Food, Sexuality, and Desire



“I would argue, however, that more than a purely profit-maximizing, ideologically neutral, Madison Avenue mentality is at work in these ads. They must also be considered as gender ideology–that is, as specifically (consciously or unconsciously) servicing the cultural reproduction of gender difference and gender inequality, quite independent of (although at times coinciding with) marketing concerns. As gender ideology, the ads I have been discussing are not distinctively contemporary but continue a well-worn representational tradition, arguably inaugurated in the Victorian era, in which the depiction of women eating, particularly in sensuous surrender to rich, exciting food, is taboo.(See Helena Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), for an extremely interesting discussion of this taboo in Victorian literature.)

[A still frame from the scene from Flashdance that Bordo will refer to.]
In exploring this dimension, we might begin by attempting to image an advertisement depicting a young, attractive woman, indulging as freely, as salaciously as the man in the Post cereal ad shown in Figure 11. Such an image would violate deeply sedimented expectations, would be experienced by many as disgusting and transgressive. When women are positively depicted as sensuously voracious about food (almost never in commercials, and only very rarely in movies and novels), their hunger for food is employed solely as a metaphor for their sexual appetite. In the eating scenes in Tom Jones and Flashdance, for example, the heroines’ unrestrained delight in eating operates as sexual foreplay, a way of prefiguring the abandon that will shortly be expressed in bed. Women are permitted to lust for food itself only when they are pregnant or when it is clear they have been near starvation–as, for example, in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in the scene in which Mrs. Miller, played by Julie Christie, wolfs down half a dozen eggs and a bowl of beef stew before the amazed eyes of McCabe. Significantly, the scene serves to establish Mrs. Miller’s “manliness”; a woman who eats like this is to be taken seriously, is not to be trifled with, the movie suggests.

[A still frame from the aforementioned scene in McGabe and Mrs. Miller, with McGabe shown hereYou can watch the scene here. One user commented, “She really lost a lot of dignity there, eating like that. It is vulgar to show hunger, in any context. [Break] I have been in a hungry state myself, but I still would not eat like that, even when my stomach is growing, whilst I am still eating to fill it. You cannot even enjoy your meal. [Break] It is vulgar to show hunger.“]
The metaphorical situation is virtually inverted in the representation of male eaters. Although voracious eating may occasionally code male sexual appetite (as in Tom Jones), we frequently also find sexual appetite operating as a metaphor for eating pleasure. In commercials that feature male eaters, the men are shown in a state of wild, sensual transport over heavily frosted, rich, gooey desserts. Their total lack of control is portrayed as appropriate, even adorable; the language of the background jungle is unashamedly aroused, sexual and desiring:

I’m thinking about you the whole day through [crooned to a Pillsbury cake]. I’ve got a passion for you.

You’re my one and only, my creamy deluxe [Betty Crocker frosting].

You butter me up, I can’t resist, you leave me breathless [Betty Crocker frosting].

Your brownies give me fever. Your cake gives me chills [assorted Betty Crocker mixes].

I’m a fool for your chocolate. I’m wild, crazy, out of control [assorted Betty crocker mixes].

I’ve got it bad, and I should know, ’cause I crave it from my head right down to my potato [for Pillsbury Potatoes Au Gratin].

Can’t help myself. It’s Duncan Hines [assorted cake mixes] and nobody else.

In these commercials food is constructed as a sexual object of desire, and eating is legitimated as much more than a purely nutritive activity. Rather, food is supposed to supply sensual delight and succor–not as metaphorically standing for something else, but as an erotic experience in itself. Women are permitted such gratification from food only in measured doses. In another ad from the Diet Jell-O series [see right], eating is metaphorically sexualized: “I’m a girl who just can’t say no. I insist on dessert,” admits the innocently dressed bu flirtatiously posed model (Figure 12). But at the same time that eating is mildly sexualized in this ad, it is also contained. She is permitted to “feel good about saying ‘Yes'”–but ever so demurely, and to a harmless low-calorie product. Transgression beyond such limits is floridly sexualized, as an act of “cheating” (Figure 13). Women may be encouraged (like the man on the Haagen-Dazs high board) to “dive in”–not, however, into a dangerous pool of Haagen-Dazs Deep Chocolate, but for a “refreshing dip” into Weight Watchers linguini (Figure 14). Targeted at the working woman (“Just what you need to revive yourself from the workday routine”), this ad also exploits the aquatic metaphor to conjure up images of female independence and liberation (“Isn’t it just like us to make waves?”).

[In the film Pan’s Labyrinth, the protagonist (pictured here, foreground) comes across a buffet in front of the Pale Man (seated in the background), a child-eater whose eyes sit in a plate in front of him. The Pale Man sits motionless until – ignoring the signs of her guardian fairies – eats a grape. You can watch the scene here.]
All of this may seem peculiarly contemporary, revolving as it does around the mass marketing of diet products. But in fact the same metaphorical universe, as well as the same practical prohibitions against female indulgence (for, of course, these ads are not only selling products but teaching behavior) were characteristic of Victorian gender ideology. Victorians did not have Cosmo and television, of course. But they did have conduct manuals, which warned elite women of the dangers of indulgent and over-stimulating eating and advised how to consume in a feminine way (as little as possible and with the utmost precaution against unseemly show of desire). Godey’s Lady’s Book warned that it was vulgar for women to load their plates; young girls were admonished to “be frugal and plain in your tastes.”(Quoted from Godey’s by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 179.) Detailed lexicons offered comparisons of the erotic and cooling effects of various foods, often with specific prescriptions for each sex.[1] Sexual metaphors permeate descriptions of potential transgression:

Every luxurious table is a scene of temptation, which it requires fixed principles and an enlightened mind to withstand. . . . Nothing can be more seducing to the appetite than this arrangement of the viands which compose a feast; as the stomach is filled, and the natural desire for food subsides, the palate is tickled by more delicate and relishing dishes until it is betrayed into excess.(Mrs. H. O. Ward, The Young Lady’s Friend (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1880), p. 162, quoted in Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word, pp. 16-17.)

