Brogurt, “Check-Out Shame,” and Other Tales of Pointlessly Gendered Food

Today’s adventure in  Pointlessly Gendered Products  and the People Who Sell Them is brought to you by the Wall Street Journal via Anne Marie Chaker’s piece “Groceries Become a Guy Thing: As Men Shop More, Packaging Aims to Win Them Over; ‘Inner Abs’ Appeal” (16 Oct. 2013).

Can cookies, whole-grain bread and frozen yogurt be manly? Food makers are changing their products to signal, quietly, to men that they should eat them. Anne Marie Chaker and father of three Jeremy Alinder discuss.

Source unknown.
Source unknown.

First of all, I wasn’t aware that the proper bread- and delicious frozen treats sections of the grocery were barred off from anyone on account of their gender identity/expression (even though we know the reporter is really talking about cisgender straight-identified men who are probably also white, middle-class, and able-bodied for good measure, because “default”). By “discuss,” Chaker means “shame a father of three who seems like a decent guy into saying that somehow gender plays into food when he basically tells her the opposite.”

Let’s get ready to rumble!

Yogurt for men is radically different from the yogurt women buy: The label is black.

And yet, I bet you it’s just the same on the inside. RADICAL.

New research shows that men are doing more grocery shopping, according to this article, and cheers to them for doing what is expected of grown-ass people.

In a June [2013] survey of 900 meat-eating men ages 18 to 64, 47% were deemed ‘manfluencers’ by Midan Marketing LLC, a Chicago market research group focused on the meat industry. Manfluencers are responsible for at least half of the grocery shopping and meal preparation for their households.

I’m assuming these (always cis-het) male omnivores are married/living with female partners, because, to twist the words of one of my lit teachers, what remains unsaid, and is therefore assumed as norm, speaks volumes. After all, if any of these households had two men in a romantic relationship, we’d have a MANFLUENCER POWER COUPLE, and the universe would collapse from their majesty.

A man is confused by yogurt. Which to choose?
Image via Jezebel’s article on “Manfluencers”

Let me reiterate that buying food is a reasonable expectation to have for adults who eat food, and regardless of what sort of dynamic in one’s relationship one has, one partner buying and making about half the food/meals sounds reasonable. Are the other 53% outsourcing food labor to their presumed wives, and if so, why? Reasonable explanations: my partner works closer to the grocery store; my partner does most of the cooking because she(?) actually enjoys it, works a schedule better suited to meal prep, was an Iron Chef contestant; I pull my weight elsewhere in the chores and not because of gendered reasons. I feel like you need to qualify the data here: is this blatant sexism in the home? Is it the sneaky sort of internalized misogyny that heterogamous (and often heterosexual) couples fall into because society reinforces that social norms are somehow based in “nature,” which they are positively not? Or is it a matter of scheduling, interest, and skill?* Pure data sans social analysis is not, ultimately, that useful.

Food company executives hope more men shopping means new opportunities for foods some men have traditionally shied away from in this country, including yogurt and hard cider.

Or maybe it’s because these products are marketed toward women in a society in which the “feminine” is demonized and ridiculed, and men either don’t want to be seen as feminine. Alternatively, they may just assume the product isn’t for them because the advertising isn’t just targeting women, it’s targeting them in the most asinine, patriarchal, faux-empowerment ways. I sure don’t want to buy cider that goes on about bachelorette parties or yogurt that has the triple threat of tasting awful/chemical-y, having no fat content so I’m still hungry 10 minutes later, and trying to woo me with sympathizing with my quirky lady friends. (Yoplait, I’m looking at you.)

It’s bumbling man-child good! 

The changes are often cosmetic: larger portions or darker color schemes instead of recipes on the backs of packages.

Men don’t need recipes! That’s ridiculous to assume that a men might want to do something with an ingredient! For portions, larger yogurt portions can be cheaply and easily obtained by purchasing a tub and using your own tupperware/glass jars, or, wonder of wonders, yogurt companies could offer me a bigger size, too, because there is basically never enough yogurt in a standard-size cup.

Lots of products on food shelves are big no-nos to men, says Lu Ann Williams, head of research for Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights. Others help men feel more, well, manly. “A beer or soda in a long-necked, brown bottle makes a man feel like a man. Drinking out of a straw does not—puckered lips and sunken cheeks are not a good guy look.”

I beg to differ.

Sherlock removing scarf, being all cheekbones and mystery.

