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Food Advertising Is Still Feeding Gender Stereotypes

In 2014, according to many mainstream food advertisements, men only eat meat and women only consume yogurt, a stereotype that would make Gloria Steinem want to go on a hunger strike.

It's 2014. Russia and America are engaged in some furious military posturing and we are still being told that gendered eating is a thing. Nothing changes. If you are a man, advertisers believe that you like meat cooked on fire, or food that's simple to eat. Or you like yogurt, crumbly chocolate that can only be enjoyed as a 'guilty pleasure,' and anything without calories if you're a woman. We often like to imagine human beings skipping into a golden, gender-neutral future. However, I'd say there's a strong argument that, along with death and taxes, patronizing ads that lump men and women into two distinct camps are a near-certainty in this life.

There's a rich history of reinforcing the gender binary in advertising, from Mars to Hungry Man to, well, just look at this sexist smorgasbord. It's enough to send Gloria Steinem running to the nearest liquor cabinet (probably to get a Cosmo like a typical woman!). But this kind of work is still very much alive and kicking. In some cases, it's gotten worse. This Yorkie ad, made in the 70s, is actually far more enlightened than the series of "not for girls" slurs Yorkie has been fond of recently, the logic of which is, "Yorkie is chunky. Men like stuff that's chunky."

In England, the latest puff of testosterone comes from petrol station pasty-floggers Ginsters and their "Feed the Man" mantra, in which a meek guy otherwise incapable of independent thought suddenly gets the balls to tell a joke in front of his girlfriend's bosses. Luckily, the girlfriend did #FeedTheMan with a "peppered steak slice" (I wonder if it either qualifies as "steak" or "peppered"), a slab of food that only a man is tough enough to handle. So down the hatch it went, leaving him so charming and charismatic, the missus' bosses were eating out the palm of his hand while she looked on lovingly with a big "oh you" smile.

You might laugh at the advertisement. You probably won't. Either way, it reinforces the ideas that some kinds of foods just aren't for women, and that—despite women having such modern luxuries as 'jobs'—they should be the ones to administer said food, condemning them to playing the role of mother to their knuckle-dragging menfolk. A lot of these recent ads do something else harmful, too, in their casting of men in the role of a pathetic infant. In the latest Strongbow ad, a bunch of guys are heroically rewarded for doing unremarkable things, implying that, if you can deliver a speech at your best mate's wedding, you deserve to be toasted like a Viking lord returned from a magnificent round of pillaging. The real admission is that only men would want to drink the shitty cider Strongbow is known for.

Have ad agencies and brands honed in on a crisis of masculinity in our society? Yes, says award-winning former BBH strategist Lynsey Atkin. "In times of insecurity, brands can repurpose themselves as champions of the everyman, facilitators of the macho dream, however small," she says. "In other words, promising gender-traditional-prowess—like being able to kick a football in a straight line—could be the media-constructed equivalent of helping you grow a beard". Some gender stereotypes—men enjoying crap food and women being the ones who have to serve it—are preserved, while others—men being dominant in social situations—are invoked as a nostalgia, a dream of the football-playing and beard-growing of days gone by. These ads, like those we see every Father's Day in Britain, paint the modern man as a disenfranchised moron adrift in a world he doesn't understand, dreaming of putting away a bloody steak like Don Draper.

Recent male-orientated food advertising from the US and Australia paints a more defiant picture. As far as burger chains like Carl's Jr and Hardee's are concerned, women are physically incapable of eating their new Western X-tra Bacon Thickburger, which has an ad as ridiculous as its name. In it, Mystique from X-Men (the burger is somehow part of a tie-in with the movie franchise) morphs into a ripped dude equipped with the right hormones to take down the burger. "Man up for two times the bacon," we're told, as we watch a woman turn into a man. Again, the message is that only men would want to eat this monstrosity.

At least in the more traditionally sexist Memphis BBQ burger commercial the nearly-nude babes cavorting for the pleasure of two slack-jawed idiots actually eat the thing. "God Bless American advertisers and marketing geniuses! Ahhhh, Carls Jr. and sexy bitches! Eat like ya mean it 'Merica!" says whoever uploaded this video to YouTube, offering an explanation far superior to any a lofty social commentator might have. This is it, the absolute truth. Sexy girls sell burgers. Again, you may laugh, but old Carl has a rich history of this kind of thing.

In Australia it's no better. This KFC ad suggests that men don't experience "awkward silences" because blokes don't need to be like those fucking sheilas, always yapping away about their feelings. "Sorry, girls, did that freak you out?" asks the voice over at one point, in what is, inadvertently, one of the most homoerotic ads of the year. Again, the message is loud and clear: Men eat large hunks of flesh between two pieces of wheat. Women don't.

So what do women eat? Yogurt, silly! As the never-ending stream of Activia ads here in the UK, fronted by walking naughty mom wink Gok Wan, bears testament to. Because, when it comes to selling food to women, the focus is rarely on big taste—it's on few calories. And when calories are involved, the food is often packaged as a guilty pleasure, a way to glitch the matrix of everyday, food-vigilant life. The Cadbury's Flake ads are probably the greatest examples of this. The standard Flake ad invariably featured running water, a luxurious vibe (often soundtracked to opera), and lots of that naughty, crumbly chocolate. Women are, lest we forget, too consumed with thoughts of their own appearance (read: weight) to ever eat with the reckless abandon of a man.

Flake could have gone in a new direction with this ad, created by Under The Skin director, Jonathan Glazer. In it, French actor Denis Lavant plays a leather pants-clad Satan, cavorting around to a crashing orchestral soundtrack and tempting a group of women with handfuls of that absurdly flaky chocolate. Cadbury rejected the ad, naturally, and you can see why Glazer's future lay in art house cinema.

The question remains, though: How much grounding do these enforced divisions have in real life? When I watch these men on TV, smugness washes over me and I think, "I'll never be you, you with your attachment to outdated notions of masculinity and underlying hopelessness." But then, when my girlfriend tells me I should eat better in order to combat my long-standing IBS (I regularly have to shit at gigs), I tell her she's a seed-eating eating hippie and make for the Domino's website.

In order to find out why this might be, I asked nutritionist, Claudia Louch, if it's nature or nurture that draws men and women to different foods. "Women are more concerned about healthy diets and classify foods according to the assumed nutrient content than men," she tells me. "And men have a higher metabolic rate, therefore require higher energy intake, which is often derived from animal products." In women's diets, she says, "the share of products of vegetable origin is higher."

Science is one of the factors that decrees what foods men and women are drawn to, but education and societal attitudes—the ones so crudely encapsulated in ads—unquestionably play a more vital role. In the Western world, where we're sandblasted with the gender ideals that shout through our TV screens—despite wider gender equality—food and food advertising seems to be one of the last pillars of separation. The messages just won't quit. But it's not like this everywhere. Outside of the US and Europe, for example, eating meat isn't an inherent sign of manliness. I recently got back from Western Sahara, where I ate a lot of fatty camel meat. The locals I ate with there didn't pat each other on the back for being "real" men and they certainly didn't turn the pleasure they took in eating meat into some sort of self-hating, nostalgic ritual. They just ate what they needed to.

The advertising of food in the Western world is, however you look at it, both lazy and offensive. And, while units are shifted for companies and people are kept in jobs and all that stuff, gender stereotypes are perpetuated in a way that's probably more significant than we imagine. Unfortunately, there's probably no solution. But to be just as obvious, if you're a man and you see an ad for a burger, why don't you just fuck off the other way and buy a salad?