Two of the most memorable moments in When Harry Met Sally (USA 1989) are about food. Well, they are not exactly about food, but they try to get at something through food. Of course, the first one is the legendary fake-orgasm-and-“I’ll-have-what-she’s-having”-scene in Katz’s Delicatessen in NYC. Yet when it comes to thinking about choice, the other restaurant scene is of greater interest, when they stop for lunch in a roadside diner while traveling home from college in Chicago to New York. Whereas Harry barely looks at the menu and goes for one of its default options (“I’ll have the number 3”), Sally orders à la carte, and she adds a long and complex list of individual choices and special requests which makes even the most experienced waitress look perplexed and annoyed.

Here is a confession: I tend to act like Harry when it comes to ordering food in an American diner. The film tells me that my behavior is gendered, and I am the last person on this planet who would deny the merit of this explanation. At the same time, I ask myself if it’s not because I grew up in Europe that I still feel overwhelmed by the number of choices and decisions that need to be made when it comes to ordering food in the U.S.—even though I have spent a lot of time in America in the recent 25 years: White bread or brown bread? Toasted or not? With or without onions? On top or on the side? Mustard or mayonnaise? American cheese, cheddar, provolone, swiss, or jack? Regular or low fat? Melted or cold? And this list is not only short and incomplete, but it neither touches on the significance of special requests, which seem to further individualize one’s food choice.

Well, no matter if this is a question of gender, origin, culture, or politics, or a bit of everything, Sally is definitely the more knowledgeable consumer citizen in a culture obsessed with choice: She knows what she wants, how to define what she wants, and how to get what she wants, whereas Harry only seems to know what he wants, but by picking one of the chef’s choices he orders what somebody else wants him to order. At first glance he makes the impression of acting in a thoroughly straightforward and self-confident manner which might be seen as manly. Yet a slightly closer look reveals that he is not acting, but is acted upon, which has been seen as unmanly in most of American history.

Countless examples from the world of food prove the overarching significance of choice in American culture. Let’s look at two of them: Take the outcry that was sparked by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his effort to limit the size of soft drinks to 16 ounces when sold in mobile food carts, delis and at movie theaters, stadiums or arenas. People were outraged. When the so-called “Soda Ban” was taken to court, many different issues were at stake, yet when the New York State Court of Appeals declared the “Soda Ban” unlawful, the decision was based on a single and rather technical issue: The Board of Health had “exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority.“ It does not have the administrative and legislative competence to do what it wanted to do. However, both the public and the soft drink industry very much presented the court decision as a victory of liberalism against authoritarian rule and for New Yorker’s freedom of choice. In this case, the struggle revolved around the political principle of choice, and not about the kind of choice and whether it’s “good” or a “bad.”


By The Eyes Of New York, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to the meanings of choice, the conflict on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move-program adds another layer to the issue. The First Lady wants to make American children move more and eat less, have more greens and less sweet and fat food, yet without creating the impression that she imposes a healthy lifestyle on American consumer citizen’s and takes away their choices. Of course Obama knows quite well that coming across as regulatory, paternalistic or authoritarian would mean the end of her program. Therefore, she follows a different strategy of governance, for instance by rearranging the choice architecture of restaurants, school cafeterias and other lunch and dining venues, in order to make, as Obama puts it, “the healthy choice the easy choice.” Thus, Obama wants Americans to choose wisely. Let’s Move is either praised or scolded as libertarian paternalism, depending on on which side of the political spectrum the commentator stands. Conservative critics, such as the news forum, vehemently blame her program for being at odds with the personal liberty and responsibility of Americans and for “taking ownership of [their] choices.”

The struggle of liberty and the freedom of choice against authoritarian rule has a long history in America—one might even say America epitomizes this struggle in the history of modern mankind. Since the Reagan restoration and the dawn of neoliberalism, this historical tradition has been evoked even more frequently and obsessively. Philosopher Nancy Fraser has argued that neoliberalism has gained momentum by drawing on the political ideals, strategies, and achievements shaped by second wave feminism and identity politics. In the British daily The Guardian, Fraser calls feminism the “handmaiden” of “free-market fundamentalism.” Feminism and neoliberalism might as well be depicted as belonging to the same discourse, both fighting for “individual autonomy [and] increased choice” as their core principles, affecting each and every angel of our life, including our bodies, their materiality, and productivity.

In American history, liberty and choice have always been more than a right, but also an obligation that needs to be fulfilled if we want to live up to the demands of a liberal society and become the kind of subject and citizen we are asked to be. On the one hand, in this political discourse, the principal of choice is of greater importance than the specific object of ones choice—just like in the “Soda Ban”-conflict. On the other hand, when it comes to food and the body in modern history, we are also asked to choose considerately and knowledgeably. We are called upon to “eat right,” as Charlotte Biltekoff has argued, and govern our bodies wisely, and fatness, as Anna Mollow and Robert McRuer put it, obviously serves “as a proxy for the wrong kind of ‚choices’.” The kind of choices made in the world of food, fatness and fitness are either taken as proof of ones ability, agency and self-control, or of ones mindless submission to the external temptations of laziness, fat and sweetness. They serve to discriminate between able and productive citizens, and those who are deemed inept and unproductive.

From this perspective, Sally’s act of choice in the roadside diner in 1979 is everyday life identity politics par excellence, which she sees as proof of her agency, whereas Harry is a smugly self-confident fossil who seems to be in love with his masculinity. But maybe there is still another, different reading of Harry’s behavior: We might also see him as acting eigen-sinnig. This means that his behavior is no deliberate identity politics; he is neither willfully running against the grain nor resisting against the rules that confine him. When Harry picks the “number 3” within seconds, he acts simply unaffected by the constant call to individualism and self-fulfillment through a politics and performance of choice in our everyday life.

About the Author

Juergen Martschukat

Jürgen Martschukat is Professor of North American History at the University of Erfurt. His research focuses on the history of violence, of families, bodies and genders. His latest book on Die Ordnung des Sozialen. Väter und Familien in der amerikanischen Geschichte (Campus, 2013) won the Adams Award of the Organization of American Historians, and he is currently working on a history of fitness.

» More articles by Juergen Martschukat

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