And isn’t what you really mean, “A woman sucking on a phallic stand-in is hot, but men? Uh, no homo, bro.” (Also, if you’re drinking a beer from a straw, you’re doing it wrong.) [Edit: Wait, how are you supposed to drink bubble tea or milkshakes with no straw? Are those off-limits now, too?]

Which helps explain Powerful Yogurt, a Greek yogurt launched in March featuring a bull’s head symbol on red-and-black packaging and an image of stomach muscles next to the slogan “Find Your Inner Abs.”

Image via Powerful Yogurt. No, this is really on their
Image via Powerful Yogurt. No, this is really on their “about” page.

No, this doesn’t actually explain anything but fear of association with “the feminine” that marketers reinforce by claiming its what men want, so people grow up in an environment that teaches them that being considered “feminine” (mild, small, soft, gentle) is bad, and then market toward their own fears and misconceptions about gender identity, and then try to pass it off as neuroscience or evolutionary biology, which new research has debunked.

A single-serving yogurt cup is a hefty eight ounces, compared with the more typical five to six ounces, and features 20 to 25 grams of protein.

This is basically my nutritionally ideal yogurt for my lifestyle, but I can’t buy it because it’s sexist. #thanksbrogurt

The yogurt shelf “is light blue, light pink, white, and everyone’s talking to women and their digestive health,” says Carlos Ramirez, chief executive of the Miami-based company. “

But won’t anyone think of the men? Also, on the “About Us” page:

In a niche typically dominated by female consumers, we decided to develop a new Greek yogurt specifically suited to address the unique health and nutrition needs of the most neglected consumers in the category: men. 

The commercials for yogurt and digestion are pretty terrible, but come on. Suddenly yogurt’s the new prunes, contemporarily conventionally attractive men are somehow underrepresented in advertising, and men don’t poop anymore, because pooping is for girls. I see. [Edit: a friend points out that if it’s not manly to ask for directions or help, it’s also not manly to ask for help pooping. Well played.]

Target Women: Yogurt

Regarding the internalized misogyny/homophobia of frozen yogurt (seriously, did I just type that), the owner of a froyo place decided to focus on the nutritional benefits–except for low fat–of yogurt and got a better response from male clientele.**

Using what he learned, he came up with a frozen yogurt meant to have macho appeal without turning off potential female customers. A black box with “Pro Yo” in boldface contains three tubes of frozen yogurt in flavors such as Vanilla Bean and Blueberry Pomegranate. “On the box, the first thing it says isn’t ‘frozen yogurt,’ ” he says. “It’s ‘high protein.’ “

The sad thing is, I like the design work a lot. Good for your body, bad for your culture.
The sad thing is, I like the design work a lot. Good for your body, bad for your culture. Via Pro Yo.

Now we’re worried about turning off women? The reason why I’m avoiding your product isn’t because it has protein and cultures, or comes in a black container, or has a “tough” name, or is GMO-free. It’s because you made a press statement that shows that you’re afraid of the culturally feminine, and I don’t want to give my money to someone who doesn’t respect women. Making something more appealing to people of all gender identities stems from not treating products as gendered and not treating customers as stupid. Unfortunately, as Tracy Lien writes in “No Girls Allowed,” pointlessly gendered products have become so pervasive that it’s often hard to tell–or remember–why and how companies and their marketers thought excluding essentially half of a potential clientele was a good strategy. (Yes, the article is about video games. Yes, it relates to gendering food.)

The irony is that these protein-packed yogurts promote clean-eating and healthy living, because a “real men” one must have abs of steel and care about protein–bro, do you even lift?–but caring too much about nutrition is girly. So is cooking, apparently, unless you are a celebrity chef. When cooking, rather than consuming pre-made products, is deemed safe for men, the trend is that it’s because it sounds unhealthy. For example, Hamburger Helper is angling for the “men are slobs who can’t cook but I guess they wander into the kitchen by accident sometimes on the way to the bathroom forgetting that they can’t eat yogurt” angle:

Larger players in the food industry also see new potential in men. General Mills went on a nationwide summer tour to introduce its newly rebranded Helper product line to more men.
Representatives in a red truck offered samples of Crunchy Taco and Ultimate Three Cheese Marinara at fire stations, Nascar races and a Real Men Cook event for fathers in Chicago. (“Ultimate” is a male-friendly buzzword appearing regularly in products like these.)
Part of the appeal, says Elizabeth Laughlin, General Mills marketing manager, is the lineup’s ability to produce difficult-sounding dishes like Sweet & Sour Chicken in three steps: Brown, simmer and serve.

