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Anthropology Food and Gender Lecture Case Study Questions and Answers

Food and gender

Anth 203, Week 4

Today’s lecture

  1. Food as a symbolic How does food encode male- ness/masculinity and female-ness/femininity? Our main example Hua systems of classification in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. (Anna Meigs, Jeffrey Sobal)
  2. Gendered roles and the question of power: how is food production, preparation and consumption gendered? (Carole Counihan, Anne Allison)


Symbolic associations

  • By ‘symbol’ I mean an object or a sign or an image that another thing refers to – but the relationship between them is entirely A steak does not look like a man! This relationship is arbitrary but it’s also cultural: shared meanings allow us to see the relationship between the image and the thing it refers to.

Hua-speaking people, Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea

Hua gardens

  • Strong emphasis on gardening, as well as raising livestock such as pig
  • Hua people eat Pacific staple–the sweet potato. Also taro, yam, bananas, sugar cane, leafy greens
  • After WW1, Australia assumes governance of whole territory, parts of which were formerly a German colony
  • In 1940s, Australian patrol officers made contact with diverse groups of people living in the highlands
  • Corn, potatoes, peanuts, beans, tomatoes, cabbage grown since the 1950s

Meigs’ general argument

  • Hua conceive of some foods as cold, wet, soft, fertile and fast- growing, and this is associated with
  • Hot, dry, hard, infertile, slow-growing foods are associated with masculinity
  • Women can become more like men by consuming these kinds of foods; men avoid foods associated with female-ness.

What’s food got to do with sex?

  • Humans have an instinctual ‘drive’ to quell our hunger and to fulfill our sexual urges, according to Freud
  • Both food and sex subject to taboos and prohibitions. For example, as we have discussed, only a certain range of edible substances in the environment are classified as edible. And only a certain range of potential sexual partners in our social world are categorised as suitable sexual partners
  • The breast is a source of nourishment, also source of sexual pleasure
  • Often a linguistic and metaphoric link between being ‘full’, being ‘fulfilled’, and being sexually fulfilled

Early anthropological observations of Hua life:

  • In rituals, Hua men expel bodily substances seen as female
  • Contact with menstrual blood to be avoided
  • Sex assumed to involve the loss of a substance
  • Men live together in village longhouse
  • Women work certain sections of the garden
  • Anthropologists concluded “Hua women live in state of submission”

Absolute and relative food rules

Meigs describes two types of Hua food rules:

  1. Absolute rules: these rules refer to the intrinsic qualities the food is assumed to always carry
  2. Relative rules: these rules refer to the status of the person who was involved in producing or preparing the food

Examples of absolute rules

  1. A male undergoing initiation may not eat foods that are red or that release a reddish
  2. A male undergoing initiation may not eat foods that smell be’ftu
  3. A male undergoing initiation must eat soups made out of certain leafy greens that are regarded as good for growth

Examples of relative rules

  1. A mature initiated male may not eat leafy green vegetables picked by his real or classificatory wife or first-born child
  2. An adult must not eat a pig raised by, or wild animal shot by, or the prize garden produce cultivated by his or her firstborn child or agemates, or her co-wives

Why not?

Nu or ‘living essence’

For Hua people, all living things have a nu, which Meigs calls ‘a living essence’. This can be transmitted from one living thing to another: from a plant to a person, from one person to another. Hua parents are understood to give their nu to their children over time as they nurture them. The aging process involves the transfer of nu from parents to children, parents weaken as their children absorb this energy. So the transfer of nu can be positive or negative – nu can nourish or pollute.

Absolute rules that apply to the male initiate

Revulsion? Or, Reverence?

Consider the fact that:

  1. Hua males imitated menstruation
  2. Hua males, in certain contexts, claimed that men could become pregnant
  3. Hua males secretly eat foods associated with qualities of women
  4. Postmenopausal women are initiated into secret male society

Concluding thoughts on Meigs

  • Hua people traditionally held strong symbolic associations between certain foods and women’s sexuality: these foods are polluting
  • Tabooed for male initiates
  • At first, this symbolic system seems to suggest both a rigid separation between maleness and femaleness and an intense aversion to female sexuality
  • Or does it? Meigs sees an envy and secret desire to emulate women’s capacity to reproduce and nurture life – as food providers and mothers

Gendered symbols?


Gendered Advertisements?

