The Mushroom Hunt and Vegan Masculinities, or How Not to Report on Food and Gender

Content note: some misogynistic language.

I had such high hopes for the NPR Food article “For These Vegans, Masculinity Means Protecting The Planet” by Neda Ulaby. Finally, I thought, a piece about not only food and masculinities, but one in which the gender binary would be broken down, showing that caring about food politics or, as the title suggests, about the environmental impact of our diets, can be divorced from gender identity and expression all together. And yet, for whatever reason, just like that mess of an article on bento and mothering, which I might add, there has been plenty of research on since the ’90s and that even a quick Internet search will turn up with resources, NPR manages simultaneously to perpetuate gender stereotypes while attempting to reinvent them.

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Real men eat meat. They kill it and then they grill it.

That’s the stereotype, or cliche, that’s about as old as time.

Ah, a “time immemorial” statement. Let me return fire with a Wikipedia entry for lazy writing. I guess the often religious dietary restrictions of certain pre-modern and ancient societies, particularly Buddhist ones, aren’t immemorial enough.

Knowing how to write like a professional aside, Ulaby introduces our vegan men. This section starts on a promising note,

At a recent barbecue in Brooklyn, N.Y., a half-dozen guys who resist that particular cultural stereotype gathered together. Many of them are muscled semi-professional athletes, including triathlete Dominic Thompson, competitive bodybuilder Giacomo Marchese and mixed martial arts fighter Cornell Ward.

They’re also all vegans and eschew all animal products. Because these guys are so seriously, well, built, they say some people find it hard to believe they never eat meat, fish, dairy or eggs.

“Everyone always thinks vegans are weak, skinny, frail, pale,” Thompson says.

In this section Ulaby talks to the vegan-barbecue attendees about stereotypes about who vegans are and what they can do: be an athlete, train, be healthy and well nourished. Vegan-BBQ attendee Dominic Thompson states, “To me, compassion is the new cool.” Of the host, Paul Katcher: “In an era of climate change and environmental destruction, Katcher thinks masculinity should be reframed as protecting the planet, not dominating it.”

Great so far! However, this is the part where the author should have made a clear distinction about new and improved masculinities and old and busted masculinities, but didn’t:

Pomona College professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who studies gender, food and culture… is a meat eater (as is this reporter), but she finds something very masculine about following a vegan diet. It’s “total control … of the body,” she says.

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Look at the difference between these two paragraphs:

1. Tompkins notes that “masculinity” is often framed by idealistic notions of complete control of the body, whether that’s controlling what one puts into it, like 19th-century vegetarian men did; training the body to push the limits; or misogynistic notions that the cultural feminine or actual women, via sex or romance or cooties, somehow pollute the “masculine” or individual men. These men are interested in not only ending stereotypes about vegan food and vegan men, but highlighting how the gender binary and gendering food is problematic and is an obstacle to gender equality, food justice, and animal rights. (mine)

2. ULABY: According to a recent Harris Poll, more women are vegetarian than men, but more men are vegan. John Joseph of the punk band the Cro-Mags has been vegan for more than 30 years. Joseph’s also written a book called “Meat Is For…” well, we have to say wussies. The real title’s too hard-core for public radio. (from the audio transcript)

HARDCORE. The title of the book is, of course, Meat is for Pussies. I don’t care if the book is about challenging masculinities with veganism, the title is misogynistic. The writing looks like the vegan version of the copywriting for Guy Fieri restaurants. This comment on Good Reads is rather illuminating:

I am already a vegetarian and an athlete, but I also consider myself a feminist, so the title definitely drew a “shake my head” reaction. If you can past the hundreds of times he refers to meat eaters, government officials, and big-meat CEOs as pussies, the content of the book is really solid. While his intended audience is seemingly chauvinist, male, jock stereotypes, even a feminist vegetarian lefty can build some new knowledge and help re-affirm ideals of vegetarianism/veganism. Joseph is brash and harsh (to be expected) but also thoughtful and caring as he breaks down the various problems of including meat in your diet and highlights the ways that the meat industry fucks up our lives and makes us into giant pussies.

I think that in order to read this, you need to accept “pussy” as a word by Joseph’s definition, rather than as a sexist slur (even if, like me, you disagree). 

A pussy is someone who puts profits over people, the environment, and the well being of earth and all living things. A pussy is someone who is not genuine, is hypocritical, a cheat, a liar, and someone who takes the easy way out, wants immediate gratification, and is thereby “less of a man.”

So, okay, here we are writing about compassionate masculinities, and Joseph turns up to bro up the party. Instead of asking him about this, Ulaby evades with a “tee-hee, so hardcore” comment.

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Next, we enter into the portion of the article about “manliness,” or what I like to call “acting like a decent human being.”

ULABY: Being vegan has made [former butcher Dan] Strong think a lot about how American men are not encouraged to show feelings. Caring passionately and openly about animals and the planet is for him, a powerful expression of manhood.

STRONG: I mean, there is an illusion that manhood is like this confidence that is exuded all times. Veganism is that kind of confidence, it really is. It’s a choice that we make consciously that we live actively that guides us in our lives. I can’t think of anything really more manly than that.

Here’s the part with which I have trouble: if you identify as a man, you get to decide what “masculinity” means to you, and hopefully that means being a good person. At the same time, the gender binary is false. I don’t mean in the sense of gender identity or expression but in the sense of attributing certain personal characteristics to a binary lodged in heteronormativity and cissexism. Courage, compassion, strength, confidence have nothing to do with sex, gender, gender identity or expression. The entire concept of being a “virtuous man” or “virtuous woman” assumes that virtue is experienced and produced differently and by virtue of one’s gender. To make compassion truly “manly” also means, ironically, that we have to tear down the binary.

Ulaby finishes with

As the barbecue winds down, the guys decide that they’re going to pursue the most masculine of pastimes together. That is, going hunting for wild mushrooms.

Even I can do this. Source: Nintendo Wikia.

I’m not even sure what to make of this piece. On one hand, most of the interviewees seem like they’re really working on redefining “mainstream masculinity.” On the other hand, the author seems to be perpetuating stereotypes–she overlooks John Joseph’s brotastic misogyny problem, she makes uncomfortable caveman jokes that not only aren’t funny but actually toe an unclear line between making fun of the vegans and supporting the idea of some bullshit “time immemorial” masculinity. This is particularly an issue given PETA’s track record of misogynistic, fatphobic, and racist ads. Furthermore, if you’re going to write about gender seriously, you have to commit. You can’t focus on masculinity without considering why and how masculinity is produced: by defining femininity and feminine people as the Other, lesser, weaker, unworthy.

This piece is part of NPR’s series on Men in America, which covers changes in ideas about masculinity. I want to support this series, since we as a culture need to break down the idea of men as neutral, of masculinity as superior, and to examine the history of gender. Yet, the series, like the article, occupies this odd place of perpetuating the same stereotypes the writers’ are supposedly attempting to break down. With some of this writing, perhaps it’s less of a mushroom hunt than a wild goose chase.

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