At this point, poor Jeremy Alinder, who seems like a nice guy, is put on the spot again and held up as a the paragon of the bro chef, despite the fact that he seems like he can manage home cooking. In the written article, he is quoted as saying that he stores a ton of Hamburger Helper on hand to speed things up on busy weeknights with his three daughters.

That’s the draw for Jeremy Alinder, a 39-year-old, recently divorced father to three daughters, ages 4 to 9, in Minneapolis. He says he stashes 10 or so boxes at a time in the kitchen cupboard. He prepares dishes like Cheddar Broccoli or Creamy Stroganoff twice a week, when the girls start to tire of his homemade chili. “It’s nutritious enough for the kids, they enjoy it and it’s quick and easy for myself,” he says.

The article downplays the mention of his homemade chili, and who doesn’t have a couple boxes of Annie’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese laying around for the “crap, it’s 7 pm and I’m still at work and I have no food in the house” nights?

Interestingly, in the interview, when Alinder responded that he had no “check-out shame” over buying basic foods and products for his family like an adult, the reporter badgered him into saying that gender had something to do with it, and he conceded that maybe his “testosterone levels are lower” because he has three daughters.

Image by piercinald.
Image by piercinald.

Stay strong, Jeremy. It’s hard when someone puts words in your mouth, but you can’t give in. There is nothing gendered about approaching cooking as something that you do because you and your kids need to eat food.

The article continues about Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, which has a history of sexist ads aimed at “busy moms,”

“We found a segment of men already making and cooking Shells and Cheese that we frankly weren’t talking to,” says Tiphanie Maronta, senior brand manager for Velveeta meals. “They are not a chef. They are not a foodie. It’s somebody who is starting to cook.”

Again: they’re only a chef if they’re actually a chef, and only men are chefs. Everyone knows that women are just home cooks.

Typically, they’re men in their 20s and 30s, half of whom are married and likely don’t have kids yet. Since August 2012, Kraft has been targeting these men in its advertising with the Eat Like That Guy You Know TV ads, featuring slacker heroes such as one who sells model helicopters at a mall.

Slacker hero: an excuse for men to never learn basic food skills, because caring about food is for women. Are we seeing a pattern here?

Coffee shops have found a macho answer to sugary, flavored lattes: Cold-brewed coffee, steeped anywhere from 10 to 24 hours and typically served black and cold.

Unless you’re in Japan, where you get gum syrup in it with milk. Again, the binary of sugar=feminine and bitter/savory=manly is a false binary. Coffee is for everyone. Some people like sweet drinks and some like not-sweet drinks. Some people take milk or cream or half-and-half. Nothing is wrong with any of these, as long as you’re not rude to your barista. I cold-brew my own coffee and take it with milk in the summer. Why cold-brew? Because it’s disgustingly hot in Kanazawa in the summer (but not as bad as Tokyo!). I was not aware of a masculine monopoly on cold brew.

Portland, Ore.-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters began serving cold-brew coffee in its eight cafes in 2011 and began distributing it to upscale grocery stores and restaurants nationally a year later.
It is packaged in a vintage-looking, dark-amber beer bottle, where the black coffee accentuates a “smokiness,” says Joth Ricci, president of the company.

Image by sherlockspeare.
Image by sherlockspeare.

STUMPTON, NO. STUMPTON, STOP. Don’t you get into this. I like your coffee, and I want to keep frequenting your cafes! Meanwhile, the rep for the other coffee vendor, Gorilla, flat out said in the interview that nitrogen enhanced coffee pours like a Guinness, which is “appealing to men.” But who wouldn’t want to pour out a coffee on draft? For more on beer-related sexism, see here.

Speaking of beer,

At MillerCoors LLC, executives see opportunity in hard cider, a category that currently feels “very female-focused” says Rita Patel, director of new product development. “There is a big unmet need.”
The challenge: combating the stigma in the U.S. that real men drink beer, not cider. The company next year will launch Smith & Forge, a cider brand that “has a masculine tone to it,” says Ms. Patel.
It will retail only in cans—not bottles—and the alcohol level of 6% will be slightly higher than the average of 5%, she says. Black and orange cans declare the product is “Made Strong” in boldface letters.

Meanwhile, ACE Cider has a nice design. So does Woodchuck and StrongBow. I'm not sure where the perceived
Meanwhile, not-sexist ACE Cider has a nice design. So does Woodchuck. I’m not sure where the perceived “girlyness” of cider design is happening. And didn’t Williams say how much manly men like to wrap their hands and mouths around a nice, long bottle?

