In this post, I want to make use of Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist theory (later developed by Roland Barthes) to look at gendered food categories. I want to explore some of the linkages made between gender performance and food, specifically cultural connotations tying men and masculinity with meat. To do this, I will use literary examples, looking at the presentation of meat in literature, namely in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.
What is Structuralism?
Structuralism, basically, is a means for understanding language through looking at three basic principles: the sign, the signifier, and the signified. For Saussure, every word is made up of a signifier and a signified, which constitutes a sign. Figure one is an example using the word ‘meat’, demonstrating how the signifier, i.e. the word ‘meat’, signifies a mental image of ‘meat’ (the signified).
Saussure explains that “language is a system of signs that express ideas” (2004:60). For Saussure, language is arbitrary, meaningless, without the sign-signifier-signified model, an argument which he justifies through the existence of different languages, because if language was not arbitrary, surely there would be one uniform language. Jonathan Bignell develops this, usefully outlining the purpose of language and sign systems to “shape our reality… [and] to communicate about this reality” (1997:6). Therefore, there is no inherent connection between the signifier and the signified, nor is there an innate link between the word ‘meat’ and the substance flesh.
“[A]ll of our lives are lived through the signs which language gives us to think, speak, and write with… [signs] give form and meaning to consciousness and reality” (Bignell, 1997:7). Bignell highlights the relationship between consciousness and reality, both of which help to shape the meaning of language through a ‘real’ denotation, and a conscious (subjective) connotation of each word or sign.
Saussure’s theory further argues that language is a network of signs, langue, gaining meaning through their difference to one another (2004:66). So, oppositions, such as meat and vegetable, have no meaning without the existence of one another, their meanings and significance are mutually dependent upon one another. Figure two shows a diagram to explain this.
Roland Barthes develops Saussure’s theory through the addition of mythical meaning to the sign-signifier-signified model, stating: “that which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second” (2004:81). Saussure’s theory only shows language’s basic function, while Barthes’ grounds Saussure’s ‘sign’ into social and cultural context(s). Barthes notes that “myth is a language” (1974:11), a statement clearly supported by the connotative meanings certain words are tied to, which bear little or no relevance to the basic sign. Barthes further notes how mythological meanings tied to words are highly subjective: “Is this a significance which I read into them? In other words, is there a mythology of the mythologist? No doubt, and the reader will easily see where I stand” (1974:12). Thus the connotations tied to words are not neutral or objective, rather they are situated (Haraway, 1991), stemming from somebody or somebodies, and therefore not apolitical and unquestionable truth or fact.
The Mythology of Meat
The Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions of ‘meat’ which particularly interest me. The first: “the flesh of an animal or bird as food” (OED, 2012), and the second: “(the meat of) the chief part of something” (OED, 2012). Culturally, meat is associated with a hegemonic ideal; this ideal is male, white, middle-class, western, able-bodied (etcetera); hence the second definition of dominance is understood, though much in need of interrogation.
These associations between meat and hegemony are not natural; rather, they are constructed by societal norms and expectations. Carol Adams notes: “People with power have always eaten meat. The aristocracy of Europe consumed large courses filled with every kind of meat while the labourer consumed the complex carbohydrates. Dietary habits proclaim class distinctions, but they proclaim patriarchal distinctions as well” (2010:48). Therefore, it becomes apparent that to eat meat establishes the individual as powerful. Figure three works to provide a visual example of how ‘meat’ may be presented using both Saussure’s and Barthes’ theories of language.
‘Meat’ is commonly associated with strength, virility and masculinity. Though not limited to these connotations, ‘meat’ is predominantly associated with power. Michael Allen Fox notes the cultural symbolism of meat: “Eating is a basic need, and because it is so central to our existence, procuring, preparing, and consuming food have universally been made the subject of much ritual and ceremony” (1999:23). Meal times have been endowed with their own mythical meanings, notably “times of togetherness, cultural self-affirmation, and often celebration” (Fox, 1999:23). ‘Meat’ is implicated predominantly through the typified associations with primitive stereotypes of ‘man as hunter’, as highlighted by Fox: “This and related forms of self-definition not only identified the entire species with the male half, but also elevated the concept of humans as aggressive, warlike, and predatory” (1999:25). Countering this preconception of early man, Fox further notes: “our hominid ancestors were originally vegetarians who only later developed omnivorous habits as they adapted to fresh environmental challenges and opportunities” (ibid).
‘Meat’ is often tied to notions of the real’. The well-worn phrase ‘real men eat meat’, one which must surely tire every vegetarian/vegan who’s ever been told this, is regularly perpetuated, making non-meat-eating males somehow ‘less of a man’ for abstaining from flesh consumption.
