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).






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *