What is ‘dude food’ and where does it come from?

Susan S. Johnson

What is “dude food” and where does it come from? On this episode of the Extra Spicy podcast, Dr. Emily Contois explores these questions and more. In her new book, “Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture,” she dissects how Powerful Yogurt was created to appeal to men, the power that marketing departments have in upholding the patriarchy, and the many ways that “the dude” remains a privileged masculine figure.

Listen to the episode by clicking on the player above, and scroll down to read an edited transcript of Soleil Ho and Justin Phillips’ conversation with Dr. Emily Contois.

Here is a partial transcript of Soleil Ho and Justin Phillips’ interview with Dr. Emily Contois, edited and condensed for clarity. The interview was conducted on January 20.

Soleil Ho: When we’re talking about dudes, what are we talking about? 

Emily Contois: So I’m talking about a particular kind of masculinity when I’m talking about the dude. So this is the slacker, right? This is the average, or even below average guy, who resists some of the demands of sort of conventional masculinity, right? To be a breadwinner, to be lean and muscular, to be aggressive and assertive.

Instead he just opts out of that struggle, man! But the piece of it that’s kind of theoretically important is that he maintains all the privilege of that conventional masculinity. So when thinking about how the dude provided some flexibility for some men to move through the world, ones who already held a lot of privilege, it didn’t dismantle any of that, as we think about it does for gender equality and a world of greater inclusion.

Soleil Ho: So it’s not necessarily an abandonment of the gender binary, or the kind of accoutrement of masculinity, right? He is still a man, in a traditional sense.

Emily Contois:  Yes, it’s still upholding sort of all of those structures of power. So we think about the limited things it does for women, for femininity, for different kinds of sexualities. It’s still upholding a very white, very heteronormative, typical type of manhood with just a little bit of flexibility built in.

Soleil Ho: And to be clear, can a woman be a dude? Much like in the sense of Beyoncé  saying that a woman can also be a player?

Emily Contois: Yes. Women can absolutely be dudes. Black guys can be dudes. But in the sources that I looked at, what we see over and over again are white dudes, right? Who are heterosexual, who are able-bodied. That’s what we see over and over again.

Soleil Ho: So, OK. Like when you talk about dude food, what is that?

Emily Contois: I’ll preface it, though… I’m the one trying to define the genre of dude food, not the one carrying its flag and hoping it continues into the world. I love your piece about the words you will not use in your food criticism. Man food and the lady drinks are on the list.

And so that’s a big part about what this book is about. The damage that it does when food media and food advertising continue using those kinds of words. But yeah, one of the case studies in my book is called Powerful Yogurt. They actually just stopped making the yogurt, but they still make shakes and oats.

But it was this monster-size yogurt. It’s 8 ounces instead of the 5 ounces that is more typical for yogurts. It has black packaging and has a sign of a bull as the logo. And then on the side of every package are these chiseled six-pack apps, like right into the plastic.

And so materially, textually, everything about this brand was to convince men that it was manly to eat yogurt. Because at the moment when it comes out, and sort of the early 20-teens, they make the argument that there hadn’t been a yogurt directly marketed to men. And before that, most Americans sort of perceived that yogurt is this feminine food.

And that everyone was talking about Activia as digestive health and everything was pink and white. The color palette of the yogurt aisle used to look really different, and now we have these black colored yogurts so that men can feel manly as they eat.

Soleil Ho: OK. For people who are sort of new to thinking about marketing and discourse and how those things evolve, the question inevitably pops up of who’s responsible for this? Why is this happening? It’s easy to say society is making this happen, but people make these decisions to paint a yogurt container black and put abs on it. How do you explain this?

Emily Contois: Exactly. So I think we often want to talk about representation. And representation matters deeply when we think about how gender and whiteness are represented in these ads. But the next step is the actual diversity and inclusion work in the marketing industry.

From the steps of product ideation, all the way to the creative campaigns, to who is the voice of them: as we diversify these industries, that’s a piece of how we move this forward into a better moment in how we think about how we reflect identity and food.

So the book kind of combines that cultural studies approach of looking at the ads as texts, and reading them closely, analyzing them, putting them in historical context. But there’s also the practical, logistical ways that those ads get made.

So I always tell my students, “Part of what I’m training you to do is that you’ll be the one in that meeting who’s like, ‘No, this is a sexist ad. This is a racist ad. We are not doing this.’ ” Because a lot of those decisions get made in those rooms.

Soleil Ho: Who benefits from the existence of the dude as a concept, as an identity, as an ideology?

Emily Contois: So it upholds the existing power structures that benefit straight white men. So it does nothing to dismantle the patriarchy. It does nothing to dismantle white supremacy. So it upheld the existing power structures that be.

Soleil Ho: What does it all add up to? There could be the argument that there are much bigger battles to fight, as you’re alluding to. There’s these huge struggles across industries to diversify and include and make them more equitable.

Is tweeting about yogurt the thing that we can do? Does it matter? What are the stakes?

Emily Contois: So what I found is that the terrain of food is one in which all of these struggles were so apparent. It was so close to the surface. So you could dismiss it as less important than talking about hunger. Reforming the snap program. Like there are lots and lots of priorities that are all part of this.