Burger King’s television advertisement ‘I Am Man’ (feeteh, 2007) is a prime example of this (charming screen shot in figure four). The advert shows a man in a restaurant, walking out in protest because he is “way too hungry, to settle for chick food” (0.07-0.11) while throwing a piece of salad over his shoulder, thus tying women, or rather, ‘chicks’, to vegetables. Here, we see how the meat/vegetable binary is gendered, and also how there is a definite power structure, as in casting aside a piece of salad, there is also a casting aside of women.
The male’s appetite is huge, it is, after all, a masculine type of hunger, and cannot be satiated by feminine foods “I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food” (0.07-0.11). He possesses a virile desire for meaty, masculine sustenance, something that, apparently, only Burger King can provide. The ad further ties in with other connotations of meat through its association with dominance, as the man goes “on the prowl” (0.15-0.16) for his Texas Double Whopper burger (“man, that’s good” [0.17-0.21], figure five).
Hoards of men in the advert are seen to proudly march through the street, fists pumping in the air, and burgers in hands, somehow proving their manliness through the adornment of this meaty accessory. There is further a ‘post-feminist’ nod to the women’s liberation movement, through the burning of their underwear, with signs proclaiming ‘I Am Man’ and ‘Eat This Meat’, as well as the music, a masculinised version of Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman’. The advert pokes fun at gender equality movements through the mockery of women’s rights marches, and reverting to the overused, and painfully unoriginal, stereotype of the bra-burning feminist, an image commonly used to disparage self-proclaimed feminists (Whelehan, 2000).
Post-feminism is what Angela McRobbie refers to as “anti-feminist sentiment” (2004:1) because it is this movement which claims feminism has done all it needed to, and women have achieved equality. As such, post-feminism is a movement which enables overtly sexist advertisements to re-emerge, under the guise of irony, through a mutual awareness of the impropriety and redundancy of sexism. This makes post-feminist texts, such as this Burger King ad, virtually impossible to critique, without being portrayed as out-dated and ill-humoured “cultural oppressors of ‘normal’ women” (Whelehan, 2000:4).
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
Angela Carter’s rewritings of fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories highlight typified gender inequalities prevalent within the archetypal ‘happily ever after’ fairy story genre, which are intended to reflect wider social norms of female passivity. Carter comments that The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is “a book of stories about fairy stories” (in Makinen, 1992:5). This highlights problems with the genre’s presupposed hierarchical constructions, enabling Carter to re-appropriate and reject these paradigms simultaneously (ibid). The first story in the collection, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ bestows an oppressive, murderous male, the Marquis, with animalistic characteristics: “his dark mane” (Carter, 2006:3) and predatory, silent walk into a room “as if his footfall turned the carpet into snow” (ibid). His animalistic persona alludes to men as primitive, with supposedly innate hunting instincts; in this instance, women are therefore denoted as prey.
The violence of the wedding night in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ further perpetuates a predatory and animalistic portrayal of man, as the female protagonist narrates: “He stripped me… He approached his familiar treat with a weary appetite.” (Carter, 2006:11) Evidently, the female is a signifier of meat, her body’s purpose to satiate his sexual appetite, and his animalistic demeanour adds a primitive element through allusions to the hunter and the hunted.
In Carter’s previous work, The Sadeian Woman, she openly discusses flesh and the importance of skin, and how skinless flesh becomes meat: “flesh plus skin equals sensuality… then flesh minus skin equals meat.”(1992:138) Thus skin seems to be a humanising, personalising adornment of flesh, while meat is a faceless, person-less consumable product. Carol Adams refers to this phenomenon as the ‘absent referent’, underlining that contact with animals “has been renamed as contact with food” (Adams, 1995:28).
In labelling nonhuman animal flesh as meat, the morality and ethics of consumption are forgotten as the animal is denied a sentient characterisation. ‘Meat’ therefore dissociates the life of the live animal from (dead) food on the plate. Meat is a term which glosses over and disguises the more uncomfortable, yet actual, origins in animal flesh. And meat becomes deceptively assimilated with more positive connotations, like virility, strength and dominance.
Merja Makinen notes that the “other recurring motif [aside from flesh and skin in The Bloody Chamber] is that of the gaze” (1992:10). The proximity of these postulations- of flesh/skin/meat and the gaze- in Makinen’s work is particularly revealing, and further highlights the ties formed between the oppression of women as visually consumable and nonhuman animals as edible consumption.
References to meat become more apparent as the above bedroom scene develops: “nothing but my scarlet, palpitating core remained… limb by limb… bare as a lamb chop.” (Carter, 2006:11) This fleshy commentary highlights correlations between meat and the protagonist’s body as both are violently fragmented at the hands of this powerful, dominant male. To be treated ‘like a piece of meat’ is intended to articulate a particularly negative and exploitative experience, commonly associated with the derogatory treatment of females. The phrase is highly problematic as “expressing our outrage at the treatment of women through metaphoric comparisons to the treatment of animals… actually validates the oppression of animals” (Kappeler, 1995:320). The objectifying gaze of the male is highlighted as the female is fragmented, ‘like a piece of meat’. Therefore she is dehumanised, degraded and subordinated.