Today, the same metaphors of temptation and fall appear frequently in advertisements for diet products (see Figure 15). And in the Victorian era, as today, the forbiddenness of rich food often resulted in private binge behavior, described in The Bazaar Book of Decorum (1870) as the “secret luncheon,” at which “many of the most abstemious at the open dinner are the most voracious . . . swallowing cream tarts by the dozen, and caramels and chocolate drops by the pound’s weight.”(Quoted in Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word, p. 193.)

Note 1: Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word, p. 15. Not surprisingly, red meat came under especial suspicion as a source of erotic inflammation. As was typical in the era, such anxieties were rigorously scientized: for example, in terms of the heat-producing capacities of red meat and its effects on the development of the sexual organs and menstrual flow. But, clearly, an irresistible associational overdetermination–meat as the beast, the raw, the primitive, the masculine–was the true inflammatory agent here. These associations survive today, put to commercial use by the American Beef Association, whose television ads feature James Garner and Cybil Shepard promoting “Beef: Real Food for Real People.” Here the nineteenth-century link between meat aversion, delicacy, and refinement is exploited, this time in favor of the meat-eater, whose down-to-earth gutsiness is implicitly contrasted to the prissiness of the weak-blooded vegetarian.


The emergence of such rigid and highly moralized restrictions on female appetite and eating are, arguably, part of what Bram Dijkstra has interpreted as a nineteenth-century “cultural ideology counter-offensive” against the “new woman” and her challenge to prevailing gender arrangements and their constraints on women.(Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 30-31.) Mythological, artistic, polemical, and scientific discourses from many cultures and eras certainly suggest that symbolic potency of female hunger as a cultural metaphor for unleashed female power and desire, from the blood-craving Kali (who in one representation is shown eating her own entrails) to the Malleus Malificarum (“For the sake of fulfilling the mouth of the womb, [witches] consort even with the devil”) to Hall and Oates’s contemporary rock lyrics: “Oh, oh, here she comes, watch out boys, she’ll chew you up.”(Malleus Malificarum quoted in Brian Easlea, Witch-Hunting, Magic, and the New Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980), p. 8; Hall and Oates, “Man-Eater.”)

Image result for fatal attraction
[A still from the film Fatal Attraction]

In Tom Jones and Flashdance, the trope of female hunger as female sexuality is embodied in attractive female characters; more frequently, however, female hunger as sexuality is represented by Western culture in misogynist images permeated with terror and loathing rather than affection or admiration. In the figure of the man-eater the metaphor of the devouring woman reveals its deep psychological underpinnings. Eating is not really a metaphor for the sexual act; rather, the sexual act, when initiated and desired by a woman, is imagined as itself an act of eating, of incorporation and destruction of the object of desire. Thus, women’s sexual appetites must be curtailed and controlled, because they threaten to deplete and consume the body and soul of the male. Such imagery, as Dijkstra has demonstrated, flourishes in the West in the art of the late nineteenth century. Arguably, the same cultural backlash (if not in the same form) operates today–for example, in the ascendancy of popular films that punish female sexuality and independence by rape and dismemberment (as in numerous slasher films), loss of family and children (The Good Mother), madness and death (Fatal Attraction, Presumed Innocent), and public humiliation and disgrace (Dangerous Liaisons).

Of course, Victorian prohibitions against women eating were not only about the ideology of gender. Or, perhaps better put, the ideology of gender contained other dimensions as well. The construction of “femininity” had not only a significant moral and sexual aspect (femininity as sexual passivity, timidity, purity, innocence) but a class dimension. In the reigning body symbolism of the day, a frail frame and lack of appetite signified not only spiritual transcendence of the desires of the flesh but social transcendence of the laboring, striving “economic” body. Then, as today, to be aristocratically cool and unconcerned with the mere facts of material survival was highly fashionable. The hungering bourgeois wished to appear, like the aristocrat, above the material desires that in fact ruled his life. The closest he could come was to possess a wife whose ethereal body became a sort of fashion statement of his aristocratic tastes. If he could not be or marry an aristocrat, he could have a wife who looked like one, a wife whose non-robust beauty and delicate appetite signified her lack of participation in the taxing “public sphere.”[2]

Note 2: Women are thus warned that “gluttonous habits of life” would degrade their physical appearance and ruin their marriageability. “Gross eaters” could develop thick skin, broken blood vessels on the nose, cracked lips, and an unattractively “superanimal” facial expression (Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p. 179). Of course, the degree to which actual women were able to enact any part of these idealized and idolized constructions was highly variable (as it always is); but all women, of all classes and races, felt their effects as the normalizing measuring rods against which their own adequacy was judged (and, usually, found wanting).”

[Pp. 110-117 in Bordo, Susan. 1993. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.]

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