Q&A: Dr. Emily Contois
The media studies professor on her new book: Diners, Dudes & Diets.
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I’m excited to share my recent conversation with Dr. Emily Contois, a media studies professor at The University of Tulsa and author of Diners, Dudes & Diets. Our conversation dives into the crux of what I found so fascinating about her book: the tense relationship between men, masculinity, their bodies, and food. Later in the interview, Dr. Contois turns the tables on me, and we talk about similar tensions that have manifested in my work for Men’s Health. She was an absolute delight to talk to, and I learned a ton. I hope you enjoy!
In your own words, tell me a little bit about what you do?
I'm interested in how consumer culture and media create spaces where we can either be ourselves or imagine who we want to be. This could include many different aspects of culture — race, sexuality, nationalism, etc. But in this book, I focused on how food, bodies, and ideas about our health and identities all intersect. In particular, I looked at how our broader food media environment (from the grocery store to TV shows to social media) creates specific ideas about gender.
In this book, you use the term “gender contamination” to describe an important factor that impacts what men will or won’t consume. What else can you tell us about “gender contamination?”
That term “gender contamination” actually comes from Jill Avery, a marketing scholar at Harvard University, and it describes the resistance that consumers exert toward brands that gender-bend. For example, Diet Coke was a product that came to be primarily considered for women (though it didn’t start that way!), so men resisted becoming regular consumers. This led Coca-Cola to develop Coke Zero specifically for men to mitigate the gender contamination factor.
However, interestingly, gender contamination tends to work only one way. Most women don’t have a problem with consuming products for men. For them, it can even be empowering. However, men strongly resist women’s encroaching on their masculine identities. So, gender contamination really only applies to straight male consumers whose masculinity is kind of fragile. They are worried that buying products intended for women will ultimately make them look “feminine” or “gay,” and they shape their consumption patterns accordingly.
There are countless examples of this effect. In the late 1990s, men held various forums worrying out loud that Luna bars would make them grow breasts and turn into women. There’s also a whole pseudo-scientific conversation taking place about the estrogen and phytoestrogen levels in the Impossible Burger. And the fact that men think Impossible meat might turn them into a woman also further reinforces the idea that eating real meat is what “real men” do.
Often these kinds of concerns are disguised through humor. I recently watched season 2 of the show Betty — about a female skate crew in NYC — and a teenage male skateboarder joked that eating a Luna bar might turn him into a woman.
Yes, and oftentimes there's truth in the joke. Over the summer, I also wrote this piece about Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, a satirical book about masculinity that came out in 1982. It was meant as a joke, but it really resonated with readers because there was truth in between the lines about the anxiety that comes with figuring out how to be a “real man.” At that moment in the 80s, there was a type of masculinity, “the new man,” that leaned into sensitivity and being a guy who listens and helps out. This created stress for many men who were confused by the opposing messages they were getting about what kind of men they were supposed to be.
Yes. You also talk about how the “dude” archetype often appears in food media and advertising. How would you define the “dude?”
We all know the “Dude” from The Big Lebowski, but the “dude” as a general archetype is a sort of “slacker” hero. He resists some of the totally unreasonable expectations of what we could call “conventional” or “normative” or “hegemonic masculinity” — for example, career obsession and having a sculpted body. However, through his heteronormative maleness and whiteness, the dude still maintains the overall position of authority deriving from power structures that privilege all masculinities.
In the book, you write: “Idealized masculinity represents an impossibility, as it requires the maintenance of a strong, vital, muscular, disciplined body but simultaneously considers health consciousness and actions to be negatively feminine.” This feels like the core tension related to men and food today. How has the “dude” been used to navigate that tension?
I give the dude a generous reading because what men are trying to navigate are real challenges and pressures. However, food brands and media utilize the archetypal dude opportunistically. When they put forward a laid-back guy engaging with a product that might otherwise be considered feminine (e.g., yogurt), it helps the male consumer feel that he can follow suit and retain his “masculinity,” while the brand gets to increase sales. The dude made it “safe” for men to resist certain male pressures (e.g., body obsession)—keeping both feminization and conventionally masculine pressures at bay—but, ultimately, the dude didn’t really progressively change much.