‘The Bloody Chamber’ also uses ‘meat’ as a signifier of wealth and power. Opulent descriptions of exotic food go to reinforce a status of dominance for the Marquis: “A Mexican dish of pheasant with hazelnuts and chocolate; salad; white, voluptuous cheese” (Carter, 2006:15). Another short story in the collection, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, similarly uses meat as a signifier of wealth. This story is a take on Beauty and the Beast (synopsis here). Beauty’s father enters the grand house of Mr Lyon after his car has broken down. Her father converges with masculine stereotypes of dominance and aggression as he squares up to the front door (Carter, 2006:44). Upon entering the house, he is greeted by a “roaring log fire [and]… sandwiches of thick-cut roast beef, still bloody” (Carter, 2006:45). The remark “still bloody” is seemingly intended to make the meal seem more generous and satisfying, much in line with the house, which is portrayed as inviting and comforting. This aggressive behaviour towards the front door, in conjunction with the bloody beef sandwich, reinforces links suggested between masculine primitive behaviour and assertions of toughness with meat consumption.
Phrases such as ‘the meat of the matter’ or to ‘beef it up’ imply something substantial to the metaphoricity of meat, which invoke connotations of dominance in-keeping with these links made between meat and wealth in Carter’s work.
In summary, the connotations ascribed to ‘meat’ are seemingly a method of making meat consumption comfortable for the meat-eating individual through distancing between the nonhuman animal and the exploitation of that animal for consumption by humans. Further, there is a justification for meat-eating through the naturalisation of men as dominant and primitive hunters. Saussure’s linguistic theory on the sign, and Barthes’ mythological additions, recognise the cultural influences heavily implicated in word association as a means of propagating dominant ideologies.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories highlights links between wealth, strength, masculinity and meat, reflecting how meat-eating can be seen to justify not only the exploitation of nonhumans for their flesh, but also the exploitation and objectification of women through the naturalisation of male power and dominance.
Adams, Carol J., Donovan, Josephine (ed.), Animals and Women, (London: Duke University Press, 1995)
Adams, Carol J., Neither Man nor Beast, (New York: Continuum, 1995)
Adams, Carol J., The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2010)
Allen Fox, Michael, Deep Vegetarianism, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999)
Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, (London: Lowe & Brydone, 1974)
Barthes, Roland, ‘Mythologies’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (ed.), Second Edition, (Singapore: Blackwell Publishing, 2004) pp. 81-89
Bignell, Jonathan, ‘Signs and Myths’,in Media Semiotics: An Introduction, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997) pp. 5-27
Burger King, feeteh, ‘I Am Man’, < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGLHlvb8skQ> [accessed April 18th 2012]
Carter, Angela, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, (London: Vintage, 2006)
Carter, Angela, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History, (London: Virago Press, 1992)
de Saussure, Ferdinand, Course in General Linguistics, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (ed.), (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1966)
de Saussure, Ferdinand, ‘Course in General Linguistics’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (ed.), Second Edition, (Singapore: Blackwell Publishing, 2004) pp. 59-71
Kappeler, Susanne ‘Speciesism, Racism, Nationalism… Or the Power of Scientific Subjectivity’, in Animals and Women, Adams, Carol J., Donovan, Josephine (ed.), (London: Duke University Press, 1995)
Makinen, Merja, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the Decolonization of Feminine Sexuality’, Feminist Review, No. 42, August 1992
McRobbie, Angela, The Aftermath of Feminism, (London: SAGE Publications, 2009)
Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Meat’, < http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/meat?q=meat> [accessed April 17th 2012]
Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Vegetable’, <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/vegetable?q=vegetable> [accessed April 17th 2012]
Whelehan, Imelda, Overloaded, (London: The Women’s Press Ltd., 2000)
Figures and Tables
Author Unknown, ‘Meat’, Issues with Meat Consumption, Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meat> [accessed April 13th 2012]
Author Unknown, Vegetable Gardening Tips and Tricks, Smart Tips and Tricks <http://www.smart-tips-and-tricks.net/Vegetable-Gardening-Tips.html> [accessed April 13th 2012]
Author Unknown, XtremeNo, Muscle Gain Supplement, <http://xtremenot.com/muscle-gain-supplement> [accessed April 15th 2012]
Borboa, Michelle, Miso Vegan, 5 Ways to Take Boring Out of your Vegan Meals, March 15th 2012, <http://vegan.sheknows.com/2012/03/15/5-ways-to-take-boring-out-your-vegan-meals/> [accessed April 15th 2012]
Amy is a graduate of Lancaster University, where she completed her BA English Literature with Media and Cultural Studies. She is currently doing a MA at Lancaster, studying Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology. Her research interests surround nonhuman animals, activism, food anthropology, meat, femininities, masculinities and sexualities.
Follow Amy on Twitter @MsAmyCalvert