The Consumption of Women: An Over-Sexualized Representation of Women as Food

After my semester in EALC 345 “Everything but the Table,” Food and Culture East Asian Literature and Film, I have come to view food as not just an object, but as a symbol of class, ethnicity, identity, gender, memory, space, and transnational connections. In particular, the various projects I have worked on this semester have revolved around the relationship between food and gender. This relationship has been nurtured since the dawn of man, when men were ascribed the job of hunting and women were relegated to gathering vegetation, fruit and other essentials. These gender expectations have developed and become ingrained in modern society. It affects our perception of not just how food is prepared and served, but also the commensality of food and the manner in which we consume it.

Throughout my semester’s work, as well as the influence of our secondary readings, the relationship between food and gender has emerged. With respect to women, this relationship, while many times positive, can also be viewed in a negative light. While preparing food and feeding one’s family is a naturally positive and fulfilling endeavor, my projects, as well as the secondary sources, have also shown that women are not only depicted in an over-sexualized way, but they are also presented as a consumable commodity. This can be observed through their inferior status in the production of food, as well as their “consumable” role of homemaker, which is designated by society. This theme of the consumption of women is most readily identified in my primary source analysis of The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. This novel delves into the allegorical cannibalism of a woman by society as she rejects food, metaphorically displaying her rejection of the patriarchal society in which she is stuck. This patriarchal society, that the protagonist in The Edible Woman confronts and overcomes, is presented in many of the projects that I have completed this semester.

The first project in which I noticed a gender distinction was the Foodstuffs Project. For this project, we visited a green grocer in Chinatown and researched the unusual and unique fruits that we discovered in the store. In addition to analyzing the fruits origin, history and usage, we also interviewed the store’s employees and customers. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, we noticed that a majority of the people in the grocer were women, sometimes accompanied by young children. This observation, while of course anecdotal, served to confirm that gender divisions in fact exist in the preparation and creation of food for the household. My creative project, which is titled A Cookbook of Life, also served to reinforce the existence of these gender divisions. In my cookbook, the protagonist’s life experiences and growth are explored through cooking. It demonstrates that female characters dominate cooking and the preparation of food in the household. These women pass on their traditional recipes from generation to generation, resulting in an interesting food lineage. The last project that will be included in this final portfolio is a refocus of my Cooking Assignment on Moo Goo Gai Pan. This project addresses the gender issue from a different perspective. It delves into the diffusion of Chinese food as a result of Chinese men taking on so-called feminized work, such as laundering and restaurant work, and, thus, causing American men to stereotype the Chinese as feminine. This discrimination illustrates the strictness with which people observe gender boundaries and further demonstrates the inferior, and the figurative consumable, status of women in society. Without this testing of gender role boundaries, and despite the risk of ridicule, the Chinese immigrant’s entrepreneurial efforts would not have created such an interesting and unusual cultural fusion.

In sum, this portfolio will opines that the consumption of women is not beneficial to society. In order for society to fully thrive and embrace its fullest potential, it must break down these segmented gender roles and allow for masculinity and femininity to mutually co-exist in all spheres of life.

Consumption of Women in Society

Throughout the semester, several secondary sources that we discussed and analyzed in class affirm the themes of cannibalism in society, as well as gender roles prevailing in food production. The themes of cannibalism have mainly been discussed in the novel Republic of Wine by Mo Yan and the short story “Diary of a Madman” by Lu Xun. Cannibalism, which is portrayed through both literal and figurative means, creates confusion between what one considers food and what is ascertained to be inedible. In these texts in particular, the confusion is interwoven in order to address consumption. The act of consumption of one entity by another, or by an individual in a society, is criticized by both Mo Yan and Lu Xun. In the Republic of Wine, Mo Yan didactically uses the cannibalism of young boys in order to critique the ills of the Chinese communist world, in particular the Cultural Revolution. In addition, Lu Xun, in “Diary of a Madman,” uses cannibalism as a means to criticize China’s traditional culture of Confucianism and feudalism. Cannibalism can also be seen as a critique and criticism of the patriarchal society. In particular, The Edible Woman’s usage of cannibalism is to critique the disparity of female power in society. In Marian’s journey in particular we observe her rediscovery, if not discovery, of herself as she battles to overcome a debased, male-dominated society.