A good example of how this manifests in culture is the romanticization of “dad bod,” which is a direct reaction to the trend of guys wanting gigantic arms and six-pack abs. This kind of body takes constant work and dieting, which the dude rejects. It’s very similar to the thin ideal that, for years, has oppressed women and their experiences in their bodies. The “dad bod” freed men from some of those expectations, but it didn’t dismantle diet culture; it just made it easier for some men to move the world.
As someone who worked for a long time in the advertising industry, it’s hard to process and accept the idea that marketing directly creates these tensions. It’s pretty terrifying that the implicit message is often that consumerism can be a remedy to the masculinity crisis or that consumption equals good citizenship. Those are such entrenched “truths” in our society, but we’re not consciously aware of them.
Yes, often, the message is that you vote with your fork. That is, the individual way that we choose to feed ourselves and our families, or the manner in which we shop, is our best way of being civically engaged or participating as Americans rather than actually voting. Think about watching the Olympics. I'm so interested in how this national message can get twisted into purely consumerist terms. Somehow, we are meant to believe that the best way to show support for the American athletes and be American is to eat McDonald's and drink Coca-Cola.
Also, there’s a difference in this behavior with respect to food. In contrast to Nike sneakers or Oakley sunglasses, we eat food. It comes into our bodies and becomes a part of our identities, our cells, our physiologies. And so, for men that are worried a product might make them appear more feminine, the perceived risk is amplified due to the relationship between the self and cells.
Over the last year, I’ve thought a lot about gender-based marketing — i.e., marketing that signals that a product is specifically for men or specifically for women. In some instances, it’s obvious that this practice is just bad. But is that always the case?
I think it comes down to gender stereotypes; those are bad. Even while finishing the book, there continued to be countless examples of bad gender stereotypes being used with food that need to go away. One example is the Oikos “Flex Your Cryceps” campaign which features clips of football players crying as they are drafted into the NFL. Rather than just celebrating that these men are going through an extremely important day — and crying is a natural part of that — we have to muscularize the expression of emotion.
And before that, I was invited to speak to a group of marketers, and the point of view I shared was that gender-targeted marketing should really just go away. That is, companies should make quality products and market them to everybody. When you think about market share, it’s actually advantageous to do that. However, the key pushback I received came in the form of the example of a Gillette ad featuring a transgender man learning how to shave for the first time. That is, we don't want a world without those gendered moments because of the kind of storytelling they open up. It is a beautiful ad that did some good in the world while at the same time, ahem, trying to sell razors and shaving cream.
What about the notion of gender-neutral products or advertising?
White Claw (and the whole category of hard seltzers) has often been credited with being a gender-neutral product, but that was not originally the case. It’s more of a story of gender contamination. That is, when the product finally broke through with young men, the category had lost its feminization. The fact that it has since become this bro-y drink is really fascinating. Also, when a product maker refers to something being gender-neutral or gender-inclusive, often they continue to exclude non-binary genders — i.e., gender outside of the traditional binary construction.
That’s super interesting. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about toy guns which got me thinking that gender-neutral products actually don’t go far enough. And we actually need more products or campaigns that express gender-transgressing or gender-permissive behaviors. So, perhaps it’s less about marketing things to everybody and more about putting forward marketing examples that challenge unhelpful norms held by the target group.
Part of what I write about the conclusion of the book is that representation matters. It matters deeply to be able to see oneself reflected throughout culture, including in spaces like advertising. But the step beyond that is truly changing how these industries function. Who's at the table when they’re designing the creative campaign? Who signs off on it? Who's behind the camera thinking about actual gender representation? These conversations are happening, but the actual change trickling down is taking a lot longer. Last summer, so many ad agencies signed pledges to work toward more diverse agencies, including hiring, promoting, mentoring, and advocating for Black creatives and strategists. However, when we look at the data a year later, there's hardly any progress. We have to think about structural change in the industry. Representation in media is not enough.
