieces of tiny, bite-sized candies: Andes candies, Hershey’s kisses, Mon Cheri bon bonsâÂ?¦women are confined to a ‘tiny scoop’ of flavor, a ‘tiny piece’ of chocolate (Bordo, 1993: 165).

And furthermore Bordo adds, “the bite-size candy genre represents female hunger as successfully contained within the bounds of appropriate feminine behavior”(Bordo, 1993: 165). This rigid dictation of portion control marginalizes women’s appetites and restricts their hunger to a rigid standard of acceptability.

These advertisements speak to a liberal feminist population. They are aimed at women who are white, married and middle-class. While they directed toward liberal feminists, ironically they contradict the liberal feminist messages of self-actualization, equal partnership and participation in the public sphere.

These advertisements do more than sell a product or simply mirror society; they perpetuate stereotypes and guidelines that are harmful to women. It is clear that in the ads I have discussed that women’s roles, hunger and insecurities are poked and prodded at. You can apply a feminist perspective to virtually any advertisement and extract a powerful message that holds some relevant social statement about women, their bodies and their roles in society.

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