Consumption of Women in the Household

Women are not just identified as consumable by society, but they are also viewed as consumable by their household as reflected in their less than celebrated role as the producer of food. For example in “Japanese Mother and Obentos” by Anne Alison, Japanese mothers’ lives are spent preparing food and other necessities for the benefit of their children. Although this is not necessarily looked down upon, questions should be raised about the societally ingrained nature of the motherhood role. The food the Japanese mother prepares for her children is not only palatable for children, but it also an aesthetic and artistic endeavor. The author states that the overarching message of obento boxes is “that it is women, not men, who are not only sustaining a child through food but carrying the ideological support of the culture that this food embeds.” (168) As a result, women have become the embodiment of the household and are continually producing for the consumption of their children and husband. This can most easily be seen in my Foodstuffs project, where the women were not just in the majority, but were almost the exclusive gender in the Asian supermarkets that we visited in the Philadelphia area. Although our Food Stuffs Project focused on investigating the authenticity of fruit that was labeled as Chinese and sold in Chinatown markets, the endeavor also exposed the societal enforced gender roles. Gender roles can be analyzed through the interviews that we had with customers. Many of the women we interviewed would take the time to travel from different areas to shop at the specialty grocers in Chinatown. It seemed that many of the customers at the green grocers we visited were either mothers shopping for their families, with children tagging along, groups of girlfriends or retired women. Irrespective of their age, they were all women. The disproportionate number of women dominating the production of foodstuffs demonstrates the consumption of women, regarding both their time and effort, in society.

Interview Supermarket

Consumption of Women due to Gender Roles

 In addition, gender inequalities, in terms of the production of food for sustenance versus leisure, is discussed in “The Overcooked and Underdone” by T. J. M. Holden. Holden analyzes Japanese cooking to show that the masculine identity thrives in a normally feminine-domain. This is due to the changed role of the televised production of food becoming a form of entertainment and expertise. Holden states that men have been identified as the gender that provides, or the family “breadwinner.” The author has dubbed this alpha-male role in the household as “over-cooked.” This mentality has formed the basis for male food television shows that have morphed into competitive sport, in terms of context and visuals. As a result of this competitive nature, Japanese cooking presents overwhelmingly male contestants, chefs, or a male host. In this way, men exhibit expert knowledge in order to show their dominance in production and society. “The recognition of a chef as an ‘expert’ occurs in numerous ways in food shows.” (125) In the field of cooking production and television shows, men are seen as executives and reign over women with their leadership. “All activity flows through them, or else their commanding gaze. In food shows, masculine guidance can take the form of two guises: host and chef.” (124) Even if women are competing in the show, it must be under the watchful, and more expert, eye of a male judge or host. These gender inequalities ultimately show that cooking, when it performed by men, is considered not just entertainment, but an area of great expertise. On the other hand, when a woman cooks, it is not considered an art form and instead deemed a mundane task not warranting much thought and certainly no accolades. Holden, through his analysis of Japanese cooking shows, illustrates the critical part that gender plays in how food is perceived and consumed.


The examination of food as an artistic endeavor versus a form of sustenance is further elaborated by the gender roles described in A Cookbook of Life. In this story, the widespread culture of cooking for the family’s wellbeing is sustained and maintained by the women of the household. The story starts with a young woman graduating from college and, finally, being accepted into the family culture by learning how to cook a traditional family recipe. This recipe was safeguarded by the women of the family and passed down from generation to generation. As the young girl explains in her inner monologue throughout the story, “every Christmas the women of our family prepare a wonderful feast that consists of our family’s traditional foods.” (3) Cooking, in the protagonist’s household, is dominated by women and considered a sacred bonding experience. On the other hand, the men were far removed from the culture of the kitchen and instead spent their time watching sporting events on television. This clearly shows the divide in gender roles; women are classified as the homemakers and creators of the food, while the men occupy the role as a consumer. However, in the story, this division is not denoted negatively. The women of the household, particularly the protagonist, revel in their role as the homemaker and identify food as not just a source of nourishment, but also representative of growth and life. The fact that the recipes begin to include figurative ingredients such as “2 fully brimming cups of love” (6) and “1 cup of a broken heart” (8) illustrates that the creation of food, for women, is integral to their own identities, feelings and even being. The fact that the men in the story blindly consume the food, despite realizing the true representation of the food, demonstrates the accepted, if not encouraged, consumption of women in society.