I want to circle back to one of the ways that brands market to men. Back in 2010, the Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign was incredibly popular, in part, because of a certain tongue-in-cheek tone it brought to its advertising. I'm wondering how much this mitigates the negative impact of these kinds of ads? On the one hand, the brand could say, “But we’re kidding!” On the other, the campaign's imagery, signaling, and semiotics still appear to reinforce gender norms.
Yes, you see this kind of humor all over. For example, both Dr. Pepper Ten and Powerful Yogurt used this tone in their silly 15-30 second spots. These brand managers would point out that their marketing is a joke, and we’re analyzing it as if it’s serious (i.e., “What, you don’t get the joke?”). And I’ve learned a lot about this kind of reaction through feminist scholars that write about video games and gamers. They make the case that these jokes don’t happen in a vacuum. Whatever the joke, it happens in a world that is still patriarchal, inequitable, and hierarchical. It’s also one in which women are disproportionately subjected to all sorts of inequities and violent acts. And so, sure, it can be a joke, but it doesn’t happen outside of that context.
However, I do appreciate and understand when advertisers say, “we’re not here to preach or do the didactic work.” But I would also say there’s a middle ground where the work can be positive, creative, and funny. For example, Heineken’s award-winning “Who Ordered the Beer” campaign reflects societal expectations that women always order cocktails and men always order beer. I would say, however, that I think they could have pushed it even further — for example, including non-binary genders in the mix — but it’s an example of progressive messaging versus straight-up misogynist messaging with a wink.
I’d actually love to hear from you what it’s like writing for Men’s Health. I’ve studied the magazine a lot for the book because it straddles an interesting tension. Susan Bordo wrote about women’s magazines and what she called the “bulimic double bind,” in which they would present articles about the best recipe for chocolate cake right next to ones about the best method to lose ten pounds. Men’s Health does the same thing for the guys.
Well, yes, it absolutely does, and I think about this a lot. Men’s Health is probably one of the most widely read men’s magazines from a distribution standpoint. And, yes, a lot of their content focuses on things like “How to get 8-pack abs.” So to that extent, they are perpetuating a similar tension because men are also taught that if they want to have these attributes, they need to make it look like they don’t care (or at least aren’t trying that hard). Or, at the very least, you must present yourself as the cool guy that can somehow figure out how to have it all. I think the quintessential Men’s Health cover that represents that tension would be a ripped male celebrity, shirtless, leaning back in a pool floaty with a chili dog in his hand.
I learned to navigate this type of work by understanding that we need to hold that tension. Also, I think about the type of audience I want to reach. I could write for other publications that proactively avoid this kind of messaging; however, I wouldn’t be reaching as many people that might interpret my ideas as progressive or challenging.
For example, I’d argue that Men’s Health was the perfect place to write about sexual performance anxiety, a very taboo topic among men. That is, it was more likely to make a real impact. Also, the editors that I work with at the publication are acutely aware of that balancing act and understand that transition takes time. They can’t just flip a switch and start publishing article after article with more progressive ideas because that will alienate the core audience. It’s more of a drip-feed approach, and I am excited to be part of that drip.
I think that makes sense. You want to be presenting ideas in a place where you can shift the conversation. And I’m sure that you are able to say some things that the typical Men’s Health reader may be thinking or feeling but isn’t comfortable expressing because they don’t feel safe doing so.
Yeah, I’ll give you a couple of specific examples. The last two pieces that I wrote for them (one about a group called Men Who Take Baths and another about my experiences at the Olympics and their intersection with mental health) garnered some really negative comments when Men’s Health posted the stories to their Instagram. Generally, I’m pretty sensitive to that kind of feedback; however, this time, it was emboldening. I thought to myself, “This is how I know I’ve struck a nerve and am making an impact.” And for the couple dozen men who reacted troll-ishly, there are maybe a thousand other guys who will sit with those ideas and perhaps change the way they think about what it means to be a man in this world.
Of course, moments like that are super difficult but also really rewarding. Do you ever receive criticism about what you do?