And you know what’s exactly the wrong way to decreased the stigma about cider? Combatting sexism with more sexism. Go home, MillerCoors, you’re drunk.

A further note about the video that accompanies the article: Chaker claims that “for eons” supermarkets have had an eye toward marketing toward women and “for eons” women have been buying yogurt. Her–and many others’–reliance on a false sense of tradition and lack of knowledge about history is deeply troubling because “traditionalists” seem to think they can wave the word around until it erases actual historical trends. First of all, the supermarket boom is only about 100 years old; if one lived in a home that employed domestic workers, or even a maid or nanny, those people would probably be responsible for the food shopping and preparation instead of the wife. As for yogurt, provided that you have a stable temperature, yogurt is easy to make at home, and although the food was described in ancient times and originated in Turkey, yogurt was only popularized in the US in the 1940s. Not the mention that marketing as we know it today is very much the product of the 1960s. So, no, the marketing of yogurt was not always targeted at women since time immemorial. Take a look at the original packaging for Dannon, the brand that popularized yogurt in the US, c. 1942. Nothing particularly gendered about that glass bottle. Doesn’t have a long neck, though.

So what have we learned today? Basically, that marketers are afraid of the big, bad “feminine,” and instead of addressing the rampant sexism and pointless gendering in current marketing of foodstuffs, we should create a “masculine safe space,” a culinary boys’ club where the men will be safe from the cooties and breast-cancer awareness (which is also problematically marketed), free to bro-five each other (no homo) and promise never, ever to share their high-protein, ab-building goodies with the girls.

Because who’s afraid of women, right?


*Which might lead back to option 2, if the female partners were taught how to cook while their male partners were not, thus contributing to interest and skill, and exist in a society in which flex-time is more available for women whereas men are more expected to commit to later or longer hours. One can, then, of course, see that this is not nature, but societal forces, particularly in the institutions of family and school, at work.

**Notably, the “Our Story” section of the website does not mention the push to get men to buy the product at all:

During his recovery Nathan noticed that most of the existing high-protein shakes and bars found on the market were surprisingly laden with high levels of sugar and stabilizers.

Nathan wanted something completely different. So he set out to formulate a distinctive high-protein frozen yogurt that featured more balanced nutrition and amazing taste—and was convenient for all ages.

After extensive research and development, Nathan successfully created ProYo—a premium  low-fat frozen treat made with creamy probiotic yogurt packed with 20 grams of protein per handy tube and is gluten-free, soy-free, and GMO-free. The perfect blend of healthy nutrition and delicious flavor without all the gunk. Source.

But, of course, since the brand decided to include the WSJ article in its “As Seen On” section with no criticism or call for fact-checking, we can conclude that the origins of Pro Yo are not as health-related as the official press statement on the website would lead us to believe.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. elizabeth says:

    I had to go to Powerful Yogurt’s site to see if that horrid tagline was still up there, and mercifully it’s not on the About page. The rotating images on the home page even include a woman rock-climbing, so maybe they are finally learning to not be quite so myopic? While the narrative about “man=chef, woman=home cook” is still pretty strong, woman chefs *are* finally starting to break through–Alex Guarnaschelli for an almond brand comes to mind, as does the lady chef in the Knoor/Lipton sides spots and Lorena Garcia for Taco Bell. Not the best brands out there, I grant you, but at least they show them as being creative people and not simply just getting a meal on the table.

    I’d like to think that some of these tired advertising tropes may be going away (albeit slowly), if only because people on social media are calling BS on them. A few years ago now Ragu did this whole horrid promotion that tried to play into that bumbling dad stereotype: and the results were not great for them, but hilarious for the observer to read and wince. Speaking as someone in market research, though, that change is going to take time because old habits die hard; hence why “manfluencer” is something that people write about sometimes.

    1. LM says:

      Glad to hear Powerful Yogurt reconsidered, though I’m wondering if they’re pulling a Game-Fly with one token woman. At least she’s being active, though.

      I do think that they ability to call BS to a wide, free audience is slowly chipping away at the sexism, but it’s also created the weird “you go girl” “empowerment” ads, like Pantene’s, that use feminism to sell products that usually aren’t environmentally friendly, sustainable, or promoting gender equality in their offices and factories.

      Thanks for the Ragu link–I hadn’t seen it! The “Finally: sauce by robots, for robots” is brilliant and I had to stop the video several times to complain. It’s too bad the marketing narrative isn’t shifting toward more gender-neutral stuff instead of to “bros bros bros.”

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