1900_lrg_fullsize Consumption of Feminine Work versus Masculine Work

The consumption of women in society, along with food placing a specific connotation on gender roles, was also investigated in both “Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity and Food” by Rebecca Swenson and my Moo Goo Gai Pan project. In “Domestic Divo,” Rebecca Swenson investigates, as she puts it, “the easy mix of masculine ‘battles’ and feminine ‘spa days’ on the Food Network.” She states that this “reflects important assumptions about audiences and beliefs about gender, food and the rewards of labor.” Specifically, this notion relates to the development of “Chinatowns” and the fact that many Chinese men took up work in the kitchen, such as establishing restaurants. Although the Moo Goo Gai Pan project was primarily focused on the adaptation of Americanized Chinese cuisine, and concludes that the authentic heritage of most cuisine is difficult to define or even trace, gender roles, as well as discrimination due to gender roles, prevails in the history of the Americanization of Chinese food. Due to the large number of men residing in California as a result of the Gold Rush, there was an open market for laundry and restaurant services. The Chinese targeted these undeveloped markets, which had been historically and culturally considered feminine. This willingness to take on “lady’s work” allowed for the Chinese immigrants to be ethnically discriminated against. In effect, women’s work, or household work, has been and is currently perceived by society as inferior and of less societal importance than a “man’s work.”

Despite the historical hierarchy of society that deems men’s work as superior to women’s work, the media is changing the way we view these gender roles and assumptions. Swenson describes the catalyst for men shifting to the kitchen and the concomitant shift in our cultural ideas about “women’s work,” as instigated by television’s new role in the public sphere. Similarly, from an historical perspective, the rapid affinity for Chinese food became the catalyst for the acceptance of Chinese people. Chinese entrepreneurs found that Americans took a liking to Chinese food. These entrepreneurs adapted and modified their homeland dishes to suit American tastes. As a result, Chinese food became widely popular in America. Chinese immigrants, despite risking ridicule, tested the boundaries of gender roles and, in their entrepreneurial activities, created such an interesting and unusual cultural fusion.


 As discussed in this final portfolio, my projects represent the over-arching gender roles that have prevailed in our society. These gender roles, demonstrated in my projects and in the secondary sources analyzed, have portrayed women as over-sexualized and have represented them as consumable entities. Through the production of food, women have been isolated in the kitchen and subjected to being “consumed” by the family, due to their societal role as the homemakers. On the other hand, the production of food for entertainment purposes has been propagated by male chefs, hosts and experts. The kitchen, which was formerly a female domain, has been penetrated by men and tailored to masculine tastes. This can be observed in the increasing sport-like competitiveness that has become popular in food oriented television shows. Yet, as shown through the development of “Chinatowns” and the uptake of restaurant business by Chinese immigrant men, breaking down society’s gender barriers can cause positive outcomes. In order for society to fully thrive and embrace its fullest potential, it must break down these gender roles. Not just in food production, but also in the world, society would benefit from men and women being socially allowed to engage in any activity that they choose to do. With these changes in historical roles and the societal view of those roles, the consumption of women, by the family and society, might be avoided and ultimately eradicated.


Works Cited

Allison, Anne. “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus” (1991). In C. Counihan & P.V. Esterik (Eds), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 editions, pp 154-172). (New York: Routledge).

Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. (New York: Anchor Books, 1998).

Holden, T.J.M. “The Overcooked and Underdone: Masculinities in Japanese Food Programing” (2005). In C. Counihan & P.V. Esterik (Eds), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 editions, pp 119-136). (New York: Routledge).

Lu, Xun, and William A. Lyell. “Diary of a Madman.” (University of Hawaii Press: 1990).

Mo, Yan, and Howard Goldblatt. The Republic of Wine: A Novel. (New York: Arcade Pub.: 2000).