But it’s another way in our everyday life, where we see these reflections of who we are and who we get to be. Who we get to imagine is possible for us. So on that level, it does matter. And I think it’s a fight worth fighting. That if advertising is this language of our consumer culture, and if we are a nation that’s so persuaded by things like commodity activism — that voting with our dollars is as important as a voting with our actual votes — that how we act in a consumer culture, what we expect of brands, how we want these industries to move forward and make change, that that is on that level, of thinking about our own political action.

And so it might seem silly, right? To look at a book about dudes and about yogurt and about cookbooks and Twitter. To be able to find some of the solutions of how we’re going to move forward as a country. But I hope it does play a part in exactly that story.

Justin Phillips: When I think of dude food and relating that to ballparks and stadiums and professional sports — places where guys would eat the biggest burger that they find. Or it’s inherently tied to drinking a bunch of beer, eating wings or something like that. It’s funny because when it comes to basketball, the NBA, which is predominantly POC of mostly black athletes, they don’t eat the way the guys in this genre of dude food eat.

The stadiums are marketing these dude food items, but the players themselves are trying to focus on healthier nonmeat alternatives and have healthier diets. And I’m always curious if you get a reaction from sports fans on your writing?

Emily Contois: So there are these ideas about protein that have been so thoroughly, not just masculinized, but like athletizied. That we’re all supposed to be eating all of this protein. It has this health halo compared to the low-fat moment we were into or the low carb-moment we’re still somehow in. That protein is this good nutrient for a lot of eaters that connotes that sense of sort of athletic strength.

So you’re stealing my thunder a little bit, this is what I’m thinking about for my second book. I’m like, where does this idea come from? That even as everyday people who are not professional athletes, where does that idea come from? That we’re supposed to eat like an athlete?

So I’m really interested in seeing how our consumer culture has really purposely pushed that idea: that we are supposed to have pre-workout. That we’re supposed to have recovery foods. That we need really expensive sneakers and recovery clothing, right?

So that’s where I’m interested in going next. Seeing where this food media space collides with sports media and these ideas about sort of the individualized athleticism that is assumed and expected from so many Americans in a way that does not acknowledge our inequitable health care system.

Or how much of this is viewed as a personal responsibility. That if we really think about the lack of sort of diversity and inclusion and equity in this food space, I think thinking about bodies in addition to food is one of the ways in which sports gives us that interesting arena.

Justin Phillips: I would absolutely buy that book! How much have the mechanics of preparing meat gone into shaping dude food? Like being able to buy grills or these outdoor grills or smokers … some kind of like very dude food-related equipment. Has that helped shape it too?

Emily Contois: I think it’s such a good point about the various ways that the dude remains this privileged masculine figure. And so that access to all of those culinary technologies — to be able to make that food in your backyard. It’s certainly part of that.

And Soleil was talking earlier about the regressiveness of some of the gender norms and binary applications that I’m looking at in the book… that those go back, if we do sort of one big hop, to the 1950s, right?

This culture of containment that was panicked about the Cold War, about how we were going to represent this strong American nation, and that maintaining the boundaries of heterosexual femininity and masculinity was really big in that.

And that’s one of those big moments where that grilling culture, as the way that men cook, as the space in which men can be domestic.. that the grill, that that culture comes out in a big way in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then has maybe only increased since then, right? When we think about the gigantic outdoor setups and McMansions, right?

This whole second kitchen that’s outside with all of these incredible grills and smokers and all sorts of things. It is not just the privilege of masculinity but tied up always in this sense of relative affluence, at least, and sort of this white masculinity that’s trying to maintain its status and its power and its authority.

One of the things I’m hopeful of when I look at advertising is that it’s a part of this process of signification and re-signification. Of opening up possibilities. Like who says diet sodas have to be considered feminine, right? We can redo all of that. That gender is only what we make it in all of the ways that it circulates in culture, including how it comes to be attached to particular foods at particular times in particular ways. So all of that is up for grabs. So that’s why it matters that we go back and question and take apart these binary applications of gender.

Soleil Ho: I think when you put it that way — when you say that everything’s up for grabs — it’s really freeing. And I hope that the people listening to this interview can kind of come to think of it that way too: that you don’t have to be constrained by what other people expect you to do or eat or love or whatever.

Let’s say that you have a guy who really likes steaks and potatoes. That he likes grilling and all that stuff, but doesn’t want to necessarily think of it as a bad choice that he’s making. Like a lot of these discussions tend to fall into morality, right? Like, “I don’t want to uphold gender norms. I don’t want to be a bad person.” What would you tell that person?

Emily Contois: It’s so funny. Cause I have a friend who does smoke and grill and eats these incredible meat dishes for almost every single dinner I’ve ever seen him post on social media.

Like, it’s OK! I’m not coming for ya! I’m just sort of showing how these norms circulate in our culture. My target is never white men, right? That’s not what I’m coming for.

I’m married to a white man. My dad is a white man, right? That is not what this is about. This is showing how patriarchy maintains its power. How whiteness works. So that we can track it and trace it and be able to dismantle it, so that we can move forward to that food media future that’s more just, and more joyful. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Soleil Ho: And I think that’s an amazing spot to end on. As a final note, can you just tell our listeners where they can find you and support your work, find your book?

Emily Contois: Yeah. If so you can find my website, emilycontois.com. I’m at Emily Contois on all of the social medias, and you can find “Diners, Dudes and Diets” wherever books are sold.

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