Food-centred activities, gender and power

  • … “food-centred activities and meanings [are significant] to the constitution of gender relations and identities across ”
  • “Men’s and women’s ability to produce, provide and distribute and consume food is a key measure of their This ability varies according to their culture, their class, and their family organization, and the overall economic structure of their society.”

From Carole Counihan, introduction to ‘Food and Gender: Identity and Power’, p. 1; p. 2.

This becomes a question of power

  • Throughout most of the twentieth century, women held key roles surrounding food in Western societies
  • This is such an important task: they are reproducing life! So women are in a powerful position?
  • But is this kind of work (‘reproductive labour’ undertaken in the ‘domestic sphere’) valued?
  • Or, are women in a subservient position? Always giving, nurturing others, sublimating their own desires to satisfy others’ needs?

Insights from feminist food studies

  • Concept of reproductive labour – the work undertaken inside the home, not historically recognised as
  • Reproductive labour includes emotional/relationship work as well as arduous, necessary physical work
  • Both forms of work reproduce family life
  • Gender intersects with race, sexuality, class

Women as ‘gatekeepers’

  • If women make decisions about food purchasing, do the purchasing, store and prepare food
  • Then, should we conclude they thus ‘control the flow of food into the family’?
  • Is this a position of power?
  • Or, are women in a subservient position? Always giving, nurturing, thinking of others, sublimating their own desires to satisfy others’ needs?
  • McIntosh and Zey argue, ‘Responsibility is not equivalent to control.’ (p. 318)

Example 1: Sardinia, Italy

  • Up until the 1960s, bread had been central to Sardinian life for centuries
  • Women baked together: “they exchanged and intermingled their lives: their gossip, their skills, their pasts, their loves and their losses”
  • Sardinian meals “involved consumption of a relative’s labour: one’s father, brother, or son in the wheat; one’s mother, sister or daughter in the loaf. Consumption of bread reaffirmed the complementarity of men and women and the nuclear family structure…”

Example 1 ctd

  • Grain cultivation disappears, women begin buying bread from the bakery – men are bakers!
  • Shopping for food becomes the more important food-centred activity women undertake
  • It is a more impersonal food-centred activity

Example 2: Florence, Italy in the early 1980s

“The Florentine woman is born into a world that defines the constituents of femininity as family, nurturance, and altruism. Through providing food, Florentine women sustain life in others and give their own lives meaning.”

Younger women “no longer content to be cloistered in their homes with a life of altruistic devotion to their family”.

Meal provisioning does not shift from women to men, but from women in the home to meals provided out of the home.

Example 3: Antonito, San Luis Valley, Colorado

  • Women had most of the responsibility for domestic work in the first half of twentieth century
  • Women’s relationship to sources of food linked them to the land, and to waterways – had a spiritual component
  • While division of labour on farms and ranches was gendered, this was actually quite malleable (ie. If there was no son, girls did ‘boy jobs’)
  • Harsh climate – emphasis on food preservation, women contributed much of the work for this
  • When women moved into the workforce, many took roles that involved food
  • Some women explicitly rejected the roles associated with cooking, child reading and house keeping
  • Others used cooking as a means of creativity and self-expression

Example 4: Japanese obento boxes (focus of this week’s tutorials)

  • Japanese motherhood involves labour and devotion
  • Both mother and child are being watched, judged, and constructed
  • Making the obento box involves time, effort (labour)
  • Motherhood is also a state ideology ‘working through children at home and at school and through such mother-imprinted labour that a child carries from home to school as the obento’

Example 5: Destitute women in Tanzania

  • Anthropologist Karen Coen Flynn works with women who made a transition from the countryside where they depended on food grown by their families to town where they relied on purchased foods

Several ways women acquire food or the money to purchase it:

  • Exchanging sex for food, either through informal relationships with lovers (malaya), compensated with food, drink, clothing or OR, they ‘scrounge’, where quick, informal sex was performed to meet basic food needs
  • Establish food-groups, which combine resources and equally share out meal, which is cooked by women

An ambiguous example: the BBQ!

  • According to Mary Douglas the BBQ acts as a ‘bridge between intimacy and difference’
  • Why is c ooking the BBQ often seen as a male role, while cooking in the kitchen, and especially baking, seen as a women’s role?
  • Do you think this is changing?
  • BBQing and Australian n ational i dentity

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