I think some academics wonder why I spend time analyzing these hegemonic, destructive, white supremacist, misogynist (etc.) representations. Why don’t I study the queer communities or find a different way into these questions of food, gender, and identity? The reason is that I feel there’s great value in showing how these dominant norms come to be, how they maintain their power, how they circulate, why the producers themselves believe they are resonating with consumers, and why ad executives are pushing these campaigns. That truth or narrative is as interesting as survey data or Nielsen ratings that help us understand how these ideas about food, gender, and bodies actually come to be.
Yeah, in a way, you’re speaking truth to power. And you help provide a kind of structure for people to think about these issues.
That’s always the hope, especially for my students. I teach an advertising history, culture, and critique class, one on food media, and another on media and pop culture. And my hope is that they never see a film or an ad or an Instagram post the same way, and that it provokes different questions for them. I want them to be ready to always question their assumptions and use their critical thinking skills. And while this book is an academic book, I did my best to write it to be as accessible as possible so that this kind of perspective could be available to anyone that wanted to take it up.
Speaking of truth to power, you wrote a whole chapter on the “everyman” quality of Guy Fieri. Has he (or any other people that made appearances in the book) ever called up and been like, “Hey! I don’t agree!”
It hasn’t really happened with this book; however, it’s happened with other stuff I’ve done in the past. I did a small analysis of the Youtube show “Hot Ones” that got picked up by Breitbart and the ring-wing media machine. That was a mess and my first experience, as an academic, with being trolled. But I joke with my students that the worst thing they can really call me is a “feminist professor.”
And also, back to the issue of humor, in that trolling situation, those folks loved to say that I didn’t get the joke or that I’m humorless. And I’m like, first of all, I am pretty funny! And second, I get your joke, but I just want to show why it does more than make people laugh. Also, I should say that I was very willing to shoulder that negativity because that type of attention is good for books. And when you work so long on a book, you want to get it into as many hands as possible, especially this book, which I hope can actually do some good in the world.
Thank you so much for chatting! I also want to direct readers to your book as well as to the amazing piece you wrote for Anne Helen Peterson’s newsletter Culture Study called “The Millennial Vernacular of Getting Swole.”
Department of Links
Jason Wilson on Joe Rogan — I’m generally skeptical about the way Joe Rogan uses his platform; however, his recent interview with Jason Wilson may have moved the needle. Wilson is best known for the viral video in which he teaches a young martial arts student that it’s ok to cry. Since, he’s become a thought leader and role model for young, black men. When Rogan asks him how he developed his martial arts program, Wilson said, “The curriculum was coming along, but it was still missing something...what it was missing was giving men the freedom to be vulnerable.” — Joe Rogan.
Reactions to my Men’s Health Piece — If you read my piece last week in Men’s Health about my difficult years as an Olympian, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that, while the feedback was largely positive, it also drew forth some negative reviews. When you write about vulnerable topics, you’re bound to trigger people. In this case, the Men’s Health Instagram post about my story elicited some cruel comments, my favorite of which was “weak men.” When speaking or writing, we often are connecting with audiences of like-mind. However, these kinds of reactions are an important signal that your words have touched a nerve and might actually do some good. — My IG.
The Tokyo Olympics’ Indelible Moments of Loss and Solidarity — This Games was truly different. Never before have I seen so much discussion around the ever-important topic of mental health. Simon Biles took the most heat after withdrawing from the gymnastics team competition and sitting out of several events that she was expected to do well in (she later returned and won a bronze on the balance beam). I’m so glad to see this sea change. Obviously, my own struggles were rooted in my mental wobbles. I’m glad the media is beginning to recognize that athletes are humans too and need space to express when we are not okay — The New Yorker.
What We Are Not Teaching Boys About Being Human — This thoughtful opinion piece by author and journalist Ruth Whippman dives into the developmental lives of boys. From a young age, we allow them to immerse themselves in emotionally simplified narratives, and their empathy IQ lags behind as a result. “Story by story, girls are getting the message that other people’s feelings are their concern and their responsibility,” Whippman writes. “Boys are learning that these things have nothing to do with them.” — NY Times.
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