Swenson, Rebecca. “Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity, and Food” (2009). In C. Counihan & P.V. Esterik (Eds), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 editions, pp 138-151). (New York: Routledge).






Interviews: Sarah Becan and Shing Khor


Sarah Becan Interview

  1. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Well, I have been in Chicago for a majority of my adult life, but I was born in Orange, Texas which is right outside of the border of Louisiana. However, I also lived in Wilmington, Delaware until 3rd grade when I moved to Dallas, Texas, St. Louis and also Wisconsin.

  1. How did your childhood or family life influence your career?

Interestingly, I was a picky child growing up and my mom was not a very adventurous cook, so I am not really sure how I became such a “foodie.” But, at the same time, due to my upbringing and not growing up in one city with one culinary tradition, has allowed me to discover new things in different areas and value them, I believe, more than people who grew up in the area.

  1. What do you mean by “new things” that people who grew up in the area did not value as much as you did?

Well, for example, when I lived in Wisconsin I would go to the common cafeteria and there would be stalls of food. But, one stall of food would always have a giant block of cheese. You can come by anytime and shave a little of the cheese off for your meal. The Wisconsin-grown cheese was replaced about 2-3 times per month. Also, when I lived in St. Louis, other than the pronunciation of St. Louis which I say very differently than most people, many people did not take the city’s deep fried raviolis as seriously as I did.

  1. What do you believe is an authentic food?

Food is very different in every different place. That is one important thing I learned from moving around so much. Another is that there is no such thing as authentic. Food is every-changing and ever evolving. For example, Chinese-American food can be deemed authentic, but it is authentically American and it is adapted and illustrated differently in different regions in America. For example, spam, which we do not even think of as a food anymore, has become an authentic part of Hawaiian dishes.

  1. I really enjoyed your comic-novel, Shut Eye. I was very interested on how you interplayed between the literal and figurative because I am aiming to do the same in my cookbook that I am creating.

Let’s see. There are a few cookbooks that you should look at, such as the Philosopher’s Cookbook or Jean Paul Star Trek Cookbook. I remember one scene asked what a philosopher eats for breakfast and had a picture of a philosopher with a cigarette and a cup of black coffee. I really had a great time creating Shut Eye. The best way to interweave the story is by loosely connecting the literal and figurative with a narrative. The narrative can either be illustrated or verbally articulated. This connection allows for more room to explore the nuances in each story and keep the reader engaged.

  1. What are your tips for students, artists or writers?

 My first tip is do not cook while you’re angry. I wrote a Saucesome article about cooking a Christmas goose and the entire story was about locating the rack to cook the Christmas goose on. Also, when you are writing or reading or creating something, be sure to just go with it. Just accept the rules that are placed in front of you and just roll with what you have. Your intuition is always correct.


Shing Khor Interview


  1. Where were you born?

Malacca, Malaysia.


  1. Where did you grow up?

Malacca, Malaysia, and Cebu, Philippines, and a couple years in Milpitas, California.


  1. Did your family or a mentor influence your decision to pursue your passion in art and comics?

Not while I was growing up – but I certainly wasn’t discouraged from it. I was a pretty early adopter of the internet, and I spent a lot of time in internet fan communities when I was 13-18…being surrounded by lots of artist peers, even though I lived in a completely different country was really quite wonderful and inspiring.

My parents both became artists after I’d entered college, and now they are pretty excited and encouraging about my work.

  1. How did your career develop?

Slowly. Basically I kept on working, and progress felt slow, and if felt like I was getting nowhere, until suddenly all the little pieces I’d begun putting in place years ago started to all work together with all the pieces I was playing with now, and formed something vaguely resembling a career.

  1. What does your schedule look like on a day-to-day basis?

More or less this –

The work itself varies between comics and sculpting.

  1. How do you become inspired to create your artwork? Do you ever collaborate with others?

I collaborate frequently with others – especially as editor of Sawdust Press. Most of my job that does not involve publishing my own comics, is all about curating and finding cartoonists I love and who do work that I want to promote. We work together on producing a book that is well edited, and that makes their work shine as much as possible. As a sculptor, my primary collaborator is Leslie Levings – we’ve mounted several pretty successful art shows together.

  1. How did you become interested in creating zines? What do you think is special or unique about zines that separates it from other types of artwork? 

I’ve always been a fan of producing work quickly and easily on paper, and at some point I realized there was a whole community around it. I love zones because they are such an efficient way of distributing a viewpoint(specifically more viewpoints from marginalized groups that are rarely represented in more mainstream media). Right now, I’m a bit obsessed over the idea of creating really beautiful small edition art zines…doing lots of handmade stuff that you could never reproduce in mass.

  1. What ethnicity are you? How does your heritage influence your artwork?

I’m Chinese by ethnicity, Malaysian by nationality, and also a naturalized citizen of the United States. When I write autobiography, it influences all of my artwork, but the identity I associate with is probably more “immigrant” than either Chinese or Malaysian.

  1. Your comics circulate around the themes of corrupt institutions and women of color. How did you become interested in these themes? And, do you think it is important for artwork, both yours and in general, to promote a social message? 

Well, my dayjob was working for large corporations for a long time. And I am a woman of colour. I don’t think that it’s necessary for art to promote a social message, but if you feel passionately about anything at all, it’s gonna leak out into your work, and you should let it.

  1. What is a critical piece of advice you would give to aspiring artists?

Finishing your work is always better than perfecting your work. You’ll get better.

Two more interviews (professional ones) with Shing:



A Cookbook of Life



This cookbook plays into the many themes I am analyzing in my final portfolio. The recipes are loosely connected by a story about a girl growing up and realizing that there is more to the creation of food than the actual, physical ingredients. In this cookbook, I explore the differences between literal and figurative ingredients and dishes based on the protagonist’s life events. I also organized the cookbook in such a way that it starts with more literal recipes and gradually advances to more elaborate and figurative recipes. At the same time, I explore the role of gender vis-à-vis cooking and the preparation of food in households dominated by female figures. These women pass their traditional recipes down from generation to generation, resulting in an interesting continuation of a food lineage, but with differences as each generation tweaks the recipes. These inevitable changes demonstrate that a so-called authentic recipe or food really does not exist. Central to this cookbook is to show that food and family meals is a constant connector throughout our many life events. This cookbook is an exploration of the evolution of food, as shown through the prism of the female experience, and the importance it serves by bringing together family and friends.

The Edible Woman: Consumption and Liberation of the Female Body


The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood is an enduring literary work that set in the civil rights era. This novel follows a recent college graduate, Marian MacAlpin, through her career and emotional maturation in a somewhat unnatural, if not threatening, world. The unusualness of this world is characterized by a spectrum of moral viewpoints that manifest themselves and surround Marian. In effect, these viewpoints, both male dominated and sex driven, are so potent that they seem to devour Marian both physically and emotionally. Through both food and eating, Marian rebels against this cannibalistic, patriarchal society. In the end, she reclaims her identity by restoring her relationship with food.

The novel starts with Marian’s first person narrative of her relationships with her defiant roommate, Ainsley, who is intent on becoming a mother, her practical lawyer boyfriend, Peter, and her pregnant and fragile friend, Clara. As the novel progresses, Marian begins to disassociate herself from her body as she realizes the predatory and dangerous nature of the society in which she lives. This disassociation can be seen most clearly as Marian’s identity crisis spirals out of control after she accepts Peter’s hand in marriage. She develops an aversion to eating, particularly after witnessing Peter cut into a steak. Rather than viewing the meat as an inanimate object, she associates it with a living, breathing cow. As the story progresses and Peter’s domineering ways become evident, Marian develops a relationship with a narcissistic English graduate student, named Duncan. Duncan is highly unpredictable. This unpredictability is highlighted when they share an unexpected, but intimate, kiss at the Laundromat.

Marian’s final loss of self arises when she succumbs to Peter’s wish to dress up for his party. At the party, Marian cannot contain the overwhelming sense of falseness and destruction. She escapes to find Duncan and spends the night with him in a hotel room. With the final consumption of her self by Duncan, she decides to bake a cake for Peter in the likeness of a woman. She accuses him of metaphorically devouring her and a very disturbed Peter breaks off the engagement. Marian then, symbolically reclaiming her identity, ravenously eats the cake, and also allows Duncan to finish eating the cake.

Overall, this novel explores the cannibalism theme, which we analyzed in the Republic of Wine and “Diary of a Madman,” as well as the themes involving food and gender roles, which we analyzed in Week 6 of class. In Marian’s journey in particular we observe her rediscovery, if not discovery, of herself as she battles to overcome a debased, male-dominated society.

The Classic American Diner: What is it?


In a further analysis of my geography/ mapping project, I have decided to take up Professor Kwa’s suggestion and investigate the Chinese-style diner. Before entering the diner, I was not exactly sure what I would expect. Would there be a mix of American and Chinese food? Did the inside look like a traditional diner, similar to the restaurant’s stainless steel exterior?

Chung 1Upon walking into Chung Sing, I realized that this restaurant was definitely not a diner. Although it was adorned with booths and a diner-stye tables, there was nothing in the interior of the restaurant that truly stood out as a traditional diner, especially in the context of Ruby’s Diner and Minella’s Diner.

Chung 12

*Note: The clientele were solely Americans. There was not a specific age-group/ type of person that seemed to visit the restaurant.

The light fixtures were decorated with Chinese characters, the traditional counter that is a staple at any diner was missing and set-up of the table was akin to a fast-food Chinese restaurant. Taken aback, I was quickly seated by one of the two native-Chinese employees. Without inquiring, the waiter quickly brought me tea, fried wontons, duck sauce and water.

Chung 2

But, something irked me right away about this set-up. After studying abroad in China, I expected mainly green tea (绿茶) with the exception of the occasional (红茶) to be served at a majority of restaurants. However, the tea that Chung Sing served me was clearly English Breakfast tea with honey in it. This was very unexpected and was the first sign of something more “diner-like” or “Western-like,” other than the architecture, at the restaurant.

The waiter also presented me with the  menu, which I eagerly perused.

Chung 6Chung 8Chung 9Chung 11Chung 10

In terms of contemporary times and my experience with Chinese menus, this menu seemed more akin to a fast-food Chinese restaurant. It presented the essentials to any Chinese-American establishment, such as “Broccoli and Beef,” “General Tso’s Chicken,” and “Kung Pao Chicken.” However, after completing my projects this semester, it seemed to me that this menu was similar to the New York Public Library’s Archive of Menus and included dishes that were popular in the early 20th century during the height of Chinese food establishments. The menu included the dish that we re-created in our cooking project, Moo Goo Gai Pan, as well as the mix of a type of meat and vegetables congealed with a brown soy-sauce mixture. Because I was very hungry, I decided to start with pork-fried dumplings (which were delicious!) and the “House Special Duck.” I thought that this was a very interesting dish because it incorporated basically everything on the menu. It included: “sauteed with jumbo shrimp, chicken, roast pork and Chinese vegetables in a Brown sauce cover with deep fried duck.”

Chung 3Chung 4

All in all, I truly recommend Chung Sing. The food was phenomenal. And, I am not the only person to think that. Several Yelp reviews have confirmed that Chung Sing is a deadly combination of low prices and good food. Another interesting observation about the restaurant is that for certain dishes, it offered free dessert. These desserts ranged from cookies to ice cream to cake. If your dish did not include dessert, like mine did, you were still offered an orange and fortune cookies.

Chung 5

This aspect of Chung Sing confirmed my initial hunch that the restaurant has been Americanized, as many other Chinese have adapted and change in order to create an unique cultural fusion of food. After a brief conversation with the waiter, who do not have a a lot of time to answer questions, I found out that Chung Sing is a family-owned businesses, which is similar to many other diners, including Minella’s Diner. The owners of Chung Sing have owned the building for 35 years. Beforehand, the restaurant actually was a diner. The waiter believed the name of the diner was called “Big Al’s,” which specialized in hot-dogs and hamburgers.  Overall, Chung Sing, in both the restaurant’s architecture and its menu, has adapted a classic American emblem into its own individual Chinese-American blend.